Who Really Controls E-Mail Delivery, Part 1

What if I were to tell you opt-in doesn’t matter? I’ll even go one step further; double-confirmed opt-in doesn’t matter. I can say this because I know what the major ISPs care about, and it isn’t permission. Just as emailers rely on recipients to read their mail, ISPs now rely on recipients to tell them what they don’t want to read.

We’ve all seen brand-name emailers get listed in the junk or bulk email folders on AOL, Yahoo, and Hotmail. What you may not know is many of these brand emailers have large email service bureaus sending email on their behalf, and these senders are on these ISPs’ whitelists. Even more interesting is these large email service bureaus have full-time staff dedicated to ISP relations, but they’re still unable to completely stop email from being blocked or filtered out of the inbox.

ISPs have decided user control is more important than emailer deliverability. The “this is spam” button is becoming used nearly as often as the unsubscribe option and (as I mentioned in an earlier column), is quickly eliminating any viability for ISP whitelist programs.

If ISPs are turning to users, then it’s time for emailers to do the same. Here are a series of tactics to put the user in charge of the email relationship.

Managing User Expectations

During the acquisition process, consider the why, who, what, where, and how of the email relationship.

Why? This is the first question emailers should ask themselves: Why are we emailing these people? For users the question is always, What’s in it for me? Let a user know he is going to receive email because he’s a valued customer, he’s an interested party, he’s a loyalty rewards member, he needs this information, he may think it’s cool, or simply you’d like to keep in touch.

Who? Make certain it’s clear from whom and what address the email is coming. Brand names often don’t come across easily in the sender field of an email message. Consider informing users during the acquisition process. Tell them which email address messages will be sent from and what the brand listing in the sender field will be. If you aren’t sending to an individual email address or name in the receiver field, also let them know what will be listed in that space. Never send an email to “undisclosed recipients” or leave the receiver field blank.

On a side note, I’ve heard some emailers are requesting users add the senders’ email addresses to their personal address books. I’ve since been told this is not a guarantee their email will be delivered. In fact, during ClickZ’s recent E-Mail Strategies Conference, an AOL representative went on the record to state it would be virtually impossible for the company to upload its entire user address book database to its servers and ensure delivery for these senders.

What? The second issue is related to the type of messaging users are going to receive. There are so many options: exclusive promotions, occasional discounts, loyalty rewards, regular updates, relevant content. This factor is perhaps the most critical, because your brand and content type will be well established in people’s minds by the time they receive the first few emails. We’ll analyze consistent branding and content in another segment.

Where? The average email user is said to have 1.5 email addresses. Do you know where and how your recipients are receiving your email? It’s time to consider optimizing delivery for addresses, including personal primary, personal secondary, work, and mobile (and soon enough, TV). Of course, with mobile users, you may also need to change the format from HTML to text. Perhaps you can develop a preferences page, where you can offer users the option to switch between addresses depending on their email management and usage patterns.

How? Finally we can talk about an area most advanced emailers have addressed: asking users whether they would like to receive the messages as text or HTML. This may seem like a trivial option, but it bears some ramifications. Most emailers default to HTML for good reason. If users receive text, they may not enjoy an optimal experience (not to mention open rates can’t be tracked with text). However, if users want text, that’s what’s optimal for them.

Continual Confirmations

That you’ve been emailing a recipient for a year does not mean she recognizes your brand and its value. The most important email is the first confirmation, which should be clearly branded and include an unsubscribe option.

The latest reconfirmation trend is to implement user surveys and continually ask recipients about the email relationship. In addition to surveying, make sure you get your brand message across through graphics, corporate letterhead, letters from the CEO, and other tactics to reinforce the strength of the brand and relationship. If you are sending multiple types of email, mentioning these other email opportunities is another way to optimize the relationship.

The final step in the continual confirmation process is important. Monitor your user behavioral data, and consider segmenting groups of users who have not responded to your messaging or perhaps not opened your messaging over a selected period. You should then send these recipients an exclusive offer message or even a message reconfirming the relationship by asking them to opt in again or opt out.

Frequency Management

In my seminars and speeches, the most frequent question audiences ask is: How often should we email recipients? According to an Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM)/Return Path study, most emailers send messages every three weeks, on average. However, you need only send messages as often as your users want to receive them. The moment they think it’s too much, guess what button they might press?

To effectively manage frequency, carefully watch open and response rates. Look for a decline over a long period, and consider scaling back your frequency when open rates drop below 25 percent.

Most important, carefully monitor your unsubscribe rates. If you ever reach a 1 percent threshold per campaign, you know something is wrong with your content, brand, or frequency.

In the second and final part of this series, we’ll analyze brand and content consistency; header and footer wording; and unsubscribe and preference options.

Do you think the user should be in control of the email relationship? Do you have any thoughts on managing expectations or frequency management? E-mail me!

Don’t miss ClickZ’s Weblog Business Strategies in Boston, June 9-10.

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