This past May I explained how working in the cloud could have repurcussions. One of the most popular cloud tools is Gmail, Google’s uber-popular webmail/email service.
Gmail is attractive because it’s free, accessible from anywhere and most smartphones support its usage. All arguments of potential security or privacy risks aside, I’m willing to bet the majority of Gmail users didn’t research various email clients or services, but rather, accepted Google’s service by default.
So, for those a little green on the topic, here are email options, clients, and services explained.
If you run a web site or online store, chances are the host provides access to a mail server. This is what allows you to use an email address at your actual domain. You can port that domain mail over to Google (or another web service), or use an email client (like Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird).
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily need a third-party cloud service to sync emails across multiple accounts. That’s where IMAP comes into play.
Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) allows you to access email just as you would the standard POP method, but instead of downloading complete messages to a local computer (and, in return, by default removing them from the mail server), the email itself remains on the server so it can be accessed by additional devices (such as a laptop or smartphone). When you transfer messages to folders, or reply to them, that action is also stored on the server. This means you can access both incoming and outgoing emails, as well as filed emails, across all devices.
What makes IMAP so appealing is you don’t have to transfer files from one device to another in order to maintain a record of everything. For example, when I travel, I can still access organized folders and all my replies from my Palm Pre. I can quickly refer to a message I sent to someone a month earlier, providing I haven’t removed the data from the server itself.
Post Office Protocol (POP) requires that I transfer complete mail files from one computer to another, and unless I configure email software to leave a copy of the emails on the server, they cannot be accessed from any other device, including webmail.
There’s another popular method of handling emails across larger organizations. Microsoft Exchange Server is much more robust and also integrates calendars (scheduling), contacts and tasks. However, Microsoft Exchange is often overkill for smaller business because it costs additional money and often requires a network technician to configure and maintain.
For small businesses with fewer than five computers, IMAP configuration is relatively simple to handle, allowing managers and owners to see how employees are responding to messages. This, integrated with a calendar or task system is usually sufficient for a small business’ needs.
The most popular email software is Microsoft Outlook (Outlook Express for older systems). In my experience, Outlook does a good job when it comes to basic email functionality and scheduling tasks. However, its files can often become bloated and the software itself can in turn be a resource hog on a local machine. Last year I permanently switched to Mozilla Thunderbird and couldn’t be happier. For those on a Mac, Mac Mail is actually pretty robust and supports multiple account creation as well.
I’m surprised how many business owners use Microsoft’s default Word-integrated settings for their email accounts. This is mostly because Microsoft products are the most popular targets amongst hackers and virus developers.
HTML formatted emails certainly look prettier, but when it comes to conversing with customers, unless you’re running complete system scans to ensure you’re virus-free, you should consider sending messages and replies in a simple text format.
Selecting the right service and method is key to maintaining organized and clean communication. Fortunately, there are many tools available, most offering guided setups and additional features to streamline correspondence.