In today's technology driven world it is almost impossible to imagine life without email. It has had a huge impact on the way that companies interact with others and how they communicate internally. The company mail room is a fast dying dinosaur of a past age. However, many individuals and small businesses are not getting the most out of their email. Therefore in this article we will attempt to set out a few rules that will allow you to increase the benefit you get from your email system.
Email is a method of sending messages over the internet, it can be considered as the computer based version of sending letters by post, however there are some advantages and disadvantages email has over physical letters. Email is faster, can be sent to multiple people and has a range of side benefits such as an automatic record of mail sent/received and ease of copying and backup.
However, email has not yet completely taken over from physical post, many people like the additional formality of physical post and some people are more likely to pay attention to a physical letter than they are to an email. This balance of attributes means that it is important for a business to know when to use email and when to use post, a simple rule is that any item that could be considered a formal communication should be sent by post or by both post and email whereas informal communication can be done purely by email. For example if you are talking to a client about a proposed website the discussion can take place via email but the final design the are to confirm should be sent by post as well as by email so the client has a physical record.
If possible try to understand a little about the technology involved, a afternoon spent reading up on topics such as SMTP, POP and IMAP may well provide you with the knowledge needed to make informed decisions on what to do with you email services. To help you on your way here is a brief overview of SMTP, POP, IMAP and MIME.
To help everyday people understand some of the details of how email works it is useful to compare email technology to post office systems, therefore in this section we will try to give you some understanding of email technology by giving a rough real world equivalent
SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) is used in the first step of sending a message and is used to pass the message from your computer to a server capable of sending the message. This is the rough equivalent of taking a letter from your house to a post box.
POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) is used to get your messages from your email server, once you have downloaded your email it is stored on your computer and removed from the server, programs like Outlook and Thunderbird tend to use this system. This is the rough equivalent of getting your post delivered to your house, once the messages have been delivered the post office no longer stores them.
IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) is an alternative to POP3, instead of downloading your messages you log on to the server and read your email there, this means no matter what computer you are using you can always access your mail, this is commonly found in webmail systems such as hotmail or gmail. IMAP is rather like keeping your messages at the post office, you need to go to the post office to read your mail but if you keep moving house this is more convenient that having it delivered.
MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) is used to allow things other than text to be sent by email, it works by converting attachments into text which then can be automatically turned back into the original attachment at the other end. This is a bit like wanting a friend to be able to hear some music but as they live far away there is no way you can send the music directly to them. however you can send them the musical score in the post, which can then be played back to them.
If you are interested in email then we will assume you either have got or are in the process of getting a website. The hosting/registration company you sign up with will also be in charge of controlling the email for your domain and most provide at least a basic level of support, this means there is no excuse for still using your email@example.com email address when you can just as easily use firstname.lastname@example.org address.
The right tool in the right place is key. When you set up a new email address you have two main options, forwarding all mail sent to that address to a different address or store the email on the server in a mailbox. Now if you have people who work for you part time or if you sub-contract it may well be useful to set up an email address for them that forwards to their personal address, however if you are setting up an address for a key employee it would probably be useful to set up a mailbox for the employee.
If your site is named after yourself (not uncommon among sole traders) it might be better not to use your name again on the address but rather to use a more generic term such as info, support or contact. Break up longer addresses john_smith or john.smith instead of johnsmith to make them more readable and try above all else to make the addresses clear and memorable.
Try and use your email in a way that reduces spam. Rather than using mailto on your site try using a php/asp mailing form, this will reduce the amount of spam the address gets. A good idea is to have a unique address you use on business cards this will mean you have an address that only clients you have had direct contact with know and is not visible to anyone else.
Try to make the most of the services your hosting provides you, if the server provides mailing list capabilities use that instead of tying your mailing list to a single computer, also if you run an on-line database you can combine that with a scripting language and the servers SMTP capabilities.