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Out Of Office or OOF messages are considered by many important to let people know when you're away from email. Setting one up properly is difficult.

I know you think they're evil, but I have a very legitimate reason for setting up an automated out of office response message. How do I do that?

It's true, I've long held the position that Out of Office Replies are Evil. Mostly because they're most often misconfigured and used inappropriately.

And that's if your email system even supports them.

So I'll look at how, or even if, you can set one up, and then I'll review how they can be used safely.

Your Email Provider

The preferred method to set up an Out Of Office message, (more correctly Out Of Facility or OOF) or an Automated Reply is to use the services of your email provider. Many will allow you to configure an automated reply directly on your mail server.

A good example is Google's GMail. Under Settingsm in the General tab you'll find this:

GMail Vacation Auto Responder

Another popular example is Hotmail. Under Options, Manage Your Account, you'll find "Send automated vacation replies":

Hotmail Vacation Auto Responder

By using this, you can create a message that will be automatically sent in reply to each message received (within some limits, which we'll discuss below).

"The preferred method to set up an Out Of Office message ... is to use the services of your email provider."

Other email providers may provide similar functionality.

If you download your email using a desktop mail program this functionality is typically not visible there. Check the options around any webmail interface your email service might provide for you.

Unfortunately, not all email services provide OOF functionality.

Your Email Program

It's possible to configure many email programs using what are called "Rules" or "Filters". Normally, we think of these as ways to flag or file incoming email automatically. However, many email clients, like Outlook, Thunderbird or even Outlook Express have the ability to reply with a message. In Outlook Express, for example, under Tools, Message Rules, Mail..., New... you'll find this:

Auto Respond in Outlook Express

The huge downside to this approach for auto-response is that your email program must be running and periodically checking for new mail. It's difficult to consider that a truly practical option for, say, a lengthy vacation. The Email Provider solutions above all work whether your email program is running or not.

There are also limitations in many of the email programs' approaches to automatic responders that ... well, it makes them very easy to be evil. We'll discuss that below.

Your Email Server

This isn't for the average user, but if you have your own server out on the web you might consider something like Email Responder Pro. This is a PHP script that you can install on your web server that will poll your email account on any POP3/IMAP server, and send automated responses based on assorted criteria.

Doing it Right

So with all of those approaches that may, or may not, work for you, what does it mean to "do it right"? What do I mean by "evil", and how do you set up an OOF reply that isn't?

The rules are very, very simple:

  • If someone sends you a message, they should only get the auto-response once, no matter how many additional messages they send you. Nothing is more annoying than getting lots and lots of the same auto response to every message you might send to someone who's still checking their email while they are away. It's also a very quick way to get your email or mail server flagged for spamming.

  • The auto-response is never sent to mailing lists, only to direct mail. This is perhaps the most common offense. As a mailing list provider, you can imagine how much of a problem it would be to get a few hundred out-of-office replies when I send out a newsletter. If you're on a large discussion list, you've probably seen auto-replies that go back to the entire list.

And of course failing both those two rules can lead to all sorts of problems.

Unfortunately, almost all of the solutions above also violate these two rules in one way or another.

Out of Office responses are very difficult to set up properly, and in my opinion, they're to be avoided almost completely.

But there's no arguing that in concept they can be very useful. If you must set one up, take the time to understand what tools you have available, and how to set them up properly.

Article C3666 - March 6, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Ken B
March 6, 2009 10:24 AM

And for those who don't fully understand your two rules, consider what happens when someone violates both:

* A message to a mailing list arrives.
* Your OOF message is sent back to the list.
* You receive a copy of your OOF message via the list and send another OOF reply.
* You receive a copy of your second OOF message via the list, and generate a third.
* Repeat ad nauseum.
* Get banned from the list, and await the hate mail from every list member who received your hundreds of OOF messages before the list manager kicked you off.

And, for those who say "I don't get copies of my own postings", consider a large list with two (or more) subscribers who have violated Leo's rules, and send OOF replies to each other (via the list, of course).

Mary
March 7, 2009 4:26 PM

Not to mention the possibility (probablility?) of alerting spammers they have a live email address which will generate even more spam.

Indeed. Just another reason that Out of Office Replies are Evil.
- Leo
08-Mar-2009

Cory Becker
March 9, 2009 12:47 PM

Thanks for mentioning our application in your post. Email Responder Pro can be configured to only send one OOF message over a period of X days (you specify the interval) to a recipient regardless of the number of messages they send to you.

Cory Becker
Email Responder Pro
http://www.emailresponderpro.com

novice
March 10, 2009 8:39 AM

have you guys checked out Gmail's vacation responder?

1. it provides an option to send auto response to only the contacts

2. if a contact sends more than one email the auto reply is sent once every 4 days at the max

3. "Messages classified as spam and messages addressed to a mailing list you subscribe to will not receive a vacation response."

Bill
March 10, 2009 8:46 AM

One nice thing that our company did was to set up the system so that using Office's autoresponder sent one message per day per sender and ONLY sent the message to internal users.

Dawn
March 13, 2009 1:58 PM

I cannot seem to figure it out for Outlook 2007. I feel much better using an auto responder if I am out of the office during the day.

Dawn
http://www.freelanceadminsupport.com

Emily Ballinger
July 14, 2009 1:53 PM

I am snot seing a method for setting up an an auto response for yahoo mail. What am I missing? Thanks, Emily

I don't believe Yahoo Mail supports it.
- Leo
15-Jul-2009

Loekie Maddra
April 23, 2010 6:34 AM

Is there a way to set up an auto response in Hotmail??
I've done it before, but am not able to find it now; did they stop this service?
Loekie

Margaret Matta
June 1, 2010 3:46 AM

Don't have the option on my Hotamil 'Manage your Account' optin to set up automated vacation response. I have a Yahoo email that I set up the response on and asked for them to use the response with my hotmail account. It has not worked - can you help?

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