From the November 1997 issue of Startups

In many ways, the Internet is like a Hollywood portrayal of the Wild West: Occasionally, groups of outlaws ride through town, their six-shooters blazing, and no one wears the sheriff's badge. Most of us "townspeople" want to stay on the right side of the law, but it's not easy--especially if the rules and regulations are not clearly spelled out. And until we get our facts straight, the best way to conduct business online is to obey the Golden Rule: to treat others in the same way that we would want to be treated.

This column is the first of two devoted to Internet etiquette, ethics and law. This month's column discusses how small businesses can communicate effectively online using "Netiquette" (short for Internet etiquette), the set of informal rules that governs online communications. Next month's column will cover the laws of the Internet, including privacy and intellectual property.

E-Mail Etiquette

You must put as much thought into online communications as you do other forms of communication to make sure your messages are received in the manner you intended. It's much easier when you're communicating with someone in person, because you can use gestures and vocal inflections to reinforce your message. More important, you can gauge your listener's body language and facial expressions and almost instantaneously clarify misunderstandings by changing a few words.

Online communication is a bit more challenging. You'll need to be sure to get your message across properly the first time; the best way to be sure you're not annoying potential customers is to learn these important rules to follow when sending e-mail:

  • Use a mix of uppercase and lowercase characters. An all-uppercase message is the online equivalent of shouting.
  • Carefully check your spelling and grammar. If your e-mail program doesn't have a spelling checker, create your messages in a word processing program that does. All your communications represent your business. A message full of misspellings and unclear sentences will convey to others that your work is equally sloppy.
  • When you send a message to a customer or employee, assume that others will see it. You won't be notified if the receiver forwards your message to others. And if you forward a message to others, be sure to give credit to the original author.
  • Use a "signature file" so that those who receive your message can quickly and easily determine where it came from. You can create and save the information you want to include-- usually your company's name, address and telephone number. Then use a menu in your e-mail program to select the file you've just created. Then, every time you send an e-mail message, your signature file information will automatically appear at the end of each message you send. This way, too, customers who wish to be removed from your mailing list can contact you easily.
  • Make your messages as concise as possible and stick to a single subject. Long messages take time to transfer to your recipients' computers.
  • Use the "subject line" on all your e-mail messages. This allows the message recipients to read the messages they deem important first, and will help remind you to limit each message you send to a single subject.
  • Be sure that e-mail is the appropriate forum for your message. Using e-mail to announce an upcoming sale is fine; using it to fire an employee is not.
  • Answer your e-mail. Don't leave customers hanging. If they don't receive a response from you within a reasonable amount of time, they will likely take their business elsewhere. If a large volume of e-mail inquiries bogs down your ability to respond promptly, ask your e-mail provider if it supports a feature called "auto-responding." This function sends an automatic form reply to everyone who sends you a message that answers commonly asked questions, thanks them for their messages or posts whatever other information you want to include.
  • Don't "spam" or send "junk e-mail." Spamming is the indiscriminate sending of messages to Usenet newsgroups; junk e-mail is the term for sending unsolicited messages to multiple e-mail boxes.

Spamming and Junk E-Mail

Why is marketing through "direct mailings" to e-mail addresses and newsgroups off limits? Much of the aversion to this kind of commercial activity comes from the fact that the Internet originated as an academic and scientific habitat. While users of the Web are now much more diversified, the Web community still expresses distaste at what they call "crass commercial advertising," according to Bryan Pfaffen-berger, author of World Wide Web Bible (MIS:Press, $29.95, 800-288-2131).

Of course, companies all over the world are still finding that the Web is an excellent place to market their products. So how do they do this without offending potential customers?

Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp. in Green Brook, New Jersey, maintains a Web site called Junkbusters, which contains a comprehensive collection of information about junk e-mail, junk mail and junk telemarketing. Catlett believes that small companies can market online--as long as it's done within the bounds of "good behavior."

"The basic rules are: Don't spam, and don't post commercial messages to newsgroups that have rules against these types of messages," Catlett explains. "Most newsgroups--especially those that are moderated--post a message containing regulations for those visiting and using the group."

Catlett says the best way to market on the Web is by getting people to come to your Web site, instead of sending your message to them. One of the best ways to attract potential customers to a site is to give free information to those who visit. For example, you can have a page of links related to your product or service. If your company sells handcrafted furniture, you can link to information about types of wood. Or, if your company provides editorial services, your site can link to online reference books.

"Rather than spamming, attract people to a commercial site by giving away useful information," Catlett says. "Some companies react with, `If we give it away free, that's money we're not getting.' But many companies understand that free, useful stuff can be the best form of advertising. The trick is to find giveaways that are attractive to the kind of people who would buy your goods or services."

Another way to successfully market online is to offer to e-mail people updates of the information you're providing on your Web site.

"Because of the bad reputation of junk e-mail, we don't think that a good, honest business can effectively use e-mail for marketing," says Jeremy Moulton, who has operated The Moulton Company, a computer training company in Columbia, Maryland, with his father, Pete, for almost 20 years. The Moultons are also hosts of the Dial-A-Nerd radio show, which answers listeners' computer questions. The Moultons use a combination of humor and information on their Web site to attract potential customers for their training services. Their Web pages include transcripts from their radio show, humorous top-10 lists, summaries of their seminars and their professional credentials. "Companies can offer to e-mail technical tips or newsletters to subscribers (that is, those who register by filling out a form at a Web site), or ask customers if they want to receive product updates," Jeremy says. "But the companies should always offer the option of discontinuing the messages."

Online communication is still being pioneered, so--until we've laid down the laws that govern it--remember to mind your manners.

Polite Societies

Visit the following Web sites to explore Internet etiquette issues that will help you set your company's standards:

  • The Internet Engineering Task Force's Responsible Use of the Network Working Group is an organization of volunteers that helps set Internet standards and guidelines. Its 13-page guide includes policy statements from several organizations that oversee the Internet community. Called Requests for Comments (RFC) #1855, Netiquette Guidelines (http://www.dtcc.edu/cs/rfc1855.html ) is an etiquette guide for all Internet users.
  • The Netiquette (nice.ethz.ch/Usenet/netiquette_engl.html) Web site describes the proper manners for communicating in Usenet newsgroups. Whether you're a novice or a veteran on the Internet, you'll be able to apply the principles listed on this Web site to all areas of Internet communications, including e-mail messages and Web-site development.
  • The Blacklist of Internet Advertisers (http://www-math.uni-paderborn.de/~axel/BL/ ) is dedicated to identifying and eliminating unsuitable advertising from the Internet. Visit this site to learn how not to behave. A black list of Netiquette offenders is just a part of this site; you can also learn how to deal with junk e-mail and how your business can advertise properly on the Internet. The author includes links to newsgroups and Web pages likewise devoted to setting standards for online advertising.
  • Junkbusters Corp.'s Web site (http://www.junkbusters.com/ ) contains information about all kinds of junk communications, including tips on how to thwart incoming junk e-mail and telemarketing.
  • Anyone doing business on the Internet will eventually have to decide how to effectively operate a worldwide enterprise online. Set forth by the U.S. Treasury Department, A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce (http://www.iitf.nist.gov/eleccomm/ecomm.htm ) contains information on the financial, legal and taxation issues of Internet sales.

Worth Reading

Rules of the Net: On-Line Operating Instructions for Human Beings, by Gerald Van Der Leun and Thomas Mandel (Hyperion, $11.50, 800-759-0190), outlines the rules of conduct and etiquette for communicating politely on the Internet.

Cyberwriting: How to Promote Your Product or Service Online (Without Being Flamed), by Joe Vitale (Amacom, $18.95, 800-262-9699), details how to write effective e-mail sales messages and advertisements, and how to market your products or services online.

Sandra E. Eddy is the author of HTML in Plain English (MIS:Press, $16.95, 800-288-2131), Mastering Lotus SmartSuite 97 for Windows 95 (Sybex, $39.99, 510-523-8233) and The GIF Animator's Guide (MIS:Press, $39.95, 800-288-2131).