Saturday, January 10, 2009

Weathering a "Reply to All" storm

Infographic printed in WSJ 3/8/11 from my interview
March 2011 Update: Had a great conversation with The Wall Street Journal about reply all storms - Check out the article and graphic based on our interview ("The Perfect Email Storm") on the WSJ site here.
If you work for a large organization, chances are you have seen a "reply to all" email storm. It starts out like this, someone sends an email to a distribution list which contains every email address in the company(thousands of addresses). One person clicks "reply to all", and says something like "please remove me from this discussion". Well, this is the first of three phases of an email storm. I'll call it the calm before the storm, to make it more exciting... If you're keeping count we've got two emails out to everyone in the company.

Phase two. Many of the recipients of the email think, "hey, me too, this email has nothing to do with my job or what's on woot today so I want off this email chain too". So about 5% of these people click "reply to all" and send a message indicating they want off too. Now we're up to 70 or 80 emails to everyone in the company.

Phase Three of the storm commences. Phase three is when another 5% of the recipients get tired of the unsolicited flood of emails so they, yes, REPLY TO ALL to inform everyone to stop replying to all. It makes me tired just typing it, but it happens and it gets even worse. The replies start nice, of course everyone wants to help. Then people start getting angry, and, yes, reply to all to tell them about it.

Now this all sounds a bit silly, but I have seen this happen twice in the last two years at two different (large) organizations. The first time at "company A" was bad, but thankfully it was limited to a small (in comparison) distro list of about 1500 people. The second and most recent instance of the phenomena was a lot worse and the initial email went out to about 25,000 recipients. The result of the second example was tormented exchange servers that couldn't handle the load and inevitably shut down email for the organization, globally. (yes, there were some CHOICE emails in the flood that were quite funny and I assume more than one person was canned for their replies) Needless to say there are a lot of embarrassed people at the site right now for the self inflicted email crash.

So what do you do. First off, don't reply to all to tell everyone not to reply to all. Even if you haven't done one full hour of actual work all year and you KNOW that if you tell everyone to stop that will save the day, everyone will clap, and you will get a raise. That wont happen, it just wont. So don't click it!

The second thing is if you send an email to a large distribution list, put the distro list address in the bcc line. Then, in the first line of the email indicate the name of the list the email was sent to so all the recipients know. If a recipient replies to all on a message you sent to a bcc, it will only go the the sender and not what was in the bcc.

Another novel way, if again you are the sender, is to block the reply all button for your recipients. Now, granted, this will only work for Outlook users using Exchange within an organization, but if this is a good match then this will actually remove the button from the recipients mail for your message. Pretty cool! Here's how to do it:

Add the following macro to your Outlook(2003).

Sub NoReplyAll()
Dim myolapp As Object
Dim myinspector As Object
Set myolapp = CreateObject("Outlook.Application")
Set myinspector = myolapp.ActiveInspector
myinspector.CurrentItem.Actions("Reply to All").Enabled = False
myinspector.CurrentItem.Actions("Forward").Enabled = False
End sub

After creating the macro, you can create a button in your message window to run the macro when you create a new message. Running the macro prior to sending the message changes the metadata that exchange reads to disallow the “Forward” and “Reply to All” buttons for everyone receiving the message within the same organization and using Outlook.

Anyhow, for what it’s worth, if you are sending email to a large distribution list or know someone that frequently does – this may be helpful in stopping a storm before it starts.

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