The 9X Email Problem

by Andrew McAfee on September 29, 2006

One of the benefits of being an academic is the ability to attend seminars that seem to have nothing to do with your own work.  A while back I heard John Gourville, a colleague in HBS’s Marketing department, talk about his research investigating why so many new consumer products fail to catch on with their intended audiences despite the clear advantages they offer over what’s currently on the market.  

His explanation was fascinating, and very insightful.  He said that we need to stop thinking about consumers as highly rational evaluators of the old vs. the new products, lining up pros and cons of each in mental tables and then selecting the winner.  Instead, we need to keep in mind three well-documented features of our cognitive ‘equipment’ for making evaluations.  

  • We make relative evaluations, not absolute ones.  When I’m at a poker table deciding whether to call a bet, I don’t think of what my total net worth will be if I win the hand vs. if I lose it.  Instead, I think in relative terms —  whether I’ll be ‘up’ or ‘down.’

  • Our reference point is the status quo.  My poker table comparisons are made with respect to where I am at that point in time.  "If I win this hand I’ll be up $40; if I lose it I’ll be down $10 compared to my current bankroll."  It’s only at the end of the night that my horizon broadens enough to see if I’m up or down for the whole game. 

  • We are loss averse.  A $50 loss looms larger than a $50 gain.  Loss aversion is virtually universal across people and contexts, and is not much affected by how much wealth one already has.  Ample research has demonstrated that people find that a prospective loss of $x is about two to three times as painful as a prospective gain of $x is pleasurable.  

When combined, these three lead to what the behavioral economist Richard Thaler has called the "endowment effect:"  We value items in our possession more than prospective items that could be in our possession, especially if the prospective item is a proposed substitute.  We mentally compare having the prospective item to giving up what we already have (our ‘endowment’), but because we’re loss averse giving up what we already have (our reference point) looms large.  

And Gourville points out three factors that make the situation worse for product developers who want their offerings to succeed.  First is timing:  adopters have to give up their endowment immediately, and only get benefits sometime in the future.  Second, these benefits are not certain; the new product might not work as promised.  Third, benefits are usually qualitative, making them difficult to enumerate and compare.

As if all this weren’t enough, Gourville also highlights that the people developing new products are very dissimilar from the products’ prospective consumers.  You don’t go work for TiVo (to use his example) if you don’t ‘get’ the potential of digital video recorders and think they’re a really good idea.  And after working for the company for a while, having TiVo becomes part of your endowment; you think of things in comparison to TiVo, instead of in comparison to a VCR.  Both of these factors make it harder for developers to see things as their target customers do.  

Because of all of the above, Gourville talks about the ’9X problem’ —  "a mismatch of 9 to 1 between what innovators think consumers want and what consumers actually want."1  The 9X problem goes a long way to explaining the tech industry folk wisdom that to spread like wildfire a new product has to offer a tenfold improvement over  what’s currently out there.2 

After I was done talking about the glories of Enterprise 2.0 at the New New Internet conference, one of the attendees asked how I could be confident that the new generation of collaboration technologies was going to succeed to a greater extent than had the previous generation of ‘groupware,’ the most popular version of which was probably Lotus Notes.  I answered that groupware actually imposed a surprising amount of structure on people’s interactions, and that because Enterprise 2.0 technologies let structure emerge, rather than imposing it, they would be more popular.  

Gourville, I think, would have given a different, less optimistic, and more helpful answer.  He probably would  have said that acceptance of a new piece of technology among people who are free to use it or not is very much  like consumer acceptance of any other new product.  And therefore the endowment effect applies.

Email is virtually everyone’s current endowment of collaboration software.  Gourville’s research suggests that the average person will underweight the prospective benefits of a replacement technology for it by about a factor of three, and overweight by the same factor everything they’re being asked to give up by not using email.   This is the 9X problem developers of new collaboration technologies will have to overcome.  

In most companies, groupware didn’t solve the problem; it wasn’t that much better than email.  The current generation of Enterprise 2.0 tools that I and other have been writing about is clearly different than groupware, and we believe it offers advantages.  But that’s not really the critical consideration.  The critical consideration is brutally simple:  are these tools 9 times better than email for collaboration?

Consider how high this sets the bar.  Email is freeform, multimedia (especially with attachments), WYSIWYG, easy to learn and use, platform independent, social, and friendly to  mouse-clickers and keyboard-shortcutters alike.  It’s the ultimate example of what Dion Hinchcliffe calls a ‘comfort app‘ (a phrase I love, and plan to steal (with attribution) shamelessly).  It would actually be a pretty tough competitor even if it weren’t the universally-used incumbent, and so the beneficiary of the 9X problem.  In short, it’s not going anywhere.

So as we Enterprise 2.0 enthusiasts keep talking about the benefits and new capabilities offered by the new tools, we had better hope that the innovators who are actually developing these technologies are aware of the 9X problem posed by email, and are working on ways to deal with it.

There are, it seems, two broad strategies.  Enterprise 2.0 technologists can try to increase the perceived benefits of their technologies (in other words, what the user feels she’s getting), or lower their perceived costs and drawbacks (what the user feels she’ll be giving up).  Demos and training are part of the former strategy, but they feel like weak measures.  Stronger ones are a clear explanation of what the technology does, network effects, peer pressure, word of mouth, and an extremely effective user interface and layout.  

Of the items on this list, I have the most faith in the final one.  The other items might bring users to the technology, but the UI is going to determine what they do once they get there — whether they’ll spend time exploring and learning, or leave quickly.  I really didn’t know what del.icio.us was or how it worked when I first went to the site, but once I went there I was sucked in; I wanted to learn more, and found it easy to do so.  

I’m not a usability expert at all, so I’m not even going to try to set out guidelines for a great Enterprise 2.0 UI.  I just want to point out the sharp difference between the look and feel of most corporate technologies, and most Web 2.0 ones.  My favorite Web 2.0 sites are elegant, uncluttered, and bright; they have a jewel-like quality to them.  I can’t really say the same about most of the corporate systems I’ve seen and used.    

A great UI not only heightens the perceived benefits of a proposed collaboration technology, it also lowers the perceived costs.  An intuitive interface lets users quickly say to themselves "Oh, I understand.  This isn’t hard at all.  In fact, it’s about as easy as email."

The greatest challenge here, I think, doesn’t have to do with making the browser sufficiently application-like (AJAX is a pretty powerful set of technologies).  It has to do with making technologists sufficiently user-like —  getting them to stop thinking in terms of bells and whistles and elaborate functionality, and to start thinking instead about busy users with short attention spans who need to get something done, and who can always reach for email.  From what I’ve seen (and learned from Gourville) this isn’t easy, but it is critically important.

I want to end this post on an optimistic note, so let’s concentrate on the biggest advantage Enterprise 2.0 technologies have over email. As I wrote in my initial SMR article, email is a channel technology.  It creates a private conduit between the sender and receiver.  Other parties don’t know that the email was sent, and can’t consult its contents.   Wikis, del.icio.us, Flickr, Myspace, Facebook, and YouTube, on the other hand, are all platform technologies.  They accumulate content over time and make it visible and accessible to all community members.  

Prior to the arrival of Enterprise 2.0 technologies, companies had few effective platforms for sharing knowledge work, and no platforms that fostered emergence.  So the new tools are not direct substitutes for email; instead, they’re intended to provide capabilities that email can’t.  Will they succeed?  It depends  heavily, I believe, on whether companies and their managers want technology platforms for collaboration.  This desire will be an important factor in solving email’s 9X problem. 


1Gourville, J. T. (2004). "Why consumers don’t buy: The psychology of new product adoption." Harvard Business School Note #504-056

2Andy Grove, "Churning things up"  Fortune, July 21, 2003

  • http://www.evergreenip.com Dave Bayless

    In our pursuit of our Product Capitalist (R) model, we’ve seen plenty of evidence of the over-optimistic bias of inventors as well as the endowment effect as applied to prospective users (and, in our case, prospective licensees of IP). Gourville’s 9X improvement threshold heuristic is consistent with those, such as Doug Hall at Eureka! Ranch, who emphasize the importance of overt benefit and dramatic difference. The relevant questions are straightforward: What benefit does the technology offer to whom, where, when? Is it a 10X improvement over the status quo? Based on what evidence? As a small, virtual organization that depends upon myriad collaborations with individual inventors, law firms, product development firms, market research companies, and large corporations, the answer in regard to collaboration tools such as Groove, Basecamp, Skype, and others is clear: we couldn’t exist without them.

  • http://www.accmanpro.com Dennis Howlett

    Andrew – are you sure about the relative argument in your poker analogy? Amy commentary I see on TV suggests the opposite, where commenters refer to bets that reduce the stack by specified amounts and refer to the overall chip position, depending on the fall of the cards. That would seem counter to the simple ‘up or down’ scenario.

  • http://www.khaitan.org/mt Indus Khaitan

    E-mail is the defacto collaboration (although designed for 1:1 communication) tool. Simple, easy to use and more than that it’s 1-click publishing capabilities. It is critical to the enterprise and not going anywhere.

    However, there is a lot of uprising in the tools market to prevent people from succumbing to the e-mail overload. GMail’s interface to Zimbra’s tagging to upcoming release of 2007; followed by tools for searching/indexing e-mails. What we have to fix is the way we collaborate and the convergence of blogs, wikis and e-mail somewhere on the horizon.

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    Great post, with the three evaluations! It kind of also explains the reasons for branding. And why it is so important to have the first service of a kind on a market (like del.icio.us)…

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  • http://www.connectbeam.com Tom Mandel

    This is an astute post, raising a wonderfully interesting problem. All the same, lets see if we can dismount from the parachute caught in the trees.

    Andrew, you are postulating effects of the new generation of software as *emergent*. As we know, emergent effects cannot be calculated in advance by way of a fixed formula. No matter how much information we have in advance, it is true by definition that we don’t have the information to come to such a conclusion.

    Emergent effects are subject to the influence of unknowable initial conditions. I.e. sometimes, these new technologies will work wonders, and other times they won’t be so very useful. The benefit they bring is the former; i.e. they allow conditions which *can* lead to extraordinary emergent effects to do so.

    Does this make sense, Andrew?

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  • Bob Iliff

    Andrew, sometimes we (well, me) misunderstand a newly introduced concept, but continue to mentally build it into something that is perhaps useful. When I first read this posting, I thought of the “endowment” as the benefits of collaboration given collectively back to the corporation by its employees; a higher form of “work”. People already get paid to work, so why collaborate? Why give more than what is paid for? No one can be held accountable for failing to deliver the fruits of collaboration. So how does the company create an environment to secure this endowment? It’s more than giving employees sharper tools.

  • http://www.nextbestaction.com Kishore Balakrishnan

    Reg the statement “So the new tools are not direct substitutes for email; instead, they’re intended to provide capabilities that email can’t.”

    Has there been direct substitutes for email in the past ? which have not succeeded ? (and therefore?) Is it wrong for to work on new tools that can substitute email for collaboration ?

  • http://www.thedailychannel.com George Girton

    Goureville’s two-page paper on “why consumers don’t buy’ is for sale on this website for $6.95 — a high ratio of pages to pricing, in this non buyer’s opinion. Go ahead, call me loss-averse.

    I don’t buy the 1-to-nine ratio as a threshold for adoption either. I don’t think Goureville could possibly have meant that.

    Stuff that spreads by wildfire generally does something completely new, rather than offering an incremental improvement, no matter how large the increment may be. When something stands head and shoulders above the rest, it’s often because it’s a completely different animal, not just a larger beast.

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/stuartmcrae Stuart McRae

    Very interesting. The Lotus Notes analogy in particular, for two reasons.

    Lotus Notes actually precedes the widespread adoption of e-mail in business in the 1990s (although not the development of e-mail technology which started 30 years earlier). It's groupware capabilities was one of the things that gave it a competitive advantage over the alternatives and helped it become one of the two clear winners in the client/server e-mail war (it still has 40% of the enterprise e-mail client market). Today, the existence of collaborative applications built on it are a major reason why its market share remains stable.

    Lotus has a clear strategy today of using Notes as the client to its “Enterprise 2.0″ applications. Sure, a lot of the time, browsers are great. But for mobile users, slow networks, and companies who do not invest enough in a responsive infrastructure, a client with offline support is a major differentiator. So I'd always though of the strategy in those terms, but your post brings another dimension to it.

    If we embed social collaboration into the same integrated client as e-mail, that can become the user's comfort app., and we can lead the gently into the new world without them feeling they have to give up the old one. Maybe that will turn out to be a stroke of genius (certainly, Matt Cain;s recent writing for Gartner around Notes seems to be very enthusiastic about this idea, although it is not expressed in these terms).

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  • http://www.hyperoffice.com Pankaj

    Another very important factor may have to be factored in. Internet technologies have tremendous fad value – both consumer and business. If a lot of people have it, you must have it. Whenever talking of internet technologies, one can never ignore the “network effect”.

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  • http://bhc3.wordpress.com/2010/06/23/when-should-management-push-enterprise-2-0-adoption/ When Should Management Push Enterprise 2.0 Adoption? « I'm Not Actually a Geek

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  • @iJohnDNS

    Went back to read this as it was linked in ‘Drop the Pilot’ which Claire Flanagan just tweeted. The discussion about email and E2.0 reminds me of some concerns I have about developers of new tech and their (lack of) understanding about how some email features are used.

    I’ve had these concerns since my days with QuickPlace although I’m now evangelising Jive for Social Networking. I’ve still got a prez to Gartner from 2003 where these points were outlined as user needs to get them to stop emailing content around and use a space.

    There are a number of features in Outlook and Lotus Notes that I believe are useful for fast moving teams which still seem to have been missed in common E2.0 products (with apologies to vendors who have provided these already):

    - I can send an email with ‘read receipts’ selected so that I know when the content has been read. I’d love to have such a feature in the E2.0 tool when I send a notification. I wouldn’t always use it but sometimes I need to know – and I don’t want to have to rely on a recipient liking it or commenting.

    - In email I can go back and see what I’ve sent to whom. In E2.0 tools I can’t see a record of who I’ve sent notifications to and with what cover note. So for example I post a link and abstract of one of your blogs, and then over time I think of users who might like to see it but I don’t always remember what I’ve sent to whom. The E2.0 tool could usefully show me who I have already notified, and help me not send them it twice. I suppose a cc me the notification would help a bit but it would be more clunky than holding the info in the E2.0 tool.

    - In email I can clearly see an indication of which mails I haven’t yet opened. In a fast moving space I’d like the E2.0 tool to give me some help to keep track of content by showing me what I haven’t read yet.

    I’m not advocating doing away with email but until the E2.0 tools can meet some of these needs, and in a well designed intuitive UI, then the new tools are missing a trick.

  • http://georgezapo.com George Zapo

    If only more people would take the time to learn email technology. I myself don’t spend half the time neccessary to know most of what my email programs do. However, there will be individuals who will embrace the new product or technology as soon as it arrives, whereas others will venture onto it in their own time. Thank you for this valuable information…

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    In email I can go back and see what I’ve sent to whom. In E2.0 tools I can’t see a record of who I’ve sent notifications to and with what cover note. So for example I post a link and abstract of one of your blogs, and then over time I think of users who might like to see it but I don’t always remember what I’ve sent to whom. The E2.0 tool could usefully show me who I have already notified, and help me not send them it twice. I suppose a cc me the notification would help a bit but it would be more clunky than holding the info in the E2.0 tool.

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    Andrew, sometimes we (well, me) misunderstand a newly introduced concept, but continue to mentally build it into something that is perhaps useful. When I first read this posting, I thought of the “endowment” as the benefits of collaboration given collectively back to the corporation by its employees; a higher form of “work”. People already get paid to work, so why collaborate? Why give more than what is paid for? No one can be held accountable for failing to deliver the fruits of collaboration. So how does the company create an environment to secure this endowment? It’s more than giving employees sharper tools.
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    Yes but eventually email WILL morph into something else. It has to. And then we’ll look back at email and think how clunky it was – and how much spam was being pushed through it. That’s the real problem. An the person who overcomes that – who makes a “comfort app” as you put it – is going to make a lot of money on the internet.

    as for “Other parties don’t know that the email was sent, and can’t consult its contents” – that’s been proven to be false. Even Gmail can be hacked quite easily.

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    Really great discussion and inspiring to know how we, as consumers are thinking and how we, the vendors can better sell by giving not only what the consumer wants, but how they want it! Thanks, Andrew!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_I57OEBTJSOMFHXR6OPGLDS7U3U Theresa

    Email system has gone a long way now of innovative development and re-development. It features a lot that most of us could never think of that it would be possible.

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  • constantine tsapas

    He is right that free options are usually not as good. You get what you pay for, so i would rather shell out a few bucks and get something that works. Great article and thanks for putting this up for all us to read. Reverse Cell Phone Lookup

  • Dwi Kuncoro

    However, there is a lot of uprising in the tools market to prevent people from succumbing to the e-mail overload. GMail’s interface to Zimbra’s tagging to upcoming release of 2007; followed by tools for
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  • Anonymous

    Great post you put up here. I still agree with many others that the free solutions are usually nowhere near as effective as the paid ones. However, its a free solution, meaning free. So not too bad for being free. I would still spend my hard earned cash on a good solution to this problem, but money others would rather not. Opinions will vary and so will options.

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  • Allan

    That third point can be easily expressed as an old adage – a bird in the hand is worth two (or three in this case) in the bush.

  • Charles Knight


    We make relative evaluations, not absolute ones.  When I’m at a poker table deciding whether to call a bet, I don’t think of what my total net worth will be if I win the hand vs. if I lose it.  Instead, I think in relative terms —  whether I’ll be ‘up’ or ‘down.’”

    It’s also why people will spend £2.50 on a cup of coffee and then spend hours consider if they should buy an app for £.99 – they are in difference reference groups and we don’t compare across reference groups. 

  • Iuliu Mihai Iagar

    great article but i think email marketing is dead this days..
    http://ewaystomakemoneyonline.com 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Fernando-Ferreira/100002496874831 Fernando Ferreira

    Good Work !  the vendors can better sell by giving not only what the consumer wants, thanks!

  • kevin

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  • Naufal Purwanto

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