Years ago when I was working for SMART Technologies, I noticed something strange during my second week of work as Social Media Specialist that would transform my perception, cause me to look at things from more than one angle and to not always trust process.
Before I explained what I noticed and the impact it had on SMART’s community, I’ll explain the process behind how emails at SMART were created.
The standard email format for new users, based on my experience, is to create an alias that is a combination of the users’ first name initial and their full last name. At SMART, my email alias was RMCLEOD. I think it’s important for an email alias to be memorable to the user, easy to remember for anyone that person does business with and unique amongst the other users of an organization. One of the main problems is when another person with the same first name initial and same last name as a user already in the system is hired. For example, if SMART were to have hired someone named Ruth McLeod, they would have to distinguish her alias perhaps by adding a number (i.e. RMCLEOD1). Something that this process doesn’t account for is the potential formation of new words by combining first name initial with the last name. And why should it right?
Well, the main reason is that an email alias has an impact on perception, professionalism and behind the scenes, the ISP spam server.
For example, someone named Irene Diot would have the alias IDIOT. So, although the system would have no issue creating this alias, you would hope that someone in the IT department or HR would notice this alias and make an adjustment.
With all of this being said, what happened during my second week at SMART was a result of the email alias creation process.
One of my roles was to manage the SMART Exchange, which is a forum for teachers and educators (really anyone in the education realm who uses a SMARTBoard) to share ideas, upload & download lessons plans designed for the SMARTBoard and interact with other users.
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However, when I started digging around, I noticed that a large majority of the users’ last login was the same date and time as when their account had been created. This was a big problem because it was showing that user engagement was extremely low. Normally you would expect this from only a small percentage of users so the fact that it was a large majority told me that there was something going on with the SMART Exchange.
What that turned out to be wasn’t anything I could have ever imagined however.
A few days later I was going through some of my emails and happened to look at the headers which provide technical information on the email. I noticed the alias for the SMART Exchange and I immediately knew there was a problem.
If you remember the process behind email aliases, you’ll get where I’m going with this. Although “S Exchange” doesn’t mean much, the alias as it’s read does – “sexchange”.
As you can imagine, when a teacher receives an email from the SMART Exchange confirming their registration from the email address “firstname.lastname@example.org”, the spam filter should pick up “sex” and not allow that email through, which means the teacher would never receive their confirmation email and would therefore not be able to login to the forum. Which is exactly what happened. I won’t go into details of what happened from that point on but suffice it to say that the alias and email address had been in use for more than 1 year.
I share this story as a cautionary tale in two ways.
First, always work through any process that is setup, especially an automated process that will exist across thousands of records and look at what the worst case scenario would be.
Secondly, DON’T require email confirmation or approval when people are trying to join your service. If they register for your service that means they are ENGAGED. Don’t run the risk of losing them by requiring more work on their part – let them to use your service immediately after registering. Use a Captcha or equivalent verification system upon registering. It’s not worth the impact to your service.