Archive for April, 2008

Three next steps for email

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

It’s the end of April and as Brad Feld and his partner Chris Wand point out, people are once again talking about the problems with email.  Even the New York Times was back on the case (including a mention of ClearContext among the potential solutions).   Why do I say back on the case?  Well, there was a flurry of activity around the topic of email overload and potential new solutions in March and also in January …and November ’07 …and also October ’07 – I could go on….  Many of the articles/posts linked in those blog posts touch on a number of the same topics – all revolving around a number of deficiencies in email clients designed for a set of use cases developed many years ago that no longer reflect the realities of how email is used today.

Here are three key areas where email clients haven’t kept up with the pace of change:

Volume – email clients are designed around the concept of messages being handled on an individual "one-by-one" basis.  That worked fine when emails were just the electronic versions of memos that used to be put on your desk.  But with most information workers now receiving over 100 emails a day (and far, far more for many people), that approach is no longer feasible.  This is largely block-and-tackle stuff.  To handle this volume of information, email clients need to automate the processing overhead to make it easier for people to quickly process the email and figure out which emails actually require action and attention.  This also includes taking the level of granularity up a degree and pulling related messages and threads together so users can deal with sets of information rather than wading through messages one by one.

Integration – email clients are for the most part a silo designed for handling email messages really well.  Many of them have calendars and other PIM functionality tacked on, but it’s usually exactly that – tacked on.  Email has become a dynamic project management and collaboration tool where people routinely exchange status updates and work assignments for projects, have group discussions, and often  replace status and planning meetings with emails. That requires real integration between all of the pieces of information beyond the emails themselves – the associated task lists, appointments, documents, etc.  And integration extends beyond the email platform to external applications on servers or in the cloud (CRM, project management, HR, basically any enterprise app) that require all that data – a process that now often involves cumbersome manual exporting or copying of that information from the messaging platform to the application. I wrote yesterday about a number of companies that are focused on this integration specifically around contacts – which now encompass a far richer, wider, and more dynamic set of information than just the traditional address book.  Contacts are just one piece of a much bigger and more interesting puzzle – putting that together so businesses can take advantage of all the data exchanged across email is a very interesting and exciting opportunity.

Context – email clients are also pretty dumb.  With some rare exceptions (meeting requests, for example), they handle and present all incoming messages exactly the same way.  Messages with your friend’s new baby pictures, Facebook notifications, a project update, and someone inviting you to lunch are all completely different classes of message that should be processed in completely different ways.  Some companies are starting to recognize this – Xoopit, for example, is starting out by doing special things w/ media (photos, videos, etc.) sent to Gmail accounts. There are countless opportunities to do intelligent context-specific processing of messages.  I’ll expand on this soon in a post that lays out the primary classes of email and how they can be handled much better than the way most email clients currently work.

In his blog post, Chris highlights Salesforce.com as a company that looks at itself as "not just as an application but as a platform to facilitate the
gathering, organization and integration of data across disparate
sources and applications and because they recognize that data are more
useful and actionable when freed rather than trapped."  That’s definitely the future of email and email platforms.  Email has become, and for the foreseeable future will remain, the central hub of activity around which the majority of business activities take place.  But email as a platform will lose much of its allure if that data can’t be seamlessly accessed and shared with applications looking to add or pull out value from all of those communications.  At ClearContext, our upcoming release (currently in beta) is focused on building structure around the data in email based on identifying the implicit relationships between all the pieces of information that can be gleaned just from observing existing user behaviors – and providing value in ways that benefit the individual user, but can also be expanded across the enterprise.  Check the ClearContext blog for updates – we’ll be opening the beta program to the public soon.

Where are your contacts going to live?

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Xobni today revealed (to TechCrunch) some plans for a Yahoo Mail version of their product.  What they do with email (pulling conversation threads together, exposing who is linked to each other based on who is cc’ed, and some cool analytics features) is the less interesting part, though.  What’s most interesting and important about this news is that they have now officially announced their intention to enter the battle to be the place where your unified rich contact list lives.

Plaxo is probably the best known company specifically focusing on that space.  They started out as a pure play online contact manager, grown through aggressive spamming, but have overcome that initial stigma to regain a decent reputation (GoodContacts was an early player in this space that never gained the traction of Plaxo and was acquired by Reunion.com a few years ago, before this stuff really started heating up). Their new Plaxo Pulse service integrates the rich contact list with feeds/activity across the web.  Hmmm, remind you of something you’ve heard about recently?

Yes, FriendFeed and Socialthing! are two companies who are coming at the space from the social media aggregation side, and currently getting a lot of buzz.  These companies focus on pulling together all the information about your friends from various sites – it’s a logical and easy step to aggregate all the profile/contact info here as well. XoopIt is another cool company aggregating information from your friends/contacts.  Rather than focus on updates from social media sites, they are starting with a focus on one specific type of information from your contacts – pictures and videos.  What’s richer content around a contact than the media they send?

Of course, the most obvious contenders here are the source of much of the data for some of these companies.  Facebook, LinkedIn, and the nine zillion other social networks out there that many people already use as a sort of distributed online address book that is always up-to-date since everyone maintains their own account. And those other guys…. Microsoft (access to a couple of contact records via a few users of Outlook/Exchange, Hotmail, and various other services), Yahoo, Google and the other big players always loom large in areas like this.  But right now it looks like a bunch of much smaller companies are the ones making the really innovative moves forward in this space.

The biggest question here is whether or not a huge number of people are going to fully cede control/ownership of their address book to some company in the cloud that maintains a walled garden.  And I think the answer is no. The winner of this race is going to be the one who provides a set of rich services to aggregate all the information around contacts and keep them updated, but also give the user full control over the list of contacts.  That means letting the user export that address book to/from desktop apps, other online services, basically whatever they want to do.  With OpenSocial, DataPortability, and other standards/organizations starting to get a lot of buzz, there will be a lot of opportunity for someone to create a rich, distributed contact list service that is totally open.  Whoever does that and lets people integrate and access that list from various web services, their email client, their phone, and basically whatever/wherever the user wants will have created a very valuable and useful asset and service.  And as central access point for that data, one with huge network effect and user lockin.

Two marketing email common sense tips

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Taking a quick break from the strategic email posts/analysis to make a couple of points re: some very tactical email usage mistakes I’ve been noticing a ton lately as we’ve been spending more time looking at the nature and content of incoming email.  This is specifically directed at anyone who is sending out sales/marketing emails.  It’s amazing how much stuff you notice about emails when trying to automate the process of putting them in the right bucket.  Here are two big things that stand out.

Tip #1 : This is re: email marketing messages sent to broad audiences.  Test to see if your email is by default going to be spammed by the default Outlook Junk Mail Filter rules.  This is the easiest test in the world to do, and one of the easiest to address.  Yet companies continue to send emails that automatically get junked and never even make it to the inbox. 

Tip #2: This is re: directed/targeted email marketing messages send by and to specific individuals.  When you’re sending an email pitching your services to a specific individual at a company, spend an extra minute or two checking their website or doing a quick search to see if they publish their email address.  Sending an email to their real inbox rather than hoping an email to "info@company.com" will make it to them will increase your response rate significantly.  Pitch emails sent to generic inboxes are so much likelier to just be insta-deleted.

It’s pretty surprising to me that with email marketing having been around for so long, these fundamental mistakes are so common.  As email clients become more and more sophisticated, not making mistakes like this will become even more important.