Notification emails - How useful are they?

Notifications and rubbish collection day | Photo by Leon Brocard - I get notifications from all sorts of groups, services and networks I'm subscribed to. LinkedIn conversations I've commented on, Twitter retweets and replies, group summaries. More recently, I joined the IT Pro Network for Office 365 hosted on Yammer.  It is a very active and growing community. I contribute to conversations, receive replies, get announcements. I like that I can contribute to the Yammer conversations from email because sometimes it's more efficient than visiting the Yammer website.

But with all the services, groups and notifications I receive in my Inbox, there are many I don't get around to reading. Sometimes I delete them once I've read them. Sometimes I don't. They are dotted throughout my Outlook conversation thread. They light up the blue unread messages number.

Notification emails are, well, for notification. They alert you to changes in the services you use. But their main purpose is to bring you back to the service in your browser, where you get the fullest experience of the service. If you are visiting the service in the browser regularly, many of the services display your notifications or message in their own way. They have their own Inbox, alert area or newsfeed of things you follow. Once you've read the notification email, it has served its purpose. Or the unread notification email serves no purpose when you've already read the notification or update when you visit the service in your browser.

I would go as far as saying that notification email is a grey level of spam. This email is necessary but not necessary. It is self-inflicted, signing up for more grey spam as you sign up for and participant in more services. These services know that if they can't reach you through their web page, an app on your phone or text message, ultimately they can notify you via the email account you signed up with. We enjoy and benefit from using these online services. But we do get swamped with their notifications. The blue number continues to grow.

Some people try to keep their Inbox clear of notification emails by using mailbox rules that pipe them off to another folder. But that only moves the blue number or spreads it out over different folders.

Office 365 users, you have another option.

1 week retention rule for notification emails

This is a practical tip for dealing with notification emails, even the ones you haven't read, to keep your Inbox lean.

Archive and Retention rules help you automatically control what you keep (archive) and what you delete (retention). Regarding deletion/retention, think of it as an expiry date for a message.

The Archiving and Retention feature available across all Office 365 plans that include Exchange Online.

This tip shows you how to create a rule in your mailbox that checks for notification emails as they arrive and assigns an expiry/deletion date. The notification messages, read or unread, will delete from your mailbox automatically when they reach the expiry date.

Create contacts for notification emails

Firstly, create contacts in Outlook for each of the notification email addresses.

  1. Open a notification email.
  2. Right-click on the email address and choose Add to Outlook Contacts.Notification-Email-Retention-01
  3. Suggestion: When naming the contact, add N- to the beginning of the contact name. This will help keep all the notification email contacts together, making them easier to find.Notification-Email-Retention-02
  4. Here are a few more examples of notification email addressesNotification-Email-Retention-03

Create Mailbox Rule

In this second part, we create the mailbox rule that will set the expiry / retention for notification emails.

  1. While in your Inbox, from the Ribbon menu choose Rules > Manage Rules & Alerts.Notification-Email-Retention-04
  2. Create a new blank rule that checks messages as they arrive.
  3. Select the condition from people or public group.
  4. Add each of the Notification contacts you created earlier to the From field.
  5. Next, select the action apply retention policy and select the 1 week Delete retention policy.
  6. No need to set any exceptions.
  7. Give the rule an appropriate name, suggested Notifications-1wkDelete, turn the rule on and Save.


New notification emails arrive and are set to expire using the rule and the retention policy. The message, whether it is read or not, will be deleted automatically after it has expired. The message below will be deleted after 6 days, 1 May.



Note: This retention rule became very useful when participating in the recent YamJam conversation about OneDrive for Business. I received many notifications and they were all mopped up 7 days later after they expired.

Things to think about

I've been thinking about the implications of making notification email retention rule apply to the whole organization. An organization could decide to make it a policy that they will retain email notifications for a defined period, before they are deleted.

While storage become less of a problem with Exchange Online's 50GB mailboxes and 'unlimited' online archive mailboxes, reducing the item count in an Inbox can help Outlook performance.

It may have an unforeseen positive effect. Reducing the number of unread notification emails may help reduce stress levels.

But is it right to take the choice away from the user? It is a choice for an organization making that policy, but I would argue that it is good choice. It is rare that someone will go back through their email to read the notifications. They will read the latest notification that arrives, click a link to visit the service online and read the rest of their notifications online, where the richest experience is. Once they do this, each unread notification email loses its significance.

Is your organization using Retention Policies like this already? How did you reach your decision about the policy? What effects have you observed?