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Janet Roberts

Rethinking Autoresponders
By Janet Roberts

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Where would we email publishers be without autoresponders? Those automated email forms that go out hundreds and thousands of times every day save us untold hours of confirming subscriptions and cancellations, sending out everything from advertising rates to article reprints to product literature.

A good autoresponder can be a great friend, but an autoresponder gone amuck can cause lots of legal headaches. Today's tip will help you corral autoresponders for their best use and avoid running afoul of new laws on nuisance email.

If nothing else, it's time to update your autoresponders to comply with the new federal email laws.

When to Use an Autoresponder

At its most basic, an autoresponder is an automated email message that goes out when someone sends a message to its address. The most common ones are subscribe and unsubscribe confirmations, error notices and tech- or customer-support queries.

You can subscribe to an autoresponder service such as GetResponse, AWeber or SendFree, or buy a program, such as Mailloop, to run from your Web site.

Autoresponders save you time and effort on tasks that require a response but don't demand your personal attention. In the last five years, software designers have added lots of features and flexibility to autoresponders, too, so they'll do more than just send text replies.

When you create an autoresponder, try to add value for your recipient without crossing over into information overload.

A subscription-confirmation autoresponse -- the one that goes out after your reader confirms -- should say more than "You have been subscribed." Include these additional bits of information:

  1. Your ezine and company name
  2. Your own name if appropriate, or the editor or publisher
  3. A friendly welcome message that tells the reader what to expect from mailings. How often? What kind of material?
  4. Your Web URL, if you have one
  5. A working opt-out link
  6. Your company's postal address, if your mailings are primarily commercial.

Technically, you don't have to include an opt-out link or a postal address in a transactional email, such as a confirmation, but if you use a template for all of your email messages that does include opt-out code and your address, you don't need to change it just for this kind of mailing.

This is really important if you use autoresponders to distribute product literature, online catalogs or anything else even vaguely commercial.

You'll find more ideas on what to include in autoresponders in the online-resource list at the end of this column.

Autoresponders Run Amuck

I started thinking harder about autoresponders in this new email day and age after I subscribed to an email newsletter whose publisher was also promoting his new e-book. I haven't seen the newsletter yet, but I have gotten three autoresponders, each one more insistent that the last, demanding to know why I haven't bought his e-book yet.

It's one thing to pack a lot of selling power into a series of autoresponders. It's another thing to irritate your customer. You wouldn't get away with that aggression in a face-to-face contact, and certainly not in the email world, where people are much faster to take offense.

Here's a better example: I recently sent a tech-support query to PalmOne, formerly Handspring. I got two autoresponders back almost immediately. One repeated my problem, asking for more information and assigned a ticket number. The second thanked me for sending in a request and gave me a $10 coupon for products at the site.

The other abuse comes from publishers or marketers who save the email addresses that send messages to their autoresponders or fill out a Web form, and then use them to send ads or solicit subscriptions.

That has never been a best practice, and under CAN-SPAM, it could be illegal. If you retain those addresses for any It's not a best practice to do anything with an email address sent to an autoresponder except to fulfill the request, and under CAN-SPAM, it's probably illegal.

Get rid of them, or segregate them from your other mailing lists and use them for no other purpose.

Online Resources

See "Reviewing All of Your Customer Contacts" for more ideas on what to put in an autoresponder.

Seach for articles about autoresponders, their uses and abuses, in our article archive.

Autoresponder-Review is an online autoresponder encyclopedia, with recommendations, tips and advice.

Ezine-Tips for January 27, 2004

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