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Understanding Email in All Its Forms

Written by Eileen Parzek, © 2004

Although most everyone today is very familiar with email basics, there are some other aspects to email which you might not completely understand. Whether list-servs, auto responders, aliases or forwarding, this article aims to demystify all the forms of email for you, once and for all.

At its most basic, email is simply a text message sent to a unique address via a computer network. The address always has a user name and a domain name, the combination of which is unique. The user name is before an @ sign, while the domain name after it always has an extension like dot com or dot org. So, every email in the world follows the format of [email protected]

A computer on a network called the mail server is what manages the accounts and the mail boxes of each user. The server maintains physical folders on the computer where the user’s mail resides when it arrives. When you send an email, the domain name is located first, and then the user name is found on the mail server configured to that domain name. The mail server places the email into the in-box of the individual. Then the user either connects to the server via a web based interface or using software on their computer called an email client, like Eudora or Outlook.

An email client is installed on one particular computer and the mail that you download from the mail server goes to that computer, based on the configuration you set up. Using web email, the email is stored in a web based in-box which you can retrieve from anywhere. Both options have a variety of pros and cons and which one you use is often a matter of preference and work style.

An email forward is simply when the user’s account is configured to automatically send the incoming email to a different email address, instead of accepting it. This is commonly done when someone has multiple addresses and wants to get them all in one place, or when an account is no longer being used. For example, some Internet Service Providers will allow you to close an account but forward all mail to another account for a period of time.

An email alias is actually just what it sounds like – it is an email address which doesn’t actually have a physical location on a mail server, or an in-box in which to collect incoming mail. An alias is usually created when an individual or organization wants to have multiple addresses for different topics or purposes, but not actually need to check multiple accounts and in boxes. For example, a company might set up an alias for [email protected] and [email protected], and use these throughout their web site and literature. But in fact, there is only one in-box receiving all that mail. An alias is really nothing more than a rule that says “if an email comes in address to X, give it to Y.”

Another approach would be to use the various emails to filter the incoming mail, or to create a “disposable” alias that can be ditched later. For example, you might create an alias just for particular shopping sites you go to, which you can dispose of should you begin to get spam, thus protecting your ‘real’ address.

If you wanted to send a group of people the same email, you would have to create a mailing list with the addresses of all of those people. If you are savvy, you’ll hide the names in the blind carbon copy (BCC) field so that the recipients can’t see each other’s addresses. Of course, nowadays, there is no carbon involved but the acronym remains!

Managing a mailing list can be cumbersome if you are dealing with more than a few addresses, so mailing list software was developed to make it easier to stay in touch with clients, customers, and members via email. These solutions make it easy for a recipient to remove themselves from the list (opt out), and to manage “dead” emails which “bounce” or return to the sender.

A list-serv is type of mailing list software, although the term is not used as frequently as it was 90’s – most people refer to them simply as mailing lists now. There are two main ways a list-serv can be configured. The list owner or administrator can send out an email which radiates out to everyone on the list, but disallows anyone from replying. Other list-servs are set up so that every reply email goes to every recipient, which facilitates discussion amongst the list members. Many of the oldest online communities on the Internet evolved around the list-serv concept, and are still in existence today, although email newsletters and web based discussion forums are increasingly more common.

A list owner can also set it up so that no one can “see” who is on the recipient list, which allows members to “lurk” on a list – invisibly reading but not replying. Another configuration option is to put the list-serv in “digest” mode, which means that at a set period or set volume (when the number of emails total equal a certain file size), a single email goes to the recipients with all of the current emails that have been sent to the list-serv.

It is common practice to set up an alias for subscribing to list-servs, because you can filter your incoming mail and dispose of addresses which are harvested by spammers, without sacrificing your main email address.

Another form of email technology which has gained popularity amongst Internet marketers is the auto responder. Initially, auto responders were simply used for “out of office” replies that let anyone who wrote to you know you were not around. The concept has evolved into services you can set up for your business or organization where a canned response is sent to the sender of an email to a particular email address.

An auto responder is 100% automated. You create the emails it will send, and place an email address on your web site or other marketing material. Then you go on to other things and it works for you.

An auto responder can be used for customer service, to let people know you got their message and will respond soon. You can use them to send out things like product overviews and current price lists, via email. They can be used to stay in touch with prospects and send periodic freebies, or to remind people to return to your site. Or you can set up auto responders to send a pre-scheduled series of emails - in fact, entire email-based information courses are sold online using the auto responder concept.

It is nearly impossible to recall a time when we didn’t have the instantaneous and global communication of email, either in our personal or business lives. With a better understanding of the many faces of email, you can now optimize how you put it to work in your life!


Eileen Parzek is an award winning graphic and web designer providing digital and print graphic design and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, Business Design Studio (www.businessdesignstudio.com) helps small businesses make a big impression.

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