Published on 2001-07-19 by John Collins. Please follow me on Twitter for more:
Nothing turns a person's perception of your web site, and therefore your company, suddenly sour than having first made the effort to contact your site and receiving no reply in return. This feeling is doubly so when the person is in contact with you regarding a problem they are experiencing. This leaves your site user or client with the impression that your operation either does not value or even care about their opinion, or else it is totally inefficient and incompetent. If either of these feelings are experienced by a large enough amount of people in contact with your company and they are allowed to go unchecked, this negative feeling can spell disaster for the long-term stability of your Internet presence.
Feedback from your web site users in a personal format (e.g. e-mails, feedback forms etc.) is perhaps the single most important piece of data that you can be supplied with. As I have discussed elsewhere in detail, site statistics and survey results can be a valuable marketing tool, but if they have one flaw it is that they can not tell you how people feel about your product, site or general image.
If your site contains a registration process whereby a form has to be completed containing personal details, never pass these details onto third party bodies without the site users prior consent or knowledge. Many sites who target niche markets embark upon extensive user survey exercises, with the sole intent of selling on this valuable information to companies who target their products at that particular niche markets. So long as consent is given, then that is fine but such activities should be carefully considered before implementing.
Another related issue is that of site users e-mail addresses. This may be given with consent to register for a newsletter for example, and should never be passed onto an e-mail advertising group without the user's prior consent.
This may seam like an obvious thing to point out, but in my experience it is something that comes up again and again: confusion between a company and a client over key information. This may be something important such as a date, action or worse of all a fee. Too alleviate such occurrences your clients or your site users should always be kept informed of all relevant information you have, and where money is involved it goes without saying that all information should be supplied in writing. For more general matters that apply to your entire client list or viewership, a newsletter or news service on your web site should be more than sufficient. Never keep people in the dark if you intend to make significant changes to your product, service or web site, as they will not appreciate changes being sprung on them at the last minute.
If you collect information on your site users by means of registration forms, surveys or site viewer statistics then you carry with this the obligation to protect this information. It is your responsibility to ensure the safe keeping of this client information, to prevent it from being misused or abused in any way by your company or by a third party.
Information of a particularly delicate or personal nature is best stored in a secure, password-encrypted database on a system that is ideally not connected to the Internet. If your system or LAN is connected, make sure that your sever or PC is protected by a firewall system. There is always the danger of your data being hacked into and exposed. In more recent high-profile cases hackers have accessed the client databases of major e-commerce sites that have contained their clients credit card numbers. Never leave such information on the server containing your site, this is not a secure location no matter what the server company promises.
Always remember that in the most extreme circumstances of your client/site user details being misused or exposed, it is your responsibility. It may not be your fault, but your site users may not feel so forgiving. Take the task of protecting your data seriously. Always keep your clients well informed, and welcome their queries. Remember that if they are asking you questions about the nature of the information they are supplying you with, they are entitled to do so and it is your responsibility to allay their concerns.
If you follow my above rules of e-mail etiquette you cannot go wrong. Most of them are common sense, but unfortunately these basic rules are largely ignored in today's fast-buck Internet. This is a most unfortunate trend that I hope you will not follow.
Updated 2020 : note that the above post is out-of-date, given this post was originally published in 2001, but is left here for archival purposes.