Get Right With AOL, Part 1

Stop me if this sounds familiar: Communicating with AOL customers can be tricky. Yes, I wrote that back in February, when I lamented that it can be difficult for legitimate email marketers to get legitimate messages through to their customers who subscribe to AOL. It was nothing new at the time; more than two years before that, we discussed hurdles involved with sending email to AOL users.

Well, I’ve got some good news. Two companies I’ve spoken with recently have had success communicating with AOL recipients, and both are willing to share their strategies. Here’s the first of a couple AOL success stories. Many of you likely have tried this first tactic, but it’s a good lesson for those who haven’t and a reminder for those who have.

Unclaimed Baggage is a retailer that buys truckloads of unclaimed luggage and sells the items online and in its Scottsboro, AL, retail store. Given the ever-changing inventory, it was only natural Unclaimed Baggage explore communicating with its customers via email. About a year ago, the company’s in-house staff started sending notices and e-newsletters to its opt-in database, now numbering about 90,000 subscribers.

But trouble hit. Unclaimed Baggage’s ISP notified the company it was receiving an unacceptable number of spam complaints. The company was ordered to clean up its act. Unclaimed Baggage officials knew their list was strictly opt-in, so they investigated and found virtually all the several hundred spam complaints were generated by AOL users. AOL users would click the spam button in AOL’s mail client, and a warning message would be sent directly to the ISP. The ISP, in turn, would contact Unclaimed Baggage. Even though the subscribers had opted in to the list, the mailings were perceived as unwanted. Now, this threatened to shut down Unclaimed Baggage’s email marketing program.

“We were upset,” said one senior marketer. “We had done all the research and met all the requirements, but that wasn’t sufficient.”

The first thing Unclaimed Baggage did was immediately remove the unhappy AOL customers from its database. Next, it sent a small test mailing to AOL. With no spam complaints from that mailing, Unclaimed Baggage was fairly certain its AOL list was clean. It then began making sure it wouldn’t again generate an unacceptable number of spam complaints to AOL.

Unclaimed Baggage learned that for some unknown reason, its ISP was registered multiple times with AOL. This meant each time an AOL user hit the spam button, multiple messages would be sent to the ISP for each complaint, making it appear as if two or even three times the true number of complaints were directed at Unclaimed Baggage. The company now closely examines complaint logs to determine if and how many complaints are duplicates.

More important, Unclaimed Baggage wasn’t yet on AOL’s whitelist, a list of AOL-approved domains from which email is sent to its customers. The Unclaimed Baggage staff took 15 minutes and filled out a few forms. Within 24 hours the company was added to the whitelist.

Not only did this exempt Unclaimed Baggage from most spam filters at AOL’s mail gateways, it meant any spam complaints (what AOL calls Client TOS Notifications) went directly from AOL to both Unclaimed Baggage and its ISP, not just the ISP. This gives Unclaimed Baggage greater insight and an easier way to unsubscribe unhappy recipients.

Since Unclaimed Baggage made this one simple change, getting added to AOL’s whitelist, it’s been well below AOL’s threshold: The complaint rate is less than 0.1 percent, and the bounce rate is below 10 percent. It’s never received an “AOL report card.”

Though there’s no way to eliminate every complaint, Unclaimed Baggage reduced the number to virtually nil.

And, of course, Unclaimed Baggage purged its list of unhappy AOL recipients. Removing anyone who lodges a spam complaint with AOL (or anyone else, for that matter) is a must.

Next, a look at how one company automated this process.

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

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