Get Right with AOL, Part 2

  |  October 28, 2004   |  Comments

Delivering e-mail to AOL subscribers has always been tricky. Second of a series of case studies examining how real-life mailers get around the hurdles.

Welcome to a new column on an old topic: communicating with AOL customers. One of the most common grumblings I hear from email marketers is how spam complaints cause AOL to block their domains, although the lists are opt-in and users requested the mailings. Granted, this is hardly new; we’ve covered the issue in this space several times over the past years.

Part one of this series looked at one solution. Today, I’d like to present another. Here’s how one company significantly decreased AOL spam reports and blockage and increased deliverability to customers with AOL email addresses.

Affinity Group Inc. (AGI) is parent to several businesses that provide goods and services to the outdoor recreation market. One such business is the Camping World retail store chain for RV aftermarket parts and camping equipment. AGI operates several clubs for RV owners, including the Good Sam Club, Coast to Coast, and Camping World’s President’s Club. The RV clubs have over 2 million members, and email is an important tool. AGI uses email to send product updates, sales offers, and other types of messages.

Given the large database, a few email marketing glitches were inevitable. The largest one was getting through to AOL customers. AOL’s email client has a button that allows AOL subscribers to report email as spam. If a certain percentage of AOL subscribers complain about a specific email message (AGI’s email marketing firm, Dynamics Direct Inc. (DDI), estimates the number is about 1 in 1,000), the sending IP address is blocked. This prohibits all AOL recipients from getting any email sent from that IP address.

The practice created a delivery problem for AGI earlier this year. AGI’s AOL spam complaints were as high as 2 percent of its opt-in AOL subscribers. AGI’s email was blocked once or twice a month. Fortunately, DDI is on AOL’s whitelist, so the blocks were temporary. But clearly, this wasn’t a good long-term situation.

So AGI installed Dynamic Messenger, a DDI program. In broad terms, Dynamic Messenger works like this: Anyone who clicks AOL’s spam button is automatically registered with the AGI database as someone wishing to unsubscribe. Bear in mind a crucial distinction: This is different from a user clicking an "unsubscribe" button or link in an email message. In this case, the user doesn’t have to click the unsubscribe link in the message to be unsubscribed across all AGI lists.

Why does this matter? Because by DDI’s accounting, fewer than 10 percent of AOL users who report their messages as spam bother to unsubscribe. I don’t doubt the statistic. I’ve tried to unsubscribe from several lists I opted in to a while back. Instead of being taken out of their databases, I get more messages from them and their "partners." Finally, I report them to my ISP as spammers. There are plenty of other consumers less patient than I!

Since AGI installed Dynamic Messenger four months ago, the number of AOL spam complaints across brands has decreased over 50 percent. And AOL hasn’t blocked the company.

Getting on AOL’s whitelist is a good start. But if that won’t ensure customers receive their opt-in mailings, consider other ways to unsubscribe the unhappy ones. As this and the previous case study demonstrate, there are options for getting through to AOL users.

Follow Up

After this series’ first column ran, I received an email from Brian Barrios at AOL. He thanked me for getting the information out and invited me to email him at his AOL address. I tried to forward a reader’s question about whitelists to him. Ironically, my messages bounced. So here’s a public request I hope will benefit ClickZ readers.

Brian, could you email me your telephone number? I promise not to publicize it, but I’d like to help a reader. Seven spam complaints out of 12,000 got her mailing blocked, and she wants to know more about getting whitelisted with AOL.

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

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Heidi Anderson

Heidi is a freelance writer who covers the Internet for both consumers and businesses. She's a former editor of the E-mail Publishing Resource Center and coauthor of "Sometimes the Messenger Should Be Shot: Building a Spam-Free E-mail Marketing Program." Her work also appears in Smart Computing, PC Novice, What's Working Online, and Editor & Publisher.

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