Addressing E-mail Deliverability Is Simple

It’s 2010, and yet e-mail deliverability continues to be a significant challenge for many companies. This could have been resolved years ago had marketers understood the importance of having their e-mail delivered and worked with Internet service providers (ISPs) to ensure that the needs of customers, ISPs, and senders were met. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.

Marketers of varying degrees of legitimacy have continued to promote and claim legitimacy for practices that ISPs and recipients neither condone nor permit. In theory, addressing e-mail deliverability is simplicity itself. Follow best practices to the letter and ensure you send only relevant, timely communications to recipients who have agreed to receive them and you’ll have little to no problems.

The challenge for most businesses, though, arises when those best practices rub up against business requirements. Even legitimate marketers are tempted to push the limits of what their subscribers will accept.

We see e-mail service providers permitting list purchase and e-mail append because their clients push for it. We see companies diving deeper into their databases of inactive addresses, using those with less clear provenance, renting or purchasing lists, appending addresses, and the like. This is where the problems start to arise.

To make matters worse, the issues often arise gradually with no single clear behavior as the cause, leaving marketers asking why they’re being blocked now when they weren’t last week.

Two recent events highlight delivery challenges. The first is the news from AOL of a massive reduction in their postmaster team, and the second is the Pivotal Veracity ISP Insights 2009-2010 report.

AOL has long been held up as a paragon of ISP abuse desk management. They have been open and helpful, providing clear guidance and assistance to senders of all stripes. This news heralds a significant change: that AOL is moving in the direction of so many other ISPs with far smaller help desks and little support for senders unwittingly caught in their filters.

There was a time when having reverse DNS (define) and not being on a public block list was enough to be confident of delivery. Those days are long gone.

Requirements for infrastructure and list hygiene have been increasing continuously. ISPs long ago stated that permission was too problematic to track and verify. For those reasons, what they care about is whether recipients want the e-mail they receive. To determine this, ISPs started monitoring delivery counts, complaints, and bounce rates.

It was to be expected that in time they would start to monitor other ways recipients were responding. What the Pivotal Veracity report makes clear is that ISPs are looking much more deeply at how recipients respond to e-mail messages.

The result is that at the same time that a major ISP is reducing its sender support, the requirements for delivery are becoming even more complex. Marketers already think deliverability is too complex. Some marketers are making poor decisions about which behaviors are appropriate.

Relevance and timeliness are becoming more than aspirational buzzwords — they’re becoming prerequisites for delivery. Open rates and CTRs (define) are becoming more than campaign efficacy metrics — they’re becoming vital to delivery and success.

There is some good news. More sources of information and advice are available to marketers than ever before.

Companies such as Return Path and Pivotal Veracity provide tools and services to assist marketers in monitoring and understanding their e-mail delivery. Companies (e.g., Word to the Wise) and consultants (e.g., Mickey Chandler) are dedicated to helping organizations make the right choices to maximize their inbox delivery. Many of the industry’s best and brightest also share their wisdom on Web sites and blogs.

E-mail delivery will continue to be a big issue until marketers agree on a comprehensive code of ethics and take steps to ensure that all legitimate organizations follow them. Realistically, though, there isn’t much hope of that happening.

Marketers must become more savvy and educated about the details of how e-mail delivery works, how reputation is monitored, and how behaviors affect delivery. Those who learn these things will become the superstars; those who don’t will struggle.

Derek is off today. This column was first published June 16, 2010 on ClickZ.

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