Avoid Desperate E-Mail Tactics This Holiday

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas 2008, at least for holiday spending. Survey after survey reports that shoppers are planning to spend less and bargain-hunt even more vigorously than last year.

The latest report is from ING Direct, released in August 2009. It finds 41 percent of respondents plan to spend less and save more for the rest of 2009. Fewer said they plan to spend more than $1,000 on holiday shopping, and more said they would spend less than $300 this year.

I’m all in favor of frugality and intelligent spending. But when sales are down and belts are tight, pressure often turns to the e-mail channel to “send more e-mail and make more money.” When e-mail marketers are pressed to make their sales numbers, sometimes they resort to risky maneuvers like:

  • Turning to e-mail append to reach customers and expand the e-mail database reach
  • Blanketing subscribers with one-size-fits-all messages instead of carefully targeted offers
  • Jacking up frequency to capture sales wherever they can
  • Mailing to old or inactive lists to recover addresses
  • Adding e-mail addresses provided during transactions to a mailing list without permission

I sympathize with marketers who probably know what e-mail marketing best practices are but feel compelled to take a risk or two, especially if they have company higher-ups forcing their hands if sales lag as predicted.

However, what you (and they) must understand is bad e-mail behavior is more likely than ever this year to cripple your e-mail program.

Unwanted E-Mail Draws More ISP Scrutiny

As always, indiscriminate e-mailing can annoy, irritate, or burn out your subscribers, leading to depressed sales, increased list churn, and less overall effectiveness of your e-mail program.

This year, though, bad e-mailing is even more likely to damage your ability to get your messages delivered to the inbox long after the last fake Christmas tree gets packed away.

All of these activities and more now generate the kind of metrics that ISPs use to determine whether a message is unwanted. In other words, not whether it’s spam by a legal definition, but whether it’s an unvalued communication and should be routed to the junk folder or blocked.

Yahoo’s Mark Risher outlined some ways the world’s biggest e-mail provider is changing its tactics during a conference call with members of the Email Sender & Provider Coalition (ESPC).

Risher, Yahoo’s lead person for Yahoo Mail, said Yahoo would begin including engagement metrics, measuring opens, clicks, and other actions, as a factor in determining sender reputation. These metrics aren’t the only factor, but they are part of an ever-increasing and complex set of rules to help identify wanted from unwanted e-mail to improve the end recipient’s experience.

In The Beginning, There Was (Real) Spam

Changes like those Yahoo and other ISPs are considering reflect how far spam and anti-spam tactics have evolved over the years.

The first anti-spam measures focused exclusively on stopping bot-net spam, viruses, and phishing (define). If marketer e-mails got swept up in that net, it was usually a mistake.

In the next phase, ISPs gave e-mail recipients the “report spam” button to help them take control of their inboxes, refine and improve filters, and have a voice in defining unwanted e-mail.

This initiative clearly has challenges and isn’t perfect, but marketers who heed the warnings and feedback that ISPs convey via the feedback loop will end up with better and more responsive e-mail lists.

What’s Next: User Activity Affects Sender Reputation

We’re now seeing the next evolution in anti-spam efforts. Just as recipients now say spam is any e-mail they don’t want, ISPs are beginning to measure recipient activity and engagement on e-mail messages and apply that metric to the all-important sender reputation.

As Risher noted during the ESPC conference call, Yahoo (representing 300 million mailboxes worldwide, 100 million in the U.S. alone) will continue to use spam complaints to help determine what unwanted e-mail is. But it will also incorporate engagement metrics into the equation, including opens, clicks, and actions to move a message from the bulk folder to the inbox or from the inbox to the bulk folder without clicking the “report spam” button.

In this scenario, repeatedly mailing to large groups of inactive subscribers can affect your sender reputation and, ultimately, your deliverability. That’s another good argument for segregating out your inactives (people who haven’t opened or clicked on your e-mails for a long period) and moving them out of your regular database.

Think Before You Send

More than ever, your best defense against changing spamming filters is to send the e-mail your subscribers want: highly engaged messages that invite opens and clicks, relevant offers that are targeted to specific database segments and that match preferences or profile data, and respect of the permission level your subscribers have given you.

The next time you’re tempted to drop just one more e-mail, realize you could be pulling the pin on the hand grenade that can blast your list to smithereens.

Is that extra message worth the risk? Only you know, but I urge you to consider the ramifications and to explain them in terms your boss can understand.

Until next time, keep deliverin’!

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