The Big But

Effective business communication is equal parts art and science.

When used as a conjunction, “but” has the magical power of invalidating whatever clause preceeded it. Consider these two examples that I received recently:

“I don’t want to force the issue on this, but I would hate to have us both miss an opportunity to have a mutually beneficial working relationship.”

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Don’t let a big “but” get in the way of your message. Next time, try using “and” instead.



Activity streams: communication as work, not for work

One of the four fundamental keys to social business design is dynamic signal, driven by new modes of content authorship and ownership within companies.

In practice, email communication happens for work. Most office workers would gladly accept less email to deal with every day, unless they're addicted to the dopamine rush of receiving new messages.  A shift to dynamic signal moves employee mentalities and behaviors to communicate as work instead.

Luis Suarez offers an alternative to email: activity streams. He offers five reasons why activity streams work better than email:

  1. They permeate throughout transparency and openness
  2. They help you, greatly, be done with the obsession to read AND respond to everything
  3. They facilitate serendipity and Informal Learning
  4. They help flatten organisations and traditionally hierarchical structures
  5. They inspire an open knowledge sharing culture

In a recent IBM poll, 49% of respondents stated that they post status updates on social tools for work purposes either a few times a month or never. The data show that corporate inbox codependency is alive and well. But activity streams have started to flow inside organizations and social businesses are starting to architect the aqueducts that will allow them to flow out to the organizational edge.

Social business design in local crisis management

The Australian reports “Facebook the first stop for Queensland Police in floods.”

At first glance, there’s little reason why the Queensland Police Service’s traditional modes of communication needed social media. But when you look closely, the structural issues become evident:

  • People. “We were putting out information rather than responding to requests for information.” Culture and mindset were limiting the effectiveness of communication.
  • Process. “Traditionally, it could take a few hours and go through several layers of responsibility before even a one-paragraph media statement would be issued.” The throughput of existing processes had physical limits.
  • Technology. “If the QPS website was used during the floods and cyclone to post information, we would still be in band-aids.” The mechanics of publishing were constrained by platform functionality, or lack thereof.

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The Queensland Police Service had relied on press releases sent to journalists (1-1 private distribution) who in turn broadcast the messages (one-to-many public transmission), with time-dependent engagement – i.e. message recipient had to be listening/watching/reading at the right place at the right time. Moving to Facebook bypassed a step and released content straight to public/all communication, with the added benefit of persistent online presence.  

But don’t leave here thinking that social media is a silver bullet as solution or killer of traditional media – QPS realizes that channel integration, content curation, and participation policy are critical to success.

I hope to never encounter the difficulties that Queensland did, but if I do I hope that my local first responders communicate as effectively as this great example of social business design in municipal management.

Thanks to @ej_butler for the tip.

Is email social media?

204 Social Media Marketing examples -- but does email belong?

Facebook is social. Twitter is social. Discussion and message boards are social. But more people would say that email is not.

Gartner makes two important distinctions as to why email isn’t social media:

  • E-mail is a distribution mechanism and social media is a collective mechanism
  • Mass communication is different from mass collaboration

Email isn’t social media. In fact it’s a communications tool that users shouldn’t employ for media consumption at all. However by some accounts email marketing is a $10 billion industry – not that size makes right.

During the Internet’s Democratization Era, my former Forrester colleague Charlene Li guided companies to a simple and powerful distinction when thinking about tools: email is to-do, RSS is to know. Users approach their inboxes with anĀ obligation mindset, which is fine. They just need to keep in mind that oftentimes the problems they create are their own.

Making email work requires that internally, companies train their users on how to make use of an expanded communications toolkit. Externally, email integrates with social media, orchestrated for reach and frequency.

Email: option vs. obligation

When you receive an email message, do you believe that you have an option regarding whether to respond or not? Or do you have an obligation to take action?

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At Dachis Group’s Social Business Summit 2011 in London, Stuart McRae from IBM had this to say: “sending an email does not obligate the recipient to act or even read it.” His colleague Luis Suarez is into his fourth year without email. These are two people employed by an organization much larger than most and somehow they can function with limited to no email. But you and I can’t. Why? Because almost everyone approaches email with a default set to obligation, not option.

Consider these three examples:

  • Two years ago, market research company Nielsen removed the reply-to-all function from their corporate email client. The reason: it was a good suggestion “to eliminate bureaucracy and inefficiency” accepted by the Nielsen Executive Council.
  • Microsoft researcher danah boyd takes annual email sabbaticals to avoid returning from vacation to “an overwhelming and unmanageable list of To Dos.”
  • Venture capitalist Fred Wilson has experienced great financial success but has declared email bankruptcy many times. He is the digital Sisyphus: “the more efficient I get with email, the more of it that comes in.”

All of these examples have obligation at root cause. Users care deeply about their inbox and the content therein. Although social networks, instant messaging, wikis, and other tools have shown promise in handling varied forms of communication, email has 100% adoption in most workplaces. Email is the primary channel for today’s business communication and professionals assume an “obligation mindset” in response.

If we switch to an “option mindset” instead, what happens? Is that even possible…or desirable?

Why do we care so deeply about the inbox?

You encounter plenty of unsolicited communication in your life. Unexpected outreach takes many different forms and a combination of manual and automated defense mechanisms protect us from having to engage when we don’t want to. Think about these different modes of contact:

  • In public, in person. If you’ve ever walked down the strip in Las Vegas, you’ve run into dozens of people passing out paper flyers. Or at the entrance to a shopping mall, a teenager with a clipboard trying to conduct market research. Or in the concourse of an airport, kiosk dwellers selling airline credit cards. Most people avoid eye contact and simply walk on by, while others give a terse “no thanks” and walk on.
  • In private, in person. It’s a bit different when someone comes to your own house or apartment, asking for a donation for the high school sports team, for you to sign a political petition, buy a magazine subscription, or some combination of the three. A lot of people will look through the peephole or a window and not even answer the door.
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  • Via mail. Direct mail generates over $4 billion in annual revenue for the US Postal Service. A while back, I ran an advisory session for the USPS and showed a picture with the term “junk mail” on a sign. An executive told me very sternly, “there is no such thing as that term.” For the rest of us, the DMA maintains an opt-out list and we recycle anything else that shows up unwanted. Some people even pay for services where all mail is sent to a processing location, sorted, and only useful pieces (e.g. personal correspondence, bills) are sent to the client’s home.
  • Via phone. Since passage of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, telemarketing has been dying, accelerated by creation of the National Do Not Call Registry. Even without those protections, most of us will look first at an incoming call’s ID before making a decision on whether to answer or letting it ring through to voicemail.

In all of the channels above, consumers firmly exercise the option to bypass engagement. Email is different.

When a message lands in your inbox, it’s gotten past some form of spam filter, thus carrying some level of trust. Commercial email may be easy to ignore, similar to physical junk mail, but for some reason it carries a higher level of annoyance.

  • Most blatant spam gets quarantined before you ever see it, but all of us get a message now and then about an “unclaimed inheritance” or request to act as a banking intermediary.
  • When you discover you’ve been added to a newsletter mailing list from someone you exchanged business cards with, it feels like a small violation of trust.
  • Even when we’ve opted in to receive messages, some companies abuse the permission and send emails too frequently.

I’m going to write about email more than once this week and thought I’d start here. Unlike other communication channels, why do we seem to care so deeply about the content in our inbox?