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The New Rule for Deliverability: Engagement

  |  October 21, 2009   |  Comments

Consider these two key improvements in content to generate more interaction by subscribers.

Getting e-mails delivered to inboxes remains one of the biggest concerns for most e-mail marketers. This makes sense, as any e-mail that doesn't reach a subscriber surely can't produce a return.

This won't change anytime soon, and, frankly, seems to become increasingly more difficult as Internet service providers (ISPs) try to optimize their customers' experiences in the inbox.

How ISPs manage incoming e-mail is definitely facing a shift. That shift is placing greater importance on reputation. Senders are being held more accountable for delivering engaging content to subscribers.

ISPs use authentication to identify legitimate senders (that is, to detect and delete fraudulent e-mails like spam and phishing=related messages). Authentication is just the starting point, though.

Once a sender can be properly authenticated at both the IP and domain level, the ISP can apply better reputation algorithms to determine if the messages are "wanted" by the subscribers.

How Content Affects the Inbox Gateway

Two main hurdles stand between the e-mail marketer and the inbox:

1. Reputation: Once an e-mail message is authenticated, the ISP applies its sender reputation algorithms to predict whether recipients will "want" that message.

How recipients have acted on previous messages from that sender counts in determining a sender's reputation. Top metrics generated from activity that make up a sender's reputation include bounce rates, spam complaints, and recipient interaction.

If too many recipients click the "this is spam" button or give the messages the silent treatment (deleting without opening), the sender reputation takes a hit, which reduces deliverability.

2. Content: It drives reputation factors, which is why content will continue to rule in ISP decisions. I am not talking about content filters here, but the content that causes your recipients to engage with your message. Engagement is quickly becoming a key ingredient in the reputation score.

Do recipients open the message, download images, and click on links? Do they move the message from the spam folder to the inbox? Or do they ignore or delete them without opening?

Note that two of the most important criteria that make up sender reputation (spam complaints and recipient interaction) occur after the message is delivered. It is the message content that drives those recipient decisions.

Your content actually bears three burdens, which is another reason why it's more important now than ever:

  • It has to generate the results you want. The mechanics of deliverability shouldn't make you overlook your prime reason for sending e-mail in the first place, whether to drive sales, report news, request an action, or confirm a transaction.

  • It has to get you into the inbox. As I noted above, your recipients' actions on previous messages drive this. Have you consistently met or exceeded subscriber expectations? If not, your content needs work.

  • In the inbox, your message must stand out in a rising tide of e-mail clutter, including not just more frequent commercial e-mail but also social-network notifications and alerts.

Better Content Drives Greater Engagement

Two key improvements in content can generate more subscriber interest and interaction: an optimized format and a message your subscribers will value.

1. Push the "Easy" Button

Okay, so there's no real "easy" button. But, if there were, this is how it would transform your e-mail message to reduce the barriers to engagement:

  • It blends text with images so that the main value of the message renders even with images off.

  • The sender and subject line clearly show who sent the e-mail, what it says, and why the subscriber should open it.

  • The first line of text repeats the most important point in the message, (not just the subject line), whether an offer, call to action, or confirmation.

  • The message renders well on any platform: desktop, netbook, smart phone, or basic cellphone.

  • The body copy explains what you want your recipient to learn or do, with clear calls to action.

  • Contact and unsubscribe information are posted where they're most likely to be seen.

2. Push the "Engagement" Button

Actually, there kind of is an "engagement" button, but it's not labeled as such.

It's the "submit" button you click to create meaningful segments within your mailing list or to set up a lifecycle program that relies less on broadcast messages and more on e-mail closely aligned with subscriber preferences and behavior.

Segmenting your database creates mini-mailing lists, each of which can receive a different version of your message tailored to common preferences or actions.

Lifecycle messages include confirmations, shopping-cart or payment reminders, account advisories, win-back or reactivation campaigns, and the like.

These speak to past actions with your company or brand, which makes them more relevant than the average broadcast message.

Caveat: Shiny New Toys Alone Don't Create Engagement

Video and social-network link-sharing are hot new tools that marketers are beginning to add to messages to increase engagement. However, if readers aren't into your messages now, these new toys won't make your messages more valuable.

Video can have a purpose in e-mail. Sending a message with a recipe and a video showing how to make it is engaging. A video of your last television commercial talking about your weekly discount is not.

It's like the early days of the Web, when people used animation indiscriminately to attract the eye without adding value.

Images should support copy, not replace it. Same for video. It should support the message and encourage a positive decision, not distract from it.

Social links help you connect with your subscribers and in a different channel. Your content must be so great people are driven to share it. The link merely facilitates the process your content started.

Until next time, keep on deliverin'!

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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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