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Making the most of your small business e-mail

For small businesses connected to the Internet, e-mail is the lifeline between sellers & buyers, employees & employer, and producers & suppliers. In a recent survey of small and mid-sized businesses, business e-mail leads all uses of the Internet.

Mail, schmail. What's the big deal?

Plenty. For small businesses connected to the Internet, e-mail is the lifeline between sellers and buyers, employees and employer, and producers and suppliers. According to a recent survey of small- and mid-sized businesses by Arthur Anderson, business e-mail leads all uses of the Internet. In comparison, selling goods and services the e-way is a piker, with only about as third as many firms using the Net for e-commerce as they do for e-mail.

Okay, e-mail's important to modern business. You probably knew that. But do you know how to really punch up your business's e-mail prowess and productivity? Bet not. To make the most effective use of e-mail, your business needs a good domain name (the part of an e-mail address after the @ character), you need to make sure everyone in your company's connected, and you should put your hands on some solid mail management tools. Follow along with me to discover how your business can make the most out of e-mail. Get a good address

The first thing you should do is get a memorable address so that customers and suppliers don't have to think twice about how to get in touch with you. If you don't have your own domain name by now, such as nameofmybusiness.com, get one now. It's the only way to brand all employee's e-mail. Getting a domain name isn't tough, but good names are either already gone or going. You'd better move fast.

The easiest way to obtain a domain name and put it to work is by contacting your ISP. Virtually all Internet providers will register a domain name of your choosing, then host that domain as a Web site and/or for e-mail purposes. Naturally, hosting fees are involved, but a credible ISP shouldn't charge you anything extra to register the name for you. (Typically, you'll be billed for a domain name registration directly by a registrar; most major ISPs use Network Solutions as the registrar.)

If you're up for a do-it-yourself project, you can register a domain name yourself. For a how-to on the process, check out my January 3, 2000 column, "Claiming your imminent domain," which outlines the process. Today more than two dozen companies, called registrars, are allowed to register a domain name for you, and prices have dropped from the years-ago $100 fee.

I'd start with RegSelect, a site which compares prices of 18 of the most popular U.S. registrars, and provides links to each. A quick glance at the comparison chart shows you that Dotster.com, for instance, charges only $30 for a two-year domain registration.

Your next step? Host your new domain name and get everyone in the biz an address. Supply everyone with an address

Once you have your own domain name, whether you grabbed it yourself through a registrar or asked your ISP to do it for you, you'll need to host that domain name to use the address for e-mail, and provide individual accounts or e-mail inboxes to each employee.

E-mail hosting generally comes as part of an overall Web site hosting package. GTE.net's $30/month Professional Plan, for example, includes e-mail hosting and 10 separate e-mail accounts.

If your ISP is on the ball, it will also offer even more e-mail accounts for an extra fee. Earthlink, for instance, provides five additional e-mail accounts for a $10 setup fee and a $7 per month charge.

Here's a tip that makes it easier for outsiders to contact others at the company if they know the address of just one person in your firm: standardize addresses. Use one format for all employees' addresses, such as first initial, last name -- as in gkeizer@nameofmybusiness.com -- or first name_last name, like gregg_keizer@nameofmybusiness.com.

If you can't handle the hassle of setting up e-mail on your own, and want some back-end support at the same time, I'd think about outsourcing mail infrastructure to a capable company. And don't think that has to cost a fortune. Click to the next section for some outsourcing ideas. Outsource your e-mail

If all you want out of your domain name is e-mail, consider outsourcing. Scads of companies will host your domain, then provide e-mail accounts from which you can retrieve messages using either a POP3 client like Outlook or Eudora, or using a Web browser that access that mail from an Internet-accessible server. (Think of the latter as a paid alternative to free e-mail, such as Hotmail, which is grabbed from the Web by a browser.)

Mail.com, for example, takes care of everything for a flat fee of $8 per month per mailbox. Compared to an ISP, the price is steep -- $80 a month for 10 mailboxes, or $480 a year -- but outsourcing firms provide extras like server-based virus and anti-spam filtering, secure backups of mailbox contents, and special tools like autoresponders, which let you create replies to selected incoming messages. And with something like Mail.com, your employees can retrieve messages from the desktop using the preferred POP3 client, or via the Web when they're traveling or at home.

If you don't need to access mail via a browser, a straight POP3 outsourcing company' is the way to go. The budget-conscious E-Mail Xpress, for example, charges an annual fee of $22/ per account when you purchase between 2 and 50 mailboxes, and hosts your domain for another $50 per year.

Finally, you'll want some I'd stock up on three tools to help expedite e-mail chores, such as filtering junk e-mail, automatically responding to volumes of incoming mail, and simplifying by-mail file transfers. Read on and I'll tell you which three tools you should stock. Take up some new tools

It's easy to boost your business's e-mail productivity. All you need are the right tools. Here are three that won't put a big dent in your bottom line.

SpamKiller. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: arm yourself and your employees with filtering software. It's the best economic investment you can make: no other tactic boosts e-mail productivity better.

My pick is SpamKiller, a $30 program I've relied on for over a year now. This software, which sits on each employees machine, does a superb job of identifying junk mail and keeping it from reaching the inbox. SpamKiller comes with thousands of already-made rules which filter out the bulk of common junk mail, but you can also set up rules yourself to eradicate irksome messages, like jokes or chain letters that some boneheads pass along. There's one caveat: it won't work with America Online's e-mail (thanks to AOL's proprietary e-mail system, no Internet-standard anti-spam program does), so if you're using AOL as your business ISP, you must make due with the tools it provides.

AutoResponder. If your business relies on a large volume of incoming e-mail, say sales inquiries, you'll want a way to quickly reply to these messages. PromaSoft's AutoResponder (which you can download from ZDNet's Downloads) lets you respond to mail sent to a variety of addresses, send a reply immediately or on a delay you set, and reply with custom messages based on forms that customers fill out and send to you. It works with multiple e-mail accounts, it's free to try (the demo edition sticks a small ad in outgoing messages) and costs just $50 for the real deal.

Better e-mail Enable Everything. You can expedite file transfer between employees with this $40 program. BEEE automatically sends designated files, or even entire folders full of files, at time intervals you specify. If your business depends on sending documents from co-worker to co-worker, or from inside the company to an independent consultant or freelancer, you just set up BEEE and it does the rest, including logging on with your ISP and attaching the file to an e-mail message. BEEE is also available for download from ZDNet Downloads.