Email vs. IM vs. SMS: Choosing the right one

Email vs. IM vs. SMS: Choosing the right one

Email, instant messaging, and text messaging are all acceptable methods of communication

Communication is the lifeblood of productivity. Businesses need to communicate with customers, managers need to communicate with employees, and workers need to communicate with peers. Effective communication is a crucial element of getting things done.

Technology provides us with a plethora of options for communicating. You can send an email, use an instant messaging service, or text someone on a mobile phone. There are benefits and drawbacks to each, and you will communicate more effectively if you understand what they are and select the best method for your situation.

Here are some of the factors you should consider before choosing:


Email is tried and true. It is the de facto means of written communication – especially in business. However, it’s not always the most efficient method. In fact, one IT company is working to eliminate email for inter-company communications because it feels it is a distraction that wastes more time than it’s worth.


  • It is universal. Everyone has an email address, and you can send a message from any email provider to any email provider.
  • You can send a single message to a large group of people. Rather than sending out a bunch of separate text messages, or engaging in various instant messaging situations, you can communicate with an entire team, or list of individuals at once.
  • It provides a written record. Messages can be centrally stored and archived, and the history of replies or forwards can be maintained.


  • It is slow. “Slow” is a relative term, since email messages are delivered to the other side of the world in a matter of minutes—perhaps seconds. But, when a message is actually retrieved is a function of the mail server and email client software, and you don’t really know when it is actually received.
  • It is filled with spam. Although efforts like Microsoft’s campaign to take down botnets have reduced the deluge of spam, a recent Symantec Intelligence Report suggests spam still accounts for nearly three-fourths of all email.
  • It is a primary means of spreading malware. Whether it is a link to a malicious website, or an infected file attachment, email is the preferred method of propagating malware attacks.

Bottom Line:

Email is still the most widely used and commonly accepted form of communication. It is effective for communicating and sharing files with groups of people, and it provides a valuable written record of the communications.

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging, or IM, is fast – it has “instant” right in the name. It is a particularly good tool for communicating within an organization, but may not be the best choice for messaging third parties.


  • It is instant. Assuming the intended target is online, the message will be received as soon as you send it.
  • It is brief. Instant messaging tends to be confined to a single thought or sentence rather than a lengthy essay.
  • It is conversational. Instant messaging has an immediate back and forth exchange that lets you collaborate in real-time.


  • It is intrusive. Instant messages pop up on the screen, announcing their presence with loud alert tones when you’re in the middle of doing something else. Granted, you can configure the instant messaging software not to do that, but then you run the risk of missing the incoming message altogether which negates one of the “pros” of instant messaging.
  • It is proprietary. Communicating via instant messaging requires that both parties have accounts with a given instant messaging service. There is some cross-communication, and there are instant messaging clients that are capable of simultaneously working with multiple instant messaging services, but basically if your target recipient is using AIM, you need to be logged in to AIM as well.
  • You need to sign in. If you don’t log in to your instant messaging service of choice, nobody can communicate with you.
  • You lose the history. You can log your instant messaging communications, but each exchange is like an island unto itself. When you need to reflect back on a chain of communication a year from now, instant messaging logs will not be very helpful.

Bottom Line:

Instant messaging enables people to communicate and collaborate in real-time. While there are instant messaging phishing scams and malware concerns, they are not nearly as pervasive or crippling as with email. Instant messaging is particularly suited for working together within an organization.

SMS (Text Messaging)

It is not as “professional” as email or instant messaging in a business sense. But, SMS text messaging has some distinct advantages in certain scenarios.


  • It is immediate. Like instant messaging, SMS text messages get from Point A to Point B in real-time. It is a particularly effective means of sharing photos or video clips from a mobile phone with others for immediate feedback.
  • It is universal. Like email, text messaging is not constrained by proprietary platforms. As long as someone has a mobile phone capable of receiving text messages, you can send a message from any other capable device.
  • It is available. People typically have their mobile phones on them 24/7. It is in their pocket, or purse, or sitting on a desk or side table. They may not see an email or instant message for hours, but odds are good that a text message will always be within arm’s reach.


  • It is intrusive. When someone is away from their desk, they probably have a good reason. A blaring text message alert tone while you’re standing in line for lunch, or enjoying a movie on the weekend (even though the phone should be off, or at least silenced) can be very annoying.
  • There is a cost involved. Many wireless service providers offer unlimited texting, or at least have unlimited text message plans available. But, many people still have text messaging plans with a limit on how many messages they can send or receive.
  • No written record. Most mobile phones retain a history of recent text messages, but compared with email there is no useful history of text message exchanges recorded for future reference.

Bottom Line:

Because the mobile phone is almost always nearby, SMS text messaging is a very effective method of reaching someone immediately. It is a preferred method for reaching someone when you know they aren’t sitting at a computer, or when the situation is urgent and you need to reach them now.

There are some tools that blur the lines. For example, you can use instant messaging to chat in real-time with a group of people rather than just one on one. It is also possible to configure some tools to cover more bases – like alerting you with a text message when a new email arrives.

Your mileage may vary, but email, instant messaging, and text messaging all have their strengths. There is no clear “best”, just a “best for the situation right now”. You can communicate more efficiently if you understand the pros and cons of each, and choose the right tool for the job at hand.

Of course, if something is truly urgent you should actually call the person…on a phone…with your voice.

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