Social Media vs. Email — Are We Asking The Right Questions?

While announcing the death of e-mail is a bit premature, it’s absolutely a reality that the paradigm of communication has changed. There has been a flurry of articles lately about giving up email completely, as well as criticisms of such an approach. I think what’s more valuable than claiming the victory of each of the extremes is the discussion of use cases around each medium and improving our collective etiquette around multi-channel conversations. After all, the devil is in the details.

As I alluded to in my comment in the following article in ReadWriteWeb, social networks (internal and private external like Yammer or public external like Twitter and Facebook) are in a position to significantly reduce email load. Capgemini reported a 40% decrease in email volume as a result of Yammer, and there are countless others that have similar results. There are certain efficiencies that can arise from opening the conversation to more than a few people. There is also the serendipity of discovering information and getting responses from people you would never think to email. Communication is not a solitary activity, regardless of channel, and things need to be considered from the point of view of the poster (how things are communicated) and the reader (how things are received). Here are some questions that you should ask yourself to inform your decision  and corresponding recommendations that can help navigate the complex world of interpersonal communication.

Is your message task oriented? What is your message about? If you want one or a few people to take action on something, and no one else can benefit from knowing it, it’s better suited for email or a private message on Yammer. If you want people at your company to be aware of it, post it to your social network. Our customers refer to the knowledge received by scrolling through their social network on their own terms as “ambient awareness”. You don’t need to know all of it (and people will draw your attention to it if you miss it!), but it’s immensely helpful to make you a well-informed cross-functional collaborator that you are. Email is the most disruptive of the asynchronous methods of communication — we’ve been conditioned (perhaps self-inflicted) to respond to emails, and do so in kind.

Who is the audience? Just as important as knowing the message is knowing your audience. Is this audience on the same network? If your message is narrow and you are communicating with multiple collaborators on your team, post it to your team group on Yammer. If you want others to see it for true cross-functional magic, post it for everyone to see and make sure to highlight (via @ mentioning) the right people. Rule of thumb: if you find yourself cc:ing more than just a few people, it’s probably time to take it to your company’s social network. The rise in abuse of email as the “cover your you-know-what” has resulted in out-of-control cc:s, which have collectively desensitized us to the medium.

Do you know the audience specifically? Sometimes, you may not know where to direct your post. In that case, you definitely want to use your social network to activate that serendipity. If your message has merit, your coworkers will uplift it and spread it, pulling in their expertise and expertise of others. Sometimes you know who should get it, sometimes you want people to discover it, and sometimes a little bit of both. When consuming information, we sometimes don’t quite know what we are looking for and where to find it — this kind of serendipity can lead to unexpected outcomes.

Do you want people to find it and iterate on it later? A key benefit of an enterprise social network like Yammer is knowledge management. In addition to uncovering things that are temporally relevant, a system like Yammer helps you retain knowledge long after the employee has left the company. In addition to asking yourself if others can benefit from this information, think about longevity of this content and how likely someone will be to reuse it and iterate on it in the future. If so, you will want to make sure you are using the right syntax (tags and topics), as well as putting it in the right groups, to help with archival.

Is it public or private? Just as critical in your decision is going to be the privacy of the message. Is this something meant for the eyes of very few people, or can it be shared broadly. Although we are staunch advocates of transparency and openness, there are some use cases where things need to be handled privately and “in the backchannel.” If you are sharing confidential information that someone entrusted you with (a confidential customer record), please treat it with care. Even if the channel is private, refrain from “talking smack” about other people — you never know when someone else may add them to the conversation.

Hopefully this list of questions — albeit a non-exhaustive one — wil help you navigate the  complex world of digital communications.