The Dark Side of Email Marketing

This week I spoke at MarketingSherpa’s Email Summit 2012 in Las Vegas, which has many great panels and discussions on the best ways to reach your customer in the digital age. When the panel I was on that included Chip House from ExactTarget and Tom Sather from Return Path came together to discuss the topics we should present, I suggested that we also include the “tough” lesson discussion. I have done a lot of presentations about best common practices for senders, but looking back I realized I’ve never talked about some of the uncontrollable situations that many marketers may find themselves in from time to time.

What marketers need to know today is that everyone gets their email stream blocked at some point in their digital communications career. You can have the cleanest lists in the world, never purchase lists, and have very genuine opt-in practices, but somewhere along that path you’ll wake up one day and find your email is blocked by a blacklist.

There are hundreds of blacklists that come in all forms such as public ones like Spamhaus (one of the good guys), private ones that are run by some ISPs themselves, and others that are owned by anti-spam companies/appliances like Google Postini. With the public ones, you have the ability to see and address the blocking that is occurring more rapidly and transparently. With private blacklists, you don’t have as much transparency or the ability to address the blacklisting in a quick fashion. However, all blacklists have the same goal – protect mailboxes from unwanted or dangerous email. Some blacklists can take their block pretty seriously and create some rules that might not be obtainable by many companies. Some of their blocking methodology targets the same legitimate practice they require from legitimate senders and for some blacklist operators, that coupled with some unwillingness to remove incorrect blocks can be a recipe for a few bad weeks – yes, weeks.

You’re asking what sorts of events might be out of your control? Well, for one, it is a spamtrap hit; no, not the ones that are out on the Internet waiting to be scrapped up by a list-selling spammer, but inactive email address spamtraps. These are accounts that used to be valid email addresses for users that may have opted in for your email in the past, but since then have been abandoned by their users and at some point were turned off by an ISP or receivers in normal fashion. Then, about two years later the receiver turned that back on, but you never removed the email address due to improper bounce handling techniques and you continue to send to that account, which would be similar to the actions of a spammer. At that point, you might be added to a blacklist and asked by the operator to reconfirm all your email addresses while at the same time labeling you as a spammer. This sort of situation can and will take some time and dedication to address with a blacklist operator. On the one hand, you may not have meant to cause the issue or knew it was happening, but on the other hand, the receiver is looking at this from her perspective as well.

My point here is that doing all the right things doesn’t mean that life will always be smooth in the email world. There will be bumps in the road from time to time and some marketers need to realize this and be prepared to address potentially negative-impacting events to their campaigns, especially if they didn’t mean to cause harm with malicious intent.

While things may not always go our way, we need to remember to have fun in this industry. Don’t take some of these issues personally. This is only email; we are not saving lives here. If you do run into a situation like the one above, use all your resources to address it. Email is not easy. It requires work and dedication. If it was easy, we would all be millionaires by now. Life happens and just like you may say to your child from time to time, that’s just the way life is sometimes, and it is tough.

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