Declaring War on No-Reply Addresses

Imagine doing business with someone who doesn't listen to you. They talk to you often enough, but they aren't interested in anything you have to say. In fact, they can't hear you at all, as though they have their fingers in their ears while chanting "la la la I can't hear you la la la." Not very professional, is it?

Strangely enough, this happens millions of times a day! And it's perpetrated by some of the most sophisticated companies out there. They talk at their customers, not with them. They speak and refuse to listen. Odds are you can go to your inbox right now and witness this for yourself.

What am I referring to, exactly? Why, "no-reply" email addresses, of course! And it's more than just rude, it's a big missed opportunity for the companies that abuse them, as well.

That's why the Mandrill team is declaring war on this dreadful practice. Let's look at an example and consider the consequences in depth...

Hotel Not Listening

As a developer evangelist, I do a lot of traveling. Like most frequent travelers, I'm relatively loyal to a few hotel chains (gotta collect those points, don't ya know!) As a result, I also receive a lot of transactional email each trip: "time to check in", "thanks for coming", and "how was your stay?" notifications keep me informed despite my hectic schedule.

After my last trip, I noted the email address from such an email. It actually looked like a valid address! So I responded out of curiosity, just to see what would happen...

Instant response from the Mail Delivery Subsystem: Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently...

Oof. That's not very nice at all! Not only did the company make sure they'd NEVER get any feedback on these emails, but the response is filled with programmer-speak from the shadowy back-alleys of email infrastructure. If your users already don't want to be ignored, they REALLY don't want to receive "blame the victim"-style error messages.

Missed Connections

Worse, the companies themselves are missing out on an enormous opportunity! Here you have a great deal of context (whatever the email was in reference to), your customer has engaged directly (clicked "reply" on the message), and wants to tell you something.

It reminds me of the magic of search engine marketing: potential customers literally sit down and tell you what they want, when they want it. This is a similar kind of thing in that your customer is trying to directly interact with your company, in response to something your company did. Can we afford not to listen?

Furthermore it's high quality feedback. Another popular web marketing tactic is surveying one's users, and any marketer worth her salt will tell you how valuable "free response" questions are. What is an email if not a giant, free response form? The more they write, the more you learn... and you aren't even paying for privilege!

Doing It Right (The Simple Version)

At bare minimum, a company could simply use a "reply to" address that goes somewhere. Nothing special here, just a quick and easy way to take that "do not disturb" sign off your company's door.

It could go to a support or catch-all list if the company is large, or perhaps to an individual at smaller scales. We'd still recommend using an email alias in the individual case: you never know how fast you'll grow, and you need the power to easily divert that email stream if it gets overwhelming or someone wants to go on vacation.

Worried about all the "reply junk" ("I'm on vacay!", "Thanks for your email...", etc) that you're used to with your big email blasts? That's why we created the Reply To Labs project! It attempts to detect such reply junk and filter it before it gets to your inbox. It's also a great example of something could build for yourself with Mandrill.

On that note...

Doing It Right (For Email Masters)

For more advanced users (that's you!), Mandrill provides inbound email processing functionality. This is great if you'd like to set up a more advanced system to handle such replies. Some possibilities:

  • automatically submit the response to a ticketing system
  • do some post-processing on the message (sentiment analysis, perhaps?)
  • forward the email along to an alternating list of support addresses (so that no one person has to answer them all)
  • look up the associated user in your own database to put the reply in context
  • alert the head of support if it's a VIP user
  • alert marketing if it's not a user at all

...the possibilities are endless.

And inbound processing is straightforward. You simply set up a (sub)domain where you'd like to receive email, create some route webhooks, and wait for the email to roll in. For each email we receive, we'll hit your webhooks with a JSON payload containing all of the message data. Much easier than managing your own mail server!

Playing Fair

Using no-reply email addresses is just anti-social, we're shocked that the practice is so widespread. One-way conversations are so 20th century, how did so many companies forget that we live in the future?

Embrace conversation and listen to your users. They'll be happier, and you'll be better for it.