Is automated copywriting the next big innovation in email?

Perhaps — with some caveats.

Considering the rapid pace of innovation in communications broadly, the email sector has remained surprisingly little-altered over the past 25 years.  But maybe that’s about to change.

We’re now seeing developers building tools that can create email copy using text-generation technology.  This past June, artificial intelligence research lab OpenAI unveiled a language model known as GPT-3, which has quickly led to several automated writing tools being developed.

Just what is GPT-3?  Here’s a definition according to The Great Book of Wikipedia:

“Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 is an autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text. It is the third-generation language prediction model in the GPT-n series created by OpenAI, a for-profit San Francisco-based artificial intelligence research laboratory.”

In a nutshell, automated writing tools built on GPT-3 send bits of keyword text provided by an author – otherwise known as “prompts – to OpenAI’s cloud service, which instantaneously sends back full-flowing text that’s deemed appropriate and accurate based on the statistical patterns it recognizes in the online text.

Even though GPT-3 technology accesses a vast information bank of training data comprising nearly 500 billion tokens in cyberspace to “derive” the copy, there’s always the possibility that the results could end up like the early attempts at automated language translation at the start of the 21st century – garbled and awkward.  However, with more AI “practice” and crowdsourced feedback, we’ve seen an established service like Google Translate deliver excellent translations for most commonly used languages like German, French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. 

Languages such as Hungarian, Turkish and Lithuanian are another matter – presumably with more seasoning needed to get those more esoteric tongues in ship-shape for AI translation.

Facebook, which has developed its own “walled garden” automated translation app, appears to be lagging Google considerably in the quality of its output – even when working in the most common languages like translating from French to English.

For now, the most practical applications of the GPT-3 language model look to be in the realm of business email writing, rather than for long-form business thought-pieces or most forms of creative writing.  In email communications, the author can jot down three or four key points and let the writing application do the rest. In this manner, instead of having to craft a memo completely from scratch, authors can provide key snippets — then take a moment or two to edit the proffered text before sending the email on to its intended recipients.

For those of us who write for a living, such a procedure might not seem particularly attractive. But for the many people who dislike the task of writing business communications — or find it laborious and too time-consuming — the new AI-powered writing may well be a welcome tool.

OpenAI’s automated writing service is on the pricey side today, but we can expect that it won’t take long before costs borne by end-users start to drop precipitously — no doubt due to the proliferation of free services subsidized by the same monetization model that now supports Google Maps and Google Translate.   

And this brings up a question that people should start to think about sooner rather than later:  Who will own the copyrights to the automated texts generated in this manner? 

For the many people who will undoubtedly choose to use freeware, the freeware’s terms of use may explicitly override the provisions of most copyright laws that vest ownership with the party who hires the ghostwriter.  In other words, if someone wishes to keep the copyright, then he or she has to pay for the writing service; otherwise, the service retains the copyright.

It’s only a matter of time before the leading purveyors seek to leverage their ownership of the freeware and the licenses they grant to use it – thereby giving them the ability to promote or censor whatever information they please.

The social acceptability of this medium could also be eroded when the volume of ghostwritten email masquerading as personalized communications begins to overwhelm people’s inboxes. At some point, email recipients will come to realize that any message that doesn’t include a disclaimer such as “I am the author; please disregard all spelling and/or grammatical errors,” can be marked as spam and routed automatically to the recipient’s junk email folder.  In such an environment where we’ll have a perceived quality demarcation between “real” and “manufactured” writing, we may find ourselves in the same place as we are today with tweets — that is, weighing if they are the work of humans or bots and judging their worth accordingly.

In other words, the new “next thing” in email communications won’t be happening without its share of issues and controversies – along with more than a little disruption.  It will be quite interesting to see how it all unfolds in the coming years.

What are your thoughts on the role of AI in writing?  Is the technology poised to become mainstream quickly, or will it remain more of a curiosity for a good while longer?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Alternative communications tools abound, but email’s popularity remains undimmed.

Email has been with us for decades now — for such a long time that email could be considered as “mature” a communications tool as the conventional telephone.

And yet, even as some older tools decline in use as new communications techniques emerge, email continues to be as popular as ever.

The latest confirmation of this comes from a study of ~1,000 U.S. workers conducted in September 2019 by survey research firm Propeller Insights for app developer Spike. The topline result: of the respondents who use both email and messaging apps, nearly 80% prefer email, as compared to only around 20% who prefer the messaging apps.

Not surprisingly, older workers embrace e-mail more than younger ones do — both in terms of preference and usage. Even so, e-mail reigns supreme in terms of usage across all age groups, with messaging apps, the telephone, in-person conversations and video conferencing (in that order) lagging behind.

As for male versus female respondents; their usage and preferences are roughly similar, with perhaps a feather on the scale for males in favor of email communications.

Furthermore, what comes through loud and clear from the study is that people are tired of juggling multiple channels of communication, with nearly nine in ten respondents stating that switching between apps affects their productivity adversely in one or more ways.

The following reasons were cited as contributing to their reluctance to switch between various communication and collaboration tools:

  • Makes it harder to find information: ~21%
  • Creates too many mixed communications: ~21%
  • Slows down productivity: ~18%
  • Wastes time: ~17%
  • Is a major distraction: ~13%

Related to these downsides, more than two-thirds reported that they would welcome having an app that combines all emails and messaging.

Whether or not a combo app is something that becomes available, anyone expecting email to decline precipitously as a preferred method of communications in the coming years is likely to be disappointed.

What are your practices regarding email, messaging apps and other communications methods? Are they substantially different from the Propeller survey results? Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Delayed interaction with email: It’s a triage thing.

It happens all the time because it’s part of human nature.

In the business world as in any other realm, it can be frustrating when emails that need a reply languish in a state of suspended animation.

And it happens a lot. A workplace study conducted recently by Dr. Bahareh Sarrafzadeh of the Cheriton School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo in Canada, in concert with several Microsoft co-researchers, has found that putting off responding to incoming emails that need a reply happens in more than a third of the cases.

Titled Characterizing and Predicting Email Deferral Behavior, the research was compiled from interviews with Microsoft employees involved in product development, product management, software development and administrative management.  All participants in the research used the Microsoft Outlook platform on a daily basis.

Dubbing it “email triage,” the study defines the phenomenon as “the process of going through unhandled email and deciding what to do with it.”

Email deferral (as opposed to moving an email message to the trash folder), occurs because “people have insufficient time to take an immediate action, or they need to gather information before they can act on a message,” the study states.

Among the factors typically weighed during triage include these questions that people ask themselves:

  • Do I know the answer?
  • Does it require any task to be done?
  • What is the level of complexity involved?
  • Can I handle it independently?

So, the reasons for putting off a reply are perfectly reasonable ones. The problem comes after the fact, because delaying an immediate reply can sometimes turn into complete inaction.

The reasons for this are understandable as well — even if they are inconsiderate to the person who sent the original e-communique:

  • If other people are copied on the incoming email, the recipient may assume that someone else is handling the issues raised.
  • Emails that contain attachments – particularly larger documents – are often put off for scrutiny at a later time, thereby delaying a response.
  • Emails that don’t specify a deadline for receiving a response can easily get pushed to the bottom of the pile.

Thus, a delayed response often means procrastination — or simply “out of sight/out of mind” forgetfulness as other business tasks intervene.

The published research paper can be viewed in its entirety here.  Bear in mind that the University of Waterloo research studied email triage behaviors in a business- and project-management environment. It’s even more dicey when we think of sales- and marketing-oriented communications.  If more than one-third of business management emails aren’t getting timely attention, we can be pretty certain that the engagement with other e-communications is lower still.

But there’s a cost to all of this delayed action (or inaction).  In the “business of business,” putting off providing a response contributes to a loss of project or organizational momentum. Sometimes all it takes is inaction on the part of one or two pivotal players to make an important project initiative grind to a complete halt.

That doesn’t work well for anyone.

Sitting on my desk now, I have no fewer than five projects that have limped along for the better part of two years, simply because at too many points along the way, email responses that should have taken days (or mere hours) to be received have taken weeks or even months instead.  Recurring queries to see if the projects are still active or relevant are answered in the affirmative … but then the waiting game continues.

What about your experiences? Does email triage hurt your own personal productivity or that of your office?  What have you done to get around the hurdles?

Where do people spend their time online?

How much time to people spend online ... and doing what?With the ever-growing options for where people spend their time when online, what’s the latest in terms of their online behaviors?

That’s the question The Buntin Group, a MarComm and branding agency, and Survey Sampling International (SSI) were trying to answer when they conducted a survey of American web users in May 2013. 

The survey was conducted among adults who use at least two tech platforms (including e-mail, text or social) to connect with others during a given week.

What the survey found is that Americans are spending more time than ever online – about 23 hours per week on average.  That’s nearly a full day out of a seven-day week.

Drilling down further, the survey found that e-mail communications continues to be the most prevalent online activity, but it’s followed closely by Facebook:

  • Average time per week spent on e-mail communications:  7.8 hours
  • Average time spent on Facebook:  6.8 hours
  • Average time spent on YouTube:  5.0 hours
  • Average time on Google+:  4.3 hours
  • Average time on Twitter:  4.2 hours

In keeping with these findings, the survey also found that e-mail and Facebook are where most respondents log in most often to communicate with others:

Social Platforms used by Internet Users

But here’s another interesting finding from the survey:  From time to time, even the most digitally connected people find themselves fatigued by all of their online activity.

In fact, nearly 55% of the survey respondents reported that they had “walked away from technology at least occasionally” in the past year to gain more in-person time.

An even larger ~62% reported that they plan to reduce their “tech socializing time” in the upcoming year and instead focus on more face-to-face interaction.

Speaking personally, e-mail and YouTube are indispensable to me.  Facebook is a “nice to have” platform when it comes to keeping up with friends and family — and I usually check in once a day.  But I have gone as long as two weeks without logging on and haven’t felt worse for it. 

I spend far less time on Twitter than the survey average … and I don’t even have a Google+ account (nor do I have any plans to set one up).

What about you?  Based on your experience, does 23 hours of online activity weekly seem excessive – or close to the mark? 

Do you take “online vacations” periodically?  And which online activities are most important and valuable to you?  Please share your thoughts here.