Remember the old days when we started using email for business communication and to send messages to multiple people simultaneously? Ok, so maybe I’m the only one who remembers when that was a big deal. It seems like eons ago, long before we tweeted and poked to get someone’s attention. Email is so 1990s, right? Not so fast. Email is still as important and relevant as it ever was.

Two primary differences between email then and email now for me are:

  • I want shorter emails which get to the point more quickly and clearly
  • I want email to work harder for me and make it easier for me to do more than just receive it

I <3 Gmail

I love using Gmail. While it doesn’t have the power to address the first point above (now, there’s an app I’d download in a heartbeat), it definitely goes a long way toward the second.

I’ve added many of its easy-to-add optional features to customize it so that it is a snap to find the email I really want to find (from certain people or addressing particular topics), to automatically file the email I want to look at later (like potential ideas for blog posts) and to automatically delete the email I never want to see (like email newsletters I never signed up for). It is amazing how much work and communication I get done through Facebook and Twitter, but email is still the reliable workhorse it always was. I definitely love my Gmail and when I find something that helps it to become an even richer experience, I’ve got to share it.

I’m kind of into social networking (you may have heard). The good news about this is that I’ve had the chance to get to know some many awesome people I’d never have known otherwise. I’ve built a wide network of people that spans countries, industries, and areas of expertise and interests. It is impossible to keep up with who I know from where. Like many of us, I get emails and invitations to connect from people I may know on one platform, but not another.

This is especially difficult when someone does not use their real name all on platforms, like when Samantha Jones sends me an email asking if I’ll speak at an upcoming conference. I don’t recognize her name because she follows me on Twitter as @bloggymama43. (Real names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Enter Rapportive. I found out about this tool when I saw Arik Hanson rave about it online. You know all that data you see about how much we care about what our friends recommend? Well, it’s true and Arik is one of those folks I trust to be a reliable filter of what’s valuable and what isn’t. When he gushed, I immediately checked it out to see what I was missing.

OK, already. What does Rapportive do?

When viewing an email in Gmail, one usually sees contextual ads over to the ride side of the screen. Some people are already using ad-blocking applications to get rid of this. I pretty much ignore them. What if that space could be used to display all sorts of useful information about the sender of that email? Would it present more of a 360-degree view of that person if you were also able to see their photo (“Oh yeah, I remember that guy!”), links to find them on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace, LinkedIn and so on, as well as provide space to jot a few notes about that person (“Don’t even call her, she never calls back.”) to jog your memory later?

I’ve been using this just a few days and have already connected to a few people I know and like on LinkedIn after receiving their email and realizing we weren’t connected online. Anything that helps me connect more efficiently and gives me a quick peek at what the person is up to before I reply to their email is a big win. Do I absolutely need this? No. Is it a huge opportunity to so easily have this information at my fingertips? You bet.

I know you’re going to ask…

  • How much information about me will Rapportive display?

It only displays what is already public.

  • Can I edit what Rapportive displays about me?

Absolutely. Since it is pulling information from more than one source, you may find that some of it is repetitive or outdated.

  • How does it know so much about each person? Are they spies?

I don’t know these guys personally, so to say they aren’t spies would be pure conjecture, however, their privacy pledge states

Where does Rapportive get its data from?
We combine information from several sources; at the moment, these are Google Profiles,Gravatar, Plancast, Rapleaf. Stack Overflow and Twitter, as well as thousands of organisations’ public websites. In the future we will offer integration with many more data sources, both public (e.g. social networking sites) and private (e.g. your address book and your CRM system).
We make a clear distinction between:
Public data: which is information that users have chosen to make public on the internet, and which anyone could find on one of the major search engines. We aggregate public data, take into account corrections and feedback, and show this information to everyone who uses Rapportive.
Private data: which is privileged information to which only you have access. In order to provide the Rapportive service, we may need to process this data behind the scenes; however, private data will never be shown or disclosed to any other Rapportive user or any third party (unless you explicitly ask us to share it).
  • I am very concerned about privacy and don’t want to give access to my Gmail account to any application.

Good for you. You should be extremely thoughtful about protecting access to your accounts and selective about applications you choose to use. You’ll be happy to hear that it is not necessary to share your Gmail password to use Rapportive. If you have any concerns, I suggest you take a peek at Rapportive’s privacy policy for further details.

  • How, then, do I add it?

Rapportive is clever in that it is added to your browser, not to your Gmail account. If you use Chrome, Firefox or Safari, you can easily add Rapportive by visiting their site.

Your turn. Have you used Rapportive already? What are your favorite tools which help you make your email even more of a workhorse?