Six years ago, I sat in a communications training along with about 100 others, and was told that email would soon be a dead medium. Facing the room, our instructor explained that we’d all be communicating via social media, text message, or some other channel, and email, designed for a previous iteration of the web, would soon be forgotten.
But it hasn’t exactly turned out that way. Email is still the “killer app,” in the words of one startup founder I recently spoke with. It is the dominant mode of business communication and frequently used to facilitate plans among friends and family. Everyone has an email account, so that’s where the important stuff goes.
Looking to get some perspective as to why email has endured, and whether it will continue to, I wrote to one of the pros, Mailchimp CEO Ben Chestnut, with a few questions. Here’s a look at what he had to say:
Have you also heard predictions of email’s doom? Or was it just that one instructor trying to serve up something interesting to wake the room up?
Before social was supposed to kill email, I think it was Google Wave that was going to kill it. Before that it might’ve been RSS killing email marketing. Instant Messenger was going to kill email. SMS was going to kill email somewhere in the middle too. It’s like a superhero movie, where the villain “starts monologuing.” If you’re going to kill email, don’t announce it on TechCrunch–just sneak up and kill it.
I think email has defied the predictions. Do you?
It’s gotten stronger, in my opinion. I remember when my friends and I would email each other messages like, “Hey man, what do you want to do for lunch?” Then we’d go back and forth “I dunno, Chinese?” On and on. Instant Messenger cleaned that out of my inbox. I remember when people used to email me stupid motivational quotes or urban legends. Facebook took that out of my inbox. Friends used to email me pictures of their kids. Instagram cleaned that out of my inbox. At work, project updates would clutter my inbox, but that can get posted to intranets and Yammers, and so on. All those email killers are more like email cleaners. I’m not belittling them. It’s a noble cause. We want our inboxes clean, and we only want to hear from people or topics we truly care about.
But we still get email overload…
For what it’s worth, I’ve found that when people get overwhelmed by their inboxes, it’s usually a symptom of something else: increasing workload. Maybe they’ve been promoted, or maybe others have been fired, but now they’ve become very important, and so they’re getting a lot more email. They need to hire some people to distribute the workload. I’m not saying that’s an easy fix. Just saying don’t kill the messenger.
Why do you think email endures as a communications medium?
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Twitter’s a company. Facebook’s a company. Email is a communications medium. Email endures because it adapts and it adapts because it’s not owned by anyone or any company.