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Get on top of your email

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green email symbolWith the recent announcement by Facebook that they're diving headlong into the email business, I thought I would discuss briefly some of the email options available for business.

When I say "briefly" I mean just that. The range of options available is quite bamboozling but here is a quick rundown of some of the common "types" and features:

  • Traditional email: by this I mean the kind of account where you get an email address, you set up the login details in you Outlook, Outlook Express or other email client. There are different varieties under this heading - the two main technologies here being POP and IMAP. People also use HTTP email, such as Hotmail, via an email client but the technology is a little different and not ideally suited for use through a client. If your business has its own domain name then it's likely that it will be set up as POP or IMAP and you'll receive it either direct from the hosting or ISP company's server or via your office mail server.
  • Webmail: this is email accessed via your web browser. This could be a 'standalone' service such as Yahoo or Hotmail, or it could be just another way of accessing mail stored on your office, host or ISP mail server.
  • Gmail, Google's flagship email system, has muddied the waters here somewhat as it's not exactly POP, IMAP, HTTP or straightforward webmail. Gmail can be accessed, fairly easily, in various different ways. Some people choose to access via IMAP and deal with their mail within their email client, while others use it only via their browser as webmail. Gmail has been very successful and many other "email providers" now use Google's Gmail servers and systems to provide their email. This means that you may not have a Gmail account but that you might be using one without knowing it - for example Virgin now use Gmail servers to provide email services to their customers.
  • Intstant messaging: this isn't email but it is electronic messaging, and so at least partially relevant here. These are designed to be instantaneous services where you can "chat" directly with other users. This allows users to engage in something more like a real-time conversation. Services like AIM, Windows Live Messenger and Skype are commonly used for this. This kind of service can be readily built into a sophisticated website, so that customers can "chat" directly with a business via that website just by clicking a link.
  • We're also used to sending email via forms on web pages but this is usually just a "front end" for your message to be sent via a standard mail server. When you click 'send' your message gets encoded in an email and sent via SMTP. It then arrives with the recipient in the usual way.

OK, so that was a little less brief than intended but it would be tricky to summarise further. Other messaging software and protocols are under constant development, so you can be sure that the way we use email will change over time. This is exactly what Facebook are hoping for. They realise that having to use a variety of different email/messaging systems can be confusing, and so they want to "simplify" the process. It's already possible to send email to your Facebook friends via the Facebook interface, and of course you can chat with Facebook friends who are on at the same time as you. But, previously, the email end of this was just a kind of web-based email form utilising the user's current email address. Now Facebook want to provide the email addresses and to completely integrate the chat, email and contacts/friends experience.

But what email system should a business choose? Here are a few pointers that you may find useful in making a decision:

  • A business must promote a coherent image to its customers: first and foremost, it's vital to have a good domain name and to have your email addresses set up to use that domain name. Using a Hotmail or Yahoo address for your business just doesn't look very good these days.
  • A business needs to ensure that its chosen email provider is reliable: having an office mail server can be useful but if there's nobody to maintain it then problems will quickly arise.
  • Don't assume that your ISP or Host will have reliable email services: it can be better to shop around and choose a separate email host that specialises in quality email service provision.
  • Keep it accessible: it can be frustrating and costly if you can't access your email. Choose a system that can be accessed whether you are in the office, in an internet cafe or on your mobile device.
  • Keep it safe: losing all your email could be a bit of a disaster. Don't store IMAP email on any old hosting company's server - make sure that they are reliable and that they keep backups. It's a good idea to keep your own backups anyway. If you use POP then the backups are all up to you.
  • Keep it clean: by 'clean' I mean as spam-free as possible. Choose systems which provide you with the best possible defences against spam and viruses.
  • Keep it organised: digging through old emails for hours trying to find one specific message is not fun. Some systems make it quick and easy to search, file and archive your email but others don't.
  • Get some professional advice! Once your company has plumped for a particular system it can be hard to move to something different later on. Try to make the most educated choice from the outset.
OK, not very brief at all but, I hope, somewhat useful. We forget sometimes what a functional and revolutionary tool email is. But, if not handled correctly, it can swamp a business with tedious admin and technical issues. It's time to get on top of your email and put it in its place.

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