Q: How can I add notes to messages in Microsoft Outlook?

A: Microsoft Outlook includes a Notes feature, but I know only a few users who use it, let alone use it effectively. In Outlook contacts or new appointments, Microsoft includes an area for personal notes (see "What can you use the Notes field for in Microsoft Outlook forms?" for information about using those fields); however, email messages don't afford the same real-time note-taking. OneNote provides a better freeform notes application, and it integrates with Outlook somewhat (see "Outlook 2010 and OneNote 2010 Integration: Part 1–Email Messages").

But if you want to add notes to specific email messages, there's a third-party application that incorporates notes into your Outlook workflow in a more intuitive manner than Microsoft has with its little yellow squares. Outlook add-on developer Standss has a tool called EmailNotes for Outlook. You can download a free trial from the company's website. I installed EmailNotes version 2.0.4556 in my lab.

EmailNotes is a notation product that lets your users add information to email messages through a simple form, integrated with Outlook. EmailNotes is available for Outlook 2007 (32-bit) and Outlook 2010 (32- and 64-bit). The installation is basic and, of course, Outlook needs to be closed to complete the process, which you can run from a small .msi installation file. A compiled Help file is added to the Windows Start menu as part of the install.

The application is surprisingly useful. Email messages are sent back and forth as communication between sender and recipient, so it might not be prudent to link personal notes on messages because it could be possible to expose personal or confidential information accidentally. EmailNotes provides a mechanism for recording bits of information regarding an email message in a new pane within the Outlook message itself, as you can see in Figure 1.

The EmailNotes pane in an Outlook message
Figure 1: The EmailNotes pane in an Outlook message (Click image for larger view)

The note isn't part of the message; it doesn't travel with a message when you reply to or forward an email with an EmailNotes note. EmailNotes doesn't display its notes pane when other Outlook folders, such as Contacts, Calendars, or Tasks (or Notes), are being accessed.

In a small way, EmailNotes works as a very basic customer relationship management (CRM) application, letting you document aspects of email communication. However, the note-taking is based on messages and not tied to the recipient or contact. As such, it wouldn't replace a CRM solution, but it might provide something your users could use to boost productivity where a CRM solution is excessive.

With EmailNotes, you can attach the notes you create to messages in a reply or forward, but it isn't automatic. The attachments are sent as text files, as Figure 2 shows, so there's no requirement that the recipient also use EmailNotes to read the content.

Attaching an EmailNotes note as a text file to an Outlook message
Figure 2: Attaching an EmailNotes note as a text file to an Outlook message (Click image for larger view)

When you use EmailNotes to create the Reply or Forward message with the attachment and the recipient also uses EmailNotes, the recipient will be asked when the message is opened if they want to associate the attached note to the email for their own reference. Figure 3 shows the prompt the user sees. If the recipient says yes, the note appears in their EmailNotes pane, not part of the actual email message body.

Prompt to recipient if they also use EmailNotes
Figure 3: Prompt to recipient if they also use EmailNotes (Click image for larger view)

EmailNotes content is separate from the email messages but still stored in the main Outlook data storage location, whether that location is a .pst or an Exchange mailbox. Content gets backed up with your regular backups. Individual notes are saved as Post Items in a separate folder, which is visible in the Outlook folder view as \Standss Settings\EmailNotes. EmailNotes notes are linked to email messages as a property of the Post (an IPM.Post Outlook message class). The content of this folder isn't deleted if EmailNotes is uninstalled. Interestingly, these Posts of EmailNotes are not even deleted when the messages linked to the EmailNotes are deleted. This situation leaves a set of orphaned EmailNotes in the \Standss Settings\EmailNotes folder, which might be a good archive, depending on the information users keep in the notes.

Much like the Notes within Outlook, EmailNotes has several pastel colors available similar to 3M's ubiquitous Post-it Notes. You can change colors in the Settings window, accessed from the Office Ribbon. The Settings option opens the EmailNotes Settings window, which Figure 4 shows. You can manipulate the default font and decide whether EmailNotes uses its own pane or must be accessed through the Office Ribbon. Users with less screen area might prefer the latter setting.

The EmailNotes Settings window
Figure 4: The EmailNotes Settings window (Click image for larger view)

When you perform a search in Outlook, content in the EmailNotes folder isn't searched; however, you can specifically search the EmailNotes folder with Outlook search or you can use the EmailNotes Search option in the Ribbon button that's added by the application. When you use the latter, EmailNotes lists the associated email messages attached to the notes that hold the keyword for your search, as Figure 5 shows.

 Using the EmailNotes Search feature in Outlook
Figure 5: Using the EmailNotes Search feature in Outlook (Click image for larger view)

EmailNotes provides a quick tutorial page in its Help file, which is really all you need to get started. This application takes a different approach to email journaling, but requires commitment to the product to return value. I can see efficiencies in a shared mailbox scenario, such as a Help desk email account managed by multiple service personnel. EmailNotes is an individual user solution, and not a corporate CRM or true journaling product. (For more useful Outlook add-ins, see William's "Short List of My Favorite Microsoft Outlook Add-ins.")

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