The ‘From’ email header

Posted in Technicalon Dec 5, 2011

Every email that is ever sent has a set of header fields. These fields keep track of things like the sender, recipient, subject, date, and content type. Normally, these header fields aren’t directly presented, but instead are used by email programs like Gmail or Outlook to properly display information about the email.

Side comment: If you are using Gmail, you can select “Show original” (from the same menu that allows you to reply or forward the email) to see the full email content, including all of the email header fields.

There is a header field called ‘From’ that is particularly important. Like you might expect, it encodes information about who the email is from. The ‘From’ field can contain just an email address like this:
From: spam@squaregalaxy.com
or perhaps like this:
From: <spam@squaregalaxy.com>
The ‘From’ field can be more useful by containing both a name and the email address like this:
From: Sir Spamalot <spam@squaregalaxy.com>

When an email program, like Gmail or Outlook, present the name of the email sender, they often parse the ‘From’ field to display the name of the sender. If the name is not included, then the program displays all or part of the actual email address.

Let me proceed with two examples, one good and one bad.

Bad example: Staples.com sends me an email to confirm my recent order. The ‘From’ field of their email looks like this:
From: <support@orders.staples.com>
When I look at the sender’s name in Gmail, it simply says, “support.” Of course I need support on all sorts of levels, but I don’t know anyone names support.

Good example: LivingSocial.com sends me frequent emails to tell me about discounted deals in Fort Collins. The ‘From’ field of their email looks like this:
From: LivingSocial Deals <deals@livingsocial.com>
When I look at the sender’s name in Gmail, it shows up as “LivingSocial Deals” so I can quickly determine who is telling me about “6 Laser Hair-Removal Treatments.”

When writing a program (or website) which sends emails, it is important that the program include a name along with the required email address. This allows the recipient’s email program to more meaningfully present the name of the email sender. This is especially important in business applications, which need to establish a clear identity for their customers.

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