Undeliverables Can Kill Your List

Of all the applications the Internet has spawned, email is widely recognized as the most pervasive. Jupiter Communications recently estimated email messages will total 432 billion by 2003, up from 132 billion in 1999. Email has truly become ubiquitous, surpassing phone, fax, postal, and express delivery services combined. Yet, while these older communications technologies have a well-established infrastructure, email remains underdeveloped.

When I change my phone number, my callers are notified. When I move, my mail follows me. With email, however, there is no such service. Signing up with a new ISP, changing jobs, or leaving school can all break the chain of email contact. This is because the very nature of email is distributed (i.e., an email address can be created from any of a number of originators [school, ISP, generic web site/email provider, business, etc.]). There is simply no focal point for email addresses, no “INTERNIC-like” (the Internet Network Information Center was responsible for issuing all domain names) body to manage this information.

So, what is the effect on the millions of individuals and organizations that depend on email daily to contact customers, associates, friends, family, employees, employers, and others? Whether you’re a business trying to reach a customer, or a consumer simply trying to email your nephew at college, you’ll get the same message: “Undeliverable mail” or “Unable to locate recipient,” the online version of “That number has been disconnected. No forwarding information is available.”

As with dialing a wrong number, individuals may simply find undeliverable email frustrating, but for businesses that depend on email to communicate with their customers, this problem can be critical. It’s not unusual for online businesses to correspond with thousands or even millions of email contacts. For them, tracking down these email “change of addresses” is so frustrating and time-consuming that most don’t even try. They relegate these so-called “dead” email addresses to a cost of doing business.

Worse still, these businesses, for whom contact with their customers may be their lifeline, continue to ignore the problem. Why? Most are too busy spending money to acquire new customers. Yes, they also have retention programs, but any retention program must include a way to maintain the channel of communication when customers change their email address and experience shows they will! For businesses in which email is an integral part of their business model, such as email-based content providers and permission-based email marketers, lost contacts translate into lost revenue and a waste of the resources that were spent to acquire those customers in the first place.

Just how serious is the problem? No one knows for sure, but a 1998 IDC study estimated that 20 to 30 percent of all email addresses in the United States change annually. That means, for example, that a company with an email list of 1 million names must acquire 200,000 to 300,000 new names per year, just to maintain that number. At even $5 per name, that’s $1 million to $1.5 million per year! While any business market would consider an annual turnover of 20 percent to be catastrophic, when it comes to email today, unfortunately, it’s the best we can hope for.

So what can a company that depends on a reliable email address for each customer do? There are several options. First, you could offer customers their own free email address, such as theirname@yoursite.com. A good idea, in theory, but how sure are you that they will check it, even weekly? Of course, an incentive will help, but, still, there’s a risk that you’ll be sending messages to a box that gets opened infrequently.

Another possibility is to include a change-of-address form in each email you send. This might work if the customer is proactive in notifying you of an intended change. If not, the customer will never see the request because the customer won’t be receiving the email at his or her new address!

It might be possible to develop a cooperative database, where sites with similar offerings, such as those sending out email newsletters, offer a single point change-of-address service. As a concept, it could work for businesses, if sufficient numbers of online publishers signed on. But I ask those of you who have changed your email address: How many sites have you personally gone back to to update your email address? As for me, my personal contact list is the most important to notify. If I want to stay in touch with a company, I’ll eventually sign up again under my new address. The rest of the companies won’t ever hear from me again.

Online directories, of which there are several, are another possibility, but these are directed at consumers. In addition, to input a change of address, a consumer would have to update each and every directory. Furthermore, online directories do not offer any privacy options spammers have full access to these email addresses.

What about promoting a free “lifetime” email address or email forwarding service to your customers? While it has potential to work for consumer email, it won’t work for corporate email. Most employers require employees to use a corporate email address, and once you change employers, your email address is typically deleted. Another drawback for consumers occurs when one email company is absorbed by another, with the original domain name being discontinued. Or, you discover that your unique name on one site was already spoken for in the new domain! As for the issue of forwarding, your email is sent through the forwarding service’s server, and if it happens to go down, the message won’t get delivered. More likely the server will slow the delivery of your message.

The last concept is to develop a centralized change-of-address service that works seamlessly with a consumer’s email program, whether Outlook, Eudora, AOL, or even Webmail. Under this model, consumers will automatically be notified of an address change when they send a message to an old address. In addition, when consumers change their email address, they can control who gets access to their new email address. It’s like having an unlisted number, yet being able to provide it, selectively, to only those whom you would like to have it. For consumers, this provides the highest level of privacy. For businesses, it provides the updated addresses of customers who want to continue that email relationship.

Both consumers and businesses are becoming more and more dependent on email, and as the Internet penetrates further and further to every reach of the globe, the problem of dead addresses will only get worse. In the end, companies that implement a viable solution will be the most successful at retaining their customers.

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