How to organise and manage your email contacts

When it comes to email, your contacts are one of the most valuable long-term assets you own. These are the people who support your work, drive your social life, and keep you human. If you're changing jobs or moving to a new email program, you will definitely want to bring those people along with you.

Many social networks, apps, and services let you connect directly to major webmail programs, as well Microsoft Exchange accounts, to automatically import all the people with whom you've communicated before. I think this is one of the most astounding uses of modern technology. Don't take it for granted. If you can stay connected to people in your network in more ways than one, then do so. You never know when an Internet service or company will shut down, and if you connect to certain people in only one place, well, that's nearly as bad as not backing up your most important data!

In this article, I'll share some tips and tricks for staying connected to your important contacts. Then I'll quickly list the steps you need to take in order to export contact information from Gmail, Outlook for Windows, and Outlook for Mac, which you'll need for a number of reasons. In most of those procedures, you'll also have to decide whether you'll export to the CSV or vCard format, so I've included a short explainer on how they differ at the end of the article. One isn't "better" than the other, as they both have pros and cons.

Tips for maintaining contacts

Personally, I don't spend a lot of time performing upkeep on my email contacts list. I pretty much let Google and Outlook just save the email addresses of my correspondents, and then I rely on other sites and services to stay connected, the major one being LinkedIn.

Online networks for professional connections. I abandoned business cards ages ago. When I meet someone who asks for a business card, I tell them I don't use them any more and add, "Just send me a LinkedIn invitation." I do not connect with people I don't know on LinkedIn. There are a few exceptions, like when I connect with someone who is well known, or whom I've reached out to instead of the other way around. But I'd say 90 per cent or more of my LinkedIn network contains people I've personally met.

I do include friends on LinkedIn as well, although I've never once used that site to find my friends for social reasons. From time to time, a friend might turn up in a search I do on LinkedIn when I'm trying to find out who works at Company X or is an expert on Topic Y.

One aspect of LinkedIn that I really appreciate is that it puts the onus on each person to keep his or her contact information and company affiliation up to date. It's not my job to update the address book for all my contacts. It's their job.

Similarly, you could use Facebook, Twitter, or another social network of your choice to maintain your contacts to the same degree. I prefer LinkedIn for business, however, in large part because people tend to fill in their company affiliations both past and present, which is usually an important piece of information that I need to know when looking for people I need to reach.

Bonus Tip: LinkedIn likes to help you find people you know by connecting directly to your email account, but you can also upload a CSV file to LinkedIn and have it help you match up with people you know that way, too. This tip is helpful if you have exported contact information from old jobs, or if your current employer's email service is not supported by LinkedIn.

EasilyDo app for adding new iOS Contacts entries. On my iPhone, I use an app called EasilyDo that essentially automates small tasks that I've assigned the app to complete. One of them is for EasilyDo to keep an eye on my business email account and, when it sees an incoming email from a new person, to ask me whether it should add that person to my iOS address book. There's an EasilyDo Android app as well.

I use my iOS address book for personal contacts primarily, but I also keep some of my co-workers' details in there, in case I need to reach them quickly when I'm out of the office. I also like the fact that EasilyDo doesn't just automatically add each new contact but always asks me first.

ifttt for other ways to migrate contacts. Using the ifttt website (or indeed the iPhone app) you can create commands such as: "If I add a new entry in my iOS Contacts, then enter that same information into a Google Drive spreadsheet" (ifttt stands for "if this, then that"). And there are a number of other services supported, so you could do something similar with contact information from people you know from Facebook, email, and other places, too.

Unlike EasilyDo, ifttt will always carry out the command when triggered – it doesn't ask you first whether it should complete the action. But you can turn these commands on or off at any time from the ifttt website or app. The ability to customise the commands is very useful, and you don't need to know a lick of coding to make them work. It's very nearly all point-and-click ready.

Bonus tip: Search ifttt's list of public "recipes" (i.e. commands) for "contacts," and you'll be able to find and reuse commands other people have already developed. Note that most of the automations written in ifttt work going forward but don't necessarily migrate data you already have.

How to export contacts from Gmail

Okay, so here's a step-by-step guide to exporting your contacts from Gmail.

1. Select Contacts (in Gmail, you get to the Contacts button by clicking the icon for Gmail at the top left side of the page, just above the Compose button).

2. Go to More > Export.

3. Next, you'll see a few options. I would recommend exporting "all contacts," which will include all your contacts on whom you have a lot of detailed information, as well as any one-off contacts for whom you might only have an email address. The CSV file probably won't be very big even if it has thousands of contact entries, so I think it's better to have them all than be missing some.

4. In the area labelled "Which export format?" choose the one you want:

  • CSV for Gmail
  • CSV for other email programs
  • vCard, typically for OS X and iOS applications, but also some other email programs.

At the end of this article, you'll find an in-depth explanation of the differences between CSV and vCard.

How to export contacts from Outlook (Windows)

1. In Windows, go to File > Options > Advanced.

2. Choose Export.

3. Click Export to a file, and select Next.

4. Select the format you want. Select the folder you want to export, knowing that you can only export one folder at a time unless you use the Outlook Data File format (PST extension). Click Next.

5. Choose the location where you want to save your exported file.

6. For the file name, I recommend including the current year and month (July 2013 might become "1307" at the start of the file name, for example). This will come in handy if you export the file again in a few months and want to be sure you import the most up to date version without having to open the file or look at other metadata. You could have a few versions of your contacts saved as backups on your local drive.

7. Click through those last remaining confirmation screens and you're done.

How to export contacts from Outlook (Mac)

1. Go to File > Export.

2. Unfortunately, you probably don't see anything all too familiar here among your choices. No CSV, no vCard… In all likelihood, you want the tab-delimited file. It's similar to a CSV file. On the other hand, if you're migrating from one Outlook-for-Mac program to another, you probably want the second option (the OLM file).

3. Click through the final screens, or select any remaining options, and you're done.

CSV versus vCard: What's the difference?

Many programs and services can use both CSV and vCard, so what's the difference?

CSV stands for comma separated values, and it's perhaps the most supported file format for address book data. It's generally associated with Windows programs, although Outlook and some other email clients that run on Mac can use it, too. It's the same comma separated values you may have seen when exporting an Excel sheet to a Word document, in which the data from each column translates into a line of text that ends (or is separated by those surrounding it) with a comma.

The CSV format is very common, flexible, and tight in the sense that the file size won't ever be enormous. However, it's less detailed than vCard. For example, CSV won't include your contact's photo, nickname, AIM, website, and sometimes it scraps the "notes" field, too. It also loses special characters, so if you know a lot of people with umlauts and other accents on their names, or if you're bilingual and have contact information written in another alphabet, those will be gone (or garbled) when you export to CSV. CSV also limits the number of phone entries to four per contact, and sometimes CSV doesn't preserve the tag on each of those phone numbers, like "home" and "mobile."

vCard is an electronic business card format. I always assumed it stood for "virtual card" although I can't find any confirmation of this fact (and a quick warning here, there is another slang meaning of "vcard" that you might want to avoid having in your search history). vCard is a more comprehensive exporting format for contact information, which means the resulting file size will likely be bigger than CSV. The vCard format doesn't put a limit on the amount of phone numbers any given contact can have, and it supports more (but not all) special characters and foreign alphabets. You'll still lose nicknames, websites, and AIM data when exporting to vCard, but thems the breaks. vCard tends to be associated with OS X and iOS applications, although Outlook and some other email programs that also run on Windows can use it, too.