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Deliverability — Practical Advice on Getting to the Inbox

  |  November 29, 2010   |  Comments

Three case studies on how to - and how not to - address deliverability issues.

Deliverability, or getting your e-mail messages delivered to the inbox, is and remains a key challenge for e-mail marketers. A MarketingSherpa survey last year found that 57 percent of marketers saw this as a very important challenge then, with 52 percent expecting the importance of it would increase this year. And, based on my work with clients and prospects, it has.

Here are three real-life case studies of how marketers are dealing with this challenge - for better or for worse. If you fall into one of these categories, you may want to rethink your approach.

Example A: "We Don't Have the Budget to Address Deliverability"

This organization sends messages on behalf of its clients. Most of them fall into what I think of as the forward-to-a-friend category - the clients don't have opt-in permission from recipients, although the organization's mission (and the client's success) depends on the e-mail being delivered and acted on.

I got a call from the founder of the organization, an acquaintance, who was concerned; at least one large ISP was blocking all its e-mail and clients weren't happy about it. The ISP wasn't going out of its way to work with her, which isn't surprising; most ISPs don't have resources to work with small, unknown mailers, they much prefer to work with e-mail service providers (ESPs) that represent a larger portion of traffic.

The organization is not working with an ESP; all e-mail is sent from its own servers. I suggested they either contract with an ESP that would help them with deliverability or hire an independent deliverability organization.

She said that the organization didn't have the budget to do either - she needed another solution. At which point, I told her I didn't have one that would be 100 percent effective.

One of the biggest challenges here is the lack of permission from recipients. That said, since there is a relationship involved (the "friend"), the organization might be able to overcome that with some professional help. I did recommend that the organization sign up for feedback loops with the major ISPs to get better insight into their deliverability.

Morale of the story: If your business depends on getting e-mail to the inbox, you must budget for deliverability. It's part of the cost of doing business.

Example B: "We'll Address the Symptoms of Deliverability, but Not the Cause"

In this case, it's a membership organization that's working with an ESP (although not one that is well-known in the industry). Once again, there's no explicit opt-in for most of the addresses, although there is a relationship.

They've been on and off block lists for months (if not years); in the past, the ESP has always been able to get the block removed, but nothing was done to address the underlying cause. Now things have escalated: one of the groups that has been blacklisted them for months has done it again and this time it is requiring that they (a) get an explicit opt-in from current members of the list and (b) shift to double opt-in for all new acquisition.

The organization is struggling with this; the ESP is irate that these groups think they have the right to impose opt-in on e-mail marketing. But these are the rules of the e-mail game.

The organization is doing some analysis on which e-mail addresses were blocked to try to see if there is a pattern. Many e-mail addresses in the file were appended, so there's a good chance that these are causing the problem. If this is where the issue lies, they may be able to move to explicit opt-in with e-mail addresses from this source (both those on the file now and future e-mail addresses) and keep the rest of the acquisition strategy as it is.

This type of analysis should have been done long ago, before the situation escalated (I suggested it months ago when the persistent blacklisting was brought to my attention, but it wasn't seen as a priority). If the group blacklisting them won't accept this, they will either have to live with the block or follow-through on the group's new acquisition rules.

If they meet the group's requirements, a best-case scenario for explicit opt-in on the existing list is about 25 percent, meaning that the organization would no longer be able to send to 75 percent of its list. Double opt-in confirmation rates are running at 60 percent to 80 percent at best, meaning that the organization would not be able to send to 20 percent to 40 percent or more of those that initially sign-up to receive e-mail from them in the future.

Morale of the story: Don't ignore the warnings. Deliverability issues won't just go away. If you're doing any volume of e-mail marketing you'll be blocked at some point. But when you're constantly being blocked, there's an underlying cause that you must address. And it's best to do this before you get an ultimatum.

Example C: "We'll Address Poor Deliverability as a Business Risk"

In this third example, the organization is handling its e-mail program exactly as it does it offline direct mail program, purchasing and building lists at will with no opt-in permission. The organization doesn't see the need or value in explicit opt-in. It isn't working with an ESP, and I doubt any of the top ESPs would work with this organization based on its acquisition strategy.

When it began having deliverability issues, it decided to build a deliverability team in house. This is a costly endeavor and is outside their core expertise.

I've met with this team as a consultant; they're using all sorts of methods, including many also used by spammers, to try to get their e-mail messages to the inbox. It's a constant battle. In a meeting a few months ago, they went over all the tactics they are using to get the e-mail delivered. At the end they asked me if there was anything else, aside from opt-in, they could be doing.

In this case, the organization has weighed the cost of opt-in versus the business risk of opt-out and has decided to accept the business risk. That's their choice. It's like they've decided to go skydiving on a daily basis. They are taking great pains to limit the risk – a back-up parachute for each participant, tandem jumps so that each person has a partner with two parachutes, a mattress on the ground so that if none of the parachutes open there will still be a good likelihood of surviving the fall. But the bottom line is that they are still jumping out of a plane; there's still risk.

Morale of the story: While opt-in doesn't guarantee your e-mail will be delivered to the inbox, it's the single most effective way to increase your chances.

Bottom line: If your organization is ignoring deliverability issues, it's time to stop and address them. Take action to correct them before they significantly impact your bottom line.

Until next time,

Jeanne

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeanne Jennings

Jeanne Jennings is a 20 year veteran of the online/email marketing industry, having started her career with CompuServe in the late 1980s. As Vice President of Global Strategic Services for Alchemy Worx, Jennings helps organizations become more effective and more profitable online. Previously Jennings ran her own email marketing consultancy with a focus on strategy; clients included AARP, Hasbro, Scholastic, Verizon and Weight Watchers International. Want to learn more? Check out her blog.

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