Tips for Increasing AOL Delivery Rates, Part 2

E-mail communications to America Online (AOL) users have long been a top challenge for business-to-consumer (B2C) email marketers. The AOL service and software client have specific issues marketers must be aware of. Continuing last month’s column, below are more tips for optimizing AOL email delivery and performance:

  • Message format. In addition to standard HTML and plain text messages, AOL can accept a format it calls “AOL Rich Text Format.” It’s simplified HTML really, containing stylistic tags such as bold, italics, and message links. More information on AOL’s RTF format can be found here.

    We’ve found for some clients sending messages in plain text, RTF, or even HTML without images (to improve speed and bypass the AOL image warning pop-up, but you must turn off open tracking) increases overall response rates. Conduct split tests using different formats to determine which approach works best with your specific AOL recipients.

  • Message sender and subject lines. Beginning with subject line, you can take a couple steps to increase the likelihood your message is opened. AOL allows approximately 16 characters in the sender field and around 50 characters in the subject. (You can view what your sender and subject lines look like in various email clients using our sender and subject lines tool.) AOL doesn’t show the “friendly” sender address but the address itself. For example:

    From: Joe’s Warehouse
    Subject: Exciting new offers and deals waiting for you at Joe’s Warehouse today

    Shows up in AOL as:

    From: replies@joeswar
    Subject: Exciting new offers and deals waiting for you at Jo

    Due to limited space and format, it’s important to identify your company or newsletter in the subject line and ensure key information displays within the allotted space. A subject line like this would be better:

    Subject: Joe’s Warehouse: 10%-20% Off All Online Orders

  • Message content and length. When possible and appropriate, tone down the subject line and message for AOL recipients. Because AOL users can easily click the spam button, anything remotely objectionable or aggressive may result in a high number of spam complaints (even with double opt-in messages). When a message’s spam complaints reach a certain amount relative to the message’s volume, AOL blocks that message.

    Consider creating a shorter version of the email that will fit within the AOL client window. If using HTML with images, consider a postcard format, which displays all key information in the window with a simple call to action. For text or RTF format, make sure key links and calls to action are clearly visible and stand out above everything. If possible, consider adding a link to a Web version of the full HTML-formatted message.

  • Send time. As most AOL users open email at home, optimum send times might be early mornings, evenings, and even weekends. If you email kids or stay-at-home parents, after-school or daytime hours might be most effective, respectively. Test different days and times to see what improves open, click, and conversion rates.
  • Bounce handling. Keeping your list free of known bad addresses is critical. AOL may reject connections from servers whose recipient lists consistently generate a bounce failure rate higher than 10 percent. With all ISPs, and AOL in particular, don’t try to resend hard-bounce email a second time to “see if it’ll get though.” Resending to bad addresses, combined with a high percentage of spam complaints, is a surefire way to get AOL to block your email.
  • Feedback loop. AOL has established a Feedback Loop for high-volume senders. It provides information regarding each spam complaint it receives from your messages. As part of the whitelist application, AOL will notify you when recipients hit the spam button for any of your messages. This allows you to identify and act on potential issues. AOL is currently the only major ISP to provide this direct feedback.
  • Monitor spam complaints. Because AOL includes a “report spam” feature, even the best permission-method marketers may receive AOL spam complaints. Monitor your AOL spam complaint rate for each message, and look for meaningful variances (either high or low). Then, analyze the outlying messages to determine why it had a higher or lower percentage of spam complaints. If the complaint rate consistently stays above AOL’s acceptable threshold, reevaluate subscription practices or send a confirmation message to your readership. It’s also critical to immediately unsubscribe or suppress recipients who registered a spam complaint.

Implementing the above recommendations takes some extra effort, but improved delivery and response rates are a clear payoff. For more information on many of the above issues and recommendations, visit the AOL site.

Do you have any great AOL tips? E-mail us, and we’ll include them in a future column.

Until next month, keep on deliverin’.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

Related reading