Taming the Inbox: Managing Volumes of Email

I’ve done it! I’ve taken a huge step towards taming my inbox. For years it has had no fewer than 300 messages in it and when busy-ness hits, it regularly balloons to over 1500 messages.

Until now. What is the secret to taming your email? you may ask. The answer is so simple (once you know the answer it always seems simple): Right now, as I write, I have 13 emails in my inbox. Each of them is something that will be dealt with within the next business day and then filed away.

When there were 300+ emails in there, it was so easy to let it balloon up to 400 or 600 or more. With 0 to 20 in there, its very easy to identify what needs to be done, do it and then file it. The biggest thing that worked for me was opening a Word document so that when I started through the laborious process of whittling down 1100 emails to 5, I could jot a note about something that needed to be done.

So, it worked like this: file, file, file, delete, file, delete, delete, oh, I need to call Frank about this one. Hmm should I quit working on filing which isn’t fun or should I call Frank? This time I mastered the urge to bail and made a note to call Frank in the Word Document. Then back to file, delete, file, file, delete, delete, delete.

It took six to eight hours to do this but I finished over the weekend and this has been one of the most productive weeks I’ve ever had and its only Thursday!

So if you are stuck in email purgatory, set aside the time, ignore every distraction, and file, categorize and make notes until you’re down to 0. Right now I’ve got 9 items in my inbox, the oldest of which dates back to 5:20 PM on Tuesday. Ohh, that feels good

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Web Site Design

For more than a year we have been offering the 10 essential questions to answer when you are ready to take your site to the next level. The response to this has been so good that we are going to take a deeper look at each question.

The first question is “What are the goals for my web site?” While the question seems simple enough, a lot of people struggle with this one. Too frequently the complete answer we get is “Because everyone else has a site.” Putting aside the parental instinct to reply “if everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you?” we sit down and talk about what reasonable goals people can set for their web site.

If you are selling goods or services via your web site, you will want to set a goal some kind of sales goals. If the site already exists, perhaps your goal will be to increase sales 50% over the course of the next year with a redesigned web site. If the site is brand new, you can set a dollar goal for numbers of sales.

Even if you aren’t selling anything on your site, you should still set goals. We track where every new customer comes from. So we know when we get a new customer through our web site as opposed to getting it through word of mouth. If your goal is to get 5 new customers through your web site each quarter, this will help you plan out your site. I had one client who had an existing site and he stated that his goal was to educate customers. I said he must be doing a very good job because the page we were looking at had 100s of visitors but almost no conversion to customers.

He looked at me for a moment and then said, “Well ultimately I’d like them to call.” I gently asked him where his phone number was on the page and suddenly a great big light bulb went off inside his head. Now that he had a goal – get people to call – he could evaluate his site and make changes as needed.

Tune in next time for “How do I expect people to find my site?”

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Small Business and Email Privacy

Most small business owners go to great lengths to protect their client communications from outsiders while also making sure those communications are kept so that they have something to refer back to. What would happen though if your Internet Service Provider (ISP) shared those records?

You’d go crazy, right? Well what would you say if they shared your email with the government, unbeknownst to you? Since your ISP ensures that your email gets to  you, and since you’d be mad at them if it didn’t get to you, did you know they had a copy of my email?

What am I getting at? Well today, June 19, 2007, a federal appeals court affirmed that as business owners we have an expectation of privacy of emails, even emails stored on your ISP’s server. The ruling says that the government has to get a warrant to get those emails. This is definitely a win for small business owners (large businesses typically have all their emails stored on their own servers).

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Managing your Information

I seem to remember a song with the lyrics “take time to make time”. I invite you to take a little time now to create extra time for yourself. I wrote previously about how SPAM is taking over our inboxes. There are a few concrete steps you can follow to take back your inbox and manage your information flow.

The easiest is configuring your mail server to tag incoming mail that it suspects is spam with an addition to the header. For example, my mail server uses spam assassin and I have configured it to add “SPAM?” to every header that it suspects might be spam. Then I configured my email client (I use Outlook 2003) to move every message with SPAM? in the header to the Junk Email folder. Now instead of having to wade through the junk in my inbox, I can quickly peruse the Junk Email folder to make sure that there’s nothing valid there and then flush them all away.

But there’s more you can do besides just managing junk. You can also set up rules and filters to copy and move messages around. For example, for most of my subscriptions, I have rules that move the incoming message into a specified subfolder instead of living in my inbox. For example, I belong to several Microsoft newsletters. When one of these newsletters arrives, Outlook looks at it and says “Oh, this is from Microsoft” and moves it my Microsoft folder. Then when I am ready to focus my attention on Microsoft newsletters, I can go and look in that folder.

You can set up rules or filters in any email client worth it’s weight. I’ve got about 20 different rules set up so that I can focus my attention on the unfiltered messages in my inbox when that’s the task I’m focusing on and then focus on the filtered messages when that’s what I’m focusing on.

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Unwanted Email

According to Postini (http://www.postini.com/news_events/pr/pr011007.php), the amount of spam we get in our inboxes is continuing to rise and is in fact rising dramatically. The question I often get is “Why”? Why would anyone want to do this and who, if anyone benefits?

The question has several answers. One is the “Technology anarchists” who delight in causing mayhem on the Internet. For the sheer pleasure of it, they go out and create viruses and spam to fill up the internet pipelines. I know that I have spent more time than I care to think of simply eliminating junk from my inbox.

Then there are the spammers that actually make money. Even if they only get a .001 response rate from their spam, if they send out 10,000,000 messages, they can make a lot of money. And they obviously don’t care who they inconvenience in the process.

Next there’s folks like you and me. If we don’t have our computers and networks sufficiently protected, the bad guys will use our systems for their launching grounds. They hack into our computers and use their network of 100’s or 1000’s of compromised computers to launch new spam and virus attacks.

There may not be a lot we can do about the first two answers but we can do an awful lot about the third one. First, you need to have a functioning firewall in place that blocks unwanted incoming traffic and monitors outgoing traffic (to alert you if there is unusual outgoing traffic). Next you need to make sure you keep your computer up-to-date with security updates. That used to just mean from Microsoft but now you need to check just about every program you have including Adobe Acrobat Reader and Java to make sure that they are all securely up-to-date.

Then we need to make sure that our computers and network devices have valid, up-to-date antivirus software on them. I am amazed at the number of small businesses that we work with that just don’t “get” the importance of protecting their data, their employees, and their customers by keeping antivirus software up to date.

And in 2007 an anti-spyware package is also essential. Many manufacturer’s now bundle anti-spyware with their anti-virus products but whether they’re bundled or not, you need this protection. Microsoft has a free anti-spyware program that you can download from their web site. It is called Defender.

Finally, we can all exercise a little caution when our surfing. If a web site is trying to download and install a program onto your computer, make sure you understand what it is and what you’re getting yourself into. Many sites have “handy” toolbars that you can use. Many of these are valid like the major search engine toolbars that actually improve your surfing experience. But others are designed to track what pages you visit and then “serve” you ads based on what sites you visit. Also take time to read the license agreement. Often buried deep is the key information saying that by downloading said program, you also agree to download and install another program that will, in effect spy on you.

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