Disclaimers: The Devil’s in the Detail

June 29, 2009

Failure to sign off e-mails properly can be costly. As of 1 October 2008, new rules came into force concerning the trading disclosures that incorporated companies must make to demonstrate their legal identity. These now mandate that all outgoing business e-mails include the company’s registration number, place of registration (eg Scotland or England & Wales), and registered office address. Non compliance can result in a fine of £1,000. It is surprising, then, that so many casual business e-mail exchanges seem to ignore this fact completely. Perversely, this is despite the mis-use of e-mail disclaimers by so many businesses, which so often can leave the recipient in a boiling rage.

Indeed, it seems the business world has arrived at two extremes over the years when it comes to the way everyday e-mails are processed. The first is the belt and braces approach – add three pages of comprehensive disclaimer text to every outbound e-mail before it leaves the firewall. The second is the more casual strategy of handing out ‘e-mail policy’ guidelines to staff as they join the firm, only to then leave the whole thing to chance.

The BlackBerry Boom

Now, the proliferation of different options for sending and receiving e-mail – for example via webmail, Blackberries and smartphones – has propelled the challenge of enforcing e-mail policies to the top of the agenda again. The explosion of handheld e-mail devices has heightened the growing administrative nightmare facing business and IT managers as they seek to regain control over the myriad different communication activities now available to their employees.

Unfortunately, many of the basic firewall or anti-spam disclaimer tools deployed previously by organisations are very limited in scope. As well as being restricted to plain text, which may jar with the look and feel of the main e-mail, they are not managed using intelligent rules. This means they are typically sent out indiscriminately, with every outbound e-mail. That’s regardless of whether the e-mail is a one-word reply as part of an existing thread, or whether the recipient will be trying to read this from a small-screen mobile device.

The indiscriminate addition of lengthy legal disclaimers to every e-mail can cause untold frustration to the mobile e-mail user, who is forced to scroll down through pages of text simply to follow a short e-mail thread or to locate the sender’s contact details which may have appeared only once, in their initial message.

To handle disclaimers more thoughtfully and creatively, a more sophisticated tool is needed. This offers an organisation numerous advantages, including the personalisation and intelligent positioning of the added text, plus the ability to change what is sent and when according to the recipient and the context.

This requires integration with Active Directory. And, once you start managing disclaimers at this level – at the e-mail server, rather than the firewall – the scope for creativity becomes even greater.

From Disclaimers to Campaign Banners

Disclaimers are a necessary evil but, if well managed, they can serve a business very well, while paving the way for some handy brand-reinforcing benefits.

The standard addition of direct contact details is an important one. How many times has an e-mail recipient been forced onto the web, or back through their e-mail archives, simply to track down the phone number of the sender so they can continue a conversation in person?

Imagine how it could boost the business – and potential revenue – if every e-mail was automatically tagged with the sender’s personalised business card details, even if the message has been sent from a mobile device or via webmail.

Being able to apply rules, and having the intelligence to adjust when these are applied (just as out-of-office messages can be adjusted to being sent only at regular intervals), requires transferring disclaimer and signature management to the e-mail server.
Departmental and Geographical Differences

By managing the functionality on a centralised e-mail server, organisations can relax, knowing that the right messaging is being added automatically to e-mails, but only in accordance with pre-defined rules, and in a way that is relevant to the particular user and their role in the business.

This also allows organisations to vary the required legal and corporate messaging by country, language, company department and employee status, simply by setting different rules for different users.

In one recent application of an intelligent disclaimer application, one company was able to set-up tailored automated disclaimers for 35,000 users across multiple countries – all from a single, central Exchange server. This could not have been achieved by a firewall-level disclaimer manager that does not have the functionality to encompass mobile devices which sit outside the company network.

Brand Reinforcement

Placing an intelligent, rules-based disclaimer manager within the company e-mail server has further benefits too. In addition to the ability to personalise content by user, location, role and status, while simultaneously applying appropriate contact details, these might include the ability to bring formatting and fonts in line with the main content of the e-mail (standard, one-size-fits-all disclaimers are typically limited to plain text).

This would improve the look and feel of the e-mail, and sharpen brand reinforcement. It also paves the way for further functionality, such as the centralised addition of timely marketing banners and slogans. Here, companies can automatically programme their Exchange server mail utilities to flag up forthcoming events, new product releases or recent awards that have been won by the business.

This content is then added in the same way as the legal disclaimer and signature/contact information – without any reliance on the active participation of individual end users.

Indeed, while the current economic climate demands that businesses avoid potentially expensive yet very avoidable legal trouble, and that they maximise cost-effective marketing opportunities, this is no time for companies to be assigning additional time to administration. Resources are already lean; this is a time for reducing bureaucracy, not adding more.

Intelligence and centralised, rules-based control are vital, then. These are unforgiving times, but when the last thing you and your staff have is time you can’t afford to leave anything to chance.

Automate it. Forget about it. Get back to your day job.

Andrew Millington is CEO of Exclaimer, provider of mail utilities and software add-on products for Microsoft Exchange, with more than 27 million users worldwide