How to Make Sense of an Overwhelming Inbox – By Chris Scerbo

How to Make Sense of a Crazy Making Inbox

We all get a lot of email these days. It would be an understatement to say that they are often not necessary. Over the decades, email systems have gone through various stages of use. The first email ever sent was quite simple. In 1971, Computer Engineer Ray Tomlinson, sent an email to himself that contained one simple message, something like “QWERTYUIOP”. Arguably the most important yet contentless email ever sent. It was a special moment akin to the first long distance telephone line contructed between Boston and New York in 1884. When it comes to communications technology, the first proof of concept is small, then it grows to something that encompasses the entire world.

It was a very exciting time for the people who understood the potential. Email began as a way for users to talk to each other on different sides of a building without needing to deliver memos by hand or air tubes. Then, we started using it to have instant written conversation across campuses, then cities, then countries, then across oceans, and today we even use it to talk to our best and brightest pioneering the Earth’s orbit.

Somewhere along the line some people discovered it would be a great way to market to potential customers. At first this was mostly a way for customers to receive updates from businesses they wanted to be involved with. Then, many discovered they could find the email addresses of potential customers (or perhaps marks for a potential scam) and send them a message they may not have asked for. And thus, SPAM was born. For many years SPAM was relatively harmless, just annoying. Then it got to be REALLY annoying. Today, about 45% of all emails sent are classified as SPAM.

At TechSolutions, our many talented professionals have worked tirelessly over the years to ensure our client’s email system stay on the cutting edge and they are exposed to as little of that 45% as possible. It’s a moving target, and to stay ahead of the bad actors we must keep moving as well. The difference between an unprotected inbox and a filtered box using the services we at TechSolutions have put our trust in is quite jarring. Unprotected mailboxes are nearly unusable after a period of years. It’s just a matter of time until the bad actors discover the address exists and start pelting it with messages.

With our services active, mailbox SPAM levels have been brought to a very low percentage. Sometimes, there are message that fit the filter you do wish to see, which includes bulk messages such as flyers from popular retailers. There are backend technical differences that allow us to identify a legitimate sender from a bad actor sending SPAM, and they are very effective. We want you to receive the messages you want to receive and can make necessary changes to allow specific senders through.

In the United States, per the CAN-SPAM act of 2003 these legitimate messages must meet certain requirements that allow us to identify them. One of which is the inclusion of an unsubscribe link. If you receive a message you do not want and you see it has an unsubscribe link at the bottom, it is likely you are receiving it due to an email program you signed up for. Maybe you were not fully aware and maybe shady tactics were used. Perhaps you signed up for a seemingly unrelated service but in doing so you were asked for permission to share your address with “partner” organizations. That’s just a fancy way of asking for permission to sell your address to others so they can use the permission you gave the original party to also send you messages. As with most marketing schemes it can get quite complex. But on a technical level these messages will meet the requirements and will not be classified as SPAM even if you don’t want them.

Unfortunately unsubscribe links can be a bit complex because following an unsubscribe link may simply result in removing the subscription for that specific set of emails but would not remove the original permission given to the original collector of addresses, who can continue to sell your address to others resulting in a vicious circle. Some of those services are nasty enough they will even monitor the subscription statuses and push your address out to more subscriptions when they know the previous subscriptions have been removed. They can be relentless, and it’s really a good lesson in why it is very important to read those agreements before handing your information over and clicking okay. It’s important to use personal email addresses and disposable aliases for services you know you will not want to receive email from but perhaps require you to provide an address to continue with a service you do want.

Another important consideration these days is the potential security risk of clicking unsubscribe links. Clicking any email link carries risk. The possibility always exists that the email you are looking at may not be from the party you think. It may be a ruse designed to entice you to click a potentially malicious link. Our advice is to never follow email links unless you are sure of the sender and the content. If I receive an email from my bank informing me of suspicious account activity, I do not click the link. I open my web browser, navigate to the official website address of my bank, and then logon from there to check the status of my account. I may also call my bank directly using a number I know to be the official number for my bank. I never call a number from an email. It simply can’t be trusted. So given the current security landscape we are better off blocking unwanted messages than following potentially dangerous unsubscribe links. Verification of messages and the unsubscribe links in them prior to following them can be quite technical. It is best to reach to us for help if you truly feel unsubscribe is best.

But enough about the ever-present dangers of the web. The problem we are tackling here is unwanted non-SPAM messages. Over years of mailbox use the number of these unwanted legitimate messages can become daunting. It can often feel like SPAM, but if it was legitimately signed up for, even indirectly, it doesn’t fall into the SPAM category. We don’t have a great way to automatically block that because it comes down to the user’s preferences. A few years back Microsoft introduced a feature in Outlook called Clutter that attempted to categorize the non-SPAM yet annoying emails. It is quite effective at doing so but the user must be on board with the concept and must regularly monitor the Clutter folder as the risk of an important email landing in this folder is quite high. Microsoft used the only available information they had to make this classification – the volume of messages of the type received. That information does not take the user’s actual preferences into account, just what happens to be received and how often it is received. Because of this, many users have chosen not to participate in this feature. But Microsoft did establish a great name for these emails: “clutter”. It is quite astute.

Clutter is not the only feature available to help. Mailboxes hosted by Microsoft can take advantage of a very powerful tool called Rules that can be used to make decisions about inbound emails upon receipt of the message with no need for user interaction. Although the setup of inbox rules can be a bit daunting to understand, the newer versions of this feature have made using it more convenient than ever. But the reality is there is no automated way for an admin to determine which emails a user does and does not want in their inbox. The only way to do this is to make it convenient for the users to make the choices themselves. Then, the system applies those then-known decisions automatically without requiring interaction. Rules is that feature.

The built-in Clutter feature handles this auto-organization in a very simplistic way. It creates a folder named Clutter. Anything it identifies as clutter is simply put into that folder. The ability to use Rules to automatically deliver inbound email to properly named Outlook folders without user interaction takes Clutter to the next level.

The goal with the rules is to identify messages that come in and automatically file them in an appropriate subfolder. This saves the user the work of manually moving messages and gives the user better visibility over the messages that remain. The simplest way to create such a rule is to simply right-click a message that is clutter to you, select Rules, and then Always Move Messages From. A window will pop up with basic options. This window is different depending on the version of Outlook being used. These options are also present in the web version, Filtering by source address is the most useful. It is possible to filter by contents of the subject, but this carries the risk of filtering the wrong messages that happen to have similar subjects. Select the folder you would like those emails to move into on arrival, then click OK.

You may be given an option to run the rule, and if you do so it will run through all the messages in your inbox and apply the action as appropriate. This can be a very time-consuming process. It is sometimes best to just leave the old messages in place and just let the rules apply to new messages moving forward. Once that rule is created, any new messages that fit the criteria will be filed into the selected folder. You will no longer see those messages in your inbox folder. Repeat this as needed for all the messages you want to receive but do not want to clutter up your inbox. Simply view the messages in their new folder at your convenience.

The first part of this this process is to determine which messages are clutter. Looking at the email, deciding it is shopping related, and should be filed in the Shopping folder is the first half of the process. Clicking the options to create the rules is the second part. The second part is the only part that adds time. The first part is the same mental exercise you put your brain through every day you scroll through your inbox looking for important messages in the sea of clutter. So really you half-complete this job every day. Completing that second part is what will save you from having to continue to repeat the first part every day, and doing so will save exponentially more time than the second part costs.

When creating rules, it is best to follow the KISS method. Keep It Simple and Standard. For myself I have several folders, Shopping, Travel, Banking, Music, etc.… For each of those folders I have one rule. In those rules are all the email addresses of the messages associated with those categories. If I create a new folder, such as Science News, I will create a new rule named Science News. I remove all the default verbiage in the title because it just wastes my precious rule space. Simply naming it Science News is enough to tell me what the rule is for. Moving forward, whenever I identify a new clutter message that I would like filed into one of my subfolders, I simply copy and paste the source address into the addresses field of the appropriate rule.

Rules are very powerful and can use many other types of criteria beyond simple FROM addresses to identify messages of interest. Rules can also do more than just move messages to subfolders. Some other useful conditions include content of subject lines and message body, marks of importance, sensitivity, classifications, and presence of attachments. Some useful actions include copy, move, delete, mark as read, junk, set importance and category, and forward or redirect. There are many useful tasks that can be completed with this toolset and taking advantage of it can save a lot of time in the long run after a short investment of time in setup.

If you need help getting started, feel free to reach out to one of our team members.  Once you get started, you will wonder why you haven’t been doing this for the past 10 years.