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What Will That E-mail Audit Turn Up?

  |  September 28, 2005   |  Comments

Four common problems audits turn up -- and how to fix them.

Put your email program through an email audit or self-assessment, such as third-party certification, and you’ll probably turn up problems with your list acquisition, disclosure policies, bounce management, or subscriber consent. All these can affect delivery.

That’s what major certification and authentication agencies, such as Habeas and TRUSTe, say they see most often when evaluating clients’ email policies and procedures.

These firms use audits to track down and correct any weaknesses or holes in an email program, such as opt-in procedures, delivery management, and privacy policies, which we discussed last time. Below, the four problem areas these firms find most often:

  • List acquisition. "The number-one problem we see is list acquisition, no doubt," said Habeas marketing VP J.F. Sullivan. "The biggest thing is that they just have very squirrelly practices about how they get their lists. They’re doing things that’s meant to drive traffic in. The specific thing is that they don’t confirm the opt-in."

  • Inconsistent email policies. This happens when a company says one thing about how it will use the email address at opt-in, but its privacy policy or terms of service actually give it more leeway, TRUSTe product-development director Colin O’Malley said.

    "In one place, it promises you won’t get anything you didn’t request, and in the other it leaves the company room to send you something else if they’re so inclined at some future point in time," he said. "The privacy policy tends to be viewed as a place where the company can give itself extended rights."

  • Consent transfer. Both Sullivan and O’Malley say audits also turn up the practice of extending the initial consent of one publication or mailing list across all a company’s mailing lists.

    "They own the process on their sites for confirming you, and they even use double opt-in. But then by signing on, they also redirect your information to a list generated by a partner or company division that uses single opt-in or even opt-out," Sullivan said.

  • Unsubscribe and bounce management. "Most senders have some form of unsubscribe process, but a surprising amount of senders have no process for bounce removal," Sullivan said.

    Similarly, a TRUSTe audit often turns up unsubscribes that don’t work. "It’s not that there isn’t an unsubscribe link in the message, but the mechanism itself fails to remove the subscriber from the database," O’Malley said. The mechanism was scripted incorrectly or doesn’t coordinate with the database.

Today, our take on the first three problems (we’ve covered bounce management extensively in previous columns), along with our recommendations for fixing them before they show up in your email audit.

Global Opt-ins

A subscriber confirms an opt-in to a specific mailing list, but the company extends that initial consent to its other mailing lists or partner mailings.

How to fix it. Update your existing policies to reflect your practices and set expectations upfront. Pulling a "gotcha" on the end user only results in spam complaints. These get your email filtered or blocked.

If email policies change after you’ve already acquired a sizeable list, provide users with notice and choice. Send a campaign to the affected recipients notifying them of the policy changes and the additional messages they might receive. Use this as an opportunity to highlight the benefits of your other newsletters and offers. Ideally, you’ll drive readers to a preference page that lets them update preferred subscription options.

E-Mail Use Policies Don’t Add Up

The registration page says the company will use email addresses only to send the messages the subscriber wants, but service terms allow the company to send general messages or third-party ads at will.

How to fix it. Again, update customer-facing policies to be consistent with your marketing practices and provide notice to existing users. Poorly managing consumer expectations results in spam complaints, which jeopardize your mailings.

For privacy sensitive issues, such as sharing your list members’ information with third parties, distribute a confirmation email to gather permission from your users to share their information.

No Working Unsubscribe Mechanism

Every email message includes an unsubscribe link as required by CAN-SPAM, but the link fails to remove the subscriber from the list because it was scripted incorrectly or it doesn’t coordinate unsubscribes with the database.

How to fix it. If this has been going on for a while, it’s a serious CAN-SPAM violation. You must reacquire permission through a confirmation message or other opt-in mechanism. These confirmation messages don’t necessarily need to be sent to your whole list if you can isolate the users who were presented with the malfunctioning unsubscribe links.

To prevent this in the future, use an email service provider (ESP) for database management. ESPs have extensive tools and options for subscription, suppression, and bounce handling.

And as always, keep on deliverin’.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kirill Popov and Loren McDonald

As director of ISP relations and delivery, Kirill Popov creates and enforces strict usage and anti-spam policies, maintains ISP and community relations, and oversees all abuse and policy investigations and inquiries for EmailLabs clients. Kirill works with clients on best practices, content, design, and list hygiene to minimize potential delivery issues. He's a registered member of the SpamCon foundation and representsEmailLabs on AIM's Council for Responsible E-Mail.

Loren McDonald is vice president of marketing at e-mail marketing automation company EmailLabs, overseeing corporate marketing activities and client consulting services. He has 20 years experience in marketing, consulting and strategic planning. Earlier, Loren was founder and president of Intevation, an e-marketing services firm specializing in e-mail and SEM. He's held executive marketing positions at companies including USWeb/CKS (marchFIRST), NetStruxr, and Arthur Andersen.

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