Mimecast issues "shape of email" report

What are we to make of the findings outlined in the recent Mimecast report “The Shape of Email”? The headline discovery is that only one in three messages received is “essential for work”. Given that we live in a world where companies feel the need to reach out and communicate with potential consumers through email on an almost daily basis (if you are unwise enough to provide these companies with your work email address), it’s not altogether surprising that a torrent of “non-work” email flows into mailboxes. And this doesn’t even take account of traditional spam bearing offers of cheap Rolexes, highly effective pharmaceuticals, and chances to relieve cash balances in Nigeria.

Of course, these reports aren’t generated out of love for humanity. Rather, there’s a hard-nosed focus on the bottom line with the aim of increasing brand awareness and driving customer engagement. In this case, I’m pretty sure that Mimecast would welcome the opportunity to talk about their email, archiving, and security products. So they should, as Mimecast has a long history in this space.

Getting back to the report, it seems like the data used in the analysis was gathered from 500 “IT decision makers” in the U.S., U.K., and South Africa (no surprise there – these are the markets where Mimecast seems to be strongest). I was, however, intrigued by the revelation that “IT decision-makers have an overview of the content of company inboxes that a typical employee does not have.” Hmmm… this statement makes me think that the particular IT decision makers interviewed for the report spend time accessing user mailboxes in a way that users might not have expected. Is this possible?

Think about the problem. How could you accurately analyze the kind of email that users receive? Would you open each mailbox to browse the inbox and carefully note the particular type of each message as “business essential”, “business informative”, “low-level business information”, “personal”, or “spam”? I can’t think that this is the approach that was taken as it would surely expose the analyzers to all sorts of law suits due to breach of personal confidence, harassment of staff, or whatever else lawyers could dream up.

So would you analyze message tracking logs or SMTP protocol logs or other system data to gain an insight into message traffic? Certainly there are companies that have built successful businesses based on their ability to make sense out of Exchange message tracking log, Promodag being a good example. But the problem with logs is that they don’t really contain the information that you need to understand just what a message is about because logs usually only capture data such as sender, addressees, size, and message subject. You could certainly make assumptions based on this data. For example, messages from internal addressees marked as urgent might be regarded as business-critical – until you run into the example of the message blasted out by the Sports and Social Committee to remind everyone that they’re meeting for drinks at 5pm. Message subjects emphatically cannot be used as the basis for any analysis because users are so sloppy at specifying subjects that clearly convey the topic, importance, and scope of message contents. Just review your own inbox to see what I mean.

Mimecast’s report doesn’t specify just how the data about inboxes was extracted so it’s hard to assess whether their facts really stack up. Other assertions such as the following: 

Looking at inboxes with higher instances of critical and essential email and lower instances of junk, personal email and email of low importance, shows some of the characteristics of inbox ‘quality’” 

seem to be a reasonable conclusion, if you buy into the idea that users should process email and make a decision to keep (if so, file) or delete messages soon after they arrive into the inbox. Such habits result in inboxes that store smaller quantities of messages, few of which are personal or of low importance (because they’ve either been moved to a “personal” folder or deleted). However, given the stress placed on large mailboxes by Microsoft and Google and the ever-increasing dependency on search to locate messages when required, I’d hazard a guess that an increasing number of mailboxes have large inboxes (thousands of items) that contain all sorts of rubbish.

Don’t get the impression that I think the report has no value. All reports offer thoughts that might be valuable when placed into the context of your operating environment. You just have to do the work to distill what’s appropriate for you from the mass of generalizations that reports often put forward. If you want a copy of the report, Mimecast will be happy to provide it to you – as long as you give them your email address and so increase the chance that they’ll be able to send you email in the future. Now, will those messages end up in the “essential” or “mission-critical” category?

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and the author of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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