An envelope with a recipient address, but no return address.

A Case Against no-reply Emails

Pretty letter with no return address. Photo by Annie Spratt

Something’s been nagging me for a long time so hear me out: no-reply email addresses are a lazy, arguably contemptuous practice. Try as I might, and I have given this a lot of thought through the years, I cannot fathom a scenario in which sending an email to my users or customers from a no-reply@yourbrand.com address is preferable to doing so with a proper, valid, absolutely-please-do-reply-to-this email address.

I’m willing to bet that if you think about it you would come to a similar conclusion.

What does it represent?

Before we go into specific use cases, let’s take a step back and examine the implications. Because, to be quite frank, even if there were a valid use case, what no-reply@yourbrand.com says about the sender and whether they value the recipient isn’t something most people would want said about their organization.

Imagine receiving a package in the mail. It’s a really cool thing you ordered online, so you can’t wait to tear into the packaging, but before you do you notice the sender’s address on the shipping label reads:

Please send your letters to:
Really Cool Stuff, Inc.
Care of: DEPT. OF IMMEDIATE DISPOSAL
#321 Cool Things Rd.
Cool Things City, CT 51243

That’s pretty lousy, isn’t it?

It’s certainly not an appropriate message to send to our customers. Yet that’s pretty much what we’re saying every time we send an email from a no-reply address. That’s the message most online brands send to their customers every day, millions of times per day. Amazon makes this even worse by making the from: field something like shipment-tracking@amazon.com or order-update@amazon.com and giving the reply-to: field the value no-reply@amazon.com. The usefulness of these sender addresses is not lost on me (users may set up rules for automatically labeling and archiving emails from these senders, for example), but obscuring the fact that they are not to be replied to helps no one. It’s hard to imagine a company with so many resources can’t figure out what to do with email replies sent to a shipment-tracking@amazon.com inbox.

What’s the alternative?

Although in practice it can at times be tricky to implement, the answer is quite simple: when you come across the need to send an email programmatically, consider the reasons for which someone might need to reply, and populate the from: field accordingly. When it doubt, it might help to consider what the appropriate address from which to send the email would be if you were sending it by hand and expecting a conversation. Here are a few examples:

  • Order and shipping confirmations could be sent from an orders@yourbrand.com address, replies to which get handled internally and assigned to a customer service representative.
  • Website registration emails could come from a support@yourbrand.com address in case the new user is having issues with next steps.
  • Donation confirmation emails could perhaps be sent from an outreach@yourbrand.com address in case the user has questions about how their donation will be used, or how they can get more involved.
  • Announcement emails should go out from an email address that is handled by whichever part of your organization is responsible for answering questions about the (hopefully exciting) new developments described in the email.
  • An apology for, say, a privacy scandal concerning changes to your app’s EULA should probably come from your CEO’s own email address. (It’s an apology, right? And you’re actually sorry for the grief caused, right? So don’t phone it in.)

If you’re sensing a pattern here, it’s because there is one. Behind every communication, automated or otherwise, there is a person or group of people who is responsible for it. In front of that email is a person who might have something valuable to say in response. It’s time we start acting like facilitating communication between these people is high on our list of priorities, because it really should be.

Ditching the no-reply email address is in the best interest of our users and —by extension— that of our clients.

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