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Rehab for Your Sender Reputation, Part 2

  |  July 29, 2009   |  Comments

How to repair damage caused by e-mail marketing messages that are unrecognized, unexpected, or unwanted.

It's easy to damage your e-mail sender reputation through sloppy or improper management of your e-mail program and sending practices. Repairing the damage is harder, but it can be done if you're willing to do the work.

In part one, I outlined the reasons your recipients click the "report spam" button, even on the messages they opted in to receive and why ISPs block your messages or route them to the bulk folder.

Here, you'll find strategies for detecting and resolving problems that lead to spam complaints and ISPs' actions.

Why Relevance Isn't Enough

If you've ever found yourself in e-mail delivery hell, you've probably heard variations on this advice:

  • "Make your e-mails more relevant."

  • "Don't send to inactives."

Neither piece of advice is wrong. They just don't always give you insights or tell you how to act on the advice. Relevance, for example, is relative. If you consider any e-mail offer relevant if it goes out under your company name, you probably won't admit that your subscribers have different ideas.

Marketers and industry experts will always debate the merits of removing inactive addresses. (I explain why I vote for reactivation and then pruning in the column, "The Right Way to Trim Inactives.") The answer both for rehabbing a damaged sender reputation and for avoiding major trouble in the first place is to provide value for your recipients with every e-mail you send. This value comes from sending the e-mails you promised at opt-in, being clear and recognizable in the inbox, and resolving problems as soon as they crop up.

Revisiting the Three Us

The Three Us of delivery -- unrecognized, unexpected, and unwanted -- explain why recipients click the "report spam" button for your e-mail. Here are strategies to overcome each one:

  • Unrecognized. Brand recognition solves this problem. Focus on strong brand recognition tactics in the inbox (sender address and subject lines) and text-based branding in the message body's preview-pane areas.

  • Unexpected. Be clear during the subscription process about how often you'll send messages. Then stick to it. People click the spam button when you send e-mail far more often than you promised, but they also click it if you wait too long to begin mailing or you start up again after a long lapse.

  • Unwanted. Measure relevance objectively. Do the value propositions in your most recent messages reflect your e-mail benefit statement or the reasons your subscribers signed up? If you're uncertain, use an unsubscribe survey (two to three short optional questions during the unsubscribe process) to determine if your message met the recipients' goals. Unsubscribe and complaints typically center on the same reasons, so knowing why readers unsubscribe can also help explain why they would complain.

    Preference centers and surveys usually uncover relevancy problems and can help you reactivate subscribers who haven't acted on your e-mails in a set amount of time. Go back to older names on your list, and offer them a chance to update their e-mail preferences to make the messages easier to target and deliver on the value your subscribers are looking for.

Managing Issues That Damage Reputation

  • High bounce rates from invalid addresses. Changes in acquisition processes can create this problem. Have you started working with a new partner or affiliate, changed your sign-up practices, or started collecting addresses offline as well as online?

    The sign-up source can usually uncover the problems where you are adding large amounts of inactive addresses, allowing you to make changes. These changes could be simple, such as adding error checking, requiring the address be entered twice, or adopting confirmed opt-in (particularly for partners or offline address collection where mistakes are common).

    Alternatively, ISPs sometimes change bounce codes. You might need to update your automated removal process. If you see a spike in bounces, check your database logs. Make sure the addresses that should be removed are actually being removed and not remaining on your list. Sometimes this requires help from your service provider.

  • Spam traps/honeypots. These are harder to identify. If your e-mail goes to an address the ISP uses to trap spammers, you won't get a notice, as you do for a bounce or spam complaint. Trap addresses might be behind a reputation score that starts to fall, reduced deliverability, or falling response rates. If an ISP tells you during the resolution process that you're hitting too many spam traps, it's time to remove long-inactive subscribers, because these addresses are the ones ISPs often turn into traps.

    This problem surfaces most often when marketers send to old and inactive addresses, either by mistake or in a misguided effort to get some return from their sleepers. In either case, the result is the same. The address once was valid but is no longer being used by the recipient. After sending invalid-address bounces to alert senders to remove it, the ISP eventually gave up and converted it to a trap address.

  • Spam complaints. You or your database person should be on as many feedback loops as you can find (see a list in "Get Into the Feedback Loop"). Remove an address associated with a spam complaint as soon as the ISP reports it to you. Prompt removal of addresses can help build a good reputation. Continuing to send to complaining addresses is the express lane to delivery hell.

Final Thought: The Good News

All these challenges should be temporary and can be met with proper list hygiene and complaint reduction strategies. These will improve your reputation and restore inbox delivery.

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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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