Getting Through to AOL

It’s the same old song for email marketers: Communicating with AOL customers can be tricky. I wrote about this topic over a year and a half ago. Things have changed a bit, but not necessarily for the better. It’s still difficult to obtain statistics on which browser versions AOL customers use; legitimate opt-in email is turned away as spam; and still other issues complicate sending email to customers of one of the world’s largest ISPs.

Today’s case study focuses on a company that tried to address AOL bounces and otherwise undelivered or unopened messages. The most interesting aspect of this case study is the direct feedback the company received from AOL users. Since this case study raises more questions than it answers, we’d like to hear your feedback.

Tower Records is one of the largest music retailers in the United States. Tower’s been growing its opt-in mailing list for years. The company sends email communications to customers regarding sales, special offers, targeted product recommendations, and more. The list has grown to the millions, including about 250,000 active, responsive AOL users.

Knowing AOL was upgrading to version 9.0, Tower thought it would be a good idea to work directly with its AOL customers. As most of you know, AOL deliverability has traditionally been an issue for many marketers. Version 9.0 seems to be no exception. AOL members have the option to add specific senders to their email address books. Tower sent an email message to its active AOL customers asking them to add its email address to their address books so email communications would be delivered correctly and all graphics and links would work.

The first part of the message reminded users they were valued Tower shoppers and subscribing to the email list provided them special benefits. It mentioned the newest version of AOL included changes that could affect Tower’s ability to properly communicate with them (e.g., an inability to access external Web site links). The message provided directions for AOL 9.0 users to add the address to their AOL address books. It also supplied instructions for doing this in earlier AOL software versions.

The message featured other important information, such as how to sign up for plain text instead of HTML, a link to Tower’s privacy policy, and an unsubscribe link. The friendly sign-off provided Tower’s offline contact information as well.

Unfortunately, there’s no real way to test how many AOL users added Tower to their address books — at least, none the folks at Tower or I can figure out (if you know of one, feel free to share). Recipients don’t ordinarily confirm a sender’s email address was added to their AOL address books. But Tower has some interesting anecdotal results to report. (And before you jump all over me for the unreliability of the “results,” yes, I know this doesn’t prove anything. But it’s better than nothing.)

Typically, Tower doesn’t get much in the way of personal responses. But in this case, according to Direct Marketing Manager Lorelei Curt, Tower received “more personal replies than usual from customers who said they don’t plan to upgrade to AOL 9.0. Some cited technical difficulties with previous upgrades, many others said their current version of AOL was fine, and a few provided non-AOL email addresses.”

A few typical, excerpted responses:

  • I do not intend to upgrade my AOL. I did so for a while, and I had too many problems. Thank you.

  • Thank you, but I don’t think I have an address book. I never have any trouble reaching Tower Records, though.
  • It’s OK, that’s why I am still using 5.0, so keep ’em coming. Thank you.

Curt says Tower also received responses through an AOL address card, which the company hadn’t received before. The card reads, in part: “Address Card information is attached to this email as a vCard. When you accept this Address Card, you will receive updated vCards from this AOL member at tower@tower.m0.net whenever X’s information changes.” Curt supposes this is a 9.0 feature, because Tower hadn’t gotten any such responses before or after this campaign.

(AOL confirms it’s developing a feature in which members can automatically share contact information changes with others. According to AOL, “Members can decide what information they want to share and with whom they wish to share it — both AOL members and other Internet users alike. AOL Address Cards are currently in beta, and we expect to make them available to members when we introduce additional enhancements to AOL 9.0 Optimized over the coming weeks.”)

Anyone else out there tried to get through to AOL users? Do you have suggestions? If so, please send them along. Perhaps we can figure this out together.

Editor’s Note: AOL recently introduced an Enhanced Whitelist for marketers already on the ISP’s regular AOL Whitelist. People we’ve spoken with say they’ve been accepted on the enhanced list within 24 hours of applying.

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

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