E-mail and instant messaging (IM) are both extremely popular ways to communicate in the 21st century -- but one technology might be more ideal for you and your employees.

Is it the “turn-based” convenience of e-mail, where colleagues and clients can prioritize their inbox and respond at their own pace? Or does the “real-time” immediacy of an IM chat (and perhaps, a group chat) trump e-mail, and prove more conducive to your business’s needs?

The answer may be “both,” according to experts, because it depends on the specific needs of small to mid-sized businesses.

The following is a look at the advantages and disadvantages for each online communication tool, which apply for both stationary (PC) and mobile (phone) use.

The benefits of e-mail

E-mail is more universally embraced, especially in the business world, says Jeffrey Mann, vice president of research for Gartner, a leading information technology research and advisory company headquartered in Stamford, Conn. “E-mail is pretty much universally available -- everyone has an e-mail address -- while IM is trickier.”

“E-mail also feels more business-like” adds Mann, “whereas IM is still considered a toy for teenagers by many.”

Adam Hils, who serves as principal research analyst for small and mid-sized business security Gartner, agrees. “Some managers view e-mail as ‘official’ communication and IM as a time-waster that leads to a more casual attitude toward work and communication.” For small and mid-sized businesses, regulation of instant messaging behavior is difficult at the present time because it is hard for businesses to block, Hils says.

Hils says security should be a top priority for businesses, and e-mail wins out in this regard. “While e-mail is a well-known attack vector, many [small and mid-sized businesses] have implemented some basic defenses against malware and spam at the e-mail gateway,” says Hils. “But IM opens another attack vector…an opportunity for data leakage.”

Storage is also key, says Hils. “Some industries require the same long-term storage for IM communications as they do for e-mails [but] the product choice in the IM storage space is limited.” E-mail, he says, provides a record -- though not necessarily a legally-binding one -- than ephemeral IM chats, adds Mann.

E-mail also provides better search capabilities for past e-mails and attachments.

Finally, because e-mail is tightly integrated into Microsoft Office, e-mail has additional benefits, says Robert Mahowald, an analyst with IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm. “Many people rely on the programs in the suite of Office products, and e-mail is tightly integrated, such as the ability to right mouse click on an e-mail address in a Word document to send a message to that person or bringing an e-mail into OneNote to begin working on it right away.”

“E-mail remains as the most important communication tool for businesses today,” says Mahowald. “We don’t expect in next two or three years for IM to detract from e-mail use overall, but perhaps augment it.”

The benefits of IM

Despite the advantages to e-mail, Hils says few companies will drop e-mail to move to IM, as they are “complementary media.” Many small and mid-sized businesses will adopt a corporate IM platform, Hils says. “Some will allow under-the-radar consumer IM for employees to communicate and collaborate, sacrificing security and control for increased agility at little cost. Still others will disallow IM altogether, although that number is shrinking as the business benefits of IM become more obvious.”

One of these benefits is immediacy. “IM can help organizations get closer to their clients because it offers a closer relationship than e-mail,” says Mann.

IM can be beneficial to your customers, too, says Mahowald. “With Web-based instant messaging, customers can now go to your site and get immediate help.” “It’s great for customers because it’s fast and efficient,” says Mahowald.

IMs can also help save time: “When back and forth interactions are needed, an IM session is quicker than several e-mails,” says Mann. Hils adds: “IM is real-time and response is faster -- ideas don’t lose their currency as one waits for a response.”

Plus, IM provides a good forum for real-time clarification, so that content is not misinterpreted, says Hils. “We’ve all been part of weeks-long e-mail strings that veer wildly (and sometimes harmfully) off course due to inexact phrasing by writers or different interpretations by readers.”

Finally, IM edges out e-mail when it comes to collaboration, believes Hils. “Workgroups can congregate in a chat room, and individuals can collaborate in an ad hoc fashion as time permits.” This is especially useful for small and mid-sized businesses, whose much smaller workforces must collaborate super-effectively to compete with much larger players – in the same industries, for the same customers, under the same regulatory burdens, says Hils.

Hils says these same pros and cons apply to a mobile environment, too. “E-mail is the primary reason for using mobile devices like Blackberrys, but IM is following close behind.”