Some Thoughts on the Future of Email

Last verified Jul 13, 2020

Remember not too long ago when everyone was talking about the death of email? As we wrote about earlier this year, it seems we’ve come to our senses on that one. Don’t get me wrong I am as frustrated with email as the next person.

But email will be around for a loooong time for one simple is universal. It is as fundamental as other internet standards like HTTP. You know with 100% certainty that any professional you wish to connect with will have an email address. Because of this it is the one unique identifier for all digital identities, with a distant second being mobile phone numbers. It is in this light that email should be viewed as a tremendous technological accomplishment; it is the one and only guaranteed form of digital communication that every professional in the world can support.

Internet working groups have poured decades into the underlying protocols that make email work, such as POP, SMTP, IMAP, etc. These are open standards that anyone can go read about and implement their own server to support. And now that the world has moved to the cloud, the idea of hosting your own mail server seems like a waste of time and money (which it is), making email even more simple for even the smallest of teams to setup and leverage.

Ok cool - so it's an open standard supported by the whole world, so let's take advantage of that right? Well this is where the problems start. Much like documents, Email was created by using a digital analogy to a physical paradigm, postal mail. It was the "California Roll approach" to introducing Sushi to America. And both forms of mail have the same problem. They force us to do work! You get a pile of crap in your mailbox and you have to go through and open each one and probably get rid of 80% of it. Now was I talking about postal mail or email? Exactly, it's the same thing. Contrast that with messaging apps where you can observe and choose to participate only if you want to. If you ignore a message, that's cool, it just slides off the page. Ignore an email and it just stays parked in your inbox, until you do the work to process it.

Email gives me anxiety and I hate that. I have 2 email accounts as most of us do, one for work and one for personal. It's a constant battle keeping both contained, and some specific pains I notice; travel makes it pile up cause most of my trips are "non-email" time. I spend about half my time in sales. Those emails require rapid follow up but are blended in amongst many less urgent emails. None of this is unique to me.

So what's being done about it?

There are a few ways companies are attacking this problem:

Just get rid of email altogether

Not all of it of course, but my above comments on why email works speaks to the interoperability of digital communication across organizations of all sizes. Salespeople can email their prospects at other companies knowing those prospects will get it. But what about email inside the company? Interoperability is much more containable amongst a team that works together. So let's get rid of all that email and use a messaging app instead. This is where you see messaging apps like Slack and HipChat shine because they do just that.

Make a better email client

A wave of new email clients have sprung up over the last several years. Most of them work by predicting what email will be important to you, and moving the rest into other folders for you to deal with later. It's helpful, especially when you are behind on email and need to "triage" your inbox, but you still have to deal with those other messages later.

Persona-driven email clients. Mostly built for salespeople so far, these products create an email experience that understands which of your emails are coming from customers and helps you prioritize those first by giving them more visibility in your inbox and bringing things like customer-specific contracts right alongside the email message itself. This is the least proven of the 3 approaches to date.

What should we be doing about it?

So email is here to stay, and lots of companies are doing things to make it better...but we need more! Here are some thoughts on where we think things could go.

It's all about the jobs!

In the future, email clients will be re-built from the ground up based on specific jobs to be done. When you open your email, you will explicitly choose a "job" that you want to do, and your email client will orient itself around those jobs. Generic email buttons like "compose", "reply", "attach", will give way to job-specific actions like "intro", "schedule time", "follow up", "convert", "close" etc. Based on the job, one of dozens of "apps" will be leveraged to actually help you perform the job, as it would be impossible for one vendor to execute well on the countless different jobs professionals need to do across industry vertical and role in the company. The "client" itself will be much less of an Application, and much more of a Platform, providing a base upon which a customer can add in "job-providers" to complete specific actions.

It's already happening. Microsoft announced their Compose SDK to allow a 3rd party apps to be installed into the email compose window. If you look at Gmail, 2 things are happening. Last year they released an API to allow an app maker to consume gmail data in unique and novel ways. And Chrome extensions, while being built by the thousands for all things Chrome, are also very popular with Gmail. Many don't even have buttons in the browser and instead they add a contextual experience right into your Gmail window. Some great examples of this include SalesforceIQ which (among other things) pulls up the right record in your CRM right next to the email message you have open, or Streak, which creates an entire CRM right inside your inbox, or Guru, which suggests relevant answers to questions people ask you in your email.

But this is just the beginning. We will see big shifts in the platform layer to make these experiences more natural to build, and made to work across all devices.

Other cool examples you can think of? If so we always love to learn about them. Please share below!