Scoffing at Spam

spamI received an interesting unsolicited email this morning from Neil. It caught me off-guard whilst downing my first triple espresso of the day.

It was instantly engaging as it didn’t look like commercial grade spam, which usually gets insta-deleted if the spam filter hasn’t already done its job. It looked like a normal email from someone I knew. Everyone knows at least one Neil right?

It started so well. Lots of white space told my brain even before I got past the nice informal greeting that I was going to read this. The first sentence was perfect. I was hooked. There’s no way I wasn’t going to finish this one.

Hi Jon

When it comes to creating powerful internal communications, we make the complicated very simple.

So we will keep this short.

Line three could have been glorious if Neil had avoided the corporate ‘we’ and simply said “So I will keep this short”. It’s not just me; there’s a few of us out there who find the ‘corporate we’ troublesome.  Anyway, I was still fully on-board at that point.

Then bang. Neil hit the iceberg.

tbp! offer a compelling blend of writing and design expertise that delivers unexpected but relevant creative solutions through all media channels.

Does anyone else see the irony of claiming writing and design expertise, as well as the ability to make ‘complicated very simple’ – and then beginning a sentence with tbp! ?

Try writing it. Those 4 simple characters take 10 keystrokes (and two hands!) to bold, italicize, and underline, before going back to the front of the word to replace the capital ‘T’ with a small “t”.

Please don’t think I’m passing judgment on a bunch of fellow communications professionals that I have never met before. I’m sure they have a long rosta of very satisfied clients and are no doubt great writers and designers.

And I’m not mocking Neil, I merely used his name as it is on the email and it works nicely as a short, uncomplicated literary device in the context of this story.

In fact, to reinforce this point I dropped him a line earlier to let him know I’d be writing this post, and he’s a lovely chap. He even had the decency to spot a typo on my LinkedIn profile, where many years ago I’d erroneously and somewhat ironically written !5 instead of 15.

The final irony is that if the offending tbp! had been replaced with a ‘corporate we’, I’d never have got to write this story, and Neil and I would never have connected.  So maybe after all, that was tbp!’s master plan and I fell for it, hook line and sinker…

How long have I got?

kittenI have a tendency to be a bit wordy. I love the idiosyncrasies of our beautiful language and enjoy playing with them every time I indulge in a bit of creative writing. I love to use colourful words to paint a picture, dramatic words to hold centre stage, and captivating words to tell a story.

The only problem is I do most of my writing online and online readers have a very short attention span. According to research by Jakob Nielsen, on a typical web page, users have neither the time nor inclination to read more than 20% of the words on show. We skim read online a whole lot more than when we read a book. We like our words to be served up in bite-sized chunks. When Twitter first appeared 140 characters seemed ludicrously slim pickings to most of us and now they feel like a meaty feast.

And that’s always assuming you make it to the page in the first place. Google engineers have discovered that people will visit a web site less often if it is slower than a close competitor’s by more than 250 milliseconds. That’s quicker than the blink of an eye. Tests done at Amazon five years ago revealed that for every 100 milliseconds increase in page load time, sales decrease by 1%. In 2009, Forrester Research found that online shoppers expected pages to load in 2 seconds and at three seconds, a large share abandon the site.

Clearly we digital natives are an impatient bunch.

That’s why the single most important rule I subscribe to when writing at work is “If in doubt, take it out”.

We must respect people’s time by making sure our communications are relevant, timely and above all concise.

RIP email. Is the writing on the Wall?

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in consumer technology, if you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today. And the latest figures say that only 11% of teenagers email daily. So email – I can’t imagine life without it – is probably going away”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made this bold prediction in 2009. She’s not alone. Experts have been predicting the demise of email for years.

I must confess, until my flirtation with Twitter and LinkedIn turned into a full-on love affair I remained sceptical about such claims, such was my appreciation of and dependence on email in and out of work.

Today, I’m afraid email has lost its sparkle. It has become nothing more than a tedious, ponderous and bloated utility. My use is pretty much confined to business, where it remains ubiquitous and, for the foreseeable future, will remain so until someone comes up with a better dashboard for managing ones private business communications, tasks and appointments.

The communication element of email at work for many of us has largely been usurped by Instant Messaging. Email tends to get used when speed is not important, the person I wish to communicate is not immediately available, or I want to keep an easily accessible record of a request or response. Outside of work I have stopped using it other than where someone else requires or expects an email from me.

Some social mavericks have made public declarations of their intention to work without email. Professor Paul Jones now expects his colleagues and students to use other means to contact him. IBM staffer Luis Suarez has lived and worked for the last 3 years without email. Good for them – not so good perhaps for some their colleagues who are forced to use unfamiliar and unwelcome technologies if they wish to make contact.

Going back to Sheryl Sandberg, what she describes is life before work. Teenagers don’t need all that work stuff. What they want is instant communication gratification. Email is too slow. It doesn’t match up to their social intensity. Blackberry Messenger has given Blackberry a new lease of life and a whole new generation to sell to. Who’d have thought Blackberry would produce a TV ad aimed at teenagers a few years ago? My kids don’t want an iPhone because bbm is so highly valued among their age group.

This graph from Morgan Stanley’s 2010 Internet Trends report shows that in July 2009, social media users overtook email users across the globe for the first time and I bet that the gap will have grown significantly by the time their next report is published.

One thing that will keep email figures artificially high is that all of the emergent social media channels use email to drive traffic to their sites. Around 85% of my own private emails are Twitter, LinkedIn or Empire Avenue activity notifications.

By the time I read them I have already seen the details on the sites themselves, which present the information in a far more digestible and accessible way, which is why my private email inbox tends to be my last port of call when I go online every day.

My main activity within my private email account seems to be deleting pages and pages of unread, unwanted and unimportant emails.

What do you think? Do you think email will survive in its current form?

A Lesson in Customer Service

I have a bit of a thing about customer service. For me it is the be all and end all of business success. Poor customer service can kill a killer product and great customer service can flatter a flat product.

Mr Whiteley

I experienced some sublime customer experience the other day from an unexpected source. You don’t often associate customer service with a school. My eldest daughter’s Business Studies teacher changed all that for me. Last Saturday he demonstrated his unquestionable right to teach Business Studies. Not because he is an excellent teacher or because he has the relevant academic qualifications, but because he gets customer service.

Jessica had a hard week last week. She struggled with a couple of mock Business Studies AS Level exams, despite her teacher’s best endeavours in recent weeks to support her with extra tuition sessions during his lunch breaks. She managed 50% in paper 1 and felt that her performance in paper 2 (which had not yet been marked) was worse. There were tears of disappointment and frustration. Bless her, she tries so hard, but sadly endeavour does not always translate into achievement. With the real exams just two weeks away, we were all resigned to a tough weekend ahead.

And then I bumped into her teacher during an open day at the school on Saturday morning and we got talking. He was very receptive, positive and above all, caring. He said some lovely things about my daughter, in particular about her desire to learn and participate in class.

He had not yet marked the 2nd paper so was unable to comment on Jessica’s specific fears about her poor performance at the time. He showed me a list of older pupils that had faced similar difficulties with the subject at the same stage, who had subsequently gone on to attain the required grades to attend their preferred universities. By the time we had finished I was touched and reassured in equal measure.

When I returned home less than an hour later I found an email from him in my inbox stating that he had just marked the second paper and he wanted us to know that Jessica had done better than expected. He wanted us to know so that the anticipated dark cloud hanging over our weekend could be somewhat lifted.

His actions, before, during and after our chance meeting show me he is a dedicated and very engaged employee. His personal and professional pride makes him a seriously valuable asset to the school. It is precisely behaviour that like this that will attract unsolicited recommendation and advocacy from pupils and parents alike. Not to mention ensuring that his pupils achieve the best they could possibly hope for in their exams.

Mr Whiteley I salute you. I am very grateful for the care, support and encouragement you give our daughter.

Are you a giver or a taker?

Nothing has had such a transformative influence on the world of work than email. Forget about the Industrial Revolution – history will show that there was life before email and then there was life after email.

Most knowledge workers today spend their working life living inside their email client and they use it organise and deliver nearly every aspect of their daily work. Many of us will see this as a good thing. After all, everything can be done so much faster these days right?

Hold on just a second.

A recent study in Australia suggests that “The average Australian employee spends less than two-and-a-half days per week actually doing their job. The rest of the time is spent navigating a virtual forest of information”.  The same study found that half of the respondents claimed that on average, only about 50 per cent of their emails were relevant to getting their jobs done.

Information Overload (or Information Rage as the above study calls it) accounts for huge inefficiencies and productivity issues in the workplace. For example, the time spend dealing with spam emails alone costs an estimated $17bn to $21bn in lost productivity every year in the US.

Academics, consultants and assorted subject matter experts offer a variety of solutions. Email free days, email manifestos, formal training sessions and ‘how to’ guides and are some I have stumbled across recently.

My personal favourite – and I like to think I came up with this one – is more campaign based. The campaign would revolve around ones acceptance of individual and personal responsibility for being a net receiver rather than a net sender of email.

You simply have to ensure that every working day you send fewer emails than you receive. What could possibly be easier – and imagine the impact that could have if we all did it?

The most recent public declaration of my personal pledge to the campaign was a month ago here on twitter 😉

Permission to send

Make no mistake about it, I do not consider employee communications sent by email SPAM. My definition of SPAM would include the words ‘bulk’, ‘unwanted’, ‘unsolicited’ and ‘indiscriminate’.

Even the most cynical and jaded employee could never accuse employee communications as being indiscriminate. By definition ‘bulk’ would apply as any broadcast employee communications are likely to be sent one-to-many. On the ‘unsolicited’ side, as an employee it would be pretty hard to argue that the company does not have a right and perhaps even a legal obligation to inform you of certain things relating to the work they are paying you for.

That leaves us with ‘unwanted’, which is where I think this discussion needs to focus. This is the basis of permission marketing. Why waste time sending messages to an unreceptive audience? A loyal and enthusiastic customer is likely to elect to receive marketing messages from their favourite brands providing they don’t overdo it. Similarly, a highly engaged employee is more likely to read an email from their CEO than one who has switched off from the company they work for.

So it is a constant challenge for Internal Communicators is to assess the penetration of their company’s broadcast emails.

My experience suggests that very few companies use email management systems/providers such as Vertical Response or dotMailer for their internal audiences. If they did this would be a pointless debate as all the metrics you’d need would be at your fingertips. Come to think of it, why not use these products for Internal Communications? Let’s leave that question for another day!

Most companies use enterprise email clients like Outlook. Yes you can see how many of your emails are never opened if you wish to deploy the read/unread request for every message you send out, but this doesn’t prove much and it annoys the hell out of email recipients. Yes you can survey staff or seek feedback through focus groups – but you can’t do that too often, so the granularity in detail you need will more than likely be missing.

There are many reasons why staff may chose not to read a broadcast email. Not seen as relevant, too long and wordy, annoying frequency, too busy, lost in all the noise, bad past experience etc. Without good feedback mechanisms we’ll never really know.

So why not stick an unsubscribe button on every Internal Communications broadcast email? On a message by message basis you will get instant feedback on the readers’ reaction to the email, measured by the number of unsubscribe requests.

You could then use this data to go back to the requestor on a one-to-one basis and seek feedback which could contribute to you changing the timing, frequency, content, and tone of future emails to improve their effectiveness. You could also use it as an opportunity to seek to change their mind about unsubscribing.

Ideally someone who has actually tried this could share their experience here. Is this something you have already considered and may try out in the future? Do you think your staff would be brave enough to hit the unsubscribe button?