Does CAN-SPAM Hurt Compliant Marketers? Part 2

Since CAN-SPAM took effect just over a year ago, we’ve seen our clients’ delivery and open rates drop. When email does get through, it works just as well as it did before CAN-SPAM, in some cases even better. Unfortunately, less email is getting past gatekeepers.

In part one, we examined how CAN-SPAM has harmed legitimate direct marketers. Now, we’ll look at the nitty-gritty of what happens when email hits ISPs and what can be done to help messages from legitimate email marketers get through.

We spend way too much time worrying about getting email messages into customers’ inboxes instead of being deleted or redirected to bulk or spam folders by their ISPs. Regardless of your position on CAN-SPAM, when an average 30 percent of legitimate permission-based email is deleted or redirected to spam folders, we have a problem:

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To get a handle on the situation, I spoke with Deirdre Baird, president of Pivotal Veracity, a company that tracks what happens to email when it hits the ISPs. Our conversation provided insight into the often-confusing world of email deliverability.

“Most marketers understand the impact their content and subject line can have on delivery,” said Baird. “However, content-related problems, while still important, are by no means the only problems that are impacting delivery today. Most marketers tend to ’blame’ the content when delivery suffers, when, in fact, issues completely unrelated to content are often the problem.”

Taking Baird’s assessment into account, some recommendations for your email marketing efforts.

Consistent, Timely Bounce Management

Many large ISPs block or redirect email to the spam folder if the mailer sends an excessive number of messages to invalid email addresses. The problem is double-edged. ISPs send bounce notices to mailers for a variety of reasons. These reasons are generally grouped into transitional problems (“soft bounces”) and permanent problems (“hard bounces”).

A soft bounce typically makes it through the mail server’s front gate but bounces back due to some issue with the recipient’s email inbox. A soft bounce could occur because of a full mailbox, an overextended or down server, too large a message, user who is inactive for an extended time, and other reasons.

There are over 30 different types of hard bounces, the most common being an invalid or nonexistent email address. Others can relate to too many recipients, an invalid media type, and large message sizes that exceed what the receiver can accept. Hard bounces never get past the mail server’s front gate.

Every organization needs rules to handle email bounces. We remove email from our files after two hard bounces or five soft bounces. We’ve found this threshold best to validate the nature of the bounces.

Proper HTML Construction

HTML email is commonplace. Yet the vast majority of HTML messages aren’t compliant with World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards for HTML construction.

Bad HTML construction is the largest mailer-controlled reason for improper message rendering. This can mean images don’t show up correctly, links don’t work, tables are poorly nested, and other issues. Some ISPs block or redirect improperly constructed email.

HTML designers and marketers should develop a checklist for viewing their messages in different email clients. Not everyone uses Microsoft Outlook. Quite a few people use email clients from AOL and Eudora. And don’t forget free Web-based email, such as Yahoo and Hotmail. Each has its own HTML construction issues.

IP-Related Issues and History

An inordinate number of delivery problems are related to a mailer’s IP infrastructure. These issues have a direct effect on delivery and result in blocked mail or redirects to spam folders.

The issues depend on whether you use an in-house solution or an external ASP (define) to send email. Issues for in-house mailers typically relate to insecure or improperly configured infrastructures that are fairly easy to fix. Examples include not having reverse DNS (define) enabled, running insecure versions of form mail, and having an improper SPF (define) setup. Have your IT group validate that your infrastructure is compliant with ISP spam filter rules.

For mailers who utilize external vendors, the most common IP-related issue is use of shared IPs. Many email delivery vendors continue to deploy mail for many clients from the same IP address. One mailer’s activity can affect every other mailer on the same IP address. If one mailer is blocked, every mailer is blocked. Review the provider and ensure its IP address isn’t on block lists. Spam Assassin’s list is a good place to start.

If you have a really good relationship with any of the major ISPs, help everyone’s cause by lobbying them to adopt standards that once and for all help defeat the bad guys and make legitimate email more deliverable.

Keep reading…

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

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