Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Standard Corporate Signature Template

For the past two years, I’ve been working on a standard corporate signature for Thomas Nelson Employees. We wanted to have a central place where we could modify a signature template and then, on-the-fly, incorporate the employee’s contact information when they compose an email.

Two years ago, I couldn’t find applications pre-built for this purpose. It was also at a time when the company’s computer operating systems ranged from Windows 98 to Windows XP and Outlook 97 to Outlook 2003. As a result, we decided to hire a Visual Basic programmer to build an application. Unfortunately, due to the varied systems, it became too risky to roll it out at that time.

Now, due to the recent reorganizing in the company, we’ve decided to revive the initiative. Fortunately since 2004, we’ve upgraded all of our computers to Windows XP and Outlook 2003 (or Outlook XP). This significantly reduced the variables we need to consider.

OUR REQUIREMENTS

So that you can put the following tools in context, here are the requirements I used to evaluate options:
  1. The signature had to be viewable when composing an email
  2. Contact information had to be pulled into the signature for each employee via Active Directory
  3. The employee’s computer needed to check regularly for changes to the template
  4. We needed to have the ability to use different logos or signature templates for various company divisions
  5. The HTML in the signature needed to be relatively compatible with Mac Entourage, PC Outlooks 2000-2007, and most major email clients
  6. The signature needed to work with Word as the email editor in PC Outlooks
  7. The signature template needed to be easy to update
  8. We needed to be able to choose the fonts, colors, signature, and stationery settings in employee Outlooks
  9. The application needed to be capable of handling over 600 accounts
  10. The application needed to be able to grow with the company and technology


OUTLOOK AND ENTOURAGE SIGNATURES

In order to understand how the solutions I recommend below work, you need a little background on how the signatures work in Outlook XP, Outlook 2003, and Entourage. For the purpose of reducing length, I won’t talk about HTML email coding restrictions. If I haven’t posted an article about this, feel free to comment on this post with your questions. I’ll respond as soon as I can.

Outlook XP and 2003
Three signature files are used for every signature you create. When editing via the signature editor in Outlook, you are editing the signature using HTML. Once you save it, Outlook then creates three files: HTML (htm), rich text (rtf), and plain text (txt). It does its best when creating the rich text and plain text versions. But if you added any graphics or copied and pasted anything from Word (especially with tables), you’ll find spacing is weird or the signature may be totally different than its HTML counterpart. This is why using solutions that create separate versions of the files is important to reduce inconsistencies between the formats. Outlook selects the appropriate signature format based on an email’s format. For example, if you receive a plain text email and reply to it, Outlook selects the plain text version of your signature to use.

The three signature files are located in the following location on your computer (most likely):

C:/Documents and Settings/[your login name]/Application Data/Microsoft/Signatures

Note: If you are not on a corporate network, your login name will be whatever you entered when first installing Windows.

Another option is to have your Exchange server automatically add a custom signature to each email as it goes out. Users won’t be able to see the signature when editing an email since it will be added after the user hits “Send” in Outlook. Unfortunately, these won’t work for Nelson at this time, but I mention my top two favorite solutions for this at the end my list below.

Entourage
Unfortunately, Microsoft’s Entourage is very limited in what code it will allow when composing an HTML email. It views received HTML emails fine, but strips out most of the HTML when composing, replying or forwarding. It also manages signatures completely different than PC Outlook versions. It uses one signature file to store all the information for all signatures a person creates. Up to this point, I haven’t conducted extensive research into whether this file can be programmatically altered.

Mac users’ only option is to modify their signatures manually. For Nelson, we created an HTML version that is friendly with Entourage so that Mac users can simply copy from an email, paste it into their signature editor, and then change the contact information. The disadvantage to this approach is that when the design changes we’ll have to notify and rely on each person to adapt their own. There is no reporting or verification available, and it requires more administration for our I.T. department. This also enables Mac users to have more control over the look and content in the signature, which the company is trying to regulate.

SOLUTIONS

As most of you know, technological advancements in software occur regularly. Therefore after two years, fortunately, a few more appropriate applications exist. The following list includes the best applications I’ve found. If you find others, please add links as comments for all of us.


  1. Symprex Mail Signature Manager (my top choice)
  2. Fliximation Systems Mailbox Central
  3. ITeFlx Adolsign
  4. Exclaimer Mail Utilities (honorable mention)
  5. SecurExchange AutoContent Edition (honorable mention)


Symprex Mail Signature Manager

This is by far the best one I’ve found for our needs. The features outweigh many other tools I’ve found and what we’ve created with our own programmer. The price is reasonable for us (a little over $2000). The company, Symprex, located in the United Kingdom, provides excellent information about this application on their site. This tool meets all of our requirements when combined with Group Policy.

Features I especially liked:

  1. Easy to use editing tool
  2. Easy to install on the server and each person’s computer
  3. Deployment reporting
  4. Customizable signature templates or content for specific departments or groups of employees
    Works with Outlook Web Access
More info >>


Mailbox Central

The pricing for this application is unfortunately very expensive (via personal quote), but the features are in-line with our requirements and it offers a few more options than what we get with our own programmer.

Unfortunately, the information about this tool on the flexnet.com site isn’t helpful. The information never really discusses anything but overall benefits. However, responses from the Fleximation sales team were quick and with patience. They were willing to answer any questions I had and provided me with the User Manual to answer the bulk of my questions. The company is based out of Ontario, Canada.

The most beneficial function not included in this when compared to Symprex is that it does not affect Outlook Web Access. The implementation also looks a little more complicated.

Basic Features:

  1. Central editing tool
  2. Works with Active Directory
  3. Uses a database to create signature
  4. Users can see the signature when editing emails
  5. Can use this across Outlook profiles (or persons using the same computer)
  6. Customizable per employee group in Active Directory
More info >>


Adolsign

This is the cheapest (at $130) and the most basic application I’ve evaluated. Unfortunately for us, a couple fields we want are not available in the application. We could repurpose a couple of the fields already available. However, I contacted the programmer, and he was willing to make modifications as needed at an additional cost. This tool does the basics of what our programmer has already programmed for us when combined with Group Policy. It does not have a central signature editor or reporting capabilities, and we would need to add the ability to have a different signature for specific groups of employees.

Basic Features:

  1. Creates signature files from user information in Active Directory
  2. Can create vcards (Outlook contact info files) and attach them to emails sent
  3. No known limitations with Outlook XP and 2003 on Windows XP
More info >>


Exclaimer Mail Utilities

This is an excellent tool although it doesn’t meet all of our requirements—specifically the capability for users to see their signature when editing emails. However, if that isn’t important to you, then this tool is one of the best out there and has a sales team (in four countries) that is quick and patient when answering emails. Pricing is not available on the site but I have not inquired about a quote.

Just like my #1 choice, it affects signatures for emails sent via the Outlook Web Access, but it also works with emails sent via Blackberrys or the like. It also has the capability to change the entire look of the email by adding a header, employee photo, and much more (see example image). In addition to those, the Mail Utilities come with many other features you may find helpful, including footer disclaimers, auto-responding, spam control, etc. The flyer (PDF) seems to be best resource for getting information regarding this application.

Best Features:

  1. Entire email template design control, not just signatures
  2. Affects signatures for emails sent from Blackberrys (or other PDA device) via the Exchange server
  3. Can setup different signatures for various groups of employees
  4. Comes with several additional utilities especially helpful for small businesses
More info >>


SecurExchange AutoContent

The final application I want to recommend is just as powerful as Exclaimer. Created by Nemx Software Corporation in Ontario, Canada, it offers several additional utilities your business might find beneficial. I don’t know what they charge for this application.

Although, this tool does not meet our requirements, it offers significantly more features than would be possible on a client-side signature application. I won’t list all of them here, but if you want controls over more than just the design of the signature, you should definitely check this out.

Best Features:

  1. Emails customized to employee groups
  2. Ability to exclude signatures for certain recipients
  3. Central editing tool
  4. Significantly more control than possible on a client-side application
More info >>



I hope you found this information helpful. Glad to share my research. Good luck selecting your own corporate signature management application.






DEFINITIONS:

Microsoft Exchange—This is the central system providing all of Outlook’s functions on a corporate network such as calendar, email, contact information, etc. It is typically not necessary for running Outlook, but on a corporate network it provides content protection, collaboration, a central source for schedules, employee information, and much more.
wikipedia info | back

Active Directory—An element of Microsoft Exchange that offers the ability to control many computers in an enterprise. The signature applications I reviewed use this to access the LDAP database, which contains our employee contact information (LDAP is also part of Microsoft Exchange).
wikipedia info | back

Group Policy—Works in conjunction with Active Directory to control Windows operating system settings globally for every employee computer on the corporate network (including Outlook settings). There are of course limitations based on the operating system and version of Outlook, but most of our setting requirements can be managed via this application since we all have Outlook XP or 2003. What isn’t naturally part of the system can sometimes be programmed or worked into the Outlook COM Add-in (see below).
wikipedia info | back

Outlook Web Access—This is basically the web version of Outlook for employees that want to access email away from work. It does not have as many features as the Outlook software, but a person can handle the majority of their needs for conducting communication. This feature is only available on Microsoft Exchange version 5.0 and higher.
wikipedia info | back

Visual Basic—This is the programming language used in Microsoft Office applications. A novice can begin coding in this language via Microsoft’s scripting tool included with Office. Using this language, you can modify Outlook (or any Office application) to perform any number of simple to complicated tasks. This includes modifying the look of Outlook, creating a customer resource management tool, changing Outlook settings, and creating your own toolbar with your own set of functions.
wikipedia info | back

Outlook COM Add-In—Created using Visual Basic, this module offers a company the ability to expand features in Outlook tailored more specifically to its needs. Integrating this is as simple as dropping the add-in “dll” file in a specific folder on the user’s computer and “turning it on” in Outlook. Since I want users to see the signature when composing an email, an add-in is the only way to make this happen. All of the “solutions” I offered above use this approach.
wikipedia info about COMs | back

DLL—This stands for dynamic link library. These files extend the capability and features of a program (exe file). An Outlook COM Add-In is basically a dll file. Visual Basic is used to program the file.
wikipedia info (link didn’t work at time of post) | Other Info | back

6 comments:

Crystal said...

Dax - you are the man. This saved our Exchange team hours of research and script editing. We will likely go with your recommendation once we present to our CTO. This is a major problem when employees send emails with personal quotes and graphics inadvertently representing our company. Thanks!

Semyon@DSL said...

Man, you rock! Cheers@

Neil Stapleton said...

Dax - Thanks so much fro this info, I will be using your findings and passing the off and my own (only joking) at our communications focus group meeting next months.

Great stuff ;)

KevLaa said...

Dax, great article! Just what I've been looking. I've got into testing Symprex and first impressions are very good but did anyone notice OWA duplicating the signature? I had the same issues testing eMailSignatures and binned the project. Symprex is easier but that duplicate signature remains a problem. Cheers!

Dax! said...

Thanks for leaving that additional information, KevLaa. I wrote this article a long time ago. Glad people are still finding it useful. Thanks, again.

jacks said...

Awesome project, Mel! Wow! I love your idea with new use of digi-images! Thank you for sharing tutorial, templates and your wonderful inspiration! more templates easy to download