In defence of email

John Gushue
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Last week, I took a bit of a kick at email, suggesting it was the online version of canasta, and I wondered if Facebook’s forthcoming messaging system will make email irrelevant to a generation that has not even yet warmed to it.

I got a fair bit of response.

“Email is going the way of the posted letter,” I heard on Facebook, while several friends of a certain vintage acknowledged they already know email is not the best way to get the attention of younger colleagues and others, like their own kids.

But lest anyone think that I’m writing an obituary for email, let me offer the counter-argument of why email still matters, and why I rely on it so much.

Yes, I’m drowning in email (a quick count shows 60-odd messages came to my work account during a three-hour period this afternoon, and another 35 or so arrived at my personal account in the same period).

However, many of those messages aren’t mail at all, but notifications or newsletters or news alerts that I can handle with a glance.

The challenge, and I’m pretty good at it, is spotting an actual direct message and acting on it right away.

I use many other methods to keep in touch, from instant messaging (my online colleagues across Canada have tricked out an IM system to create a virtual newsroom) to Twitter to Facebook, and beyond.

But, through it all, I rely on email so much that I more or less take it for granted. And I also happen to know how effective it can still be.

Here’s a story. Last year, my blog, John Gushue … Dot Dot Dot, was in a “best blog” competition in the province, and I threw myself into campaign mode, not just to win (which I did) but to learn some things about social media.

After all, I had a golden opportunity to test methods that I not only write about, but depend on in my professional life.

So, each day, I did something different to get people’s attention, and then I carefully watched what happened. I sent tweets, I made appeals on Facebook, I solicited help from friends … and I used the old-fashioned approach, of sending an email to a whole bunch of friends and contacts.

I learned lots of things. For one thing, Twitter is awesome for getting an instant response — but it’s not so great for ensuring a wide reach. For another, I saw how powerful humour can be in getting people to read something, and act on it.

The real revelation, though? Email.

Mail is underrated for getting through to people, and about how deadly effective it can be. I was able to measure this because I created specific URLs for people to click on during each day’s strategy (and could track it through Hootsuite, a tool I mainly use for managing my Twitter and Facebook activity).

So, while email didn’t deliver the rapid-response I got through its cooler social-media cousins, it certainly came through in the long run, as it were.

A day or two (and even three or four) after I sent out my message, I was getting click-throughs, or the desired action that anyone in an online marketing campaign wants to see.

The stats kind of looked like a time-release capsule. Well, after what I called an “email bomb” went out, I was still getting a strong, sustained response.

It was also through email that I got the most thoughtful and impressive responses.

One of the buzzwords right now is engagement, and while social media is fantastic for bringing people in, and for quickly rounding up an audience, email gets a deeper commitment than any of the options I know.

There is no one way of getting people’s attention, of course. Our digital lives come in different facets and complexions; some text, some go to Facebook, some have no idea what Twitter is.

But many people still use email, and with the advent of smartphones, it’s foolish to think any communications strategy could work right now without it.

Things come and go, of course. After all, 20 years ago, we were all wondering what we did before fax machines.

John Gushue is an online editor with CBC News.

Twitter: @johngushue. Blog:

Organizations: CBC News

Geographic location: Canada

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