Posts from April 2005.

Another Good-Looking Email Management Methodology

Merlin Mann of 43 Folders fame has posted an article on email management in MacWorld that could easily apply to Outlook users.  His method, based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done Methodology, helps the user quickly evaluate email messages and convert them to action.  He writes:

“Start by stripping your e-mail directory structure down to seven basic folders, each defined by the action that its messages require.”

Email_mgmt_method_2ClearContext makes this easy to implement in Outlook and extends the concept with topic management and automated filing.  Create a ClearContext Topic for each of the folders Merlin defines (Respond, Action, Hold, Waiting, and Archive).  As you evaluate a new message, assign the appropriate topic, which will appear next to the message in the inbox.  You could either leave the message in the inbox  and easily scan all of your open items or make use of our filing buttons (File Message, File Thread, or File Topic) to automatically file the message into the associated ClearContext Topic Folder.  As future messages in the email conversation arrive, ClearContext will automatically tag them with the associated topic, reducing the need to re-evaluate the appropriate action to take on the email.  As an added bonus, if you’re using ClearContext color-coded views, we’ll prioritize your incoming messages so that you can evaluate your most important email from your most important senders first.

In the future, we will be implementing functionality that will allow the automatic creation of calendar and task items from email, taking this concept to the next level.  See our product plan for more detail.

ClearContext Competitors: Nelson Email Organizer

As we reach out to potential reviewers regarding ClearContext, we are often asked how Inbox Manager compares and contrasts with Nelson Email Organizer.  This is understandable given that both are billed as email organization products for Microsoft Outlook users.  In a nutshell, our add-in is different from NEO in three major areas:

  1. ClearContext seamlessly integrates into Outlook – we install a toolbar in Outlook and perform all of our functions on messages within the Outlook inbox. NEO accesses the Outlook data files, but requires use of a separate interface.
  2. Inbox Manager uses patent pending prioritization algorithms to rank incoming email on various email message characteristics including sender, directness of the email, message priority, and participation in the email conversation. Instead of being ordered by date, Email is then ordered and color-coded within the Outlook inbox based on these rankings. NEO’s prioritization views are based solely on sender and do not provide an automated, comprehensive ranking of all email within the Inbox.
  3. Our core focus is on managing and organizing email via message ranking, threading and categorization. NEO’s focus is email indexing and search capabilities. Many of our users use our prioritization and categorization functionality in conjunction with search packages like Lookout, X1, and Copernic.

Both ClearContext Inbox Manager and NEO have some overlapping functionality such as advanced display of email conversations, automated methods for assigning topics (or categories) to email messages, and filtering of email received from bulk senders.

This is first in what will be a series of posts on ClearContext competitors.  If there are any users out there who have tried both products, we welcome your input on differences between the applications.  Please contact us a info (at) clearcontext.com and/or post your comments here in our weblog.

Email Filing and Archiving

William has posted a thoughtful review of ClearContext Inbox Manager; it appears that he uses our filing and archiving features the most. 

He mentioned something that we hear occasionally – our prioritized views take some getting used to.  Though ultimately he thinks that they are "a better way of dealing with your inbox," we want to point his readers to instructions for getting the most out of ClearContext views.  If the out of the box views aren’t working for you, we’ve got several different views available for download on our website; including views that allow you to take advantage of the message management features that William discusses without the use of color coding or prioritization.  Power users, of course, can use native Outlook functionality to modify and customize views.

On a side note, though William already owns a ClearContext license, his review is the perfect example of one that qualifies for our free license giveaway.  Thanks, William!

Who Wants a Free ClearContext Inbox Manager License?

ClearContext Inbox Manager is too well kept a secret and we want to recruit our users to help get the word out in a big way.

Along those lines, we are offering a free ClearContext Inbox Manager license to anyone who posts a review of the product in any public forum.  Weblogs, websites, discussion forums, and newsletters are all game.  We don’t care what the subject matter of the venue is (as long as it’s in good taste), the review doesn’t have to be a glowing recommendation, and we don’t expect a dissertation.  Just post a few paragraphs that clearly show you have used the product – not just a regurgitation of our marketing materials or someone else’s review – send us the link, and we’ll send you a license.

This program is open indefinitely – we’ll announce it’s closure on our weblog.  The only fine print – the license is contingent on our review of the post and we are the sole decision maker on whether the review qualifies for the program (given the guidelines above).

Thanks for your help in getting the word out and we look forward to distributing a lot of free licenses!

*** The free license program has been discontinued. This blog post remains up for reference only

Marc’s Advice to an Email Victim

Marc Orchant has posted a three pronged approach to tackling the inbox: processing techniques. software, and attitude adjustment.  His advice is spot on.  If you are overloaded with email, get yourself an email management strategy.

ClearContext Product Demonstration

We have posted a five minute product demonstration that highlights many of the features that ClearContext provides.  Check it out and let us know what you think.

Update: We’ve pared the demo down from eight minutes to five.  Enjoy.

Triage Email with ClearContext (Yes, Scoble, we’re talking to you!)

As we’ve posted about before, it seems like everyone has problems keeping up with their email.  Robert Scoble is the latest blogger to write about this – and it’s not the first time he’s mentioned his issues with email overload:

"Trying to (and failing) catch up on email."
"I’ve got about 1,100 emails waiting."
"Yeah, I’m overloaded on email."

We know many of you share the frustration with email.  We’ve written about the importance of an email management strategy, which is clearly the right long term solution.  But how do you get started? 

Let ClearContext perform triage on your inbox so that you can get it under control. 

Ed Bott did it:

"…yesterday, my inbox was overflowing with 4500 messages. Today, it contains 29 messages…"

Omar Shahine did it:

"… When I returned to work … I was greeted with > 300 unread messages in my inbox. …ClearContext allowed me to work through my messages from most important to least important. …I’m down to 28 items right now."

You can do it.

From our January post Holiday Email Avalanche, here are the three most popular ClearContext features people take advantage of to rapidly clear out a backlog of messages:

  1. ClearContext’s core message prioritization functionality automatically identifies your most important email and places it right at the top of the inbox. This lets you quickly deal with all of your personal and important correspondence and then rapidly file all the remaining stuff like bulk email that has been moved to the bottom of your inbox.
  2. ClearContext groups all emails in a conversation together in the inbox. This lets you quickly look at the most recent message in the thread and file/delete the entire set of messages.
  3. Inbox Manager AutoAssign rules file incoming newsletters, mailing lists, etc. into separate folders for future viewing. Create these rules and use the "Apply rule to existing Inbox messages now" checkbox to file messages that you have already received.

Try us out.

ClearContext vs. Outlook Rules

We had a post in our forum a few weeks ago questioning the value that ClearContext provides over built in Outlook features.  On the surface, this is perfectly understandable.  After all, Outlook provides the ability to prioritize and color code the inbox, a method for the categorization of messages, and a very robust rules engine for identifying and processing messages.  That said, ClearContext’s value is in the way we simultaneously enhance these native Outlook features and simplify the setup process to make revolutionary changes in the efficiency of the Outlook interface.

Complex Prioritization

Through the creation of rules, Outlook can provide simple categorization and prioritization of email by a single message characteristic (i.e. sender, directness of email, etc.).  ClearContext enhances this capability by analyzing each incoming message on several weighted characteristics (including sender, message priority, directness of the address, and whether or not the user is participating in the message conversation) to create a composite score for the message and order and color code appropriately.  This is automatically setup on installation of ClearContext and weighting of each factor can be easily adjusted, giving the user a far more complex prioritization system that is much easier to implement and maintain.  For more detail on the patent pending ClearContext prioritization process, see ClearContext Design: Message Prioritization.

Threads, Not Messages

One very important distinction – everything ClearContext does applies to message threads (or “conversations”), not individual messages.  On the surface, our topic assignment behaves a lot like category assignment in Microsoft Outlook.  However, when a ClearContext topic is assigned to a message, all current and future email messages in that thread are assigned that topic.   This saves the user the time and effort of assigning a category to every message that is received.  Additionally, topics are automatically assigned to sent mail associated within a conversation and, optionally, sent mail is automatically moved from the Outlook Sent Mail folder to the appropriate ClearContext Topic folder.

ClearContext AutoAssign vs. Outlook Rules

As the post cited at the beginning of the article mentions, ClearContext AutoAssign appears to duplicate some of Outlook Rules’ features.  We believe that the Outlook Rules engine is a very robust and useful tool and our intent in developing AutoAssign was not to replicate all of its functionality. Rather, it was to support ClearContext specific features such as topic and priority assignment, and provide a simpler and easier to use interface for the most common rules scenarios. Ed Bott highlighted this in his review of our product:

"I had done some of this stuff with Outlook message rules, but the ClearContext Auto-Assign rules are much easier to create. Likewise, it’s possible to file messages into Outlook folders, but this add-in makes it much easier."

We have plans to provide integration for ClearContext functionality within the native Outlook rules interface in the near future. We believe this will provide the best of both worlds – our AutoAssign interface for ease of use, and access to the Outlook rules engine for creating more complicated rules that take advantage of ClearContext features.

What Else?

Those are the main points we’d like to make, but to highlight a few other enhancements ClearContext makes to Outlook:

1.    ClearContext default views group prioritized messages by conversation.  Outlook can show a prioritized view.  Outlook can display a Group By Conversation view.  Outlook can’t display a Prioritized, Group By Conversation view. 
2.    Once a topic has been assigned, ClearContext provides File Message, File Thread, and File Topic functionality for quick manual filing of Inbox messages into the associated topic folder.  Outlook requires the user to take several steps to file a message into the appropriate folder and, outside of Group By views, does not provide an easy way to file all messages in a thread or category.
3.    When setting up prioritization rules, the most important factor to many users is sender.  ClearContext automatically ranks senders on setup via a patent pending algorithm that analyzes email history.  To duplicate in Outlook rules, the user would need to manually create this information for each contact.
4.    ClearContext allows the user to adjust the priority of email, which changes the placement of the entire email thread within the prioritized inbox.  Native Outlook allows a priority change, but this doesn’t affect placement and it doesn’t apply to the entire message thread.

ClearContext not only provides functionality that can’t be duplicated in native Outlook, but our setup process, customized views, and toolbar buttons often makes it simpler to take advantage of these advanced features than the associated techniques in Outlook.

We’d welcome your feedback – if any of you Outlook Power Users out there feel that we have mis-stated Outlook’s capabilities, please send your feedback our way via comments on this site or direct email to info (at) clearcontext.com.

Thinking of Starting a Corporate Weblog?

Why keep a corporate weblog?  For us, it’s all about developing a relationship with our customers.  We created the ClearContext Corporate Weblog to provide our users with detailed information about our product, share information with those customers in areas that we are passionate about, and make connections with potential customers.  In the four months since we started the blog, we have seen a dramatic increase in customer interest and loyalty.  As relative newcomers to the blogging community, we want to share our thoughts behind the decision to start a corporate blog, the way we use it to connect with customers, and our advice for starting one for your company.

In late 2004 we released the first production version of ClearContext Inbox Manager for Microsoft Outlook, an email prioritization add-in that automatically organizes the inbox and automates the message filing process.  While developing the application, we quickly became regular readers of several weblogs, including Office Weblog, Office Zealot, Ed Bott, Omar Shahine – basically anybody who had something to say about Office productivity, email issues, or Outlook.  It became very clear to us that the people who wrote and read these blogs were exactly the type of people that we wanted to give feedback on the product.  So, on December 15th we put up the first entry in the ClearContext Corporate Weblog with our public purpose, “to share information about the company, our products, email productivity tips, and anything else that captures our attention, particularly if it’s related to email or productivity technology.”

Internally we hoped to do more than that.  We hoped to develop a closer relationship with our customers by putting a face to the company.  We hoped to build a customer base of like minded people.  We hoped to develop our brand and spread the word on ClearContext Inbox Manager.  We hoped to get our customers to participate in the direction of the product.  We hoped to establish ourselves as knowledgeable in our field.  In four months of blogging, we feel we have already made great progress towards these goals.

Here’s what we use the weblog for:

How’s it working?  The corporate weblog has been an extremely good investment of our time and effort.  In just four months of use, we feel that we have already seen some great results:

  • The weblog has been an excellent source to date for finding new customers.  We consistently introduce new customers to ClearContext Inbox Manager via our interaction with other bloggers.
  • We have very quickly put the word out on new product developments.  Within days of our blog post on our new release, most of our customers had upgraded and tried out our new features.
  • We have clearly communicated project direction and received direct feedback from our users.  It was this feedback that defined many of the features implemented in our v1.1 release.
  • We have used the weblog to provide our customers with a variety of information about email productivity.  We’ve posted email tips and techniques, email productivity information from around the web, and hosted a comprehensive email usage survey with help from a number of other bloggers.

So are you thinking about starting a corporate weblog and wondering if it’s worth it?  As far as we’re concerned the answer is clear – you can’t afford not to.  The dollar cost to run the weblog is relatively low, so that is not an issue.  As a resource constrained software startup, our hours are precious and the time required to post relevant, fresh material on the weblog is daunting, but it’s a small price to pay in exchange for a direct connection with many of our most knowledgeable (and demanding) customers.   Are you worried that you might not be able to come up with content once you start a site?  We had the same fear, but now have a backlog of posts we want to write.  Are you passionate about your area of expertise and want to talk about it?  Do you come across an article a few times a week that you find interesting?  Are you constantly thinking of new ways to utilize your product or service?  Those are the very things your customers will find interesting as well.  Blog it.

For more detail on starting a corporate weblog, we suggest you look to the following resources:

Robert Scoble’s Corporate Weblog Manifesto
– a passionate list of 20 items to consider before starting a corporate weblog.

CorporateBlogging.info – the Business Blogging Basics section of this site is an excellent place to kickstart your thinking about a corporate blog.

The Red CouchRobert Scoble and Shel Israel (with Marc Orchant
editing) are writing a book on Corporate Blogging and have posted
advance drafts of individual chapters.  Definitely worth a read,
particularly their corporate blog tips

How to Start a BlogMichael Hyatt at Thomas Nelson Publishers has outlined basic steps for starting a blog.  He has also posted a draft of his company’s corporate policy for bloggers.

Corporate BloggingRichard Giles has posted a detailed examination of the advent of corporate blogs along with reasons to start a blog and tips on how to do it.

Making Email Work Again – ClearContext 2005 Email Usage Survey Analysis

“I’m drowning in email.”
                    – ClearContext 2005 Email Usage Survey Repondent

Email is taking over many people’s business lives and there is no simple solution to the problem.  Results from the ClearContext 2005 Email Usage Survey show that the volume of email individuals are facing on a daily basis, particularly the level of business email they deal with, is staggering – and the impact on productivity is profound.  The sheer number of messages that people constantly receive requires them to use a variety of tools and techniques to make email a productivity tool rather than a productivity drain.  “It’s a chore to have to manually manage the tool I use to help me manage my productivity.”

The data used in this report comes from a survey of 300 people.  About a quarter of these people were technologists, while the rest were evenly spread across a variety of industries and careers.  There was greater uniformity when it came to technologies in use – the large majority of respondents were Windows XP and Outlook 2003 users.

Most respondents have between 2 to 6 email accounts.  Some use over 10 email accounts.  The majority of these people use POP and Webmail accounts for personal email, while Exchange-based email is the type most commonly utilized for business email.  About half of the respondents receive from 50 to 250 emails daily.  Almost 15% of survey respondents get over 250 emails every day. 

Where are all of these emails coming from?  For the most part, the workplace.  60% of users report the majority of their email is work-related.  Spam also continues to fill up people’s inboxes – 30% of respondents report over half of their email is spam.  All of this email obviously takes a lot of time to deal with.  About half of our survey respondents spend over 2 hours daily in email – and 14% spend over 4 hours in email every day.  Especially noteworthy is the degree to which people’s work revolves around email: 60% of users check email multiple times per hour – and 40% of survey respondents describe themselves as checking email “constantly.”

80% of the survey respondents report major issues with email.  These users suffer from three major problems: spam, email organization, and simply too many email messages.  A third of the survey respondents describe themselves as feeling overwhelmed by email.  “I feel like if I spend enough time to keep on top of my e-mail,
I don’t have enough time to focus on the things the e-mail messages
initiate!”

So how can users make email work?  What are the specific problems with the way email is used in the business world today, and what tools and techniques are people using to make email work for them as opposed to drain their productivity?  What are ways email usage could be improved for everyone?  There is no “silver bullet” to solve the challenges of email, but our survey respondents had many great suggestions that they use to help make email really work for them.

Spam remains the biggest problem for email users and a majority of users have installed anti-spam software.  “One of my personal accounts that I don’t want to give up receives 65+ spam per hour.”  Even with these tools in use, people continue to receive large volumes of spam.  Beyond using anti-spam tools, it is critical that people protect their email addresses and utilize secondary email addresses anytime they need to give out their email address outside their contact network or make contact information available in a public forum. 

Keeping email organized is the second biggest problem people face.   “My inbox is a disaster and I feel I need a better way to organize it.”  Almost all users utilize folders to file their messages, but many end up with far too many folders to easily manage.   About half the respondents have over 25 folders; a quarter of the respondents have between 50 and 500 email folders.  Most users have over 10,000 messages stored in their folders – some over 100,000.  Two-thirds of users utilize an external search tool such as Lookout or Google Desktop Search to help them find emails.

Simply receiving too many messages is the third major problem.  In addition to all of the important email communications throughout the day, this problem is exacerbated by a habit many people have – “I’m bcc’d on too many things by people that I can’t get to stop doing that.” Another user states the problem more directly:  “Email is the most misused and abused form of communication in the workplace.”  Newsletters and mailing lists also account for a significant portion of excess email – however, these emails are easier to manage using automated filing rules.

This flood of emails every day results in too many emails piling up in people’s inboxes.   Only a quarter of users keep their inboxes near empty with 10 or fewer messages.  On the other side of the spectrum, about a quarter of respondents keep over 200 messages in their inbox, with 10% of users keeping over 1000 messages in their inbox.  Why?  “Too many messages to deal with in a day and then end up not deleting them so they build up.”  50% of survey respondents use followup and priority flags in their inbox to help them mark which emails are important.  Many others use rules or add-in tools “mostly for sorting mail sent to various aliases at work” or to “send mail to various folders based on who from or what mailing list.”

How individuals interact with the incoming emails is also a major factor when it comes to email productivity.  Constantly checking email is a major problem for many users.  It is “too easy to be distracted by the constant inbound flow of messages.”  Productivity methodologies such as Getting Things Done help people focus on identifying and creating actionable tasks from email rather than letting email pile up and spending multiple passes re-reading the same emails.  Tools such as ClearContext Inbox Manager help “triage” the email by identifying high priority email and automatically categorizing emails into topics. 

“The fact is that email is the conduit for virtually all business work product in the 21st century.  Learning to manage it appropriately becomes everyone’s personal responsibility.”

It is critical that people adopt some of these tools and techniques to make email an effective business communication tool.  The volume of email exchanged nowadays is such that many users just give up.  “I never manage to catch-up and there is always a substantial number of emails that will not be processed.  I rely upon the fact that important and urgent matters will reappear.” That type of response defeats the very purpose of email – quick, efficient communication. 

It is clear from our survey that email is a critical element of people’s work lives, but it is fundamentally broken for many users who end up spending more time managing and reacting to email than using it to help them achieve their goals.  While many people use various tools and techniques to cope with the flood of email, it is clear that most are doing just enough to stay afloat.  Our advice: get yourself an email management strategy.  If you don’t have a plan for dealing with email you are not being fair to your customers, your co-workers, or yourself.    Below you will find links to some ideas and articles that we think will help you find the method that works best for your particular environment.  By utilizing these resources, individuals can effectively respond to and organize large volumes of email and truly make email work for them.

The Tyranny of Email (Ole Eichhorn)
If Your Inbox Has More Than a Screenful of Messages In It, You’re Rude (Jason Clarke)
In Praise of Full Inboxes (Slacker Manager)
ClearContext to deal with E-mail (Omar Shahine)
My equation for serious productivity – 2005 (Marc Orchant)
If you use Outlook, you need Lookout (Ed Bott)
How do you manage your mail? (KC Lemson)
Top Five Ways to Manage the Inbox Effectively (ClearContext)
Top Five Ways to Reduce Email Traffic (ClearContext)
Carbon Copy Bloat (ClearContext)

We have posted graphs of survey results here, here, and here.



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