Rehab for Your Sender Reputation, Part 1

Your reputation among ISPs as an e-mail sender is the most important factor that determines your e-mail’s fate the minute you hit “send.” So many factors can affect reputation, and it’s much easier to hurt it than to repair it.

An ISP establishes your reputation based on your e-mail sending behavior. Thus, you can’t directly upgrade your reputation from “potential spammer” to “e-mail good guy.” However, changing the way you manage your e-mail program, from opt-in to sending e-mail to opt-out, can also effect a better reputation eventually.

Sender reputation is a major concern, and one that many marketers don’t quite understand. So, we’ll divide this weighty discussion over two columns.

This column will tackle the issues that can hurt sender reputation, including reasons why recipients click the spam button and why ISPs block or filter e-mail. Part two will provide strategies to rehab your sender reputation and improve delivery.

What’s the pay-off? By the end of this two-part series, you’ll learn the factors that affect your sender reputation and why it matters. Also, you’ll see that you actually have more control over your reputation than you realize. So, it really pays to monitor your reputation and work to improve it.

Why Spam Complaints Are Dangerous to Deliverability

Marketers should monitor their delivery reports and act on spam complaints as soon as they get word of them. Many ISPs typically pass on spam complaints via an e-mail system called a feedback loop and expect you to remove them promptly.

This service is meant to help senders understand that the recipients don’t want the content being delivered for any of a variety of reasons. The service also helps senders improve overall message strategies. It’s a win for both the sender and the ISP’s customer, the recipient.

Excessive spam complaints prompt ISP blocking and hurt your sender reputation in two ways: when you generate too many (usually a set number per 1,000 e-mails sent to that ISP) and when you keep sending to the complaining addresses after you’ve been notified about them.

Your reputation, which is usually expressed as a number within the ISP, can change over time. You can damage a good reputation by changing e-mail practices, such as dramatically boosting frequency, which often generates complaints, or sending to a mailing list you never e-mailed before.

By the same token, a damaged reputation can be repaired if you demonstrate that you’ve cleaned up your e-mail act by sending messages that inspire positive actions like opens and clicks, not complaints.

The Three U’s of Spam Complaints

Many marketers are incredulous when an opt-in subscriber — someone who actually signed up to receive messages — clicks the “this is spam” button in their e-mail clients.

There are three main reasons why this happens:

  • Unrecognized: This happens when you don’t brand your e-mails. (More on this topic in “How Hard Is It to Brand Your E-mail?“) Your recipients are more likely to report your e-mail as spam if they can’t tell who sent the e-mail right away.

  • Unexpected: Your e-mail frequency isn’t what recipients expected when they signed up. You’re either sending too often or waiting so long to send the first e-mail that they forget they signed up.
  • Unwanted: This is all about relevance. Look at the value propositions in your messages. Do they reflect the reasons why subscribers joined your list? They should meet your subscribers’ needs. Do you target messages for products they’re interested in? One size does not fit all in e-mail marketing today.

Top Three Reasons ISPs Block E-mail

Reducing spam complaints is usually the best way to rehab your sender reputation and resolve an ISP block. However, spam complaints don’t tell the whole story, and they aren’t the only factor in hurting or repairing your sender reputation.

  1. Recipient complaint rates: The report-spam button usually drives these. Relevance, frequency, and branding can reduce the reasons why people click the spam button, but they aren’t the only ones. Having zero spam complaints is a bad sign, too. A normal complaint rate is roughly between one and three complaints per 1,000 e-mails sent. If your high complaint rate suddenly plummets to zero, it can indicate one of two problems:

    • Your feedback loop (FBL) processing has stopped because of changes at the ISP or blocking that removed the FBL processing.

    • Your messages are now being routed to the bulk folder, where few subscribers, if any, will see them.

    Monitor your complaints by ISP over time and look for changes. A sudden spike or dip at one ISP can be resolved without drastic changes to your entire program by segmenting out that ISP and applying complaint-reduction strategies.

  2. Bounce rates due to invalid addresses: List hygiene and quality address collection are the major drivers for this one.
  3. E-mailing long-term inactive or honeypot/spam-trap addresses: This is another list issue centering on quality and hygiene. You usually don’t know this number, although Hotmail shares some information with e-mail senders. Also, Sender Score by Return Path reports this metric. This problem usually rears its head when e-mailers start sending to addresses after a long lapse. Resurrecting old lists is rarely a good idea today.

Part 2 will take a more in-depth look at what drives these three blocking issues and what you can do to correct them.

Until then, keep on deliverin’!

Join us for Search Engine Strategies San Jose, August 10-14, 2009, at the McEnery Convention Center. Spend Day 1 learning about social media and video strategies with ClickZ.

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