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Email (electronic mail) is the exchange of computer-stored messages by telecommunication. Email messages are usually encoded in American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) text. However, you can also send nontext files -- such as graphic images and sound files -- as attachments sent in binary streams. Email was one of the first activities performed over the internet and is still the most popular use. A large percentage of the total traffic over the internet is email. Email can also be exchanged between online service provider users and in networks other than the internet, both public and private.

Email can be distributed to lists of people, as well as to individuals. A shared distribution list can be managed by using an email reflector. Some mailing lists enable you to subscribe by sending a request to the mailing list administrator. A mailing list that is administered automatically is called a list server.

Email is one of the protocols included with the Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite of protocols. A popular protocol for sending email is Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), and a popular protocol for receiving it is Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3).

Differences between email and webmail

Today, the term email is often used to include both browser-based electronic mail, such as Gmail and AOL, and nonbrowser-based electronic mail, such as Outlook for Office 365. However, a distinction was previously made defining email as a nonbrowser program that required a dedicated email server and clients. The advantages to using nonbrowser email are integration with corporate software platforms, enhanced security and lack of advertisements.

Uses of email

Email can be used in a variety of ways, either personally or within an organization, as well as one on one or among a large group of people.

Most people find email to be a beneficial way to communicate with individuals or small groups of friends or colleagues. It enables users to easily send and receive documents, images, links and other files. Furthermore, it provides users with the flexibility of communicating with others on their own schedule.

Another beneficial use of email for one-to-one or small group communication could be sending professional follow-up emails after appointments, meetings or interviews or reminding participants of approaching due dates and time-sensitive activities. It also enables users to quickly and easily remind all meeting attendees of an upcoming event or notify the group of a time change. This is assisted by the integration of calendars and appointments into most email service platforms.

Furthermore, companies can use email to convey information to large amounts of employees, customers and potential customers. Email is frequently used for newsletters, where mailing list subscribers are sent specific, promoted content from a company, and direct email marketing campaigns, where an advertisement or promotion is sent to a targeted group of customers.

Email can also be used to turn leads into paying customers or to move a potential sale into a completed purchase. For example, a company may create an automated email that is sent to online buyers who keep items in their shopping cart for a specific amount of time. The email may remind the customer that they have products sitting in their cart and encourage them to complete the purchase before the items run out of stock.

Follow-up emails asking customers to submit a review after making a purchase are also common. They may include a survey asking customers to review the quality of service or the product they have recently received.

Types of B2B emails

Business-to-business (B2B) email marketing is used by businesses that are trying to facilitate the exchange of information, products or services between their organization and others. It differs from business-to-consumer (B2C) email marketing because it focuses on relaying the logic and reasoning behind a specific purchase decision in relation to a business's specific needs, rather than appealing to the emotions of consumers to convince them to buy a product. Some different types of B2B emails include the following:

  • Welcome emails are sent to possible buyers after they subscribe to a business's opt-in activities, such as a mailing list, blog or webinar. They often contain additional information that is useful to the new subscriber. Sending a series of welcome emails can help the business establish a relationship with the buyer and improve subscriber loyalty.
  • Promotional emails offer some sort of deal to buyers, such as a percentage off the purchase price, a free month of service, or reduced or omitted fees for managed services. This is the most common type of B2B email.
  • Lead-nurturing emails are used to educate potential buyers on the solutions and services available in an attempt to move any perspective sale into a completed purchase. Lead-nurturing emails are also known as trigger campaigns since they are initiated by a potential buyer taking an initial action, such as downloading a free sample or clicking links on a promotional email. Lead-nurturing emails should be short and focused. They should use behavioral data that has been gathered about the lead to target the content and continue engagement with the potential buyer over time.
  • Newsletter emails are routinely sent to all mailing list subscribers, either daily, weekly or monthly. They contain selected content that the company has recently published. It provides businesses with the opportunity to convey important information to their clientele through a single source. Newsletters may incorporate headlines or captions of industry-related news with links to the full articles, event invitations, company blog posts and content offers.
  • Onboarding emails -- also known as post-sale emails -- are often used to strengthen customer loyalty. These emails can be used to familiarize buyers with the provided services or educate them on how to use their newly purchased products. They often include advice on how to use and manage the new products or services. Onboarding emails can help clients facilitate user adoption when faced with large-scale service deployments.

Advantages of email

Advantages of email include the following:

  • Cost-effective. There are various free email services available to individuals and organizations. Once a user is online, there are no additional charges for the service.
  • Email provides users with a nonurgent communication process that enables them to send a response when it is convenient. This also enables users to communicate regardless of their different schedules or time zones.
  • If the user has access to the internet, then email can be accessed from anywhere at any time.
  • Speed and simplicity. Emails are quick and easy to compose, with information and contacts readily available. They can also be exchanged quickly with minimal lag time.
  • Mass sending. Email makes it possible and easy to send one message to large groups of people.
  • Email enables users to filter and categorize their messages. This can prevent the visibility of unwanted emails -- like spam and junk mail -- while also making it easier to find specific messages when they're needed.
  • Email exchanges can be saved and searched for easily. This enables users to keep important conversations, confirmations or instructions in their records and quickly retrieve them if the need arises.

Examples of email attacks

Email is the most common vector for cyberattacks. Methods include spamming, phishing, spoofing, spear-phishing, business email compromise (BEC) and ransomware.

One out of every 412 emails contains a malware attack; 7,710 organizations are hit by a BEC attack every month. Spear-phishing is the most widely used infection vector, according to the Symantec Internet Threat Security Report. Descriptions of these types of attacks are included below:

  • Spamming. Email spam, also known as junk email, is unsolicited bulk messages sent through email. The use of spam has been growing in popularity since the early 1990s and is a problem faced by most email users. Recipients of spam often have had their email addresses obtained by spambots, which are automated programs that crawl the internet looking for email addresses. Spammers use spambots to create email distribution lists. A spammer typically sends an email to millions of email addresses, with the expectation that only a small number will respond or interact with the message.
  • Phishing. A form of fraud in which an attacker masquerades as a reputable entity or person in email or other communication channels. The attacker uses phishing emails to distribute malicious links or attachments that can perform a variety of functions, including the extraction of login credentials or account information from victims.
  • Spoofing. Email spoofing is the forgery of an email header so that the message appears to have originated from someone or somewhere other than the actual source. Email spoofing is a popular tactic used in phishing and spam campaigns because people are more likely to open an email when they think it has been sent by a legitimate or familiar source. The goal of email spoofing is to get recipients to open, and possibly even respond to, a solicitation.
  • Spear-phishing. Email spoofing is an attack that targets a specific organization or individual, seeking unauthorized access to sensitive information. Spear-phishing attempts are not typically initiated by random hackers but are more likely to be conducted by perpetrators out for financial gain, trade secrets or military information.
  • Business email compromise. A BEC is an exploit in which the attacker gains access to a corporate email account and spoofs the owner's identity to defraud the company or its employees, customers or partners of money. In some cases, an attacker simply creates an account with an email address that is similar to one on the corporate network. A BEC is also referred to as a man-in-the-email attack.
  • Ransomware. Ransomware is a subset of malware in which the data on a victim's computer is locked, typically by encryption, and payment is demanded before the ransomed data is decrypted and access is returned to the victim. The motive for ransomware attacks is nearly always monetary, and unlike other types of attacks, the victim is usually notified that an exploit has occurred and is given instructions for how to recover from the attack. Payment is often demanded in a virtual currency -- such as bitcoin -- so that the cybercriminal's identity is not known.

Email security

Email is designed to be an open and accessible platform that enables users to communicate with each other and with people or groups within an organization. As a result, it is not inherently secure, and email security is necessary.

Email security is the term used to describe the various techniques that can be used by individuals, organizations and service providers to protect sensitive information kept in email communications and accounts from unauthorized access, loss or destruction.

Individuals can proactively protect their accounts by creating strong passwords and changing them frequently. Users should also create spam filters and folders to separate potentially malicious emails and junk mail, as well as install and run antivirus and antimalware software on their computer.

Some best practices that organizations can enforce to secure email include implementing an email security gateway, training employees on proper email usage and deploying automated email encryption solutions.

Email gateways process and scan all received emails to check for threats that should not be allowed into the system. A multilayered gateway is the best approach since attacks are becoming increasingly complicated and sophisticated. Training employees on how to properly use email and how to distinguish malicious messages can help users avoid threatening mail that is not caught by the gateway.

Automated email encryption solutions are used to scan all outgoing messages for potentially sensitive information. If the material is considered sensitive, then the automated solution will encrypt the content before it is sent to the intended recipient. This process prevents attackers from gaining access to the sensitive information, even if they intercept it. Only recipients with permission to view the email will be able to see the decrypted content.

Email service providers can also improve email security by establishing strong password and access control standards and mechanisms. Furthermore, providers should also provide encryption solutions and digital signatures to protect emails in transit and in users' inboxes. Finally, service providers should implement firewalls and spam-filtering software apps to protect users from unrecognized, malicious and untrustworthy messages.

Popular email sites

Some examples of popular, free email websites include the following:

  • Gmail
  • Microsoft Outlook
  • Yahoo Mail
  • AOL
  • Zoho
  • ProtonMail
  • com

Origin of email

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a program called Mailbox that enabled the exchange of messages between time-sharing computers within one lab. In 1972, Raymond Samuel Tomlinson, a developer at Bolt, Beranek and Newman -- now BBN Technologies -- implemented the first email program on the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the precursor to the internet. Tomlinson designed a messaging program for use on the PDP-10 computer consisting of two individual programs, SNDMSG for sending mail and READMAIL for retrieving mail.

This was last updated in December 2019

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