In the beginning, God made email, and it was good.  Then He made IM, SMS, MMS, and social networks, and we were confused.

Somebody asked me recently why I was IM’ing someone instead of calling them.  That made me wonder why I use any one communication mode over the others, so here’s my assessment.

If I want to communicate something with no particular regard to timing concerning a reply, then (nowadays) I’ll most likely write on their Facebook wall, or I’ll shoot them a message on LinkedIn.  Obviously this doesn’t work for people I don’t know at all, for which I might escalate to email or a phone call.

If I need to communicate something with only modest regard to timing, I send them an email.  Sending a regular email is like implying, “reply when you can”.  On the other hand, if I need them to reply in a particularly timely fashion, or if I need to send them something that I need them to read quickly but not necessarily reply to, then I’ll send that email with “High Priority” turned on and try to be specific on when or if I’m expecting a reply.  Another reason I’ll send an email is that if I want to casually communicate something to multiple people.  The final reason is that I want a pretty solid document of the communication.

If I need to get in touch with someone in more of a conversational mode, but the nature of the communication is such that I don’t necessarily want to demand immediate attention, then I send them an IM.  Of course this only works in my “inner clique” of IM contacts.  The implication here is, “I need a quick response, otherwise I would’ve emailed you”, but not so quickly as to have a phone or face-to-face conversation.  I also might use IM over email because I’m expecting only the briefest of responses, unworthy the time spent writing emails, or if I’m already engaged in another more direct means of communication, i.e. I’m on the phone with someone else and I need to fire off a quick communication.

If I need an IM-like communication with someone who is not in my IM clique, or if they are in my clique but they’re not online at the moment, then I might consider a text message.  Even still, I feel I have to be on pretty good standing with someone before I’ll consume one of their messages, so I never IM casual acquaintances without first asking them if they mind if I send them texts (if we connect on a social network, that’s a pretty good indicator I can send them texts; if we’re connected on a business network like LinkedIn or Plaxo, I still don’t presume to consume their texts, unless we are coworkers).  Friends, family, and neighbors are usually my likely TM recipients (especially my son and daughter, who seem to prefer texts over verbal communication).  Texts are also convenient for communication while I’m in other modes of conversation, like on the phone.

If the nature of the communication requires conversation–i.e. immediate or interactive response–then I’ll call.  If the other party answers, then great, but if I get their voice mail then I have another scale of priorities to consider.  If it’s something that can wait, I don’t leave a voice mail and I’ll plan to try again later.  If it’s relatively important, I’ll leave a message.  If it’s a bit more important, I’ll leave a message plus send an email.  If it’s more important than that (like a legitimate emergency), I’ll zero out to an operator and see if I can have them paged or located, or if I have alternate numbers for them, I’ll leave a voice mail and I’ll try those numbers.

Regarding the receiving end of communications, I try to think the same way I do when starting the conversations, meaning if someone sends me an email, I figure they aren’t expecting an immediate reply, except of course if they set the high priority flag.  If someone sends me an IM or text, I assume they need a quick response so I try to oblige.  If someone calls me, I have to believe it’s because they need me rather quickly.  The one glaring exception is sales calls: I believe it is perfectly acceptable to send unsolicited sales calls to voice mail, and I believe it’s perfectly fine to not respond to unsolicited voice mails.

So a bit of phone etiquette I like to adhere to is that when I’m making a sales call, it’s NEVER, NEVER so important as to zero out and have the person paged or located; I will leave a voice mail and (if appropriate) follow up with an email.  If you’re a sales person calling me, know that if you zero out and have me paged, I’ll never buy from you based on principle. 

Speaking of sales calls, while there’s something to be said for persistence, if you’ve left 3 voice mails for someone already and have not heard back from them, it’s time to revert to emails with decreasing frequency.  I know it’s amazing to some of you sales guys out there, but it’s possible that not everyone needs your products or services.  So “Steve” from Photon, feel free to leave me your 58th voice mail if you like, but I’m not going to return it.