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Editorial: E-mail - Virus Delivery Versus Effective Communication

By Len Monheit

With the latest rash of virus alerts, perhaps it’s a good idea to review policies and procedures for handling potentially infected communications, and also to talk a bit about using the subject line effectively, not only to differentiate your messages from virus and ‘spam’ communications, but also to get the attention of your recipients.

I continue to be amazed at the number of organizations that don’t have e-mail policies and procedures, especially regarding personal e-mail. So step number one needs to be to establish these policies regarding Internet use. Step number two is to make sure at the corporate level if possible, and the individual computer level at the very least, that there is virus protection in place, and that it is current. Training and guidance in handling e-mail and infection is an excellent next step and another common failing in most organizations.

When receiving a message, if you see a strange domain, don’t see a message, or do not recognize the sender, the message may be infected. Look carefully at the subject line, and if certain words or combinations appear, immediately delete the message. An example is the word ‘hi’ which has been associated with numerous viruses. If you’re operating in a mail program (Outlook for instance) which for security purposes helps eliminate executable attachments and script, then use this to identify e-mails which may be damaging. Never open attachments unless you know the sender and need the attachment, or are prepared to deal with either a potential virus through protective software or the consequences of infection.

Ok, so you happen to get infected, what then? One of the common effects of viruses is to access your contacts database and send numerous spurious messages to your contacts to propagate itself. Shutting down your mail program and isolating your computer from any network are the two immediate steps that MUST be taken. Next, it makes sense to scan, quarantine and delete any infected files and messages. Then and only then, should you take care of the damage control with external and internal clients, apologizing for opening up that infected attachment.

If you’re sending messages to existing and potential clients, how do you differentiate your critical piece of communication from a potentially lethal blow to your client’s computer network? After all, business is using more electronic communication than ever before, the costs are low, the medium can be effective, and statistics show that executives and decision makers are generally inclined to be reachable through e-mail.

Recognizing the fear and misconceptions is a start. Business professionals (rightly so) are afraid of becoming infected and therefore are likely to operate on the side of caution. Many, in fact, will take the approach of deleting suspect messages immediately and that if the communication is that important, the sender will try again, or will contact them in another manner. Realize too that many executives have text messaging capabilities on their cell phones, PDA’s and devices that allow them to receive up to 30 or so message characters. Virus developers and ‘spam’ messages have also become more sophisticated in their ‘art’ and professional in their appearance as they attempt to target business professionals and companies.

Here are a few tips for your messages:

  • Never use ‘Hi’ or contractions in the subject line of business e-mails
  • Never use the word ‘advice’ or ‘advise’
  • Refer if possible to the context of the message or your company
    (If this is regarding a meeting, discussion, event, dialogue, identify this)
  • Use the first 30 characters of your message to support your subject line
    (most mail programs allow recipients to see the first several words of the message so use this effectively)
  • Wherever possible use the subject line to advance communication
    (Ex: NPIcenter programs-next steps—prepare for Friday call)
  • If possible, make yourself known to the recipient or establish a frame of reference
  • Always use a subject

While I’m not going to talk specifically about Web and e-mail marketing, preferring, at least in this article, to talk about communication, there are some general comments that should be made. First of all, as is the case with any ‘new ‘ development or technology, it will reach maturity and accepted practice and hopefully the volume of ridiculous and spam messages being sent will subside. Secondly, many opt-in mailing lists or subscription programs are not opt-in or subscription only, and so they actively gather data as you enter their site and add you to their programs, whether you opt-in or not. If you’ve ever tried to opt out of a list or program you know how difficult it’s been to do this. More and more of the people we’re speaking with have developed multiple profiles, even for their business use, including e-mail addresses.

Keeping all of this in mind, as a business professional, if you’ve been given the privilege of your client’s e-mail address, treat it with respect, as the valuable indication of trust and relationship it indicates. Frivolous or irresponsible use of it reflects badly on you and your organization.

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