Where should you begin upgrading your e-mail program? Seven sure-fire deliverability boosters.
Although U.S. e-mail deliverability rates improved throughout 2006, they continued to lag behind European rates in both gross and inbox deliverability. In other words, while we've gotten better at getting our e-mail to a recipient's server, we're still not where we need to be.
If your delivery rates have fallen into the basement, it can be next to impossible to find out which e-mail crime you committed. Most likely, it was a host of offenses, including buying or renting dirty mailing lists and ignoring spam complaints.
Don't know where to start to identity your greatest deliverability inhibitors? Check out these seven sure-fire deliverability boosters and see where you need to upgrade your program. Any changes you make should result in a marked increase in delivery rates.
Immediately Engage Recipients With Permission-Based E-Mail
Permission and its corollary, reader engagement, are the cornerstones of a high-deliverability e-mail program. Readers who ask to receive your mailings and get drawn into your culture are less likely to report you as spam and more likely to open and act on your messages.
It's not a perfect relationship, judging by the nearly 4 percent false-positive filtering rate Lyris reported in October 2006. But you can mitigate this by welcoming new subscribers immediately and handing them the reins as best you can, to determine what they want to receive from you, when, and in what format.
Clean Up Message Content
Although keyword-based spam filtering is on the wane, your message still must negotiate a labyrinth of spam filters on every corporate and ISP e-mail server. If it's full of coding errors and spam-like content, it will either be blocked or sent to the junk folder.
Your e-mail service provider (ESP) may offer a message analysis tool, as either a regular service or an add-on. Use it and run everything you send through it, even templates for transactional messages such as order confirmations. If you don't use an ESP, try a free spam analyzer like Lyris' ContentChecker, which uses the open-source anti-spam program SpamAssassin to identify both spam-like content and errors or oddities in format and design that would trigger a spam filter.
Study Delivery Reports
Every decent e-mail program, whether it's installed on your own server or used through an ESP, spits out reams of delivery statistics during and after each send. Yes, they can make your eyes glaze over if you're not a natural numbers person, but, more important, they tell you where you're failing, what your gross delivery rate is (total messages sent divided by total messages delivered, minus hard bounces), and which ISPs or other e-mail destinations refused your messages and why.
If you don't understand the numbers, call your ESP account exec or ask someone from your IT department to interpret them for you. You need to know where you're having the greatest problems before you can start picking solutions.
Build ISP and Blacklist Relationships
Among other things, those delivery reports clearly tell you which receivers are blocking your e-mail and why. If the IP address you use to send e-mail has been blacklisted for suspected spamming, the bounce message you receive will more than likely name the blacklist.
ISPs aren't your enemies, even if they reject over half your e-mail messages. If your ESP doesn't have someone in charge of ISP relations or if you handle your own e-mail marketing, you'll have to contact the ISPs where you're having the most trouble and find out who their postmaster is.
If the ISP offers a feedback loop, sign up for it. This is an e-mail notification service that tells you, among other things, which e-mail messages recipients flagged as spam. You might be required to qualify for the ISP's internal whitelist before you can join the feedback loop, but that only helps improve delivery to that ISP.
Blacklists are a little trickier to deal with because they don't have the same personnel transparency ISPs have. However, most reputable blacklists provide directions on how to contact them and how to request removal.
Resolve Spam Complaints Promptly
Failure to deal promptly with spam complaints is one of the top reasons ISPs block commercial e-mail messages. When you receive one, whether it comes from an ISP's feedback loop or the recipient you mailed to, you must promptly remove the address from your database. No one cares if the recipient actually subscribed to your program. What matters is that you're seen to act quickly on complaints.
For this reason, you must monitor every mailbox associated with your e-mail program. It also doesn't matter if some one sent a demand to be removed from your list to an unmonitored mailbox. What matters is if someone scanning incoming mail sees the request and forwards it to the right place.
Clean Your Lists Regularly
Any decent e-mail-delivery software should remove addresses associated with hard-bouncing messages as soon as the bounce occurs. You may have to do more of this if you use only single opt-in, which doesn't require subscribers to confirm their addresses via a Web page or reply e-mail.
Repeatedly e-mailing addresses an ISP reported as closed or nonexistent is another top reason you were blocked. Clean out any address that hasn't shown activity over a time, say six months to a year. That also enhances deliverability.
Another trend I noticed in 2006 was greater use of authentication by e-mail senders. Ever more senders are taking steps to prove they are who they claim to be and to legitimize where they send e-mail from (their IP addresses). Again, this is a step your ESP can help with if it doesn't already require that as a condition of taking you on as a client. It's also relatively simple for DIY e-mail senders. More details are here.
Keep on deliverin' in 2007!
Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.
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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.
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