Microsoft Office and Bulk Mailings

Does Microsoft Office give you the tools you need when you have a legitimate need (i.e., not for spamming purposes) to send bulk electronic mailings to customers? Microsoft Word, for example, has built-in functionality that lets you merge documents with address lists to email messages. Nevertheless, Office probably can't handle serious mass-mail projects, partly because of the Outlook Email Security Update and partly because Word's mail-merge facility doesn't support several key bulk-mail features.

The Outlook Email Security Update hinders mass mailings because of its "object model guard" feature, which displays a dialog box whenever a program tries to access email address properties or send a message. With one mouse click, you can enable up to 10 minutes of access to address properties. However, each time the send security dialog box appears, you must wait 5 seconds before you can click the Yes button. That's 5 seconds of waiting for each message, which, unless you can afford to pay someone to sit at the computer and click the button all day, makes bulk mailings to more than a few addresses impractical. One crude but potentially effective workaround is a tool called Express ClickYes, which you can configure to click the button for you.

Companies performing business email merges generally want several features that Word can't deliver, including customized subject lines, attached files, and HTML-format messages. Customized subject lines and file attachments have never been available with Word mail merges. Another limitation is that with Office 2000, you can merge only to plaintext messages, not HTML. Outlook 2002 adds the option to merge to HTML-format messages. Oddly, selecting the HTML option in Outlook 2002 bypasses the usual security prompt. However, the resulting messages have no hot links in them, even if the Word merge document has working hyperlinks. Because the point of an HTML-format bulk mail message is usually to encourage readers to click a link and visit the sender's Web site, this Office XP bug renders the HTML option largely useless.

Fortunately, several third-party bulk-mail tools can use the data that already resides in Outlook contact folders. Ideally, any tool worth considering for regular use can send a personalized message to the recipient, in either plaintext or HTML format, with or without attachments—all without triggering the Outlook security prompts. Bonus features would let you merge custom properties from Outlook contacts, send messages by fax to a recipient who has a fax number but not an email address, send to individual members of a distribution list (DL), personalize the subject line, and embed images in an HTML message.

So far, the only tool I've found that meets all the basic requirements, along with a few of the extras, is WorldMerge 4.0. The interface for picking the Outlook data folder—a list instead of a folder tree—is crude, and there's no WYSIWYG editor for creating HTML messages, but these flaws aren't fatal. You can always create the HTML content in Word or another WYSIWYG tool and paste the HTML tags into the WorldMerge message builder. Planned features include an integrated WYSIWYG editor and Windows XP support.

Another potential source of bulk-mail capability is your customer relationship management (CRM) program. Most CRM programs include mail merge as a basic feature. If you're evaluating CRM applications, ask about the mail-merge features I've mentioned to make sure that you buy a product that can meet your mass mailing needs.

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