Freebie, Web-Based E-Mail: The Pros and Cons
It's slow, and it's short on professional image but great for getting mail on the road
Sheryl Patton runs a lean operation. She started her catering business,
Make Me Lunch, in San Rafael, Calif., last November -- and she still doesn't
have a business telephone number. "I rely on faxes and mostly on E-mail,"
she says. Not just any E-mail. Patton uses free, Web-based E-mail (in this
case, Microsoft's Hotmail).
Free E-mail. This Internet marketing strategy sounds like such a bargain.
Popular Web portals and news and entertainment sites offer the service
-- you'll find variations at Yahoo!, Excite, and even Business Week Online.
For access to your account, just visit the Web site via your browser and
No question the services are popular. Hotmail claims to be the market
leader with 40 million active users. It's also clear why sites offer
this giveaway: It brings repeat visitors, making the sites attractive
But why would a business person such as Patton use free Web-based E-mail?
If you have an Internet service provider, you get an E-mail account at
no extra charge. For access to an ISP mail account, you use widely available E-mail software such as Qualcomm's Eudora, Microsoft Outlook Express, or Netscape Messenger. The latter two
are part of those companies' browsers, which can be had for free from their
Web sites and elsewhere. These programs download messages from your ISP mailbox
onto your hard drive, so you can call up messages almost as soon as they
come in. On the other hand, getting messages via a site-based free E-mail account takes as long as loading a Web page. And the process is hostage to all the same technical bottlenecks you can run into while surfing the Web.
NO DOMAIN NAMES. Another disadvantage of promotional, Web-based E-mail is you can't
use your business' registered domain name -- if you have one -- in your address.
A typical business E-mail address is email@example.com,
a format that's easy to remember. For an additional fee, ISPs will let
you use an address such as that -- instead of their name after the @ symbol.
With a Web-based E-mail, you're stuck with the service's name.
Patton's E-mail address, for instance, is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Still, there are two real advantages to free Web E-mail services: They're
accessible when you're out of the office from any computer with a Web connection.
And you can use them to get mail from other, less-accessible accounts.
"I can check my E-mail from the public library, from a customer site, from
wherever I am," Patton says. To get her ISP E-mail account, she first
must connect to the provider. But that's not always possible. Clients may use
other ISPs, for example. And few businesspeople want to inconvenience customers with requests
to hook up a laptop to a modem.
You can tap other mail accounts via the Web-based services simply by logging
on and following instructions to get external mail. But only some ISPs
will let you do so.
Which Web-based E-mail service is best? We looked at Yahoo! Mail
(www.yahoo.com), Hotmail (www.hotmail.com), and BusinessWeek Mail (www.businessweekmail.com)
and found they have similar features, including the ability to create folders
in which you store messages and to maintain an address book of your E-mail
recipients. They all have so-called filters that examine incoming messages
for certain elements, such as whether a message comes from a key client.
The filters automatically route messages to specific folders. Filters
are easy to set up using on-screen forms in your browser, which you access
from the home page of the service.
Because these E-mail offerings are so similar, you may want to select one
on the basis of which is most pleasing to your eye. We found Hotmail the
easiest to navigate. Or, if you regularly visit one of the popular portal
sites, such as Yahoo!, Excite, NetCenter, or InfoSeek, you might as well
use that service's E-mail.
Patton says when she started her business, she didn't have an
account with an ISP. She does now. Still, Patton won't change her free E-mail
address: "This system has worked out really well. Everybody
knows my E-mail address."
David Haskin in Madison, Wis.