A way in which you can effectively manage your contacts, including contacts you make in the many social networks, using Microsoft Outlook.
For some years I have been waiting for an (open source) kind of personal CRM system, based on households. A simple addressbook which would let me enter a houshold and related members. For some reason it’s not out there.
A growing group of Internet users is heading in the direction of having a more structured approach of managing their social network, family, friends and work contacts and being able to share this with their contacts e.g. “wife” and at the same time make their personal contacts data sync to e.g. their phone, pda or online e-mail accounts.
I have made some efforts to build it myself but the amount of work simply made it a “work in progress – finished when I retire”. I needed the following features:
- All functionality as a normal addressbook
- Keep people who belong to each other together, based on their address (ideally by only having to enter their address only once)
- Having an overview of families or companies or departments, meaning a complete family with all uncles, aunts, nephews or a specific company
- Have each person having their own e-mails, websites, birthdays, etc…
- Full synchronization with my PocketPC, other online sites, my Nokia phone etc… so that I do not have to retype a new address in each system
- Having a way to track who is in which social network, e.g. people in Hyves and people in LinkedIn or both
- A birthday calender which shows up in my normal calender
- A way to track a lot of personal information per contact
So I went back to basics and concluded that I needed to make a workaround for the time being and work inside Microsoft Outlook to manage my contacts. The reason that it has to be Outlook, in this moment in time:
- It’s the de facto standard within companies and many households, my investment in building my contact list is safe and my wife can work with it on her computer
- It’s agenda, contacts, etc… can be synced (via the Nokia synchronizer) with my Nokia
- It’s agenda, contacts, etc… can be synced (via ActiveSync) within my PDA
- It can export and import to a wide array of sites, e.g. Plaxo has a plugin, LinkedIn has a plugin, etc…
- It does not have households, meaning … for a household I have to enter the address with all of the contacts living in the house, updating an address is a nightmare
- It does have limited fields e.g. only one spot for a webpage
I am aware of the numerous open source contestants and I am aware that I can extend Outlook by developing against it. But experience learns, throughout the years that customization can work against you in bad way (think of synchronization, upgrades, portability and installing on a new environment). So I looked for a simple, easy understandable, not much extra work way to do this.
1. Household relationships
First of all I used the field “File As” to contain the household relationship, I gave it a unique ID and a number, this can be done in about an hour for all your contacts and you quickly find out who is missing or whose birthday or address is missing when you are doing it. For example:
1.1 First letter: Families, Companies, Departments and Clubs
The first letter indicates a grouping. In the example, the letter “L” indicates anyone who is in the family/category “de Leau”, so including my grandfather, uncles, nephews, nieces etc.. I will come back to this in the next section. For example, there are 36 contacts who start with an “L” because there are 36 contacts within our family (grandfater, nephews, nieces, uncles, etc…). In practice I have the letters “W” (52 contacts) and “I” (12 contacts) for the family of my wife and “L” (36 contacts) and “C” (21 contacts) for my family. I have appointed the letter “R” for family related contacts (friends of the families) and “F” for friends. For projects within companies, if needed I gave them a seperate letter.
I have not given every possible grouping of contacts a letter. This would not be useful. A lot of contacts exist in categories which do not fit in areas which need grouping. E.g. ex army buddies just get a category but do not need a grouping, so they do not get the Letter system and my dentist, who is the category “Other – Home” also does not need a specific letter system.
For a common personal use, the 26 characters/categories limit is more than enough since you only want to categorize subgroupings (in my case) for families, friends and projects I have done. It let’s you easily have a foldable menu in Outlook containing one particular family or company using the category view.
1.2 First digit: Subgrouping within Family, Companies, Departments and Clubs
The first digit (“1″ in the example above) is used to group households. E.g. my parents, the family of my sister and my family all get “1″ but my aunt and uncle and their kids and families get “2″ and another aunt and uncle and their kids get “3″, etc… In each of the four families the number “0″ is reserved for the grandparents.
The reason for doing this was also born out of practional real-life use: it let’s me easily see, sorted, the families in Outlook.
I only needed 1 digit since none of my related families or other uses had the need for more than 10 groupings. If it were so I would probably give it an “A” after the 9 etc…
1.3 Second digit: Household
The second digit (“2″ in the example above) determines the household within the subgrouping in the family, so in this case my parents both get “L11″, me, my wife and my son all get “L12″ and my sister, her husband and their son all get “L13″.
This makes it also easy when viewing the category listing in outlook when looking at it, it is sorted in a natural manner: by household plus you now can play with that meta information (e.g. by sending out christmas cards but only one per family).
In the example picture above you can see a set of contacts within the category “de Leau”, you can see that my granddad got “L00″, my parents got “L11″, me, mywife and son got “L12″ etc…
2. Normal Categories
The use of categories makes it easy to fold and unfold through groupings of contacts within Outlook. As each contact can belong in multiple groups I also used it as a way to track who is in which Social Network.
- As said, I made 4 categories for each of the four families (2 for my wife and 2 for me)
- I made 1 category for “family related” contacts, e.g. friends of my parents, I put both the family related contacts for my wife and me in the same category, in practice there is no use to split them further up since most of the time it’s used for christmas cards, marriage (hope to have had only one) and such.
- I made 1 category for “home” contacts e.g. our dentist, the information from my car dealer, the bank, emergency numbers (remember all of this auto syncs to my phone and pda), all the voicemail numbers, restaurants, etc… very handy on the go since we always needed to look this information up somewhere in the past. It also syncs to my wife’s outlook and related accessories so that we are both in sync (I never have to call her again to look up the number of the dentist).
- For each of the projects I work in I have made a seperate category. I make it a habit lately to put the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of work contacts I meet in meetings or via e-mail in each category at the start, this saves valuable time since often I needed a number on the road or any other crazy situation when I do not have direct access to my laptop. Everything is both in my phone, pda and laptop
- For friends I made 2 categories: “Friends” and “Online / Other Friends“. I made the distinction more or less on who you meet in real life and who you rarely meet in real life. I use the “Online Friends” category also for all kinds of other contacts e.g. persons from high school that I once in two year e-mail.
The “Friends category” is using the “Letter”-”Digit” system: So friends who live in the same house (boy, girl, child”) all get L23 (for example), this makes it easy again to see within the Outlook view a grouped listing of friends and it makes it easy to see the gaps in information (it also shows you how many christmas card / marriage / birth cards you need to send since each house has a unique number).
- I made some special categories for e.g. “Ex-Army” and such
Overall this give a very easy view in the Outlook category view: you only see the categories as mentioned above and can click a category to see only the members of the category as described above as you can see in the partial screenshot above.
3. Social Network Categories
With the rise of social networks as LinkedIn, Hyves, Facebook, Xing, Multiply and the hundreds of others I wanted to have an overview of who is where and has which information where. Since I now have over 500+ contacts in my LinkedIn network I often forget if I invited someone already or not. I think it’s fun to catch up with someone or read about what he is doing in life, years after you have physically met. (including you old elementary school contacts). Somehow there is a need for this, probably makes social networks like “schoolbank” a succes.
The discussion on why you would join a social network and what you can get out of it, I will save for a later time.
With Outlook it was obvious to use categories but the effect is enormous. I made a category for each Social Network that I know of and then just added an extra category to the contacts that I know are part of it. Luckily the LinkedIn Outlook plugin and Plaxo Plugin was a great help with this.
This not only give you an idea of whom of your friends and categories is inside a social network but especially shows you contacts who are only contacts inside a specific social network, so either persons you have met again after a long time and you only met again via Hyves or persons that you only know because of a social network (often friends from friends). In this way they can “belong” in some structure and you always have their contact data ready in case you need it (e.g. when sending them an e-mail or instant message).
4. Information per Contact
Obviously you would store the normal contact data per person, but there is more to say about it:
- birthday dates and anniversaries are handy to note per person. It will show up automatically in your calender and obviously you can sync them to zillions of e-card sites and the lot. Via the category overview it’s extremely simple to see the missing birthday dates and filling your contact list in this described manner gives you a nice todo list of birthdays or anniversaries you are missing (e.g. the marriage date of your parents). I surprised my wife telling here that today was the XXth anniversary of her parents!
- Avatars / little photographs are not much of a use within Outlook itself (since there is no decent way to have a category list with contacts and their photos in a list format) but… on my PDA it’s extremely cool to have a photo dial list and to see all contacts with their photo and name only. It quickly gives me access to a number or e-mail and I see the photograph of someone when that someone is calling me. In Outlook itself it’s mainly funny to see the avatar of someone when they have send you an e-mail and you see their face alongside it.
- Social network data like favorite movies, books, countries and stuff is copy and pastable in the notes. If I’m at some occasion at a party where I only know someone vaguely I can always take my pda and ask them about their “pottery hobby” and with thousands of contacts it makes an e-mail more personal if you remembered personal stuff.
- The address should be entered with each contact again. This can be cumbersome, especially because Outlook doesn’t handle the copy and pasting of addresses in the address box correct (it puts the postal code and such on the wrong field). So I decided to make the first contact in the list within each household the primary contact. When exporting a section as .csv I only need the contacts with the address field not empty since they represent a physical house and when they move I only need to change it at one spot.
- Outlook has only one spot for an url so unfortunately you have to enter the dozens of other urls and rss feeds in the notes. If you it wisely with a tag, then you can later programmatically filter them out with your own utilities (e.g. when you create a shared rss list to keep up with your contacts) (a sort of private Plaxo Pulse). In these times everyone has a flickr photo url, (multiple) weblogs, rss feeds, wishlist urls and social network urls so it is a way to keep up with it.
5. Integration with Plaxo, LinkedIn, etc…
Using the Plaxo synchronization tool you can easily sync your addressbook to a private online spot. It has the advantage that you can ask them updates via Plaxo and that contacts who are also on Plaxo but… this is not the main reason to use it. The main reason to use it is because you can sync from there to other PC’s. Which means that any contact I enter or mutate gets synced via Plaxo to the PC of my wife. And any contact she enters or mutates gets synced back again to my PC and via there to my phone and pda. The advantage is obviously that if she asks me to call her at location x / that I always have her phone numbers in my phone, which may be handy in emergency situations or when we really need to get in touch with each other (e.g. if there is something with our son).
The LinkedIn plugin syncs all linkedin contacts to Outlook but also keeps track of changed information in LinkedIn and in your own e-mail base. It also provides a nice dashboard with more tidbits. The Linkedin Contacts that you only want in LinkedIn are present in a seperate Outlook database. The LinkedIn contacts that you want in your personal address book can be dragged to it. This may cause some overlap the first time you use it but after a while it runs excellent. It shows you whenever one of your contacts has changed a job etc… “yeah I saw that now worked at…”.
Many applications both online and offline can integrate with Outlook, either via .csv export and import or by more advanced means. This means that you very easily e.g. import your contacts data in your online gmail account and have access to this information also on these places.
6. E-mail and Tasks
If you make folders in the structure as described above you have an excellent hierarchy of your e-mails. It can be handy to lookup conversations and/or makes it easy to e-mail groups. You can assign the same categories as you use in your contacts database to your tasks and agenda e.g. “dentist” or “john asks me to ….”.
Especially with tasks the peculiar thing is that all my tasks can be coupled to one of my categories. Everything is either family, home, friends, work at company x, hobby and so on and in most cases it is related to specific persons, which means that your tasks and agenda items will also be grouped to the same principle, giving you insight in open tasks.
There is much more to say about e-mail management and task management by using this method and I will probably do so in a follow-up posting.
I have only given you a base overview of how I structure and manage my contacts / planning to manage and structure my contacts. I have experienced that it takes a LOT of effort to organize it like this but by doing this you gain a lot. It gives you a framework on sharing contact details with your family and/or others and eases synchronization with the numerous synchronization tools between online and offline applications.
By the feedback I had until now, I think I am part of the front-runners, managing my personal contacts in a more “CRM” way. For some of you it may sound crazy and for some other front-runners it may be a good first solution until the real household-application appears on the market. I have not given you a list on why I have moved in the direction of having a more structured way of managing my contacts, this may be some food for a next Blog article but I believe that in some years many households will have this on their list. A more structured approach to managing and syncing contacts will become necessity. I will probably find out how much based on the increasing Google hits on this article.
I am curious on your tips and experiences, maybe we can help each other out with some more practical household / social network experiences.