Peeking at Someone Else’s Paper? Watch Out!

We all sneak peeks at what our competition is doing with e-mail. C’mon, own it! How else are you going to find out what they’re up to, compare your own efforts, or look for ideas to… um, borrow?

So, if you’re like me, you sign up for your top competitors’ e-mails, but you don’t stop there. Instead, you also look for inspiration from companies with a reputation for doing other things right — like Apple, Bloomingdale’s, or Google.

Trouble is, you also probably assume that everything these top-flight companies do with their e-mail marketing has been as carefully thought out and tested to make sure it works.

Guess again. Even Apple is capable of goofs, like not optimizing its e-mail messages for blocked images.

Apple isn’t alone, or even the most notorious perpetrator. The E-mail Experience Council’s recent image-rendering study found that more than half of the marketers surveyed still haven’t made the relatively simple changes in their design templates to deliver a viewable message even when the reader automatically prevents images from downloading.

Image-rendering is one of the most easily corrected actions you can take to improve your ROI (define), the EEC says. But even heavyweights in the consumer retail sector, where product images are key to sales, aren’t doing it.

That, of course, is no excuse for you to lay off on upgrading your own design. In fact, it’s a reason to break out of the herd mentality and fix it pronto, because the better design will give you a competitive advantage.

Another good study that details what your fellow e-mail marketers are doing (or not doing) came out recently from our friends at Return Path. Return Path was looking to find leadership in best practices for the subscriber experience at major U.S. brands. Instead, it found the opposite:

  • 60 percent did not send a welcome message.

  • 30 percent sent no e-mail within a month of sign-up.
  • 70 percent asked for detailed data during subscription, but 75 percent never used it for targeting or personalization.

We here at ClickZ are all about finding workable best practices for e-mail marketers. After reading a few of these columns, you might think you’re the only one who hasn’t upgraded your e-mail program to meet these high standards. But, if you look to the big guys for leadership, this study illustrates clearly that you might be looking in the wrong direction.

When I meet with clients who want to improve their e-mail programs, and in my ClickZ columns, I like to highlight success stories. But it’s also important to look at mistakes other people are making so you can clearly see why they’re mistakes and what you need to do to avoid them.

You can see the evidence in living color (and OK, gloat a bit) in the Oopsy Hall of Fame on Chad White’s Retail E-mail Blog. This is no roll of honor; rather, it’s a Hall of Shame that displays goof-ups, mishaps, and other e-mail felonies that brand-name retail e-marketers have committed over the last year. Chad names names and displays the e-mails.

Don’t you feel so much smarter because you send out a welcome message as soon as your subscriber confirms the request? Or you put key information in text so it renders even with blocked images? Test e-mails before you send to remove dead links, double-check rendering, and look for broken code?

The ISPs Get It Wrong, Too

Now, I don’t believe in bashing ISPs for setting rules on how they handle commercial e-mail. I recognize their right to put their customers ahead of my clients. I’ve even applauded those who work for greater transparency by posting their rules on their Web sites.

Still, I had to chuckle a bit when another e-mail user told me Road Runner regularly spam-buckets its own customer newsletter. It renders poorly, too. But Road Runner is not the only perpetrator here. My e-mail industry colleagues have also noted some lapses:

  • DJ Waldow, account manager at Bronto Software, takes AOL’s AIM unit to task for violating some basic, e-mail 101 principles (lame sender and subject lines, calls to action that didn’t render until he enabled images, an unsegmented message that didn’t acknowledge he was already a user, burying the one tidbit of information that did interest him down at the message bottom).

  • Josh Nason, in charge of business development/customer relationships at SendLabs, detailed how a Comcast customer e-mail broke the no-single-big-image rule, rendering as a big grey box in his Hotmail client.

What’s interesting about the above examples is that the ISPs are not sending internally, and don’t benefit from special treatment by their abuse staff. Their messages are going to competitor ISPs and being treated like all other marketing e-mails.

We e-mail people invest plenty of time learning how the ISPs work and what we have to do to follow their rules. Maybe it’s time their marketing teams returned the favor and read us once in a while, to learn how to do e-mail right.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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