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Read Your Out-of-Office Replies

Every time I send a bulk email, I receive a pile of out-of-office replies. When I first began managing email campaigns 15 years ago, I would ignore those automated replies. I thought it was kind of a pain to go through those replies. “Why bother?” I thought.

Wow, what a mistake!

Sure, many of those emails simply tell you the person is out of the office for a few days and will get back to you upon returning. But many of the emails have other, important information that you ignore at your own peril.

First, I’ll explain the risks of ignoring automated replies. Then, I’ll describe the system we use to minimize the hassle and process replies most comfortably.

When you ignore those vacation replies, several bad things happen:

  1. Your open rates and engagement levels shrink because you lose people who are notifying you that they have updated their email address.
    Many people set up automated responses when they switch from one email address to another. If you want to reach that person, you need to update the address in your database.
  2. You miss opportunities to connect with new people.
    Many of the automated replies tell you that your contact is no longer with the company and then reveal the person to contact in that company. Those replies are an invitation for you to contact the new person and say, “I used to communicate with so-and-so who tells me you’re now the person I should know…” 
  3. You increase chances of having future emails blocked.
    Some spam filters are programmed to punish a sender who keeps trying to deliver to an address that is not valid. If someone tells you their address has changed, remove the old address from your mailing list or else you may trigger spam filters, and fewer of your emails will reach the inbox.

We’ve developed a system to process out-of-office replies that significantly reduces the time and effort. The process that follows may seem daunting, but it’s less of a hassle than you may think. And it’s well worth the effort. The first time you do it, the process may take 30-60 minutes. After that, it will go much more quickly.

  1. Set up processing rules to move incoming replies to their own folder.
    Most email software enables you to set up rules for processing mail that meets certain conditions. We have rules that move emails to a “Automated Replies” folder if they have certain phrases in the subject line or in the body of the email. Those rules have evolved over time. We constantly add new conditions to the rule set. By automatically moving those emails, we remove them from the main inbox folder where they would create clutter, and we put them in a place where we can easily run through them.
  2. Build automated-reply processing into our email marking process.
    For every campaign we run, we build a checklist of steps, and set deadlines for completing the steps. By including automated-reply processing on the scheduled checklist, we ensure this important task won’t slip through the cracks.
  3. Review the replies using the auto-preview feature in our email software.
    Most email software has an auto-preview feature in which you see two panes — the list of email subject lines and a preview pane below or to the side. Using auto-preview, you can quickly roll through your list of emails and read their contents without fully opening email message. This is an enormous time-saver.
  4. Immediately delete any replies that are truly “vacation” replies.
    Most automated replies tell you the person is away from the office for a few days. As soon as you see that message in the preview pane, click delete. Your list of messages will shrink quickly.
  5. Flag replies that include a change of address notice and then process them together.
    If the person says their address has changed, we flag that in the email software. After flagging all such emails, we open the MarketVolt software and update the corresponding records. You may fear this will be a big task, but over time it won’t be. If you’ve been ignoring out-of-office replies, this will be a bigger task the first time you do it. But the very act of updating those records will result in far fewer automated replies next time.
  6. Build a list of invalid addresses and process them automatically (if possible).
    When the reply tells us the person is no longer at this address (but does not include a new address), we copy the obsolete address to a text file. After running through the list of all emails, we have a file with all the addresses that should be marked invalid in our mailing list. In MarketVolt, we can upload that list, and then, with one click, change the status of all the email addresses to “Invalid.”
  7.  Flag all replies that introduce a new contact and reach out to the new contact.
    When the reply tell us our contact is no longer with the company and names a new contact, we forward that reply to the new contact with an introduction and a request to add that new contact to our mailing list. Important: Don’t add the new contact to your mailing list without permission. That’s a recipe for getting spam complaints. By forwarding the automated reply, you show the new contact why you’re contacting them. You also are forwarding a copy of your email content (which was probably included in the bottom of the automated-reply). We explain what we send (twice-monthly emails with marketing tips) and we note that the person can opt-out at any time. If the new contact says replies with a “Yes,” we can automatically port that email address to MarketVolt by clicking one button in Gmail. Gmail (and other email applications) integrate with MarketVolt so you can automatically add people in those applications to your MarketVolt email list.

OK… I know that seems like a lot. The first time you do this, it may take a while — 30-60 minutes, perhaps. But once you commit to this process, it gets easier and faster. We spend less than 10 minutes per email processing replies. The benefits far outweigh the costs.

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