Delivery issues are inevitable during the holiday season, and making enemies with the Internet service providers won't help.
Delivery issues usually come to a head during the hectic holiday season, when the crush of retail e-mail meets sometimes unforgiving filters at the major Internet service providers (ISPs) like AOL, Yahoo, and Hotmail.
It's the worst time of the year to discover that mass quantities of your e-mail messages are failing to reach inboxes that had previously been open to you. Your first instinct is to hunt down all the ISP deliverability reps you know and demand that they lift the gates and let your e-mail get through.
This is precisely the time when exercising patience will help get your problems fixed more quickly than nasty phone calls and threats. I know from first-hand experience that ISPs do want to help get permission e-mail where it's supposed to go, but the surge in holiday e-mail has them working overtime, too.
The next time you're tempted to pick up the phone and threaten the first voice you hear, take a step back. Breathe deeply, collect your facts (the ones the information ISPs need you to provide in order to isolate and work on your problem), and be prepared to take your place in line.
Recognize that ISPs are in business to serve their own customers first. If you demonstrate that you are willing to learn what you have to do to become a reputable, trustworthy sender and follow each ISPs' process for resolving problems, you'll find the person on the other end of the phone much more willing to work with you.
What ISPs Need to Know
Many e-mail senders experienced the frustration of having almost 25 percent of their e-mail campaigns end up in the e-mail equivalent of the dead-letter office on Cyber Monday, the busiest e-mail day so far in 2009 (statistics from Pivotal Veracity and Chad White's Retail Email Blog).
More than a few of them were probably burning up the lines between their offices and those at the major ISPs. Who were the successful ones? Those who did a little advance work to research ISP guidelines for sending e-mail and for removing blocks.
In the early days of e-mail, when ISPs' attempt to block spam also netted much permission e-mail as well, it was frustrating not knowing whom to contact, how to get a block removed, or what criteria the ISP used to decide whether to allow an e-mail, block it, or route it to the junk folder.
That all changed when ISPs and e-mail senders found that working together accomplished more than blasting each other across the barricades.
ISP Postmaster Resources
Today, the major ISPs -- the ones that matter most for retailers and other e-commerce marketers -- have posted a wealth of information on their "postmaster" pages.
At AOL, for example, deliverability guru Annalivia Ford just launched her own blog, where she covers e-mail, anti-spam, and delivery issues, and announced the recent launch of AOL's new, streamlined postmaster site.
One of the best new features includes a self-service "reputation check" you can perform without having to contact AOL directly. This is critical information you can use to help understand how AOL grades your e-mail.
Although postmaster sites vary in how much information they share, at minimum you'll find out how to send an inquiry if your e-mail should be blocked.
Here's my list of public ISP postmaster sites:
Note: Laura Atkins over at Word to the Wise also maintains and updates a more complete list of ISP information resources. Find it here.
Next Step: Be Ready for the Changing Deliverability Landscape
Although ISPs have become more transparent in how they manage deliverability issues, they are also raising the stakes on inbox delivery.
My previous column notes that successful e-mail senders listen closely to subscribers in various channels.
It's equally important to listen to what the ISPs are saying:
Naturally, all this transparency doesn't mean the ISPs are going to give out the secret recipe that will deliver every e-mail you send right to the inbox without filtering or throttling.
Also, ISPs vary in both their e-mail management standards and their willingness to work with commercial senders. Neither of those considerations really matter. Tailor your e-mail program to meet the requirements of the strictest ISPs.
What's Up Ahead: Engagement and Activity Rule
Sender reputation is now a major factor in the decision whether to deliver, block, or filter an e-mail message, but two other factors that are also becoming important are engagement and activity: how subscribers act on your e-mail messages. Do they open and click, or ignore and delete? Some ISPs are watching this activity as well.
Using good segmentation that helps create relevant e-mails can increase your engagement and activity. On the other hand, if you think that sending a fresh e-mail to old and inactive addresses in your database might wake people up and bring them back to the fold...well, we all know how that's going to end, and it won't be in the inbox.
Until next time, keep on deliverin'!
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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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