Do your critical messages break through on email?

Among my first posts to this blog was one headlined, “Have you heard? Email’s dead.” It was triggered by this article from, Here’s the lead:

Even as consumers shift more and more of their daily tasks and chores to the Web, one famous form of online communication is losing its luster. E-mail, that staple of your daily work and social life, is withering from a combination of excessive spam and the onslaught of “instant” messaging services for the attention-challenged.

Is email really “dead”? Maybe not, but its value — at least in my life — has seriously diminished over the past two years. I routinely delete most email from my own university unless I see a compelling subject line. And those are rare. Sometimes really important messages get buried in the digital avalanche. I’ve missed a few meetings as a result, but nothing critical as yet.

Sorry, mailbox full. This morning, a note from Kent State’s email administrator tells me 10 students on the “KSU PR Majors” listserv aren’t getting our messages. This means they may have missed important information and advice from their faculty. Same reason for each recipient: Mailbox Full.

When I confront students about the problem, most say, “Oh, I never check my Kent email.” Let’s hope their professors or the registrar don’t have anything important to communicate, because it’s not getting through to a good many people.

Grown-ups are at fault, too. At my neighborhood association meeting last night, the secretary asked board members if we could please avoid doing votes via email. Seems that half of the board members don’t respond promptly; some don’t respond at all.

Me, too. While I’m at the computer, I monitor my Kent State email constantly, but it’s the last thing I check when I boot up in the morning. Email comes after Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed, Flicker, PROpenMic, and my 3 blogs. Email isn’t “dead” for me, but it’s not a priority. My secondary emails (yahoo and gmail) are a once-a-day visit if that.

Sidenote: My email program pinged 12 times during the first draft of this post. I ignored it.

What happens when it really matters? Given that email is so easy to ignore or delete, I’m really concerned that my employer, Kent State, is now sending student tuition bills in digital form only, and exclusively via the university email accounts that so many students gnore. A lot of those bills will almost certainly go unpaid as a result. BTW, they announced this new policy via email.

Email billing saves a lot of money and maybe even a few trees. It’s the right thing to do. Heretofore, we snailmailed more than 30,000 tuition bills every semester. That’s simply inefficient.

But will it work? Students who do check their email accounts — and a majority do — will have to select this important billing note from dozens of other messages the administration sends. Most of those messages hold little value for the average student. It’s the new form of broadcasting, and the students, like the rest of us, tend to tune out.

So we’re headed for a PR problem here, though it should be minor and short-lived. Students who don’t pay their bills will incur significant late fees (typically $100) and risk seeing their course registrations for the next semester canceled. So students, you’ll have to start paying attention to the email stream to find the 1 or 2 messages that really matter. Sorry, but there’s no other way.

Or is there? How does your organization break through the email glut? Post your ideas below.


8 Responses to Do your critical messages break through on email?

  1. Hi Bill:

    I’m not swamped with email and find it very effective. Why? I don’t subscribe to anything via email. If you can’t get it via RSS it’s probably not information you’re going to need to read on an on going basis. Second, I use the phone (remember that high-tech device) to reply to email when what I have to say exceeds one paragraph (most of us speak at 180 words per minute and type at 35 wpm). The phone eliminates dozens of back and forth emails that really are just typed conversatons. Last, we stamped out “cc mania” here at my company via policy only (seemingly readily adopted because everybody was sick of getting cc’d)


  2. Hey Bill, when I worked at Fleishman-Hillard, we used a kind of shorthand in the e-mail subject line that worked really well. Now that I think back on it, the method looked much like IMing today, just using e-mail as the vehicle.

    Our FH office also had a rule against mass CCing on e-mail. Both cut down on unwanted or unneeded messages. The key was that the idea was part of the culture there, enforced by the bosses.

  3. Rob Jewell says:


    Three additional points. All, I believe, have implications for effective communications.

    One. Relying on email tends to isolate people in the workplace. Nobody is thrilled these days if you decide just to stop by and chat. Much better, I guess, to sit at the computer and send someone an IM. And I worked in an organization at Kent State (not JMC) where you could go weeks without seeing or talking to someone — but still have regular contact via email. True with the organization I’m working with now as well. I know. It’s generational.

    Two. Most people don’t write well. And email tends to be a forum where you just dash off random thoughts. Then couple that with the fact that the trend is to read shorter and shorter articles, etc. Consequently, is email really the most effective venue for thoughtful proposals, policy recommendations, strategic plans, etc.?

    Three. I think it is a mistake for public relations and journalism students to learn the craft of writing by relying on email interviews. It’s not the same as actually talking to someone.

    Sorry this is long. Probably should have sent it via email.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Great input so far, thanks. To Rob’s point about email vs. F2F, I think email (along with social media apps) tends to make people more bold. That can be a good thing — as someone may make an important point online when he/she is too shy to do so in an open meeting.

    But there’s also such a thing as being boldly stupid. If you’ve ever used listservs, blogs or Twitter, you know what I mean. We type, we send, we say ooops!

  5. tim roberts says:

    I think email is here to stay because it is basically one-way communication that can be controlled by the sender. Message content and length are up to him or her. You don’t have that control with a phone call or IM. For business purposes, it is very effective for mundane matters that don’t require much dialogue or F2F.

    As for Kent’s switch to online-only billing, my youngest goes to OU and that is how they have handled tuition. Don’t think it will be much of a problem, except for those who don’t check their emails. But I have a suspicion that those people aren’t the most organized and probably had a problem with paper billing too.

  6. April says:

    At my last internship, everyone was encouraged to use im instead of email becuase apparently an email costs the company money and ims don’t.

    Personally, I don’t like it becuase you can’t search ims, making it harder to keep track of what you have and have not said or asked.

  7. Jamie Carracher says:

    A few months ago I took the role as primary media contact and spokesperson on a very prominent national account, and I would have fallen apart without e-mail and my BlackBerry. This week I was fielding four media queries on the road, all while sitting next to my executive who was doing an interview in-person on a totally different topic.

    This job is way more time-intensive than being a newspaper reporter was, so I strategically pick communications tools, depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Telephone calls are more immediate, personal and powerful. E-mail is good for when you need info but don’t have time for chit-chat. Texting works if all else fails.

    For example, yesterday I was on a conference call and a client texted me to say our product was being mentioned in Columbus, so I e-mailed my colleague in town, who immediately told me he saw the segment but the anchor didn’t seem to know this product just became available in Columbus, so I called the newsdesk and told them the wire story they were running had a local angle they should use–all of this happened in four or five minutes. It was pretty cool.

  8. Some practical advice on e-mal subject lines is at

    While I don’t think e-mail is dead, I think we will begin to see the rise of a new type of software that faciliates web-based collaboration. Basecamp HQ is an example of this. Unfotunately, it’s not clear what software company will come out ahead with collaboration software, so perhaps I’ll just stay invested in Goodyear…wait, isn’t that part of the automotive industry that’s tanking?

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