E-mail is a dominant mode of information dissemination in many corporations. It’s just as dominant overall, of course. But increasingly, communications from upper management to the company at large, from supervisors to their reports, among team members, and between departments are all shared via e-mail.

E-mail is often the default mode of communication.

The adoption of e-mail as a communications tool has clearly had benefits for business strategy. It is quick, convenient, ensures targeted receipt, and is pretty much universal.

Face-to-Face Is Much More Effective

But it also has some downsides. A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that, among people recruiting for a cause, face-to-face communication were 34 times more likely to succeed than e-mail.

It’s important to know this because the article also observes that, in developing the communication strategy, senders of e-mail thought that e-mail and face to face would be roughly similar in impact.

It isn’t. Talking to just six people was as effective in recruitment as sending an e-mail communication out to 200 people.

Given the deep penetration of e-mail, it’s worth looking at why.

First, while the crafters of e-mail felt that the message was a good appeal, the recipients found it potentially untrustworthy and were unlikely to click on the link supplied. This could have been because of the nature of the communication — an appeal is not a corporate newsletter, for example — but e-mail desensitizes people and is susceptible to being lost in the shuffle of more e-mail.

Second, in face-to-face requests, nonverbal cues were highly important to the recipients. The askers tended to downplay the significance of nonverbal cues to their requests.

Meetings in person can be more effective in certain situations.

When to Use Face-to-Face Communication Over E-mail

The article highlights that, despite the ubiquity of e-mail, there are situations in which face-to-face communication is more effective.

Forbes highlights several studies that show people tend to be untruthful over e-mail five times as often as in direct personal conversations. Managers facing a situation in which accuracy of information or verifiability of circumstances would do well to schedule face-to-face meetings to discuss it.

Performance reviews and feedback are also better done in person. Any negative comments delivered in e-mail tend to sting and demotivate. E-mail communication is not perceived as personal. Even plans for development and improvement may be misread in an e-mail communication.

vWhile all communication is susceptible to being misread and misidentified, e-mail is particularly vulnerable. It may be difficult to establish the right tone — or an environment in which an employee feels considered and fairly treated. It may not establish the conditions for a productive interchange.

Finally, Forbes also highlights evidence that recipients are desensitized to much information received over e-mail. There is a great deal of it. E-mail noise is not always easy to cut through.

While e-mail is a great advance in organizational communication, companies and managers should know that face-to-face communication is far more effective in many cases, including appeals and performance evaluations. It’s important to think about the effectiveness of the communications vehicle when considering how to optimize results.