I know you think they’re evil, but
I have a very legitimate reason for setting up an automated out of
office response message. How do I do that?
It’s true, I’ve long held the position that Out of Office Replies are Evil.
Mostly because they’re most often misconfigured and used
And that’s if your email system even supports them.
So I’ll look at how, or even if, you can set one up, and then I’ll
review how they can be used safely.
Your Email Provider
The preferred method to set up an Out Of Office message, (more correctly Out Of Facility or OOF) or an Automated Reply is to use the services of your email provider. Many will allow you to configure an automated reply directly on your mail server.
A good example is Google’s GMail. Under Settingsm in the General tab you’ll find this:
Another popular example is Hotmail. Under Options, Manage Your Account, you’ll find “Send automated vacation replies”:
By using this, you can create a message that will be automatically sent in reply to each message received (within some limits, which we’ll discuss below).
Other email providers may provide similar functionality.
If you download your email using a desktop mail program this functionality is typically not visible there. Check the options around any webmail interface your email service might provide for you.
Unfortunately, not all email services provide OOF functionality.
Your Email Program
It’s possible to configure many email programs using what are called “Rules” or “Filters”. Normally, we think of these as ways to flag or file incoming email automatically. However, many email clients, like Outlook, Thunderbird or even Outlook Express have the ability to reply with a message. In Outlook Express, for example, under Tools, Message Rules, Mail…, New… you’ll find this:
The huge downside to this approach for auto-response is that your email program must be running and periodically checking for new mail. It’s difficult to consider that a truly practical option for, say, a lengthy vacation. The Email Provider solutions above all work whether your email program is running or not.
There are also limitations in many of the email programs’ approaches to automatic responders that … well, it makes them very easy to be evil. We’ll discuss that below.
Your Email Server
This isn’t for the average user, but if you have your own server out on the web you might consider something like Email Responder Pro. This is a PHP script that you can install on your web server that will poll your email account on any POP3/IMAP server, and send automated responses based on assorted criteria.
Doing it Right
So with all of those approaches that may, or may not, work for you, what does it mean to “do it right”? What do I mean by “evil”, and how do you set up an OOF reply that isn’t?
The rules are very, very simple:
If someone sends you a message, they should only get the auto-response once, no matter how many additional messages they send you. Nothing is more annoying than getting lots and lots of the same auto response to every message you might send to someone who’s still checking their email while they are away. It’s also a very quick way to get your email or mail server flagged for spamming.
The auto-response is never sent to mailing lists, only to direct mail. This is perhaps the most common offense. As a mailing list provider, you can imagine how much of a problem it would be to get a few hundred out-of-office replies when I send out a newsletter. If you’re on a large discussion list, you’ve probably seen auto-replies that go back to the entire list.
And of course failing both those two rules can lead to all sorts of problems.
Unfortunately, almost all of the solutions above also violate these two rules in one way or another.
Out of Office responses are very difficult to set up properly, and in my opinion, they’re to be avoided almost completely.
But there’s no arguing that in concept they can be very useful. If you must set one up, take the time to understand what tools you have available, and how to set them up properly.