Social email plugins like Xobni, Rapportive (now owned by LinkedIn), Gist (now owned by RIM), and Outlook Social Connector (supported by Microsoft) can add an interesting and sometimes productive upgrade to your email experience.
Here’s the basic idea. When you’re reading or writing an email, if you have a social media connection to the senders or recipients, or if they have public social media profiles, you see their recent social media activity displayed to the right side of the email you’re looking at.
So instead of having to visit a bunch of different social media sites and look up a contact on each of them, just open an email and their social media information is all right there in one place.
A number of business purposes are served by using a social email plugin.
1. Staying in touch
Social media updates can help you understand what a contact has been up to, or is doing right now, just as you are sending/receiving email from them. This is useful in much the same way as using a shared calendar at work, which allows you to know when someone is going to be busy or on vacation while you’re trying to schedule a meeting with them. But the social media updates offered by these plugins provide more colorful details than a calendar entry (photos, for example) and include people who aren’t co-workers.
For people who value staying in touch with their contacts this offers a win-win akin to getting a reminder to wish someone happy birthday. Everybody appreciates it, and you don’t have to actually spend hours every day keeping up with the social media activity of your friends or business contacts to know what they’ve been doing when you are communicating with them.
2. Getting acquainted—and lead qualification
As an added bonus for people involved in recruiting, sales, customer service, and others reaching out to folks they don’t really know, social email plugins can deliver a bonanza of lead qualifying data. It’s like a personal or social CRM. Publicly available information about complete strangers, which may include public Facebook profile data, can be retrieved solely by email addresses. Reverse lookups of LinkedIn accounts and Twitter accounts are also possible.
This is also potentially useful for co-workers in large organizations who have barely or never met then find themselves working together.
Finally, it’s a great way for email-centric executives to discover relevant people to follow and interact with in social media.
3. Reputation Management
Finally, there is a reputation management element: people who join these services have some ability to edit their account information to correct errors.
What about privacy?
As far as I can tell there should be minimal privacy or identity theft issues with these plugins. Basically, these plugins are among hundreds of other 3rd party applications that pull data from the major social media sites—Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.—via APIs which are scrupulously designed to pull this information in a secure and privacy-consistent way. Other people don’t know you are pulling this information to view it alongside your emails—unless you tell them of course—and the information you put into email doesn’t go out to your social networks: the two types of information are kept separate. The only concern I saw when reviewing this issue was that, some time back, people using one or more of these plugins wound up accidentally sending LinkedIn invitations to people whose LinkedIn accounts they were trying to view. So be careful about differentiating between doing something in the plugin (like reading updates) and doing something on the social network itself (like sending an invitation).
What benefits—or risks—of using these plugins are you aware of? Which ones do you prefer? Please share your comments below.