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Email etiquette for online business

As a Webmaster, online business owner or even as a part of your normal job, email is a vital line of communication with your visitors, clients and associates.  

Your approach to email communications can mean the difference between your web sites' success or failure.  Every email you send should be considered as an exercise in marketing.

As your site grows, be prepared for the influx of email.  It will take up hours of your time, but the benefits of dealing with enquiries courteously and efficiently are great.

As the pace of email flow picks up, you'll probably also notice that the level of spam will also increase. How many legitimate emails have you accidentally deleted by confusing them with spam? Now think of the other end of the equation - are people perhaps deleting your emails thinking that they are the same?

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How do you like to be addressed when people write to you? Do you address the people you write to with the same level of respect and courtesy?

The following tips can help you in honing your email communications skills:

  • Remember that whatever you send can be forwarded to others, so anything you do send can easily become public knowledge. An email disclaimer can give you low level protection against this occurring, but it won't stop it.
  • The forging of email addresses by spammers and viruses is becoming increasingly prevalent. You should not necessarily assume that a message is valid.
  • Be careful with viewing attachments, as this is a popular means of transmitting computer viruses. If you have a virus scanner installed, right clicking on the attachment should present a menu option to scan the item. If this option does not exist, save the attachment to the hard drive and scan it from within the anti-virus program before opening it. Switch off the preview window in your mail application as many viruses can execute if this function is left on.
  • Respect the copyright on material that you reproduce. Cite all references, quotes and sources used. Plagiarism applies to e-mail messages as much as other documents.
  • Do not give another person access to your e-mail account as you will be held responsible for anything they may transmit.
  • If you are forwarding a message you've received, do not change the wording. If you are replying to a message, only quote the relevant parts of the original message (i.e. enough to put your reply in context). Do not include the whole message. 
  • E-mail lacks the advantages of body language and intonation, which are present in face-to-face communications. Take care with sarcasm and humor. You may inadvertently put the wrong message across.
  • If you know the persons' name - use it. Launching straight into the subject of the email can be perceived as being arrogant. The common practice of not using some sort of opening salutation is also quite rude e.g. just "Fred" instead of "Hello Fred" or "Dear Fred". Your mother was right; good manners cost nothing, so use them ;).
  • Remember that once a message is sent, it cannot be recalled, so take care with responding in the "heat of the moment". If you are angry when typing an email, it can be placed in the drafts folder for later review.
  • Use mixed case. UPPER CASE LETTERS ALONE ARE CONSIDERED "SHOUTING". Use upper case only for emphasis. 
  • Email messages should have a subject line which is to the point regarding the message contents. The practice of leaving the subject line blank is especially annoying to those people who receive large quantities of email as they often prioritize according to subject.
  • Tagging an email message using the "High Importance" features available in some email programs should never be done unless the message is really urgent. Some people mark all their messages with this tag thinking that it will get attention. It does the first couple of times, but then their messages are generally ignored or deleted. 
  • If you include a signature keep it short - no longer than 4-5 lines. Always ensure that your name is included in your subject line - people want to know who is communicating with them, not just sigs like "Customer Support Team" or equivalent. If you are that worried about your privacy, then you shouldn't be online. At least include your first name, it's just basic courtesy.
  • When sending attached files such as spreadsheets or word processed documents, use a version which is likely to be supported by the recipient. Save Word files in the Word 6.0/95 format and Excel files in the Excel 5.0 format, unless you know the software application the recipient is using supports your file formats. Many people still use dialup Internet access and may have bandwidth caps, so it's considered good manners to ask for permission before sending large attachments. Your 5 megabyte funny picture may  clog the persons' mailbox and prevent other more important messages from being retrieved before it is downloaded. There are better ways to send large files.
  • When sending emails to multiple names, ensure that distribution lists are used responsibly in that the message is sent only to the necessary people. Sending a large attachment to 100 addresses unnecessarily could cause problems with your mail server.
  • When sending email to multiple addresses, and the people on the list do not know each other, respect their privacy by putting the list of names in the Bcc (Blind carbon copy) field. This ensures that each person receiving the email will only see their name and not the whole list.
  • Read and respond to your e-mail regularly. The immediacy of e-mail is lost if it sits unnoticed in your mailbox for long periods. 
  • Delete unwanted messages on a daily basis from your mailbox . This will also help prevent important emails being deleted accidentally. 
  • Save your important messages to a special folder  to keep a record - emails are legal documents.
  • Using specialized stationary may look great to you, but it can be a real pain in the neck to others with increased download times and compatibility issues. The safest bet for general email communications is still to use plain text messages.
  • Just because someone appears arrogant in a communication to you, it doesn't mean that you should reflect the tone. Always maintain a professional approach - it may be that the person writing to you is not overly familiar with the English language, has general literacy problems or is just having a *really* bad day. A friendly note back can often change their entire attitude. Even if the person continues to be unreasonable, you can terminate ongoing communications in a professional way.
  • When writing an email,  put yourself in the recipients position and estimate their level of knowledge, taking into account what you know about the person. If you know nothing about them, ensure that you are clear and concise. The simpler the better, without being patronizing.
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Human communications are such a fragile thing; one word can make the difference between getting your message across or destroying a relationship. 

I feel that the anonymity of email has led to a general gradual degradation of the quality of content and tone of communication in recent years. We may be communicating more, but what is it that we are communicating?

Further learning resources

Ecommerce - dealing with aggressive online clients

Email marketing ethics and spam reporting

Web site and email disclaimers

Spam complaints - web masters; be cautious!

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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