Mar 27, 2012

OMG Make The Auto-Replies Go Away (Introducing ReplyTo)

Update: ReplyTo has joined forces with Mandrill to make Conversations, an even better solution to the auto-reply problem.

When the MailChimp user list was small, it was fun sending out campaigns and then receiving replies in my personal inbox, because I’d occasionally have nice little conversations with customers. But now our list has grown to 1.6 million recipients. That means every time we send an email out, I get a little more than 10,000 "away on vacation" auto-replies that I have to sift through, only to find about 10-20 actual replies from humans. OMG. Sure, I have a bunch of mail rules that help, but that doesn’t change the fact that my inbox is getting totally hammered for the next few days. So what’s a sender with a large list to do? Use a @donotreply email address? That’s so inhuman (and can have some unexpected consequences). We thought there had to be a smarter way to deal with auto-replies.

So we built ReplyTo. It’s an app that analyzes all the auto-replies you get from your email campaigns and forwards only the human replies to your inbox.


And it can do a lot more than that.


It can also detect replies from very special customers, and route them to different inboxes. It can even perform some requests from your customers (like change-of-address and unsubscribe requests), as if you had a personal assistant/chimpanzee managing your emails.


Best of all, ReplyTo is a free service, and you’ll be able to use it whether you’re a MailChimp customer or not. Because we love you. And the nerds in MailChimp Labs just love making email better. Interested? It’s currently in beta. Just sign up at You’ll be asked to OAuth into your MailChimp account (so even if you’re not a user, you can set up a free MailChimp account here to test drive ReplyTo).


How ReplyTo works

It’s important to note that ReplyTo doesn’t actually take your emails anywhere. You set up your own POP account, and let ReplyTo check that account for you. If it finds a reply from a human, we forward it to an email address of your choice. Everything else, we just leave alone in that mailbox. Since it’s a POP account that you own and manage, you can always check that inbox periodically to make sure nothing was missed. And to be on the safe side, if RepyTo finds an email that doesn’t quite match any of its rules, it’ll forward that email to you.

The first time I used ReplyTo "out of the box" (it was after sending this email to all our users), it sent me only a few hundred auto-replies instead of +10,000. I still needed to add a handful of custom rules (more on that in a minute), but it was soooo much easier on my inbox. With the custom rules in place, I’m eager to see how it tames auto-replies after my next campaign.

Now let’s look at some of ReplyTo’s features.

Default ReplyTo Rules

ReplyTo comes with a handful of default rules to help keep your inbox sane after you send campaigns:

Ignore Autoreplies: This is pretty obvious. Those "away on vacation" autoreplies are a complete pain, so ReplyTo keeps them from flooding your inbox.

Ignore Soft Bounces: A soft bounce means that the email account exists, but was unable to accept the message (like when a mailbox is full, over quota, or just otherwise temporarily unavailable). ReplyTo blocks those notifications from your inbox too.

Disregard Challenge-response Emails: You know those auto-replies, where people say "I get too much spam, so please verify that you’re a human?" Yeah, we get so many of those now, we need automation to handle that automation. Sigh. In the early days, I always clicked those messages to confirm that I’m human. But after mindlessly filling in captchas and counting puppies a few dozen times following every campaign I send, I actually start to question whether or not I’m human. Somewhat related article: 51% of Internet Traffic from Bots, and somewhat related to thatDealing With Scantily-clad Fembots. Anyway, ReplyTo makes those challenge-response emails go away by default. If you still want those emails, the rule can be disabled; in which case they get forwarded straight to your inbox.


MailChimp-specific Features

Like I said, you can use ReplyTo even if you’re not a MailChimp customer. But if you are a MailChimp customer, boy are you lucky. ReplyTo will take care of the following for you:

Update Email Address Changes: Whenever we see an auto-reply that says, "My email address has changed. Please update your records…" ReplyTo automatically updates that subscriber’s member profile in MailChimp.

Process Unsubscribe Requests: Ever get those emails from subscribers with something like "remove me" in their content? Sometimes, I just click the unsub link in their footer for them (sigh). But most of the time, there’s no copy of the original email campaign in their message, so I can’t click anything. Which means I have to sign in, find them on my list, and remove them (siiiiigh).

ReplyTo will look for those requests, and automatically unsubscribe those people for you (note: we currently remove them from ALL your lists, to be on the safe side).

And we have a couple more MailChimp-specific rules that are in the works:

Forward any emails from VIPs (aka Golden Monkeys): Even if it’s an auto-reply, sometimes you just want to see any email from your VIPs. So if we see an email from someone in MailChimp that you’ve marked as a Golden Monkey, we automatically forward it to an email address for you.

4 or 5 Star Members: We can detect when a reply is from a very engaged member of your list, and forward it to you or someone else.


Building Custom Rules

You can also set up custom rules. This is where things get interesting. For example, people tend to email us questions right after we send a campaign. Their questions often have nothing to do with the campaign itself; our email just reminded the recipient that they had a question to ask. So let’s say you sell a product called "Widget123." It’s an important product, so any replies that you get containing that keyword should go straight to a very specific sales person in your company:

Or, let’s say you have a very "special" customer, but he tends to get angry a lot. Nothing you do or say ever appeases him, and he seems to only respond well to one person in your company. Well, you can look for any emails from that guy (or his company domain name), and forward it to his lucky account representative:


That way, his email never ruins your day.

Ignore All Those Social Networkers

I get a lot of auto-replies that are invitations to join people on different social networks: "Hi MailChimp System Alert System, please join me on the social network for…" Sigh.

ReplyTo lets me block those invites from my inbox:

ReplyTo doesn’t currently handle multi-lingual replies, so if you see a lot of "ich bin abwesend" and "Obrigado pelo seu contacto" like I do, you’ll need to create custom rules. Otherwise, we’ll forward them to you, since they don’t match any of our default rules.


Built-in Search Tool

If someone sends you a complaint about not receiving your email, you can search for them:

and see what rules were triggered by their reply:

I might also want to create a custom filter to block a lot of the German auto-replies I get. Just eyeballing my inbox, I can see "abwesend" is a common term in those emails. Google translate tells me it means "absent."

So I search ReplyTo for all the emails containing "abwesend" in them, and get a bunch:


I can filter any emails with "abwesend" in the content, but I noticed above that his subject line started with "Abwesend:"

Hmm, maybe I should just filter emails with "abwesend" in the subject line, like this:

You’ll notice above that there’s a "preview matching emails" button. Clicking that will show me a sampling (maximum of five) of the emails it would catch, so I can make sure my rules aren’t way off base or something.

Custom rules can open up a bunch of new possibilities if you forward emails over to ("if this then that"). Over there, you can make emails from certain people trigger an SMS, or even call you on the phone (just try not to overload your voicemail inbox–we can’t help you there).

Using the noreply@ addresses is kind of ironic when you think about it. You work really hard to grow your subscriber base by being engaging, by being social, and by listening to your customers (we at MailChimp call that "being human"), only to get so many subscribers that you’re forced to ignore their replies. ReplyTo brings a little humanity back to email, and makes you actually look forward to hearing from your subscribers again.


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