How to Get Your Mail Past the Inbox Bouncers

Getting your e-mail opened and read by your recipients is like trying to get into the most exclusive club in town.

Having your name on the VIP list (your recipient’s address book or Safe Sender’s list) is the best way to get ushered past the velvet rope. If it’s not there, you’ll have to prove yourself to two tough bouncers, who are there to keep the riffraff out.

If neither bouncer recognizes you right away, you’ll either get turned away (blocked) or sent to cool your heels in the rope line (the junk folder).

Your recipient’s ISP is the first bouncer, using authentication to determine your identity. The second, more discriminating bouncer is your recipient, who applies his “mind filter” when deciding whether to open your e-mail, delete it, or report it as spam.

Even VIPs — permission e-mailers — can find themselves out on the curb via the spam button if they become tiresome or if they aren’t recognized immediately. That’s why branding your e-mail becomes so important. You need to answer the very first question a recipient has — who is this e-mail from? — before any other action will be taken. Failure to answer the question quickly can be disastrous.

Authentication, which establishes your ID on the technical side, and branding, which makes your e-mail recognizable in a crowded inbox, work together to help your e-mail get waved into the club by the inbox bouncers.

Authentication Gets You Past the First Rope

The receiving ISP uses authentication to find out who you are and whether you’re authorized to send e-mail from that IP address.

Once the ISP verifies your identification through authentication, it applies what it knows about your sender reputation (mainly, how many spam complaints your e-mail generates) to determine whether to send your e-mail to the bulk folder, the inbox, or the virtual wastebasket. Unauthenticated e-mail is more likely to be rejected or sent to a bulk folder.

All senders should use multiple authentication protocols, because ISPs use different protocols, including SPF, Sender ID, DomainKeys, and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM). Authenticating your e-mail several different ways means your message is more likely to get recognized no matter which protocol the receiving ISP uses.

Check with your IT department or database manager to see which protocols your e-mail system supports. You can learn more about authentication protocols and how to set up your e-mail system with this handy document by the Online Trust Alliance.

Better Branding Can Move You Into the Club

As important as it is, authentication can’t always get past the second bouncer: your recipient’s mind filter. Inbox placement is huge, but it doesn’t guarantee your recipient will actually open or act on the e-mail the way you want.

Today’s inboxes are full of messages, using every trick in the book to score that all-important open. Your e-mail has two to three seconds, and maybe even less, to catch the reader’s eye and assure her both of your identity and your relationship with her.

This is where branding takes over, to move the e-mail past all the wannabe guests and into the club.

By now, you should know that a friendly sender line is an absolute must, showing a recognizable brand name (company, product brand, newsletter name) instead of an e-mail address or an unfamiliar person’s name.

However, branding the sender line isn’t enough to guarantee recognition. Your e-mail needs your brand name mentioned throughout the message to ensure the reader knows who the message is from.

Seven Places to Name Your Brand

Does your brand name show in at least three or four of these key locations?

  • Sender line

  • Subject line
  • Snippet (first line of text in the e-mail)
  • Text in the alt tag for any image where your brand name would appear, including newsletter, brand, or company logo.
  • In the top two to four inches of your message in body copy or alt text visible in the preview pane without images on.
  • Anywhere in the top half (“above the fold”) of the e-mail with or without images on.
  • In standing copy, such as an administration center near the end of your e-mail, in contact information, or in your postal address.

Besides these locations, your brand must be visible with images blocked. Plan to make your brand clear in the worst-case scenario: with images off and only a fraction visible in the preview pane.

Most Marketers Still Don’t Get It

Here’s what I found when I did a quick study of all of the commercial e-mail I received in one day recently, a total of 352 messages in three different accounts:

  • 52 percent of the e-mail messages delivered via ISPs that use authentication showed one of the protocols passed a check by the ISP (as noted in the message headers). The rest showed neutral (mostly for domain keys), which means the sender didn’t use a protocol looked for by the ISP.

  • About 75 percent branded the sender line.
  • One in 10 named the brand in the subject line or had it visible in the top quarter of the e-mail when images were off.
  • About one in eight put the brand name in alt text.
  • One in 12 put no branding in text anywhere in the e-mail.

Making yourself a readily identifiable guest in the inbox can lead to getting put on the VIP list for future events. The few minutes it takes to complete authentication and boost your branding power means you’ll spend less time in line with the riffraff.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 16 events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing.

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