"E-mail is a sinkhole where knowledge goes to die." The quote recited in the New York Times got us wondering - if email is dying, what will replace it? The presumed demise of email has certainly been well-reported in stories like E-mail gets a cold shoulder, Why Email No Longer Rules, The sorry state of modern messaging, Email's Popularity Waning. One company is even instituting a complete ban on email. Yet, even as it supposedly fades out, email usage has actually grown to the point where 182.9 billion emails are sent and received each day, and that number is expected to grow another 5% next year.
To get to the bottom of this situation, we conducted a survey among CIOs and IT staff. The survey was designed to determine how people currently use the various communication media and what their expectations are for the future. It was conducted worldwide, across all industries. We were especially interested in what the younger generation thinks about email, as this could be a window into the future. According to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook: "If you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today. However, the youth of our survey surprised us; more about that later.
Summary Survey Results
In general, the survey found that respondents use an average of 3.4 types of messaging media for daily business communications (the median is three). In addition, another four are used for occasional business communications. Whether you expect to use more communication media for business purposes or less in five years depends on your gender. Men expect to concentrate their usage over time, while women project broader usage.
The results confirmed just how entrenched email is; less than 1% say they rarely use it. Telephone voice communication is in second place, still used by 92%; and text messaging is next at 87%. Women expect to increase their texting more so than men. Among the other communication media, Skype and FaceTime stand out as often-used channels, with women reporting that they expect to use them even more in five years.
At the other end of the usage spectrum, the instant messaging services of AOL and Yahoo are rapidly fading out. Possibly taking their place, Google chat and corporate messaging services like Chatter and Yammer are swelling in usage.
You can expect paper mail to all but disappear. Only 40% say they use it occasionally today, and 60% expect to be sending paper mail even less in five years.
Our survey found Twitter usage to be at 16%, identical to the findings of the Pew Research Center. But unlike the Pew findings, our results showed almost no difference in this usage rate between young and older respondents. Relative to gender, we found Twitter usage was slightly higher among women than men.
Of those surveyed, almost twice as many use Facebook for communication as use Twitter, even for professional communication. However, the younger respondents report that they expect to use less Facebook and also slightly less Twitter in five years. This is a similar to the findings of Piper Jaffray in their semi-annual report on the habits of American teens, which showed that Facebook is becoming less important to teens. According to that survey, almost all social media have dropped in importance among teens, including Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest. Although Facebook may be less important to teens, that does not mean it is not actively used. Pew reports that 94% of teens have a Facebook profile and 81% say they use that profile most often.
What about in-person face-to-face communication?
We initially omitted in-person meetings from our survey, as the intent was to learn about electronic communication media usage. But because respondents were aggressively writing it in (as "yelling across the hall", "direct inter-personal", "meetings", etc), possibly to emphasize that they do not want electronic communication to completely replace human-to-human in-person contact, we quickly added it as the survey got underway. In the end, the result was that 20% expect to use more face-to-face communication and 15% expect to use less. As with other results, this differed by gender with women responding 30% and 9% for expecting more face-to-face versus expecting less respectively. Men were more balanced at 19% and 16%. Younger respondents (aged 18-30) tended to be bearish on in-person contact at 21% expecting more, but 29% expecting less.
If email is so popular, why does it get such bad press?
Certainly the biggest drawback to email is the four-letter word, spam. It clogs up inboxes, introduces worms and viruses, and provides a vehicle for phishing. Also, critical emails can go missing or get stuck in over-protective spam filters. Information sharing via email can be a problem; private emails sometimes leak out and important public announcements may not get to everyone. Sometimes, messages can be unpredictably delayed or lost in the system.
The ubiquity of email today outweighs these drawbacks. It is the connective tissue and common denominator for almost all other forms of communication. Twitter, Facebook, and social portals all use email to alert users when a new message has arrived or their attention is needed. Each email message comes complete with a subject line, history thread, attachments, and a time stamp.
Spam filters are continuing to improve, and according to a Kaspersky report, spam is actually dropping - down 2.4% this quarter; although it still represents 68% of all email. Email programs themselves are also improving. Messages can now incorporate a wide range of media types. Some email programs now suggest additions to your distribution list based on the content of the message and who else is on the recipient list. You'll often be notified if you are about to send a message without an attachment that is mentioned in the email body.
Corporate social media systems like Salesforce.com's Chatter and Yammer may have important benefits over email, such as message grouping into topics; user and message rating to help prioritize; and built-in automatic message sharing. But, these systems still rely on email to notify users of important events, messages, and updates.
What does the younger segment have to say about the future of email?
Let's go back to our in-depth look at the younger segment as a predictor of the future of messaging. Our survey found that this group currently uses less email, less LinkedIn messaging, and less posting to message portals than their older counterparts. At the upper usage end, they use more Facebook and Twitter than the older group. But, when asked about the future, the younger group says they expect to use more email, more LinkedIn messaging, more posting to message portals. They expect to use less Facebook, and slightly less Twitter. In other words, they will be conforming more to the same channels that their older counterparts use today (with the exception that the younger segment expects less face-to-face communication in five years, as noted above).
Still not satisfied
The concluding question of our survey asked: are you satisfied with the existing forms of messaging and communication tools; or are you looking for a better method of communication? The answers to this question did not vary very much with gender or age group; women and youth are just slightly more satisfied than the average.
• 76% satisfied
• 24% not satisfied
This satisfaction rate of only three-quarters clearly represents a longing for an improved communication media; something better than email is still needed. Perhaps someone will come up with a system that combines the best of all the existing media; one that delivers the right content; with the right context, including text, images, links, audio, video, history, references, maps, etc; to exactly the right recipients at the right time, every time.