4 Tips for Managing Email Received From Your Website's Visitors

Guide to Getting Control Over Your Inbox

4 Tips for Managing Email Received From Your Website's Visitors

by Christopher Heng, thesitewizard.com

I recently received a message from a visitor who wanted to know if thesitewizard.com's free feedback form script could display the visitor's message on his site for all to see, the way a content management system (CMS) or blog software might do for visitor comments. The reason for his wanting such a facility was because in the past, he had received a lot of irrelevant comments and some offensive comments from a contact form on his site. In contrast, his blog in another location, which published all comments under the blog entry the usual way blogs do, only received useful comments.

As webmasters the world over can attest, getting a wide variety of messages from your feedback form, from the relevant to the irrelevant, the friendly to the hostile, the useful to the ridiculous, is pretty much par for the course. Even worse than the occasional irrelevant comment, I think, particularly if your site is popular, is the huge volume of email that a webmaster feels the need to attend to.

This article deals with some tips on how I have tried to cope with the mail I receive on a daily basis from all my sites. It is by no means an authoritative article. I'm still learning as I go along. But it may perhaps help you as you grapple with your mail as well.

Dealing with Your Email

  1. Good Spam Filters are Very Important

    I'm sure there's no need to tell anyone this, but the moment you put a way for visitors to reach you on your site, you will get spam. If you don't find a way to deal with it, you'll probably stop monitoring your mailbox from the sheer discouragement of finding thousands of spam messages inundating your box every day. By the time you finish deleting the spam, you will probably be too frustrated or tired to bother replying to any email.

    Most web hosts have some sort of spam filtering at the server level. Make sure you enable it. If you are afraid that you will lose real mail that way, set it so that it tags all spammy email with a special header prefix like "SPAM Alert" instead of deleting the email. Then configure your email client to automatically move messages with that header to a junk mail folder instead of your inbox. You can then scan that folder once in a way to make sure there are no valid email there before deleting them.

    Server-level spam filtering is usually not enough. You will need an email client that can filter spam as well. Many email clients come with something called a Bayesian filter. This filter learns what is spam and what is real mail from you. Every time you see spam, you will need to mark it as spam to the filter, so that it can learn the characterisitcs of spammy email. This is called "training" the filter. Eventually, once you have marked enough messages as spam, the filter will be able to recognize spam on its own.

    You'll probably still have the odd spam messages now and then though. But that is more manageable than the thousands you might otherwise get.

  2. Dealing with Offensive Messages

    The visitor I mentioned in the first paragraph was somewhat upset by the offensive email he received on his site. I realise ("realize" in US English) that if you are new (or fairly new) to running a website, or if your site has only become recently popular, receiving such email can be quite jarring.

    But let me suggest to you a different way of looking at things. For a personal site, these are actually the easiest messages to deal with. Generally speaking, email messages from visitors tend to consume a huge amount of any webmaster's time. Whether or not you run a commercial or personal site, you will instinctively want to help the person writing to you.

    With offensive email on a personal or hobby site, you are freed from that (self-imposed) burden. You don't have to try to figure out a solution to the sender's problem. You don't have to craft a reply to him/her. You don't even have to read the message to the end. Simply hit the delete key on that message.

    On the other hand, if you are running a business, things aren't so easy. If the message is a legitimate grouse, but phrased in an offensive manner, I recommend that you do not fire off an immediate response. Doing so usually results in a message that you will regret later. Delay your reply if you need to (unless there are other factors at play, such as a contractual agreement to respond by a certain time, etc). If you can, send an automated reply saying that the message was received and will be looked into. Calm down and respond in a business-like manner. Don't answer the emotion. Reply to the facts with facts. Pretend that you are answering a reasonable person who asked politely. A measured answer like that is more likely to calm tensions than a quick and fiery reply.

    Having said that, let me acknowledge that this is easier said than done. I've broken those "rules" before, as well.

  3. Deal with the Simple Queries First

    (This item is not for businesses, which obviously have other priorities.)

    For personal and hobby sites, I sometimes deal with the short and simple queries first. These usually take little time and effort to answer, allowing me to answer the maximum number of messages in a minimum amount of time. If you start by working on the complicated issues that require time to think and reply, you may never have time or energy to get to the simple queries that would have taken you only a few seconds.

    Again, this is just an idealised solution. The truth is, if you have a lot of messages, you simply don't have time to reply to all of them, simple query or not. (Not if you want to have any time left for your site or your life.)

  4. Put Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on Your Website

    If you look around in thesitewizard.com, you'll probably find that a number of the articles are direct responses to queries that I repeatedly receive from visitors. This very article that you're reading is a direct response to a query.

    Putting up answers to frequently asked questions on your website can save both you and your visitors time. Keep track of common questions that you have to answer, and when you have a little time, put up a FAQ on your site answering those questions. It may use up some of your time crafting that FAQ, but in the long run, you will (hopefully) save even more time by not having to reply to the same queries over and over again.

    However, before you gleefully adopt this as the Solution to End All Your Email Woes, let me say that there will always be people who do not read the FAQ, even if you link to it on your contact form. Nonetheless, my experience is that it helps to reduce some of the similar queries flooding the mail box.

Public Forums Vs Private Communication

The visitor who asked the original question enquired about whether the form created by the Contact Form Wizard could display the comments made by visitors in the fashion blog software do. The short answer is no. The feedback form script does not display any comments made by visitors. It merely sends the message to the webmaster. It was designed as a means for private communication between the visitor and the webmaster, and not as a public forum.

However, that question highlights an interesting point. If you run a personal or hobby site, and are willing to forgo private communication with your visitors, running a public forum (including those found in a blog commenting system), where comments made are available to everyone to read and reply, has its advantages. A public forum system relieves you of some of the pressure to reply to a message, since other visitors to your site may chip in with an answer to that visitor's plight. In addition, there is a remote possibility that people who may otherwise lack the self-discipline to behave nicely in private emails, may be more courteous when they realise that there are others judging their actions. This is by no means as certain as my visitor seemed to think, since you may also attract what people on the Internet call "trolls" who delight in making offensive statements so as to provoke a response from others.

Public forums are not the panacea to email. There will be visitors who will never contact you if you only have a public forum for communication. Some matters, including sensitive business matters and security problems, are also best discussed in private. Furthermore, if you run a business, public forums are not a substitute for a support email address or a contact form. To most people, that will be tantamount to saying that you don't provide support.

Getting Control of Your Inbox

Getting control of my inbox is a constant struggle over the years as I manage my websites. I've listed as many tips as I can think of in this article. Hopefully, they will help you as well, when you deal with the mail arising from your site.

Copyright © 2008-2017 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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