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Is the ISP Postmaster Just Not That Into You?

  |  June 23, 2010   |  Comments

Why begging or bullying won't help your marketing messages make their way into subscribers' inboxes.

Like love-starved lonely hearts, e-mail marketers throw themselves at Internet service provider (ISP) postmasters, begging them to acknowledge their good intentions and please, oh, please just lift that block preventing us from reaching the inbox. To quote the pop-media dating advice when marketers feel hurt and blunted by the lack of response, "He's just not that into you."

It's a harsh reality. While most of us follow best practices and genuinely care about our subscribers, the postmasters at the major mailbox providers like Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail - along with their counterparts at corporations - don't care about us. Bulk commercial mail - which includes marketing and promotion - is on the lowest rung of the priority scale.

One postmaster told me recently, "We don't have an inbox deliverability problem. We have a problem with senders calling to report they have an inbox deliverability problem." Translation: if the filtering algorithms are working, the postmaster doesn't want to hear from us. Asking why marketing messages go to the bulk folder isn't a legitimate question to them. The answer is always the same, "The data shows you have a complaint/list hygiene/engagement problem. Fix it." Deliverability experts have reminded us for a long time: there's no bat phone. You can't beg, bully, or force your way into the inbox.

In their defense, postmasters are busy trying to keep system attacks at bay, to stop the tsunami of spam, and to isolate the sources of really nasty stuff like bots, phishing scams, and identity thieves. Postmasters really do want their subscribers to receive mail that's important to them. Many firmly believe, however, that marketing mail has little to do with their customers' satisfaction. This view is grounded in the high complaint rates on commercial e-mail compared to personal e-mail.

At the same time, marketers can overcome this bias by earning low complaint rates and high engagement and balancing promotions with great content and transactional messages. In fact, some data shared this year by Hotmail's product team shows that its users highly value e-mail communications with brands.

Relying on the data is good for good marketers. To be included in that "What's important to subscribers" bucket, the data must reflect engagement with subscribers. We know this - it's the foundation of sender reputation and all the scoring, analyzing, and certification services that help marketers optimize their inbox placement. Got low complaints, clean data, no spamtraps, solid infrastructure, and well-constructed HTML? Do you qualify for the best whitelists? Then your data will speak well of you.

CAN-SPAM compliance is not enough. Permission is not enough. If your sender reputation is high, you're very likely to reach the inbox. If it's low, messages will be blocked.

It doesn't seem quite fair to marketers. Sometimes seemingly random blocks take hold, even when a sender reputation is generally high. Sometimes something breaks on the ISP side. Sometimes a shared IP neighbor is at fault. In all cases, real revenue is at risk - if marketers can't get messages through, there's an immediate loss of sales and revenue. Not to mention panic internally when website traffic drops and everyone worries about reaching business goals.

Although an understandable reaction, frantic calls to the postmaster don't help the situation. "I understand your business model, but it's the data that matters," is the common reaction. Postmasters are weary of repeated attempts by marketers and publishers explaining - counter to the complaint data - that their messages are actually welcome by subscribers. Some postmasters are skeptical about service provider calls, since the e-mail service provider (ESP) makes money on volume while the ISP just has increased costs.

What does help is doing your homework first. Before you call, or ask your deliverability consultant to call, run through this checklist:

  1. Did something break? Is your system working? Did data process correctly?
  2. Is this a systemic issue, or something happening only to you? (Postmasters care about system issues.)
  3. Was the list selected correctly? Did you accidentally mail your suppression file?
  4. Did you do something different - new content, new from line, new template?
  5. Did you not do something different? Is your messaging stale? Are you continuing to mail to non-responsive subscribers?
  6. Did you add a new data source?
  7. Did you e-mail more frequently than usual?
  8. Did you hit a spam trap or get added to a blacklist?
  9. Is the problem specific to one domain or ISP, or across all?
  10. Did the content render correctly?
  11. How do your response metrics look in relation to other mailings? Are subscribers engaged?

Fair or not fair (and who says life is fair?!), the only way to get a block fixed is to change your practices. If anyone (your deliverability consultant, your boss, your media buyer, your ESP, or IT person) tells you they can just call and get a block lifted, they're blowing smoke. If, by some chance of relationship, calling the postmaster actually works, it's likely to only work for a short time, and to never work again. Postmasters simply won't be bullied, and they stand by their data and data model algorithms. In fact, by getting on their radar in this negative way, marketers (and their consultants) run the risk of increased scrutiny in the future. In my experience, that increased attention doesn't translate to increased inbox placement.

First, fix whatever is causing high complaints or a list quality problem. Then, work with your deliverability experts to communicate with the ISPs. Usually, if you fix the root cause, the data adjusts and the problem fixes itself over a week or so. Consider the cost and lost opportunity of having all your messages blocked for a week - that should help you get budget, resources, and executive attention for monitoring the data used by ISPs and keeping mailing practices at all-time high levels.

The buck stops with you - the sender. While your e-mail broadcast vendor should be helping you, and running a tight ship on infrastructure, no one but you controls content, data sourcing, frequency, and how you cross-promote your files internally and externally. The postmaster isn't interested in your reasons or excuses. Your true self and true practices are reflected in the data. Make sure your practices reflect you and your brand well.

Let me know any questions or thoughts in the comments section below!

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Stephanie Miller

Stephanie Miller is a partner with brand and marketing technology strategy firm TopRight Partners, which helps customers use the technology they have today to do the marketing they want to do today and tomorrow. She is a relentless customer advocate and a champion for marketers creating memorable customer experiences. A digital marketing and CRM expert, she helps sophisticated marketers balance the right mix of people, process, and technology to optimize a data-driven content marketing strategy. She speaks and writes regularly and leads several industry-wide initiatives. Feedback and column ideas most welcome, to smiller AT toprightpartners DOT com or @stephanieSAM.

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