E-Mail, Autoresponders, Information-on-Demand

Anyone who's used a fax-on-demand system knows how wonderful they are for both the customer and the business. If you need information, you can get it 24 hours a day with one phone call. If you're a business, you can provide your customers with detailed documents anytime they want, with no intervention on your part. It's a win-win situation.

There's a similar win-win situation on the Internet, and it's called an autoresponder (some people also call it a mail-bot, as in mail-robot). This is basically a fax-on-demand system, but it communicates via email instead of over the phone line.

Here's an example of how an autoresponder works:

Suppose you sell audio cassettes and compact disks over the Internet. Rather than putting an extensive catalog on your website or as a printed booklet in the mail, you can make your catalog available from an autoresponder. If someone wants your catalog, they just have to send an email to your autoresponder's address (catalog@musicstore.com, for instance). Within minutes (usually, within seconds, in fact), your catalog is automatically emailed to the customer. It doesn't matter if it's 2:00 pm or 2:00 am, or what corner of the world they're in - it's totally automatic.

Here's the best part. Most autoresponders will, at the same time, also send an email to you with the customer's email address. That way, you have a record of how many people requested your catalog and when, and you can follow up via email. Fax-on-demand can't even do that!

How much does this cost? Well, like anything, the cost varies from provider to provider. An autoresponder may be included with your basic Internet service. If not, you can purchase the use of an autoresponder on a monthly basis from literally dozens of sources. You should figure on a $5 to $10 setup fee, and $5 to $10 per month for each autoresponder you rent. If you pay more than this, you may be paying too much. Shop around.

So, how hard is it to set an autoresponder up? Not hard at all. Once your provider has everything ready on their end, all you need to do is provide the information that will be sent to inquiries. This can be done by sending a printed document to your provider, by emailing the information, or by FTP'ing (uploading) the document directly. Check with your provider for their individual policy. Once your document is in place, there may be an activation code you need to send. After that, you're ready to go. That's it! What if you want more than one autoresponder? There are two options. First, you can rent more than one autoresponder. If you do this, each will have a separate email address (your catalog might be catalog@musicstore.com, your return policy might be return@musicstore.com). This is the usually the easiest and least expensive option, if you only plan on having a few documents, at most.

If you'd like to have many documents that your customers can access, you consider using a mail server. These are generally more expensive, however, they have a number of unique advantages. First, each document will have the same email address. To signify which document to send, the customer puts "send" and the document name in the body of the email (for example, send catalog or send return). This is an advantage, as customers don't have to remember a bunch of different email addresses.

Second, if you have twenty documents, and you want to add another, it's usually far cheaper to add the document to a mail server than it is to get another autoresponder. Economy of scale is the advantage here - you're using a larger quantity, so you get a better deal.

Mail server pricing varies wildly, and the setup charge can be high, so, as with autoresponders, shop around. Also, be sure this is what you really want to do. If you're starting out with one or two documents, and you aren't sure that you'll have more, go with individual autoresponders instead of a mail server. You can always upgrade.

To find autoresponder/mail server providers, check the various search databases (Yahoo, etc.). Use these words for your searches: provider, autoresponder, mail server, and email. If your Internet Service Provider doesn't offer them, at least ask them for any recommendations or referrals, as they may have someone they regularly work with that can give you a price break.

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