Improving Email Deliverability
The four letter word in the world of email marketing is SPAM. No marketer wants its emails to be considered spam. No company wants to be labeled a spammer. Certainly no business wants to be blacklisted. And yet, it is estimated that there is anywhere from 200 billion to upwards of 1.5 trillion spam email messages broadcast daily. Just exactly what is considered spam email and what isn’t spam? Email spam — also known as junk email or unsolicited bulk email — involves identical or nearly identical messages sent to numerous recipients via email. Definitions of spam usually include that the email is 1) is unsolicited, and 2) sent in bulk. However, based on that, when any company sends an email to all of the contacts in its database (for whom typically it does not have explicit permission to email), that is spam. Spam email was named after Spam — the luncheon meat — which is considered ubiquitous, unavoidable and (to many) undesirable.
Because of the widespread deployment of spam email, Internet Service Providers have been and continue to be focused on developing ways to identify and eliminate spam (or at least reduce the volume of it) without preventing ‘permissioned’ email activity. It is a challenge. New strategies and metrics are being developed to decrease spam email deliverability. The focus is a one-two punch. First, ISPs are punishing unprincipled email senders who deploy unsolicited, bulk emails. Second, ISPs are rewarding compliant email senders that are sending ‘permissioned’ emails. For companies that want to behave respectfully and ethically and also ensure that its marketing efforts are effective, it is important to use legitimate, proven email strategies. As an added bonus, email compliant senders also enjoy improved email deliverability and therefore get better results. Thus, employing email marketing best practices is a win-win.
Email Marketing Best Practices
Sending spam can ruin a legitimate organization’s popularity and reputation. It is important for both a company’s reputation and marketing effectiveness to ensure that best practices are followed. Published in January 2010 and updated in December 2011, a white paper entitled Email Deliverability Review published by the Deliverability Hub of the Email Marketing Council of The Direct Marketing Association outlined ten steps to legitimately improve email deliverability. Although over two years old (which in today’s world of high-speed change in all things marketing is an eternity), their recommendations are still valid. Here are some key recommendations.
1. Improve Email Address Collection
Given the increasing importance of the email sender’s ‘reputation’, the quality of the email address being collected is critical. Thus, there are several actions that every company can / should take each time it is going to add a contact to its database to improve deliverability on an ongoing basis. These steps can be automated. Keep these steps in mind to improve data collection.
Many incorrect email addresses are the result of typos as email addresses are being typed, especially when a mobile device is being used to key the data. This can be overcome by requiring the person entering the data to enter the email address twice, with the two fields being cross-referenced against each other. Studies have found that it is highly unlikely that the same error would be typed exactly the same way twice.
This also eliminates a potential source of spam traps, as some Internet Service Providers track common mis-spellings (For example, “oal.com” instead of “aol.com”) to determine if list hygiene is being maintained.
Require data to be typed into a database, not copied and pasted. When data is copied and pasted from other sources, extraneous characters can be introduced, especially if the data is being copied from a website or other digital source. Spaces before or after the email address can invalidate an email address. Characters such as dashes, underscores and other elements might change when going from one font or format to another.
2. Clean Up Existing Emails
a. Do a data audit
This involves screening an existing database list to identify, remove, or correct:
- Duplicate addresses
- Known previous bounce back records
- Invalid structure (no “@” sign etc.)
- Junk entries (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Common mis-spellings (“hotmial” instead of “hotmail”)
- Harvested addresses (“sales@”, “info@”, etc.)
- Foreign addresses (not incorrect, but potentially no relevance to local campaign).
b. Manage bounces
Remove email addresses that generated bounce back notifications.
- Hard bounces (For example, indicating permanent conditions) should be removed with immediate effect. However, because some hard bounce notifications are in fact false positives, best practice guidelines recommend using 2-3 hard bounce notifications before any action is taken.
- Soft bounces usually indicate temporary conditions (such as an email server that is full or down) but should be removed if they fail to achieve successful delivery eventually. For companies, the rule of thumb is that an address should be removed if it generates five or more soft bounce notifications over a 28-day period. However, this time frame could be adjusted due to holidays.
3. Pursue Permission
As a general rule, every contact should be asked for permission to be emailed, even if that contact is an existing customer, vendor or colleague of the business. For example, a salesperson attends a trade show, meets 10 contacts and decides to add those contacts to the company’s CRM database. If the company is going to then mass email those contacts in the future, those contacts should be notified that they were added to the database and that the company would like to email in the future. There should be a request for permission to email, not just a notification.
a. Pursue positive opt-in.
How permission is requested and obtained matters. Positive opt-in, where a contact checks a box to opt-in, is preferable to passive opt-in, where the opt-in box is pre-checked. Although some might argue that it is to be expected, it is not okay to presume that just because a person gave a salesperson their business card at a trade show that the person understands and is giving tacit permission that they are going to receive emails from that company in the future.
b. Consider double opt-in.
Single opt-in is the most commonly-used technique for obtaining permission to email. That is when there is no email confirmation of the opt-in. However, a double opt-in is preferable. With double opt-in, a confirmation email is sent to the contact with a link to validate that the person gave permission to be emailed. This can also be used to activate a registration or subscription to a blog, newsletter, etc. Double opt-in serves two purposes. First, it provides 100% assurance of the validity of the email address. Second, it ensures that the person did in fact giving permission to be emailed, which shows an added level of respect (and also creates the opportunity for another touch point).
An alternative to double opt-in via email is to have a contact confirm that the email address is correct at the moment of submission, or on a landing page that appears immediately after submission.
c. Validate permission via email
Even if double opt-in is not used to double-check permission, a confirmation or welcome email acknowledging that permission to email was obtained is a good idea. This immediately validates that the new email address added to the database is correct. It also positively reinforces respect and trust between the contact and the company.
If this seems like a lot to digest, it is. And there is so much more. Stay tuned next week as we continue to look at the tips and best practices recommended in the Email Deliverability Review published by the Deliverability Hub of the Email Marketing Council of The Direct Marketing Association and how they can be applied to business.
Quote of the Week
“Deleting 200 spams a day is a drag. And I was checking my email constantly, rather than getting on with my real work, which is reading and writing. Email was becoming a distraction, a burden rather than a liberation.” Tom Hodgkinson
© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.