That black box where spam filtering takes place is a source of endless frustration to most e-mail marketers. Rules followed by mailbox providers like Gmail and Yahoo (as well as corporations) seem remote as the Yukon, and we feel left behind without our snow gear.
Truth is, most of the significant mailbox providers in North America have become quite transparent over the past five years. While we all would prefer a bat phone or a silver bullet for removing spam blocks, that just isn't how it works. Every time mailbox providers let marketers in on some of the filtering rules and thresholds, spammers also have access that information (and use it!). So it's surprising that we get any feedback data at all. Consider all the sources below, and combine this data with inbox placement tracking (seed list or header-based) for the most insightful and actionable reporting:
Microsoft may be the most transparent of the global mailbox providers. Its junk mail reporting service gives you a quick overview of how your reputation is viewed by Hotmail and MSN. Plus, Microsoft shares reputation data by making the color-coded SmartScreen results available to marketers via the SNDS site, including information on spam trap hits and complaint rates. SmartScreen is Microsoft's proprietary spam filtering protocol and drives the blocking decision engine. Yellow or red SmartScreen results mean you are less likely to make it to the inbox. A third party, Return Path, manages the whitelist for Microsoft, which also provides qualified members with deep levels of data.
Yahoo's whitelist is open for new applicants, and they also use Return Path's certification. If you are already on the whitelist, work hard to stay under the thresholds for complaints, volume, and engagement. Once you fall off the list, you must wait to re-apply.
AOL's whitelist is not open for applicants; its postmaster decides who is entered. You may be on the whitelist yet not even know it. Because the postmaster desk was outsourced overseas earlier this year, the only way to get an issue resolved is to use the website forms. AOL still uses the Goodmail certification program.
Google's Gmail shares little if any information with marketers or their vendors. It's not unusual to wait weeks for a reply from its postmaster form. However, there are many clues to how they filter mail. One is your sender score, which has been shown to correlate pretty closely with Gmail filtering. Senders with scores of 90+ typically see inbox placement at Gmail. Also, the Gmail Prediction API, which is what Gmail uses to block messages for the organizations using its hosted e-mail services (e.g.: small business, universities, nonprofits), publishes some thresholds for timing and acceptance rules. It is believed that Gmail for individuals (those subscribers likely to be on our marketing files) follows these same rules.
The best way to stay in the inbox and out of the filtering nets is to delight subscribers and only send messages that will be opened, read, and welcome. Yet, even the best of us get blocked sometimes. What can we do? Here are some options to consider.
Do nothing. This is a bad option on a few levels. First, issues must be corrected or the blocking will continue or even worsen. Second, it's hard to keep your job if you don't respond to the need to generate predictable revenue from your e-mail program.
Blame your e-mail broadcast vendor. This can be quite satisfying, but is usually not productive or an accurate reflection of the problem. While your e-mail service provider or IT team should be a good partner to you and provide superior infrastructure and reporting, you control your frequency, list sourcing, content relevancy, and mailing practices that determine sender reputation. Sorry, but the bucks stops with the marketer.
Get more data. It's rare when an ISP makes a mistake, but first check to see if there is a system-wide issue or if it's just your program. Most ISPs will post updates on known issues on their postmaster sites. Also, ask your e-mail vendor or IT team to do a quick infrastructure check - did something break or not process correctly? If both of them return a "no" then it's time to dig into the specific campaigns that seem to be troublesome.
Self diagnose. High complaints, a bad data source, compromised list management, or high volume are the most common causes of inbox deliverability failure. What did you do differently - or not differently - this week?
Take action. Fix the issues you identify above. You should see your reputation and inbox placement correct in a few days. Slow down volume to the ISPs and domains affected. Consider suppressing some campaigns for a few days. Be careful about re-introducing high volumes once the situation corrects - as that may put you right back on the block list.
Monitor reputation. A deliverability failure is like a mark in the sand. You've just identified a threshold or boundary for your program. Maybe it's your subscriber's tolerance for certain content (measured by complaint rate), and will guide you to adjust frequency, content strategy and segmentation. Perhaps there is a volume level that you must try to avoid by pacing out campaigns or stretching campaigns out over longer sending times.
If you've had issues with blocking and filtering of messages, it's likely that changes to your practices will correct the problem in days or at worst, a few weeks. Typically, sender reputation is measured on a 30-day cycle, so if you make changes now, the results will show up in that timeframe, usually within 10 days. Most inbox placement problems can be solved by the marketer and their ESP working together, without having to ring up the postmaster after all.
What are your biggest frustrations when it comes to inbox placement and monitoring? Perhaps we can address them in a future column, or learn from others' handling of them.
Stephanie Miller is a relentless customer advocate and a champion for marketers creating memorable online experiences. A digital marketing expert, she helps responsible data-driven marketers connect with the people, resources, and ideas they need to optimize response and revenue. She speaks and writes regularly and leads many industry initiatives as VP, Member Relations and Chief Listening Officer at the Direct Marketing Association (www.the-dma.org). Feedback and column ideas most welcome, to smiller AT the-dma DOT org or @stephanieSAM.