The very first email was sent in 1971. In the four decades since, these electronic messages have forever changed the way we communicate. Today, we're an email-dependent society, preferring to pound away a quick response on a smartphone rather than picking up the device to make a call. While we might openly complain about adding quantity to our inbox, there's a trend among my business colleagues of leaving voicemail messages that promptly explain that email is the best way to reach them.
The inbox, for many, is not only an invaluable communications tool but also a burgeoning to-do list. There have been many attempts to better the email experience, but for now the inbox shows no signs of extinction. What we do have access to is a growing number of smart add-ons and plug-ins that can improve your email work flow. Here are some of the most useful.
ToutApp: Find out when recipients open your email and create groups
Gmail, Outlook (invite-only): Free
This tool falls into the category of a relationship management email application. Within Gmail, for example, you can create groups so you can automatically email a team you're working with on a specific project. You also have the option to view an email activity feed so you can stay on top of your conversations with a specific recipient. For anyone curious about when a recipient reads your email, Tout can track this in real time so you're aware of what happens after you hit "Send" (and if anyone is clicking on a link that you're sending). This can be very helpful if you're running an email marketing campaign or simply trying to gauge how well your emails are being received.
Smartr Inbox: See who you're emailing and automatically get their shared contact information
Gmail, Outlook: Free for basic version
The folks at Xobni (creators of Smartr Inbox) are at the forefront of inbox improvement. While Tout does a few simple things to further your email relationships, Smartr adds context around the people you're emailing on a regular basis. Moreover, it pulls in your contact social networking information from sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, so you can extend your relationships beyond the inbox.
With this integration, it also allows you to view an email recipient's job title, address, and phone number (if they're sharing that on LinkedIn, for example). I've used this tool for a while now and the thing I find the most useful is that a contacts photo is displayed beside an email from that person (again, if this picture is shared online). This is of enormous value when you're trying to put a face to a new business colleague.
WiseStamp: Spice up your email signature with social content
Gmail, Windows Live, Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail: $24/year for 5 signatures
Most email signatures are pretty bland, but with WiseStamp you can spruce up this important marketing real estate. This tool enables a dynamic social signature, so you can add information such as your Twitter handle and most recent tweet (and functionality to retweet or reply from your email). If you maintain a blog, the latest link can also be inserted automatically (using the WordPress email app). Each signature can be customized based on your preferred look and feel and more than a dozen different social services (be warned--less is more with this tool, so don't muddy up your signature with too much content).
Boomerang: Schedule emails and "boomerang" important messages back to your inbox
Gmail, Outlook: Free trial
This simple tool does something many of us desire on a regular basis if we rely on our inbox as a to-do list. If you receive a message that needs a response that you can't give until a later time, it will simply "boomerang" this message back to your inbox at a specific time. There is also the functionality to schedule emails to go out at a later time and date.
WriteThat.Name: Get continuous contact updates in your address book
Gmail, Outlook coming soon: $20/year
There are those people who are meticulous about managing their address books and then there are the rest of us. WriteThat.Name can help the latter of these groups. This tool detects an email signature and sucks that content into a new contact (or updates an existing contact) based on profile information from LinkedIn or other sites. Before you want to make an update you have the option to review the information.
[Image: Flickr user Anthony Joh]