E-Mail Marketers Trip up on Quality Control

  |  October 29, 2009   |  Comments

While e-mail marketing gets more sophisticated, why are messages still delivered with broken links, missing images, and other shortcomings?

In recent weeks the Email Experience Council (EEC), a leading e-mail industry group, has come under fire in industry circles for a series of errors in its regular e-mail communications. While I agree that it doesn't give a great impression when an ambassador of our industry repeatedly sends e-mail communications with errors, I don't lay the blame solely at the feet of the EEC.

They say a bad workman blames his tools, but by the same token, great work requires great tools. Our industry doesn't have great tools for quality assurance. Despite huge advances in the capabilities and sophistication of e-mail marketing software and platforms in the past 10 years, the current state of quality control is the same as it was at the turn of the millennium.

I've touched on this issue in the past as it relates to dynamic and automated messaging. However, it's clear that current quality assurance processes are inadequate even for more traditional messaging. Clients are sending more and more e-mail. They're running more campaigns, to more tightly defined audiences, and yet, have no more staff to run these campaigns. In many cases, they may actually have fewer staff.

At the same time, the increased expenditure combined with an understanding of the efficacy of e-mail is leading to greater recognition, and that means scrutiny, higher up in the organization. Senior management expects every campaign to be executed flawlessly. As the '80s total quality management (define) mantra said, "right first time every time."

Unfortunately, quality control issues seem to be plaguing our industry. I regularly receive marketing communications with a range of different issues. In the past few weeks alone I have seen the following:

  • Broken links
  • Missing images
  • Incorrectly coded subject lines
  • Unsubstituted personalization fields
  • Faulty unsubscription mechanisms
  • Duplicate messages

The problem is, there are a lot of moving parts in even the most basic e-mail communication. Many "i's to dot and t's to cross" without incorporating advanced targeting, dynamic content, and automated messaging.

A simple HTML message has links that must work, images that must load correctly, authentication mechanisms such as SPF and DomainKeys (or DKIM) that depend on appropriate technical configuration, various response addresses (from and reply to, possibly unsubscribe), character sets and content encodings that must match, and a list of recipients that may require data loading and suppression.

Unfortunately, most e-mail solutions still leave all the heavy lifting of e-mail verification in the hands of the sender -- with essentially manual processes. I don't understand why this is still the case. Link destinations, images, response addresses, and authentication can all be checked automatically, but it seems this isn't the norm.

Automated tools can't resolve all e-mail quality assurance issues. A link verifier may be able to determine if a link destination exists, but it can't determine if it's the right link. The same is true for image verification or checking response addresses. Recipient checks may be able to prevent duplication but can't ensure the audience is the right one. Humans have to make judgment calls about link destinations, content rendering, and so forth. Automated checks should be a bare minimum, though apparently they aren't.

So am I missing something? Is our industry still in the engineering equivalent of the days before the Tacoma Narrows Bridge? Is this a challenge for you? What do you do to manage the quality of your campaigns? Are there tools that have been useful for your organization?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on an important issue for our industry.

Until next time,


Derek Harding

Derek is the managing director of J-Labs, Javelin Marketing Group's technology skunkworks, a role that draws on his 20 years of experience and leadership in the fields of marketing and technology. A British expatriate based in Seattle, Washington, Derek is perhaps better known as the founder and technologist behind Innovyx, one of the first email service providers later acquired by the Omnicom Group. An industry veteran and thought-leader, Derek is a regular expert author, contributor, conference speaker, and takes an active role in a number of industry and trade groups.

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