The email is almost as old as the internet itself, originally taking shape as the only method of instant digital communication between machines on the early ARPANET. Most people credit Ray Tomlinson – a computer engineer on the original ARPANET team – with the invention. However, the name of the inventor isn’t as important as acknowledging that email is one of the pillars that held up the early internet.
Before social media, before instant messaging (IM), before any of it, email was the only way that we could communicate with one another in the digital realm. It revolutionised business communications, spawning innovations such as the modern marketing email that allowed businesses and customers to easily connect with one another.
It seemed as though email would never die. However, with instant systems taking up more and more space in the workplace, are we starting to see its steps falter?
The slow decline of the email
Charles Darwin observed that evolution doesn’t happen in small increments. Rather, the potential for change builds and builds over time, and is ultimately triggered by a single event that catapults a species forward on the evolutionary chain.
For the email, this pattern holds true. IM platforms such as WhatsApp, Slack and LinkedIn have leapt in popularity as tools for workplace communication, especially with younger generations currently climbing the ranks. By PwC’s count, Generation Z and Millennial workers make up about 38% of the world’s workforce. This is no meaningless statistic. It’s important to contextualise the younger generations – especially Generation Z – by the big events that have disrupted their entrance into the workforce – namely, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Known for their adaptability and comfort with the online world, younger generations had an opportunity to lead the world into a new era of business communication when the pandemic hit. Convenient and quick, platforms such as Slack offered a way to stay connected even when our co-workers couldn’t be further away. This was arguably the Darwinian trigger, propelling email to the bottom rung of the ranks while chatting took its place.
So, email is dying, right? Not quite.
Context is king: email evolves to formal communication
While internal communications within businesses have been steadily shifting away from email, context is a key factor in this evolution. B2C and C2B emails are actually spiking, according to the Guardian, with the number of business and consumer emails sent and received each day jumping up by 4% in 2022. While social media is a common way for businesses to connect with their customers, it appears that email remains the most popular avenue for this, hosting everything from complaints to queries.
The truth is that email is ubiquitous. Used by more than 4 billion people worldwide, this is still one of the strongest ways to communicate via the internet. It’s the originator for rich media sending, which IM adopted, but there is a key distinction between the two communication services: where chatting is perceived as quick and informal, email seems to have evolved into something primarily formal.
An entire suite of email etiquette rules – whether spoken or unspoken – distinguish email as the more formal type of communication. The format, mirroring the letters of yesteryear, simply encourages a formal sign-on, sign-off, subject line, and structured paragraphs from anyone who sends a communique. Not only is this not encouraged on IM platforms, but it’s also downright unusual when someone mirrors an email’s format in a quick chat message.
The email evolution: where we are and where we’re going
Therefore, it seems as though email is not dying, but merely shifting context. Much like the letter did many years ago, we’re seeing certain formal verticals where the email is taking up sole residence, leaving other informal channels free to flow with GIFs, emojis and abbreviations in the name of convenience.
In summary, much like any tool, email is what you make of it. At least for the moment, it remains a valuable aspect of any business’s arsenal, as long as you know how to use it. Let’s review some key aspects of etiquette for these surviving avenues.
The B2B communication channel
Businesses communicating with businesses, at least at the outset of their relationship, still tend to use emails. Negotiating contracts, formalising agreements – these high-touch conversations still require a quick and easy way to communicate a lot of formal information. That said, as the relationship between businesses deepens, this conversation may quickly migrate over to platforms such as Slack that also offer easy B2B communication.
Pro etiquette tip:
Structure your email carefully. Aside from a carefully chosen salutation and sign-off, the structure of your email does a lot for successful communication with other businesses. Most people skim the first half and partially ignore the second, so concentrate essential information in the first few sentences.
The internal formal email
Similarly, formal internal communication emails are still alive and well. Emails aren’t just digital letters – they exist with a built-in organisation system in the form of your inbox. Tags, subject lines and recipients make it easy to sort through information and find it when you need it again. This makes email a valuable internal tool for reaching into the ether of easily forgotten information when you need it most.
Pro etiquette tip:
Keep things descriptive and short. While fluff can be useful in marketing emails to drive tone and connection, internal emails are all about effective communication. Keep things short, descriptive and to the point to ensure that your message is as clear as possible.
The B2C marketing email
Finally, while social media exists to connect businesses and their consumers, email is still the most accepted way for the two to connect. In particular, businesses still send marketing emails by the millions. A key aspect here is that these emails are usually seen as far more respectful, often invited by the consumer and far less intrusive than a direct message.
Pro etiquette tip:
Keep it relevant. When writing, linking or advertising, ensure that your email takes your customer to the most relevant destinations. What’s your message? What’s your purpose in sending this to them?
Rather than abandoning email in favour of chatting services, see them both for the strengths they have, and use them intentionally.