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November 23 2009

Managing Email Signatures

Email signatures are so ubiquitous that we rarely think about them. Here's what we learned when we did.

Email signatures are everywhere -- at the bottom of almost every email message you receive and send.  Nonprofit marketing consultant (and Groundwire ally) Nancy Schwartz thinks that email signatures are our our most overlooked marketing opportunity. She writes:

Consider this: If your organization has 30 employees, each of whom sends 15 emails daily outside the organization, then (assuming 250 business days) that's 112,500 business cards or ads distributed annually, at no cost. If you have 100 employees, that's 375,000 cards or ads annually.

A consistent, well-designed, organization-wide email signature is a key part of your brand identity, and serves a number of important functions.

  • At the most basic level, email signatures provide a lot more explicit information than the "From:" line of your message alone offers. By reminding the recipient of your organization, job title, phone number and website, an email signature quickly establishes your identity and provides helpful context.
  • Your email signature serves as an "electronic business card" or a tiny online advertisement that lets you reinforce a marketing message or provide a featured news item along with a hyperlink for direct action. 
  • A consistent, organization-wide email signature design helps establish and reinforce your brand identity and is a key marketing message.
  • Finally, a consistent email signature can serve as a cognitive flag that helps folks who get emails from several different people in your organization quickly make the connection between them.

Here at Groundwire, we recently took advantage of the opportunity presented by our rebranding to get our email signatures in order.  We learned quite a bit about both strategy and tactics, which we're pleased to report back on.


Back when we were ONE/Northwest, we didn't think a lot about our email signatures. Each staff person composed their own, and they were wildly inconsistent. Sure, we're pretty tech savvy, and so we managed to get the basics in there pretty well, including:

Person's name
Web address

But some people included other information (Twitter or Skype address), some included a link to our email newsletter. Some included a quote or other marketing message. Everything was plain-text, our logo was never in there, nor did we ever think about coordinating our email signatures to promote an event or a campaign we were working on. 


As we went through the process of changing our name to Groundwire, we quickly realized that our email signatures were going to be one of the most important channels for letting people know we'd changed our name -- and for reminding folks of the big change.  (The key to getting a message through is repetition, which itself is an idea that bears repeating!)

We set ourselves the following goals for Groundwire email signatures:

  1. Use official Groundwire fonts and colors from our new brand identity guidelines.
  2. Include our beautiful new logo to reinforce the new brand identity.
  3. Include key staff information plus a marketing tagline with a hyperlink.
  4. Track clicks on the hyperlinks.
  5. Have both HTML and plain-text versions.
  6. Be consistent across the entire organization.
  7. Be easy to deploy to all staff
  8. Be able to easily update the marketing tagline on an ongoing basis.
  9. Require as little intervention from each staff person as possible.
  10. Work across our diversity of email clients (we have Macs and PCs, and use Outlook, Entourage, Thunderbird and Apple Mail) and look good no matter what email software the recipient is using.

Whew!  Designing the basic signatures was the easy part.  Here's what we created:

Groundwire email signature

The plain-text version looks like this:

Sean Pender
Information Systems Manager

ONE/Northwest is now Groundwire!

Here are a couple of little technical tricks we picked up as we built the HTML signature:

  • Use externally hosted images. It is tempting to embed the image into the message, in order to avoid "do you want to load images from this sender" messages, but this tends to bloat your message size, and in some email clients, the image will appear as an attachment rather than showing in the right place in the message, especially after a few forwards. Instead, we put our graphic image on an external webserver.  We used our Amazon S3 account for easy, robust, reliable and darn cheap storage.  (We estimate it'll cost under a buck a month to serve up a hundred thousand copies of the logo.) 
  • Use table formatting and inline CSS.  Webpages support some really fancy HTML + CSS styling these days, but email clients are still stuck with primitive support for CSS.  Keep your HTML + CSS really simple, and make sure you put all of your styling inline.   (CampaignMonitor has fantastic information on these details.)
  • Include a tracking code in your HTML hyperlinks.  You want to know if folks are clicking on those links, right?  And you want to be able to figure out over time which links generate the most clicks, right?  If you're using Google Analytics, then it's as simple as constructing a tagged link.  (Here are Google's URL Builder tool and their helpful explanation of it.)  Tag your links, and soon enough, you'll start seeing those clicks called out in your Google Analytics report.

    We tag these links with:
    Campaign Source = Groundwire.org Email
    Campaign Medium = Email
    Campaign Name = Email Signature
    Campaig Content = Logo or Promo

    We only tag the links in the HTML signature, because big hairy plain-text links look awful and scary.

Deploying our beautiful, trackable signatures in a consistent way turned out to be quite a bit tougher than we anticipated.  Some of the problems we ran into included:

  • Outlook 2007 rewrote our simple, carefully crafted HTML into "tag soup" as soon as users started customizing the signature.  
  • Mac email clients required the user to hand-edit the HTML (yuk!) and go through cumbersome steps to deploy it.   
  • Getting the signatures deployed into our team's email clients required complex instructions that even our tech-savvy staff found difficult to follow.

HTML email formatting is tough on the best days. HTML email signature formatting is even tougher.

But, then a little bit of internet searching revealed that we were not alone in our struggle!  Thousands of organizations, small and large, have grappled with the challenge of standardized, centralized email signatures -- ever seen those annoying "confidentiality disclaimers" on your lawyer's email?  

Turns out that there is a vibrant market for third-party add-on products that provide advanced email signature management for Microsoft Exchange mail servers.  (We use Exchange as part of Small Business Server 2003.)  MSExchange.org has a nice list of solutions, corporations tend to call these "disclaimers," probably because lawyers are the biggest fans of this practice.

After poking around a bit and reading a few manuals, we decided to give Code Two Exchange Rules a try.  We liked its technical approach, which was 100% on the server, and didn't require any fiddling on each email client.  The price was right, at $130 for 100 users on our Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 box, and we found the software impressively easy to install and use.  (We were up and running in about 10 minutes.)

Exchange Rules allowed us to quickly configure a signature and to instantly deploy it to our entire organization.  We're really loving the powerful, centralized control mechanism it offers, which allows us to:

  • Merge in personal information (name, email, title, phone) from our organization-wide Active Directory.
  • Instantly update the signatures for all staff, for example, with a new tagline or a new tracking code.
  • Automatically enable signatures on all outgoing mail, but avoid sending them on internal email.
  • Define a magic phrase ("no_sig") that, when included in an email, makes the system skip adding a signature.

Forward, the Future

Where do we go from here?  Well, our next step is to plan out a series of promotional taglines to feature in the signature, once the novelty of the new Groundwire name wears off.   We'll keep an eye on our stats.  And we'll enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing that our email signatures are consistent, on-brand, on-message and easy to maintain as we continue to grow.