You’ve Got Mail…Way too Much

[Cross-posted from] With Halloween and Election Day behind us, many of us are doing a mad-dash to gather Christmas wish lists and get our shopping done on time. Somewhere between running kids to soccer games and birthday parties and the Thanksgiving count-down, I’m hoping to find an extra hour. That leaves little time to sort through the avalanche of email to find retailers’ best shopping discounts, enewsletter offers and free shopping deals.

As consumers, we feel this pain every day because we’re bombarded with email from companies mingled with pictures from friends, Facebook message alerts and emails from our families.



A new infographic on email overload from the email organizers at ZigMail [a company I work with] shows that despite the growth of social media, email remains the number one way consumers spend their time online…but they’re disengaging because of the constant barrage of messages. View the expanded infographic for more on these trends and get a glimpse into what the startup community is working on to help consumers tackle their cluttered email inboxes.

There are signs of life (and hope) for consumers and marketers thanks to innovation being driven by startup companies. Even “old guard” email providers like AOL, with it’s Alto offering on the horizon, are signaling that they recognize the pain email users are feeling and are jumping on the bandwagon.

Richard Gerstein, former CMO of Sears Holdings and CEO and Co-founder of ZigMail, has an interesting take on the state of email overload. He said, “Email is far from dead, but it’s clearly broken.” He says that while it’s encouraging to see large email providers beginning to recognize the problem with the lack of innovation in the email space, “the answer is not to overhaul legacy email systems which were designed for personal communication.” He and ZigMail’s Chicago-based team are rethinking the entire email experience, to “give social-mobile consumers a new way to manage the commercial side of their lives.”

Are You on Email “High Alert”?

Email isn’t dead, it’s just broken. If you’re feeling as overwhelmed as I am, here are some tips I uncovered on my quest to dig out from the avalanche.

“Could this be the end of email overload?” Conan O’Brien may have poked fun at the flood of media coverage around this question, but for most of us, the constant barrage of emails isn’t that funny.
Media Reacts: The End Of E-mail Overload? – CONAN on TBSteamcoco

At work, email overload can be a productivity killer. It may not drive as many headlines outside the office, but that’s where email can be an even bigger burden.

The average American has three email accounts and over 200 unread messages, according to a study by Microsoft. Buried in the fire hose of personal email messages arethings we want and (mostly) need: pictures from family, emailfrom the kids’ school, discounts from our favorite retailers, account alerts, digital receipts, auction notifications from EBay, party invitations, Amazon shipping confirmations, social media notifications, and more.

Email Angst

I began researching email overload when my entrepreneur friend Michael Kennedy told me about a company he was starting to avert email overload. (Disclosure: ZigMail is now a client). As he walked me through his pitch for angel investors, I thought about the angst email causes me every day. I could relate to the pain because I had tried everything, even diverting personal email to multiple accounts. (Great idea. One headache became four of them.) This got me wondering, how is this problem 20-plus yearsin the making? If technology has enhanced our lives in countless other ways, why isemail completely out of whack? Can a new generation of innovators fix it?

When I set out on my research, I quickly learned there’s no shortage of personal productivity consultants andemail trainers with tips to tackle the onslaught. From time management to productivity, I found countless books and resources on regaining inbox control – primarily at work. One expert I started to follow is Monica Seeley (@EmailDoctor)at Mesmo Consultancy. Her Twitter tips are good email therapy.

Take Two and Call Me in the Morning

Keeping up with this deluge is annoying, but did you know it could be bad for your health? A study by University of California at Irvineand the U.S. Army equates email access at work to being in “a steady ‘high alert’state, with more constant heart rates”:

UC Irvine Release: Jettisoning work email reduces stress :: UC …May 3, 2012 … People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “ high alert” state, with more constant heart …

Not Dead

It may increase your blood pressure, but email isn’t going away any time soon, according to a Pew Research Center study: 


There are some steps you can take. I stumbled on the “Email Charter: 10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral.” This guide for reducing email overload was inspiredby a 2011 post from TED’s Chris Anderson and JaneWulf. Take a look. I like Rule #3 about clarity and using a subject line that categorizes your main action or point. A lot of folks seem to relate. Last I checked, their charter had been tweeted over 1,000 times and garnered more than 16,000Facebook likes. Jonathan Liu was recently lamenting on his Wired “GeekDad” column about applying the rules to cure his email woes.

5 Tips

As I did my research, I bookmarked tips along the way that apply to personal email just as well as work email. I also flagged some real head-scratchers. If it’s any consolation toConan’s writers, there are enough zany suggestions for curing email overload to fuel aseason’s-worth of sketches. These five stand out:

Tip # 5. Just say less.

The 140 character count works for Twitter, so some peoplesuggest limiting the character count for email, too. Startups like Shortmail have nifty ideas to cap email length.Short is good, and I’d rather have an email get to the point in one sentence, but word count alonewon’t cure my personal email overload. Whether it’s 5,000 or 500characters, a useless message is still useless. I’ve received plenty of yawner emailswith an image and few words.

Instead of counting characters, maybe we need toauthenticate sender IQs and audit how well they follow best practices. Maybe we need an email screening program modeled after the TSA’s PreCheck. Or a GongShow-style clearinghouse where daily emails are submitted firstto be validated (or vetoed). Want to cc me on a reply-all that has no relevance? Gong. Sending me an offer for weight loss hot pants? Vetoed. Have a 50%off code for sandals to match the dress I ordered on your website? Winner. It’s easy: make the cut and your email gets cleared for delivery.

Kidding aside, when it comes to your personal email, don’t lose hope. Marketers are running smarter campaigns thanks to sophisticated analytics that make it easier to segmentcustomers and present products, services and offers you’re more likely to take action on. Startups are delivering apps that provide a helping hand, and growingmobile email adoption means smaller screens and shorter messages from companies and individuals. The right messages are starting to reach the right recipients more often, and they’re more concise. That’s progress.

Tip # 4. Go cold turkey.

In his VentureBeat article, Matt Marshall (@mmarshall) said, “Email is a ball and chain.” If it’s weighing us down, whydo it at all? That’s what French IT services company Atos asked. From ABC News to BBC,Atos made headlines with their company-wide internal email ban in 2011.

Tech Firm Implements Employee 'Zero Email' Policy – ABC NewsNov 29, 2011 … You've got mail–not. Employees of tech company Atos will be banned from sending emails under the company's new…
Feeling an urge to adopt a “zero email” policy for yourpersonal email? You might want to stop and think about how that might play out:

“What messages? Mom, I’vebanned email in our house so I don’t know anything about the family reunion.”

“No, I didn’t get that paymentreminder from American Express. We’ve put a moratorium on personal email.”

“Why would I have Macy’ssend me email offers? I like buying shoes at full price.”

Going cold turkey doesn’t makesense for my personal email problem – especially if I’d miss a sale on shoes!


Our personal email “IDs” have become calling cardsfor the companies we do business with, but many of us cringe when we’re asked for our email address. Retail TouchPoints says “77% of U.S. consumers said they have become more guarded about givingout their email addresses over the past year.” 

Why Do Users Become Disengaged With Your Email [Infographic]May 22, 2012 … For retailers, their brand reputation and engagement with customers are top priorities. With many communication vehicl…
We may behesitating before givingout our personal email address, but many of us are farfrom giving it up.

Babies and Burritos

During a recent visit to a Babies R Us store, I scoured my email inbox from myphone for their one-day discount code (a tip from another shopper in the store) and checked reviews while I was online. After I left (with my discounted purchase), I stood in line at a new Chipotle location realizing there’s no reason a huge fan like me hasn’t joined their list for email deals. It dawned on me that I am theconnected, social, mobile consumer I read about. Email isn’t my only link to these companies, but it’s an integral part of my relationship. I just need email technology otherthan a Swiss Army knife so it fits the way my life works.

Tip # 3. Delete likecrazy.

A Wall Street Journal article says retailers sent an average of 177 emails per recipient in 2011, up 87% since 2007. No wonder my inbox count is skyrocketing.

My research uncovered the “zero inbox” approach, where triage is performed by deleting everything you can. In her post on HBR Blog Network’s “Best Practices” column, Amy Gallo (@amyegallo)describes the concept:

“Glance over your inboxand delete any messages you don’t need to read or keep: calendar invites,advertisements, etc.”

Harvard Business School lecturer Bob Pozen, author of “ExtremeProductivity,” points out:

“You ought to be able todiscard 80% of them just by looking at the title.”

I admire anyone who can achieve that level of email tidiness, but taking the time to delete like crazy is simply going to make me crazy. And why? Email storage is cheap (I’m a pack rat) and my personaltime is scarce (like everyone else). It’s counter-intuitive for me to spend time each day deleting messages.

These are the kinds of hurdles that driveentrepreneurs to do what they do. I see a problem like this and search for an app to solveit. Thankfully, there are a variety of new apps (some free) that can keep your messages organized.

Tip # 2. Coach yoursenders.

Then there’s etiquette. Some gurus suggest fixing your email overload problem by coachingsenders to curb their bad email behavior. Common violations from individuals include “replyall” and excessive CCs, and tips range from canned replies to constructive advice. Cue the Conan skit.

If you have the time and energy to set email offendersstraight, great. I don’t. I’ll leave the coaching in the very capable hands of the email consultants.

When it comes to commercial messages, this is another area where technology might work wonders that Miss Manners can’t. Imagine a“thumbs-down” or “dislike” button for lame emails. It’s not the same as “return to sender,” but I’ve been testing Michael’s Zigit tool for sharingbest-of and worst-of emails and it’s an interesting approach (it links the entire email so it can be accessed via Facebook and Twitter). +1 on their “Really?” button. 

Megaphones like this are a great way to engage consumers instead of talking at them. With technology breaking down the barriers betweensocial media, e-commerce and email, consumers are gaining some control and getting actively involved in the process. Everyone wins.

Tip # 1. Take an email hiatus.

I’ve seen a slew of suggestions for reducing ourdependence on email – from setting aside windowsto check email to taking an email vacation. The notion of completely unplugging tops my list.

Peter Bregman, author of “18Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done,” offers some practical, middle-ground ideasin his Harvard Business Review article. He describes processing email inbulk when he’s at the office. By doing so, he says, “Email is no longer anoverwhelming burden to me.”

Peter’s concept supports the idea Michael’s team is taking to consolidate deals, accountalerts and catalogs into a categorized daily summary. Istarted testing their free once-a-day digest app and now use it to “DVR my email” for a quick look each morning.

The other extreme is declaring emailbankruptcy, something I learned about in this post from contributor Lee Woodruff(@LeeMWoodruff), who said:

“I’m filing for emailbankruptcy. This is not a novel idea. I remember reading an article about ityears ago — that was before my emails climbed to unprecedented heights. Ithought the author was a whiner. He was inefficient; clearly he didn’t have abalance in his life or his priorities straight. Now I think he was brilliant –a prophet before his time.”

Her experiment was bold and lasted a few days. While it is tempting, I have highexpectations that technology can improve our email experience, bring sanity to the chaos and create harmony withour personal and work lives, instead of forcing us to pull the plug.

While I was writing this post I stumbledacross a great articleon The Mail Room hosted by @RiparianData titled “Cease@Fire: The Top 5 Email Rants.”Author @clairedwillett shared anentertaining breakdown of suggestions to combat email overload. I’m doublingdown on the reply from @Lynda_Radosevich who talked about the opportunity this problem presents to entrepreneurs. How could they not beinspired by her idea of a “personal Postini”?

Personal Email Concierge

Email has a long way to go, but it’s good to see technologists attacking the problem in fresh ways and redefining personal email. From Siri reading emails out loud to AwayFind alerts on important email messages and ZigMail mashing inboxes into a color-coded daily digest, online services are transforming personal email from the butt of the joke to a practical, useful and enjoyable service that enhances our busy lives.

Whether you’re a soccer mom, a retail therapist or an entrepreneur, everyone deserves a personal email concierge. Life’s too short to waste time digging, scanning and deleting messages, much less jockeying email rules and filters.