A while back, one Legal Office Guru reader who’d just read my post, Make your Outlook e-mails un-ignorable, was having a curious problem: he couldn’t flag his e-mails. Well, that’s not entirely true. He could right-click on his e-mails and flag them, but he wasn’t getting all of the choices that I outlined in my post. As he described his problem:

I use Outlook 2010 and I like being able to Flag an email for a reminder on a specific day at a specific time. For some reason when I click on the red flag “Follow up” I only have one option “Flag Message” How do I set this up for Custom?

My first response was to do that really annoying thing that help desk people do: I asked him if he was sure he had followed the instructions. Yes, he had. So, the quest was on to figure out where the gap was between my instructions and his experience.

Usually, when you right-click on an e-mail, you get a contextual menu that looks like this:

Contextual menu from left-click of email flag

This user, unfortunately, wasn’t getting all of those options. So I was off to do a little research.

It turns out that a key difference between his e-mail account and mine was the culprit. My e-mail accounts (of which I have too many) are all set up as POP3 accounts while his e-mail is set up as an IMAP account.

POP3 versus IMAP

So what’s the difference between the two? Briefly, and without getting too technical, POP3 and IMAP are two different e-mail access protocols. POP3 e-mails are downloaded to your local e-mail client (like Outlook), and any changes you make to the e-mail (such as deleting it or flagging it) are done on the local copy sitting on your hard drive. IMAP e-mails, on the other hand, are always left on the server. Any changes you make to the e-mail are reflected in the original e-mail stored on the server and can be seen by anyone who logs into the webmail account.

While most people (in my experience) use POP3 e-mail accounts, IMAP accounts are good for e-mail addresses that need to be accessed by multiple people (such as a helpdesk account or an information e-mail for an organization).

Because flagging the e-mail would necessarily require that it be stored locally (since the flag is an Outlook function that wouldn’t reside on the server), this reader wasn’t able to flag his IMAP e-mails with anything other than a generic flag.

But if you’ve got IMAP e-mail, don’t despair. There are other ways to make your e-mail follow-up-able (I know, that’s not a word). One Outlook user at answers.microsoft.com suggests creating a Quick Step in Outlook 2010 to automate the creation of a Task with the e-mail attached. The Task will have all of the usual flags and reminders that you’d otherwise have available in a POP3 e-mail. (If you’re not sure what a Quick Step is, click here for a demonstration.)

If you’re an IMAP e-mail user and have a better solution, though, be sure to leave the details in the comments section below.

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