Years ago I set up an autoresponder to let people know I’m probably not around on Saturday and Sunday. It’s still running, and flawlessly, so I thought I’d share how I set it up using cPanel cron and FTP/File Manager. I got this idea originally from David Heath-Whyte’s blog, but adjusted it a little bit. It might help you to see two examples if you want to set this up yourself and aren’t quite sure how. Sometimes having the same thing explained twice by two different people helps!
Note: this advice only works for people with self-hosted email. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! etc., look elsewhere. Also, you’ll need hosting with access to a cPanel.
Step 1: Set up and compose your Autoresponder email
Head over to your cPanel (“control panel”). Most hosting accounts will have a control panel of some sort, and cPanel is probably the most ubiquitous type. Look for “Autoresponders” in the Email section, and click that.
When the Autoresponders page has loaded, click “Add Autoresponder.” You can only have one autoresponder for an email address, so if you already have one set up for the email address in question, just review its settings.
Below are mock settings for my autoresponder. I set the interval pretty high at 16 hours. What this means is that if someone sends me an email every hour over the weekend, they won’t get the autoresponder again until they’ve send the seventeenth email. Receiving an auto-responder every time when we already know someone is out of the office could be annoyingly inbox-stuffing. Beyond that it could create problems (such as loops) if an autoresponder replies to my autoresponder.
I have set the autoresponder to begin at 6pm this coming Thursday because in my dreams I’m taking long weekends, but you might want to switch that to something like 5pm on Friday. I stretch the weekend into Sunday evening, but stop there because most people emailing Sunday night understand that they’re not going to get a reply until Monday anyway. Those late Sunday e-mailers don’t need an auto-responder. We’d just be rubbing it in that they’re working and we aren’t!
Another common approach is to make the “From:” address a blackhole email address (e.g. email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) and indicate to people in the message that the message comes from a bot and replies will be delivered into the far reaches of another galaxy. This can help prevent autoreply loops from cluttering your inbox. Blackhole email addresses can be set up using cPanel, but that’s a whole other thing.
Step 2: Locate the corresponding autoresponder.json file
When we edit an autoresponder in cPanel, the data is saved in a JSON-formatted file. These are found in the root server folder “.autoresponder”. I want to know the absolute path (ABSPATH) of the file named email@example.com. I use Transmit for FTP and it allows me the handy feature “Copy URL.” Your application probably offers something similar.
“Copy URL” gives a URL, not an ABSPATH. I know how to convert that in my head, since I’m familiar with my server. If you have no idea how to get the absolute path from a URL, then you’re in a little over your head. But no worries, a call to your web hosting company could sort it out, or good old Google could help you. In my case the absolute path to this file looks like:
Note your ABSPATH, we’ll be using it soon.
While we are in FTP, or browsing files using SSH or File Manager, let’s create a folder in our public_html/ folder called “cron”. That’s a nice way of keeping things organized, since ultimately we are creating a CRON job.
The following PHP script is what our CRON job will run each week. Each week when CRON parses this file, it will be told to move the weekend pointer forward one week, and the JSON file will be edited accordingly. Bottom line: this script is automating the process of logging into cPanel every week and editing the dates manually.
<?php /** * Set the time zone so our weekend basis is correct * Do not do this inside a WordPress installation */ date_default_timezone_set( 'America/Los_Angeles' ); // EDIT /** * Set the start/end times. * strtotime() is a PHP function that is pretty liberal in what it will accept as a string * It then converts the string to a UNIX timestamp (a string of numbers equal to the number * of seconds since Unix Epoch on January 1st, 1970 at UTC */ $nextFriEve = strtotime( "next friday 18:00:00" ); $nextSunEve = strtotime( "next sunday 18:00:00" ); // Make the array which populates a healthy .autoresponder JSON file: $auto_responder = array( 'start' => $nextFriEve, 'interval' => 57600, // 16 hours 'stop' => $nextSunEve, ); /** * Now save the encoded array to the .json file * Here is where we use the ABSPATH */ @file_put_contents( '/firstname.lastname@example.org', json_encode( $auto_responder ) ); // EDIT /** * Confirmation email * Let's send ourselves a reassuring weekly email * It will confirm the autoresponder has been set up, and for what time span * CRON will echo this in its own confirmation email to YOU when it completes, as * long as you have a CRON email set up in cPanel. That's shown in the next step. */ echo "Howdy,\n\n"; echo "Just a reminder... your email@example.com weekend autoresponder file was re-written for the week:\n\n"; echo "It starts on " . date( "F j, Y, g:i a", $nextFriEve ); echo "\n\nAnd ends on " . date( "F j, Y, g:i a", $nextSunEve ); echo "\n\nHave a fabulous weekend!"; echo "\n\nGenerated for you by https://domain.com/cron/autoresponder_weekend.php";
In order for this to work you at least have to edit the lines commented with “// EDIT”. Review and personalize everything else, such as the time zone, dates, interval, and the confirmation email.
Save this file as “autoresponder_weekend.php” inside your “public_html/cron/” folder. We’re almost there. Just one more step before the weekend…
Step 3: Create a CRON job using cPanel
If you’re building a website or managing email with cPanel, it’s worthwhile to get familiar with its features. Obviously. Cuz look what we’re doing now! We’re practically ruling the universe! What I’m trying to say is cPanel is a very powerful tool. As is CRON. Together they can create a “smart home” out of your hosting account. Use them wisely.
We are going to set up a CRON job. If you already have CRON jobs, you’ll want to set this one up to run at a different time than the others, esp. if the others are heavy processes. Mine is set up to run two minutes after my other CRON job, and away from when I run backups on my server (in the middle of the night), just to give the processes a little space. ???? You don’t have to do this. I just try to be nice to my computer since it’s doing me this big favor of running automatic auto-responder updates for me every week.
In the image above you can see that I’ve got an email set up for the autoresponder. If you do not want a confirmation email for this particular CRON job you can use the “/dev/nul 2>&1” command:
/user/bin/php -q /home/galuxee/cron/weekend_autoresponder.php > /dev/null 2>&1
I like getting the weekly emails as they get me pumped for the weekend. My CRON job runs at 14:02 every Thursday afternoon. The weekend is coming!
The command points to the PHP script we wrote and saved earlier.
Depending where the PHP library is kept on your server, your command might look like:
It sort of just depends on what you are doing. The “-q” command assumes that your PHP file is solid and skips any output generated by faults, so I use it, since the code is so simple. If you are having troubles you might want to omit that and check your debug logs.
If you can’t wait to test this setup, you can speed things up. Change the CRON job to run every few minutes, then open up your .autoresponder JSON file to see if the weekend dates have changed (in UNIX format; here’s a handy UNIX time converter). You can corroborate the change in your cPanel autoresponder settings.
Awesome. I hope this helps you put aside work and have a relaxed weekend, every weekend. Maybe it also helped you learn a little more about cPanel and CRON jobs, too.
And finally: thanks, David!