Tips for Increasing AOL E-Mail Delivery Rates, Part 1

E-mail communications with America Online (AOL) users has long been a top challenge for business-to-consumer (B2C) email marketers. Though AOL’s subscriber base has declined in recent years, they still comprise 20 to 25 percent of email databases for most B2C marketers. Optimizing messages for AOL and AOL subscriber preferences can pay significant dividends in improved delivery and performance.

AOL Delivery Challenges

AOL subscribers tend to be different from the rest your subscriber base. A 2003 Lucid Marketing study outlined a number of important AOL user preferences and habits, including:

  • 90 percent of respondents access email primarily from home.

  • 77 percent rank “message loads fast” as of primary importance for email messages received.
  • 53 percent prefer plain text messages over HTML.
  • 58 percent always use a dial-up modem (this number declined since last year, of course, but clearly a significant percentage of subscribers connect via a dial-up).
  • 62 percent always or sometimes access email via AOL’s Web site.
  • “Message loads fast” is at least 62 percent more important than “no scrolling” and “customized content” for users.

The AOL service and software client also create specific issues email marketers must be aware of, including as the use of a sender whitelist, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) adoption, lack of a sender name, very limited subject line length, a “report spam” button, and more.

AOL Optimization Tips

In light of these and other challenges, following are tips to help optimize AOL email delivery and performance:

  • Reporting/benchmarking. It’s important to measure and benchmark AOL results against results from other domains, as well as the entire list. It’s not uncommon for AOL open and CTRs to be half, or even lower, than those of other domains. Benchmarking AOL metrics helps you to understand if you have a serious AOL performance problem and how far you must go to approach program averages. (Note: With a higher percentage of AOL users receiving text messages compared to other domains, expect AOL open rates to be lower than your overall average. Open rates cannot be tracked for text-only email.)

  • AOL whitelist. To ensure your email isn’t subject to the more stringent filtering processes accorded mail from unknown sources, apply for inclusion on the AOL whitelist. You must comply with all requirements and guidelines and fill out necessary forms
  • Enhanced whitelist. The Enhanced White List is a subset of AOL’s more general whitelist. For marketers who meet strict delivery standards, it’s an automated mechanism by which messages to AOL members are displayed with the images and links enabled by default. Whitelisted senders are automatically added to, and remain on, the enhanced whitelist so long as they meet AOL’s complaint-rate threshold for a continuous 30-day period (this includes complaint rates relative to other senders).
  • HTML/link issues. AOL will block messages if they include improperly formatted links or HTML, such as:
    • Using the IP address instead of a domain name in hyperlinks:

    • Using bad HTML and, more important, bad link syntax: click here! /a>

    Always test all email message links in to ensure proper coding. Check HTML syntax in HomeSite, Dreamweaver, or another HTML editor.

  • SenderID/SPF. As we wrote last month, AOL has endorsed the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and asks current and prospective whitelist members to set up SPF records. AOL is aiming for late summer to begin checking for SPF information. AOL will soon add SPF records as a requirement for their whitelist program. Senders who don’t establish an SPF record will see their whitelist entries expire.
  • Reverse DNS (RDNS). Mail servers must have RDNS set up correctly or their messages may be blocked.
  • Spam folder/address book. To minimize the chance email lands in recipients’ spam folders, add information along the following line to the top of your AOL messages:

    Please add our email address,, to your AOL address book. (Just click on the address book in your email account, put on your list of addresses, and click “add.”)

  • AOL test accounts. One of the best things you can do to check AOL delivery is obtain at least one AOL test account. Yes, it costs $24.95 a month (Unlimited Broadband Plan). But an account allows you to send test messages prior to broad distribution and helps you to become familiar with the AOL client’s nuances. Don’t forget to check your messages via AOL’s Web interface; messages can look different on the Web than they do in the software client.

  • Message versioning. By creating an AOL-specific message, you can tailor it to account for AOL user concerns and limitations. This includes sending at different times of day; customizing content, subject lines, and offers; and utilizing different formats as appropriate.
  • HTML rendering. An estimated 90-95 percent of AOL subscribers use version 6.0 or later. Format decisions for AOL users should be driven by user preferences and performance results over HTML rendering issues. Beginning with AOL’s 6.0 client, the email program renders nearly all HTML tags, but will exclude several pieces of functionality, including scripts (e.g., JavaScript, VBScript), Java, frames and IFrames, Tooltips, ActiveX, video, audio, external style sheets, and meta refresh.

Got any great AOL tips? Please email us. We’ll include them in a future column Next time: message formats, send time, spam complaints, and more.

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.

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