If you have been using email for some time, or if you currently run a website, you'll probably be familiar with autoresponders. Autoresponders are those canned messages that you receive when you email someone. They are commonly used to automatically reply to people who email you that you have received their message and will get back to them in person. Some people use autoresponders for vacation notices, telling their correspondents that they are currently on holiday and will not be responding to the email anytime soon.
Autoresponders are useful to webmasters in a few ways:
They can be used at your technical support email address to tell your users that you have received their message and will get back to them soon. Such messages are important because it reassures your customers that their support request has arrived at its destination and will be attended to when you are available.
It can be used to send prospective customers information like the price list of your products, your FAQ (frequently asked questions) and other fixed information. People emailing that address will automatically get that message in reply.
It can be used to send email course modules. For example, if you have a three week course, with course information or documents to be sent to your students once a week, you can simply request your students to send their addresses to your autoresponder. The autoresponder will then reply to your students with the course package at the scheduled times.
A variation of the above is used by some webmasters to sell their courses. They advertise a particular address by which customers can receive a free sample of their courses (or book). The autoresponder then sends (say) 3 chapters from the course or book to the customers over three successive days. On the fourth day, the message asks the customer to sign up for the rest of the paid course or book if they wish to continue. Since the customer has sampled three segments (or chapters) of the course or book, he/she is able to decide whether or not to continue. If the course or book was particularly good, the autoresponder segments can be an effective sales gimmick to draw the customer to buy that product.
If your autoresponder needs are simple, such as merely sending a single message reassuring your customers that you'll get back to them, you can probably use the free autoresponders that usually come as part of your web hosting package. The procedure to set up these autoresponders vary from web host to web host, but it is usually trivial, involving a visit to your web host's control panel to activate it.
If you need an autoresponder to send more than one message, or if you need to schedule messages to be sent at certain intervals over a period of time, you will either need to program your mail system on your domain, or use one of the free (or commercial) autoresponder systems around (some of which are listed below).
The autoresponder services listed below are third party services: that is, I do not run them nor do I have any control over them. In general, the services that are provided free do so in exchange for advertising — that is, many of them place advertisements in your autoresponders (usually at the beginning). Visit the sites listed below to get the details.
SendFree provides statistics on the performance of your autoresponders and advertisements. You also get to place free targeted advertisements on other people's autoresponders. For example, for every two advertisements published in your autoresponder, one of your advertisements is published in someone else's autoresponder. You are limited to 250 subscribers and 500 email messages per month for the free version.
GetResponse is a commercial service (with a 30 day free trial) that gives you an unlimited number of follow-up email messages of any length. You may attach files to those messages, view the list of email addresses that requested the autoresponders, view statistics on your autoresponders, configure the autoresponders so that replies will be sent to you and lots more.
Update: the above list used to be longer, but many of the free services have closed, and those that remain are now primarily commercial services with limited free trials. Sorry.
When I first wrote the above article a few years ago, spam was not as serious a problem as it is today, hence the article has a more optimistic view of sending correspondence courses and sales pitches through email.
Today, sending anything by email to people you do not know always involves a risk. Basically, you risk people sending in others' email addresses to your autoresponder and when those people receive your messages, they will accuse you of spamming them.
As such, I recommend that you evaluate your needs before you blindly rush off to implement an autoresponder for your courses or sales pitch or the like. Of course simple autoresponder messages like "Sorry, I'm on vacation" and "I'll get back to you" type of messages for support email addresses are probably okay since it's pretty obvious it's not spam.
Furthermore, if you use autoresponders to send a series of messages, you might also want to include some sort of note at the beginning of the autoresponder to remind your subscribers why they are receiving this. There must also be some way for them to stop receiving those messages.
Frankly, I think the use of autoresponders to send a series of messages nowadays is not a good idea. If you're thinking of using autoresponders to send correspondence courses, you might consider using a mailing list or newsletter instead; the latter allows you to make sure that the recipient confirms he wants the course before he even receives anything, thus protecting you from false accusations of spam. You can find some basic information on how to set up such a mailing list from my article on How to Set Up Your Own Mailing List or Newsletter at http://www.thesitewizard.com/archive/newsletter.shtml
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