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Playing the E-mail 'Match Game?' Be Careful!

  |  April 22, 2009   |  Comments

Want to retain an append vendor to match e-mail addresses with postal addresses in your database? Here's what you need to know.

E-mail append is on the march again. Marketers who once might have backed away from this often-dubious practice are revisiting it as they search for any way to grow their e-mail base in this tight economy.

More are asking me, "Can I do this? Should I do this?" about append, which is the practice of trying to match e-mail addresses from an append vendor to postal addresses in your database in order to expand a mailing list without explicit opt-in from the address owners.

E-mail's stellar reputation for generating ROI (define) and driving engagement is prompting marketing dollars to be shifted into e-mail marketing. And e-mail append vendors are attempting to cash in.

Marketers who ask about append are often looking for a quick fix. However, append is more likely to drive long-term deliverability problems rather than long-term growth and ROI.

E-mail Append Poses Serious Risks

Opt-out e-mail appending, in which you send to appended addresses until the recipients unsubscribe or file spam complaints, is not permission marketing. It can endanger your sender reputation, and, ultimately, your deliverability.

Notice and silence does not equal consent. An address that doesn't generate an unsubscribe or spam complaint doesn't necessarily belong to a potential customer, either.

E-mail append vendors regularly use a "best match" approach that can match an e-mail address with just a partial postal address, often yielding several possible matches. Sometimes they have multiple addresses and will chose randomly among them. The vendor delivers the address that, in its best guess, is the closest match. These are addresses that didn't bounce on the vendor's initial pass; thus, the vendor claims they are valid matches.

Sometimes append works, but you can end up with addresses that actually belong to other people, not your customers. That leads to some dangerous consequences:

  • Chances are higher that the addresses in the vendors' databases are out of date or inactive and will generate more bounces.
  • Many of these older addresses might have been converted by their ISPs, such as Hotmail, AOL or Yahoo Mail, into "honeypots" to catch spammers. It is not uncommon for them to bounce messages for a period of time before converting. Because you hadn't e-mailed to them previously, you wouldn't have received any bounce messages those addresses would generate. So, you are left with a trap message listed as a match.
  • Some of these addresses belong to people who chose not to share them with you. Like your incorrect matches, they didn't give those to you and are more likely to report e-mail you send to them as spam or fraud.

High bounce rates and spam complaints injure your sender reputation, which reduces your deliverability into the inbox.

Having a high ratio of append to organic (house list) addresses could imperil your hard-won whitelisting status at some ISPs, which also imperils inbox delivery.

Further, because opt-out e-mail append isn't permission marketing, many e-mail service providers likely won't send out lists with these appended addresses across their platforms.

And Yet, E-mail Append Lives On

Many marketers exploring append want to tap into their rich database of customers who didn't hand over an e-mail address at the cash register or on the online order form.

All the marketer has to do, so they think, is hire a data company to track down these misguided souls and find their e-mail addresses. Once these customers see the e-mail, they'll kick themselves for not subscribing before and start buying.

Okay, sarcasm off. Let's say you are charged with delivering 25 percent list growth over the next two business quarters, and you can't get your management to understand why append isn't the answer.

Here are a few ways to protect your e-mail program and sender reputation:

  • The append vendor must send the initial e-mail to scrub the list of bounces. This is standard append industry practice.
  • Always make your first message an invitation to opt in.
  • Allow only recipients who opt in on the first pass to be considered for future messaging. However, segregate them from your regular database in a separate file so you can monitor their click and open rates.
  • Use a "sunset provision:" Discard appended addresses that show no open or click rates on the first six messages you send.
  • Continue to monitor appended addresses for ROI, performance and relationship-ending actions like unsubs, spam complaints, and inactivity. Be sure to compare against your organically grown names to demonstrate the appended addresses' true value.

Marketers: Demand Better-Quality Data

Warning to append vendors: You aren't going to like this next section.

Append vendors often get paid on match rates alone, not how well those appended names perform in your e-mail program.

I would like to see marketers begin to enforce sunset provisions, because it will drive up the quality of the append data.

That is, marketers should request credit for each appended address that unsubscribes, complains, or records no activity on those first six deliveries.

After all, the vendor implied that these addresses took affirmative action to subscribe, thereby suggesting the owners want your messages and want to interact with you. If you can prove they never intended that, then the append process is not truly a valuable acquisition channel.

By removing these addresses early in the sending lifecycle, you can limit any damage from a spam-trap address instead of waiting for a full six months or year of inactivity to clean your list.

Because of the poor quality of append lists, don't expect to see much more than a 10 percent match rate.

Although the low per e-mail acquisition cost makes appending look like a bargain, the price you end up paying for any quality e-mail address gained this way is actually much higher when you factor in the potential damage from lower-quality data and its direct effect on delivery to your quality subscribers.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stefan Pollard

Stefan Pollard, who started his career in online marketing in 1999, was considered a selfless mentor and champion of best practices in e-mail marketing. He held the position of senior strategic consultant at Responsys where he was responsible for developing e-mail marketing and lifecycle messaging strategies to increase clients' ROI. Before that, Stefan led the e-mail consulting program for Lyris clients, frequently speaking at industry events on best practices. Prior to that, he managed the audit process and consulted with clients to improve their e-mail delivery challenges for Habeas. As an e-mail marketer, he spent several years building and executing acquisition and retention campaigns at E-Loan and Cybergold.com. He died May 14, 2010.

In Memoriam: Stefan Pollard
E-mail marketing community mourns the loss of a marketing pro dedicated to helping his peers and clients and working to improve an industry. Here are their tributes celebrating his life.

E-mail Marketing Expert Stefan Pollard Dies
An expert in deliverability is remembered as a champion of best practices and someone who selflessly gave of his time to others.

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