Feb 06, 2013 (08:02 AM EST)
Email Overload: Can Social Really Help?

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Facebook's 2012 Highs And Lows
Facebook's 2012 Highs And Lows
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Like a lot of small business owners, Melissa Foster leads a hectic life. Her email account reflects the nonstop nature of running a one-woman company.

"My inbox, of course, is insane -- just like most of my customers," Foster said in an interview. Her company, Brilliant Life Design, offers personal and team productivity training for entrepreneurs and startups, a segment known for the do-it-all, do-it-yourself ethos. That mindset matches Foster's own day-to-day business. "It's just me," she said. "I'm doing it all."

In her search for ways to reduce the amount of email she sends and receives, Foster recently began trialing Sendgine, a new "social productivity" application. Fewer emails is one of the theoretical benefits of various social and collaboration platforms for businesses, Sendgine included. For many users, though, that slimmer inbox hasn't come to pass yet.

One month in, Foster said the results are far better than she expected. She ballparked a 30-40% decrease in email volume over just a few weeks. "It does help cut down [email], which has been nice to see," Foster said. "That was one of the things they had sort of promised, and when it came time to implement I [had] a healthy sense of skepticism."

[ Is too much email caused by management problems? Read Email Overload: Disease Or Symptom? ]

Sendgine's platform is built around a "trains of thought," ostensibly the site's term for "projects." In a train of thought, all of the collaborative data involved in managing a project and moving it forward -- brainstorming, messaging, task lists, reminders, files, deadlines -- funnels toward a common goal. To date, Foster has loaded around 30 projects, both professional and personal, into the site, which recently added an iPhone app.

"Everything is there, so as long as I go in I know exactly what I need to do next [and] I don't need to be firing off emails to let people know where things stand," Foster said. "That has been huge; that saves my email inbox for bigger things, projects that I'm not yet working on but could be soon. It helps draw a line."

Foster had previously tried private Facebook Groups, Asana and Trello for similar purposes. With each, though, she ran into things she didn't like -- less control over content on Facebook, for example -- and so she kept looking before becoming intrigued by a demo of Sendgine.

Although the early results are positive, the platform has not been a panacea. One of the challenges is getting everyone else on board -- literally, in the case of Sendgine's "train of thought" approach. When it comes to technology, smaller businesses, and especially service providers, often have to use what their customers use. You can't well turn down an important client simply because you don't want to work with the apps they use.

"Most of my clients already have something that they're using that they like," Foster said. "Maybe they don't love it, but it works and they're used to it."

That points to a broader reason why social platforms might struggle to affect overstuffed inboxes. Email remains the universal application that just about everyone uses, even if we simultaneously grumble about its downsides.

"I don't want to be across several platforms working with people; I would rather have everybody in one spot," Foster said. As a result, she has been offering to "on-board" her clients with Sendgine and the trains of thought for their projects. It's extra effort, but she's confident they'll take to it once they get comfortable with the service. Foster said that although some customers use the platform more than others, the early response has been mostly encouraging. When her clients do offer feedback on things they don't like or think are missing, Foster passes it along and said it is well-received by the Sendgine team.

Still, there are those that aren't going to hop on the train. Brilliant Life Design has a client, a fellow small-business owner, who simply isn't going to use it. "I haven't had much luck with her," Foster said.

Mixing her personal and professional lives in a single space, without losing control over who sees what and when, has also been a welcome aspect of Sendgine for Foster, who noted that work comes first for many professionals these days.

"I have my mom in a folder. [Family and friends] can get a glimpse into what I'm doing," Foster said. "It's almost like having a private Facebook."

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