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  • Writer's pictureAlan Shoebridge

You’ve got mail and you probably always will. Why email refuses to fade away

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

I hate email. I also love email. Many of you probably feel the same way, especially if you remember a time before email existed.

 

At my first professional job – a reporter for a small community newspaper – we had one shared email account for the newsroom. One!

 

You had to call or meet people to ask questions. Sending documents required a courier service. Everything was very, very slow.

 

When I moved on to larger companies that assigned a personal email account to every new employee, email became more and more a part of my daily work. On average, it’s now estimated that office workers spend up to 30% of their time responding to email. Many of us are likely much higher than that. I doubt many spend less time on it.

 

Managing inboxes has become a dreaded, but necessary, part of our work and personal lives.

 

Yet, every year I have at least one conversation with someone who thinks email is fading away. “Nobody reads their emails” is the typical statement uttered in a meeting. It’s always wrong, although it’s also kind of right. I’ll explain later.



How my obsession with ‘defending’ email started

 

More than 15 years ago, I remember sitting through a vendor presentation where the future of email was being discussed. I am paraphrasing here, but something along the lines of “email will be dead in two years” was confidently tossed out during the conversation.

 

My natural Gen X skepticism kicked in. I thought the claim was pure nonsense. And that was before texting and instant messaging platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams were in widespread use.

 

I’ve reflected on that conversation at least once every year since it happened. And without fail my annual reflection on email finds it firmly in place as the primary mode of communication in so many areas of my life, especially when it comes to business communication.

 

And nothing has changed. Email is king with apps and texting constantly remaining pretenders to the throne. Will that change? Maybe, but email will stick with us for years to come.

 


Email use by the numbers

 

“Dwight: Michael, what is the meaning of this email we just got? Michael: You'll have to be specific, I get like eight emails a day.” - The Office

 

If only we could just receive eight emails a day. Here’s what’s really happening.

 

General stats:

  • Number of email users: There are an estimated 4.26 billion email users worldwide, and this number is projected to reach 4.73 billion by 2026. (Source: Statista)

  • Estimated number of email users in the US: 299.8 million (90% of the population) (Source: Statista)

  • Emails sent per day: In 2022, approximately 333 billion emails were sent and received daily around the world. This number is expected to grow to 392.5 billion daily emails by 2026. (Source: Statista)

  • Businesses still rely on email: 64% of small businesses use email marketing to reach customers, and 37% of brands are investing more in email marketing. (Source: HubSpot)

  • Most popular email providers in the US: Gmail (75.78%), Yahoo (12.3%), Outlook/Hotmail (9.2%) (Source: DemandSage)


Demographics:

  • Age: 93.6% of adults aged 25-44 use email, compared to 78% who use social media (Source: Startup Bonsai)

  • Gender: Women use email slightly more than men (Source: HubSpot)

  • Income: Higher income earners are more likely to use email than lower income earners (Source: Pew Research Center)


Usage habits:

  • Frequency of checking email: 58% of people check their email at least once an hour (Source: Litmus)

  • Most common devices for checking email: Smartphones (68%), laptops (43%), desktops (32%) (Source: Litmus)

  • Main uses for email: Personal communication (59%), work communication (37%), marketing/promotions (26%) (Source: Litmus)



The future of email

"I'm not sure if it's a problem that I'm checking my email while I'm in the shower, but I'm pretty sure it's not a problem that I'm replying to emails while I'm in the shower." - Michael, The Office.

Looking at the trends above, it seems clear that the volume of email we deal with isn’t going to be reduced any time soon. If ever. Yet, there may be some help on the way from artificial intelligence. Here is what Google Bard has to say:


“AI will revolutionize email management by offering smart sorting, personalized responses, and automated tasks. It will integrate with other tools, enhance spam detection, and offer personalized marketing. AI will also improve security, translate languages, personalize the user experience, and make email more accessible. These advancements promise a future of streamlined email management, freeing us to focus on more important tasks.”

So, AI is bullish on its ability to make managing email somewhat less daunting of a task. OK. That sounds good, but I’m a bit skeptical. This leads me back to one of the first points in this post.


Why ‘nobody reads email’ is wrong and right

By now you’re reminded that lots of emails are going out every day. Millions every second in fact. So, email is a good “delivery” system, but the volume is way too high. Opening, reading, comprehending and acting upon the information we receive are where the real challenges lie.


And AI could make all those things better. It could also make them a lot worse.


Using AI to read and respond to messages strikes me as problematic, taking the human out of the loop entirely. Not a problem for spam messages, but potentially a real issue when it comes to reading a message from your parents, boss, doctor’s office, or some other crucial sender.


With all things, AI is most effective and impactful when it augments and assists you. It shouldn’t replace you. And managing and responding to many of the emails you get is important.



A few tips for emails that will get read in 2023

"The only thing worse than a spam email is a spam email from someone you know." - Dwight, The Office

A high volume of email combined with shortening attention spans and all the distractions of modern life is a volatile mix. These are the best steps for success:


  • Focus on the benefits for the reader. What's in it for them?

  • Keep emails short and to the point.

  • Use clear and concise language.

  • Structure your email with headings, bullet points and short paragraphs for easy reading.

  • Avoid sending emails late at night or on weekends.

  • Don't send emails when you're angry or upset.

  • Read that last one twice. It’s critical. Take time to cool down.


Email is dead. Long live email!

Love it or hate, email is going to be with us in our personal and professional lives for a long time. It’s easy, free, and effective to use. That makes it pretty hard to beat.


Yet, we can all strive to be better email users.


Don’t be like Mike:



 

Resources:

 


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