November 16, 2005

Companies Fight to Keep E-Mail Useful

By Evan Schuman, Ziff Davis Internet

Opinion: E-mail was never designed to harbor 5MB attachments, and the concept that a typical user might see hundreds of messages a day was foreign to the initial e-mail creators. Can corporate America make e-mail useful again?

E-mail is a wonderfully flexible and powerful application, but have corporate users bent it so far that it's about to break? More to the point, have users forced e-mail to do so many things that it's no longer any good at its core function?

This is not an academic discussion. In 2006, e-commerce sites that use e-mail extensively are going to have to evaluate alternative communication and distribution methods.

Why? A corporate IT rebellion is brewing, and if they don't ease off their e-mail, they'll be forced to do it.

In the beginning, e-mail was a simple and fast way of exchanging messages with people around the world and down the hall. In many ways, the early e-mail efforts more closely resemble today's IM (instant messaging) communications than what crawls along today's corporate Outlook screens.

In those days, e-mail was for messaging and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) was for sending large files. The most common FTP Web use today is for downloading applications or virus definition updates.

Today, e-mail systems are burdened with sending attachments that are 5MB and sometimes even 9MB large. E-mail was never designed for large-file distribution.

E-mail systems were also not primarily designed to be personal databases, but common practice today has corporate users saving thousands upon thousands of foldered old e-mail messages (complete with oversized attachments) and turning them into multi-GB databases.

The potentially most severe threat to e-mail is that its volume is soaring, with users seeing easily hundreds of messages a day.

Where are all these messages coming from? It's actually not from true spam (although the spam problem is real and growing), but from an ever-skyrocketing list of "approved" communications.

That list starts with fellow employees and then people up and down the corporate ladder, along with customers, suppliers, distributors and others within a typical extranet. Then we add friends and family.

But this party gets to be interesting when we legitimize opt-in e-mail. That might start with some free newsletters from respected publishers. Heck, it's free, so why not get 10 more?

Then there are headline alerts from major news services, tracking status updates from FedEx (both for packages you've sent and are scheduled to receive), alerts about books that you may be interested in (from and Barnes & Noble), and sales proposals from a company that you once expressed a strong interest in (expressed through the act of not hanging up).

A senior IT executive I recently spoke with said his employees have started losing control of their e-mail. They are now asking colleagues who have something important to say to IM it or leave it in a voice mail.

Why? Important messages were being lost amidst the sea of everything else.

Let's make this problem even worse. E-mail is now one of the most mission-critical applications of any company today, and this is triply true for e-commerce companies.

The typical response today is for tighter spam controls, which means more filters. But that only works for the old-fashioned kind of spam that is not desired.

Isn't spam, spam? Not necessarily. Robb Wilson, the product development vice president at Lyris Technologies, makes an eloquent case that the average consumer today pretty much defines spam as any e-mail that they don't want to see. Under that definition, all messages from my editor about missed deadlines are spam.

Wilson's team surveyed consumers to better understand how they defined spam and one said, "It's when my uncle sends me really bad jokes that I do not want."

Although spam is much more specific than anything that's not desired (it's an unsolicited advertisement sent out in bulk), the unfunny uncle example brings up a key problem with filtering. That person may not want to hear those bad jokes from her uncle, but she likely would want to hear from that uncle when he brings news of a family death.

Defenders of the current e-mail system argue that it's the most efficient and effective tool available today. I agree. But as corporate employees find it more difficult to use e-mail to get timely information, something is going to give.

What if e-mail administrators suddenly reject all newsletters, e-commerce site alerts and purchase confirmations, and anything else beyond employees talking to other employees, customers and extranet members?

A word of caution as the new year approaches. Consider carefully how aggressively you use customer e-mails. The choice is yours today. Next year? Just like Santa Claus, it depends on how naughty or nice you choose to be.