Email and Messaging

In the context of an electronic commerce web site, there are three categories of messaging: event-driven or transaction email, subscription email, and broadcast messaging.

General Email and Messaging Concerns

The Problems with Email Reader Applications

An email message in itself is simple:

  • a set of ASCII text that contains the contents of the message
  • a set of text that defines structural elements of the message, such as the header with its fields for addressee and subject
  • a set of instructions for the display of the email message, such as rich text code or HTML markup

The problem with email messages is that the sender can never be certain what application the receiver will use to read the mail. Browsers are trouble enough, with the various types and levels of browser implementing and rendering HTML differently and supporting different document object models, but email readers and their possible configurations are myriad.

And speaking of HTML, many sites are now sending their email in HTML, adding several layers of complexity to the rendering of email on the client-side. HTML email presents the following concerns:

  • performance -- HTML email usually has graphics, which add to the size of the file(s) being downloaded to the client, and tables, which may delay the display of the entire message. How long will it take to resolve graphics calls on severs other than the email server?
  • rendering -- does the email client even recognize HTML and can it correctly render the HTML page?
  • privacy -- some email clients may be susceptible to the "cookie leak security hole" (external link).

The Emotional "Baggage" of Email

To make the issue of email more complicated, email is sent to people, and so carries with it emotional resonances entirely out of proportion to the message content; if the user reads and takes the mail the wrong way, or doesn't understand the context of the message, the user is likely to be frustrated, annoyed, or angered.

Matters become worse if the user thinks the email is sent unsolicited; spam is the Internet's worst pejorative. Unsolicited email is downloaded to the user's email account, using bandwidth the user pays for, adding insult to injury - this is like accepting collect calls from telemarketers, during dinner at home.

And of course, you have the concept of information overload, where people receive too much information to process or parse. How many emails per day is too much email depends on the individual and their experience and stress handling capacity, but everybody has limits to how many email they can handle. You can reasonably expect that not every email in any user's box will receive the same level of examination and attention.

Transactional and Event-Driven Email

Commerce transactions that follow traditional patterns and relationships tend to require contact information from customers. Most sites don't simply ask for a credit card number; most transactions - except for some fully digital exchanges - involve the transfer of goods or services between company and individual. So, companies can reasonably request a customers email address for most transactions; most users don't object to address information that is used responsibly and appropriately.

Transactional email is sent in response to an action performed by a user; the archetypal example would be an email sent as confirmation for an order. Once a customer places an order with a commerce site, they expect some kind of feedback from the site that says essentially "Everything worked! You have paid and now we will send you your merchandise!"

I don't know of any commerce sites off-hand that don't send email confirmations, but I also don't know of any that don't display a receipt page of some kind on the web site as feedback on order submission. The question here is why provide both a web page and an email as feedback? and my answer is that an email is more tactile and less transitory than a web page. Odd that a piece or digital information can be tactile, but it can be saved, stored, printed, and in case of problems with the order it can be forwarded to the customer service department at the company.

I don't think that email confirmation places too great a load on either the company of the customer, so it would be silly not to provide email confirmation.

Event-driven email is sent in response to some kind of change of status of an order. For example, if an order was placed for a product that was supposed to be in stock, and the company's fulfillment processes discovered that it was not currently available, the customer should be apprised of the change in delivery expectations.

Some commerce sites provide event-driven emails that aren't reflective of order status changes. For example, some sites provide services to track particular products or product categories, and warn when a product's price changes or it goes on sale.## Subscription Email

Some commerce sites provide content -- both custom content and re-purposed/re-packaged content -- to users as subscription emails in the form of newsletters and special interest mailings. These mailings are voluntary opt-in subscriptions; if the mailings are not voluntary, or are opt-out, then they are typically labeled as spam.

Any commerce site with an active marketing team will find great value in providing quality content as an incentive for their users to surrender their personal information, or at least their email addresses.

Broadcast Messaging

Broadcast messages are sent by companies attempting to generate traffic, and are typically sent out of context of the reason the email address was collected in the first place. For example, when you provide your email address during the course of completing an online order, or when you subscribe to a specific content newsletter, you are not giving explicit permission to the company to use your address as they see fit. Another example are the companies that share their customer email addresses, so your name may be validly part of Company A's database, but they share it with Company B, who turns around and sends you a spam email.

Companies use broadcast messages as a shotgun approach to scatter their message as widely as possible. But in so doing may violate the privacy and patience of the recipients by sending them unwanted and unsolicited messages.