Six Ways to Maintain Sender Reputation as the Inbox Evolves

Three key trends that will have a profound impact on e-mail and social marketing in 2010 are closely linked. The first two I covered in my last column: the proliferation of devices and the fatigue of the “almost engaged” subscriber. These both highlight the urgent need for shifting from a broadcast e-mail attitude to an engagement approach. The third trend is how the changing metrics of sender reputation require this same shift in order to continue to reach the inbox and earn a response.

Reputation is the boss of you. You have a sender reputation — regardless if you are B2B (define), B2C (define), or if you actively know and monitor it. Your reputation determines if you reach the inbox and earn a response. While the factors that make up a sender reputation in 2010 are largely the same as last year, the data is being used in new ways in order to distinguish the best senders from the rest.

Most North American Internet service providers (ISPs) and corporate system administrators have shifted focus from “keep the bad stuff out” to “get the good stuff in.” That does make a difference. Postmasters are increasingly looking for clues that your messages are actually welcome, not just tolerated.

There have long been engagement metrics at play. Major ISPs like Yahoo, Gmail, and Microsoft use measures of subscriber satisfaction that are specific to inbox placement. These are primarily complaints and saves — either a click on the “Report Spam” button in the inbox or on the “This is Not Spam” button in the junk folder. Microsoft has been very open about using engagement data from its panel of subscribers (invitation only) who vote on whether messages belong in the inbox or junk folder.

Marketers must consider this data distinctly from response metrics. An e-mail campaign could be generating a lot of revenue, but will stop reaching the inbox if too many subscribers complain, take no action, or never actively seek out filtered messages in the junk folder.

Although inbox placement is dictated by measures at the beginning of the response funnel and not the open, click and conversion data used later in the funnel, inbox placement, and response will continue to be inextricably linked. Marketers must continue to think about “engagement” in context with subscriber satisfaction, and monitor and manage the factors that impact inbox placement and response.

What to do:

  1. Know your sender reputation. Be sure you know what your “delivered” reports are telling you — is it your bounce rate or your inbox placement rate? They are very different. Keep tabs on your data with free stats from or
  2. Track complaints by signing up with all available feedback loops from the ISPs. Look at the data you get back from bounces and filtering services like Cloudmark and hosted exchange services. Profile the subscribers who complain, and track the message types or cadence that drives the most complaints. Actively change your program to adjust to this feedback. It’s the single biggest factor in reputation, and must be addressed at the root cause level.
  3. While complaints (clicks on the “Report Spam” button) are still the number one factor in inbox placement, other things matter, too. Like list hygiene (permission, bounce processing, quality of data) and infrastructure. You can’t sneak around your reputation (so don’t try!) because it’s all in the data. Audit your permission, data sourcing, and bounce management practices every quarter and search for ways you can strengthen subscriber satisfaction.
  4. Consider a preference center that gives subscribers choices for message type, frequency, and format (including mobile and device). If you build it, they may not come. Like any other Web site feature, you have to market your preference center and be clear about the value.
  5. Map your file to learn which domains are most important to you. Most B2B marketers find that 20 or so domains make up the vast majority of your file, and so you will want to focus attention on how messages are filtered at those domains. You may also be surprised to find out how many subscribers use a Web-based e-mail address like Yahoo or Gmail.
  6. Encourage subscribers to add you to their address book. This is still a great way to show up with images and links on, by default, and to bypass some filters at the desktop level. Offer incentives or just remind subscribers early and often in the relationship. One marketer successfully nudged more than 25 percent of their file to action by offering a free e-book when subscribers added them to the address book.

The rules for inbox placement continuously evolve because spammers just don’t quit. ISP postmasters and corporate system administrators fine tune their filtering rules in order to stay ahead of the bad guys. The good news is that the actions you take on all three of these key trends will improve subscriber experience and pay back in higher response rates.

Please add a comment with your thoughts on incorporating these trends into your strategy this year.

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