The art of successful email marketing depends first and last upon proactive deliverability management – which is simply understanding and complying with the rules that govern business email. This eBook will help you manage the critical factors that affect the deliverability of your email messages.
“Deliverability” is the measure, usually expressed as a percentage, of how many emails actually make it into the inbox. To create deliverable email campaigns, you must first understand the landscape and the challenges that must be overcome to place a message in an individual’s inbox. Because each receiving Internet Service Provider (ISP), business email exchange, and individual account uses significantly different rules, there’s quite a bit to learn, and the landscape changes every day. Because email marketing campaigns are intricate, businesses turn to specialists – such as marketing automation solution providers – to handle much of the mechanics of a campaign. Deliverability is affected by the business processes and reputation of an email service provider, but the most critical deliverability factors rest with you, the sender, regardless of which email marketing solution you use. The factors noted below are all in the marketer’s control.
In the 1990s, as companies began to adopt email as a marketing tactic, email service providers sprang up to help with the technical aspects. Many are still in business today, providing a wide range of services. As digital marketing evolved to encompass techniques complementary to email (e.g. landing pages, forms) or dependent on it (e.g. webinars), new technology – primarily marketing automation – evolved to manage email marketing and integrate these new components, and report on the combined results.
"Across all email marketers, bounce rates were significantly better in Q1 2013 (1.9%) compared to Q1 2012 (3.0%)."
Do you know what your current deliverability rates are? Whether you work with an email service provider or a marketing automation service provider, they should be able to provide them to you. Here are the basics to look for:
Email sent. This is how many messages were in the queue before any delivery attempts were made, but after internal suppression has been performed. For Act-On users who subscribe to a number of “active contacts”, this is the number counted. This will be a whole number, not a percentage.
Email delivered. This metric describes how many emails were completely transferred to the intended recipient’s mailbox provider without generating a “bounce” or other delivery error. You will see it as a whole number and also as an “Email Delivery Rate” percentage (e.g. “95%”).
There are two levels of delivery:
Email inbox delivered. This metric is an estimation of how many of the sent emails actually ended up in the inbox. You’ll see it as a whole number or as a percentage (e.g. “90%”).
Bounces. Bounces are emails that cannot be delivered to the mailbox provider, and are returned to the service provider that sent them. “Hard” bounces are the failed delivery of email due to a permanent reason, such as a non-existent address. “Soft” bounces are the failed delivery of email due to a temporary issue such as a full inbox or an unavailable ISP server.
Email unsubscribe requests. This tallies how many people took an action (such as clicking an “unsubscribe me from this list” link) to unsubscribe from a list.
Complaints. This tallies how many people clicked a spam or junk button link in their email client to report an email as spam or “junk.”
Other common email metrics, such as Opens and Click-throughs, are also important, as ISPs look at engagement measures to help determine overall how “wanted’ an email is.
Your marketing automation service provider will manage certain aspects of your list and email campaign, including bounces, unsubscribes, and feedback. Your service provider will also ensure that your email is RFC compliant (this refers to email standards set by the Internet Engineering Task Force) and may manage aspects of your IP.
The balance of the activities are the domain of the marketer.
The biggest risk to your deliverability is having your email misidentified as spam. “Spam” is unsolicited commercial email messages. We think of it first in connection with advertising, but spammers also use it to spread malware. Any type of electronic messaging can be a channel, including instant messaging, mobile phones, social networks, and so on, but it’s the most disruptive in email.
Spamming persists because advertisers have no operating costs beyond the management of their mailing lists, and it’s difficult to hold them accountable. The estimated figure for spam messages (in 2011) is around seven trillion. The costs, such as lost productivity and fraud, are borne by the public and by internet service providers (ISPs).
As a consequence, ISPs and industry groups doggedly work to develop ways to find and stop spam before it reaches the inbox. It’s up to internet marketers to create email and use sending protocols that are squeaky clean and technically compliant, in order to avoid being identified as spammers and/or having their messages identified as spam.
Many webmail providers and spam filtering organizations take unused or abandoned email addresses (or B2B domains) and convert them into spam traps. A spam trap is an email address used to lure spam, so the spam can be identified, then added to a blacklist or other blocking mechanism. In theory, a spam trap is an address that has never signed up for any commercial email whatsoever, so any mail it receives is considered spam.
Some of the distinctive content differences between wanted and unwanted email are due to the sender’s use of written language.
Certain differences are due to senders of unwanted email trying to hide their identity or their content. Many of them are due to the different quality software used to send each sort of email. Mail clients used by individuals, and content composition software used by high-quality service providers, tend to produce well-written code, complying with email and MIME standards, and common practices for email composition.
The software used by spammers, botnets, viruses, and low-quality email service providers tends to write bad code that is not compliant with industry standards. As long as you are using a responsible, legitimate service provider to send mail, and are checking your content to ensure it meets industry standards, these filters should not cause you problems.
HTML structure evaluation is another aspect of email analysis. Legitimate senders should always use valid and correct HTML. Spammers have long used HTML tags in an attempt to avoid filters; now some filters actually look at the tags and compare them with HTML standards. Other spammers put random content in HTML comments as a way to confuse content filters. As a result, many content filters now look at the ratio of HTML comments to visible text. Just having comments doesn’t trigger filters, but having more comments than real text will trigger filters.
Every internet provider screens and filters incoming emails at some level. You can thank the spammers of the world for flooding the Internet with malware, fraudulent offers, and outright con games, thus making legitimate e-commerce difficult. The goal of the ISP or corporate email server is to reduce or eliminate those nuisance messages from the human user’s inbox.
To help your emails make it through the screening process, it is important to understand the deliverability decision factors applied by ISPs.
ISPs track the reputations of sender organizations. From the point of view of the receiving server, when it comes to IP addresses, past performance is an indication of future results. If an IP address consistently delivers good email, then it is very likely this new email is good, too.
Conversely, if an IP address consistently sends bad email, then it is very likely any new email it sends is bad, too.
Many webmail providers and filtering companies offer preferential delivery to senders using IP addresses with good reputations.
ISPs also look at the domains and hostnames mentioned in an email. Just for starters, you’ve got an unsubscribe link, your company’s link, and a link to view the email in the browser. You could also have links to landing pages, registration forms, affiliates, and tracking links. These are evaluated based on the reputation of the domain, and sometimes the IP address the domain or hostname points to.
Domains and URLs have their own reputations separate from the reputation of the sending IP address. Unlike a standard blacklist, which looks at the IP address sending the actual email, a domain blacklist (DBL) or Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) blacklist looks at the individual domains within the email. Domain-based blacklists provide an extra layer of protection for companies using spam-blocking appliances.
The key factors in your reputation are:
"80% of email delivery problems are directly attributable to a poor sender reputation."
DMA "Email Deliverability Review, 2012
Email authentication is a technical standard that tells receiving email servers that an email actually does come from the place it says it comes from. Senders use it to establish and underscore their authenticity, which aids in delivery. It’s a necessity when sending commercial email.
Most organizations using a commercial service provider generally use the service provider’s authentication.
In other situations, an organization’s IT department will set up authentication. For solid technical data about authentication, see the Internet Engineering Task Force, www.ietf.org.
Here’s a quick overview of the most common authentication methods:
Internet service providers track how engaged subscribers are with an email and its sender, and the nature of the engagement.
Positive actions tracked may include opening a message, adding an address to the contact list, clicking through links, clicking to enable images, and scrolling through the message.
Negative actions may include reporting the email as spam, deleting it, moving it to the junk folder, or ignoring it.
Engagement ratings are another compelling reason to use only opt-in email marketing lists. Opt-in maximizes the likelihood of engagement, because in theory there is a relationship already established with the receiver.
Tips for managing engagement:
When you’ve created and tested your email message content, and you’re confident it should not trip any spam or other filters, then it’s time to actually schedule and send your email campaign. As with all other aspects of email, there are factors you can control to enhance deliverability.
The optimal frequency of an email campaign is directly related to the buying cycle. The shorter the cycle, the more acceptable a greater frequency will be to your prospect. If you email too frequently, some recipients will grow irritated and unsubscribe or mark your emails as spam. The former loses you a prospect but does not harm your sending reputation. Getting your email marked as spam, of course, does hurt your sending reputation.
Recommendations about which days and times to send abound. Opinions range from general rules of thumb like “don’t send first thing in the morning” to specific times, such as “send on Tuesdays at 7 a.m. Eastern time.”
None of these matter. Your company, your position in the market, and your prospective buyers create a unique combination of factors calling for a tailor-made and tested solution. You’ll need to test your way to success, and keep testing as external factors change. Test timing separately from testing messaging. After testing, set your own benchmarks and work to your plan consistently.
Email delivery is a complex process with many stakeholders influencing the outcome. Email filters interact with an email during different stages of the process to determine the answers to the following questions:
The first stage of filtering begins when the sending webmail server first contacts the receiving webmail server. The receiving server must decide whether to accept the email or not.
At this point, the only thing the receiving server knows about the email is the IP address of the server sending the email. The first thing the receiving server looks at is the reputation of that address, including the authenticating information that indicates that the email really did come from that address and sender.
Email that passes all the evaluation checks gets accepted into the receiving email server and is passed on to the next filtering stage. Email that fails all evaluation checks is rejected. Email that falls into a gray area can be tagged; accepted, deleted, and passed onto further filters; or deferred for later.
Content filters look at a range of things, from the simple to the complex: word use, misspellings, the ratio of text to images, font colors, the subject line and actual text in the message, and much more, including the hidden structure of an email.
Some filters take a “fingerprint” of the email. They can compare the fingerprint with a database of known spam and known good email and determine how like spam the email is. Some tests look for distinctive features from particular pieces of software. For instance, there was a piece of spamware that used a fake time zone value in its email headers. Email with that value was always spam.
Many email content filters look at domains, URLs, links, and images in an email, including:
Few things affect your email deliverability more than maintaining clean and accurate email lists of engaged subscribers. Even the best lists need constant maintenance. Between the constant turnover of email addresses (something like 30% of subscribers change email addresses annually), loss of interest, and other factors, your email list starts getting stale just as soon as you create it.
The staler a list gets, the fewer opens, click-throughs, and purchases it generates. This threatens your engagement and potentially your reputation scores as a sender. Follow good list management protocols to keep your engagement high and your reputation for integrity intact.
Purging your lists can be a difficult exercise, because no one wants to lose potential customers. Yet your online reputation depends on maintaining a clean, healthy email list.
How you implement purging your email list is just as important as deciding what to purge. The two best options for purging are:
You should plan to purge any address displaying no activity for 12 months. But the timeframe that works for you depends on the buying cycle, engagement, and conversion for your products or services.
Too often companies don’t think about purging data until significant email delivery problems have surfaced. If you wait until your email is blacklisted or delivered to the junk folder, you risk having to make much more aggressive purging decisions than marketers who proactively manage their data.
"Data decays at the rate of 1% to 3% per month. Poor data quality costs the U.S. economy six hundred billion dollars annually."
Dun & Bradstreet study
Sending a re-engagement message offers a chance to win back the recipient. A re-engagement message usually alerts a recipient that their subscription is expiring due to lack of activity, and entices the user to opt in again to continue receiving the email.
Re-engagement messages provide the benefit of shedding abandoned accounts or spam traps from your list. Your list will lose some numbers, but usually the people lost were unengaged, poor prospects anyway.
For very valuable lists, marketers may use a series of emails enticing the recipient to come back. This can have a better response rate than a single email. If a subscriber doesn’t interact with the re-engagement email, then it’s time to remove their address from future sends.
The 1-10-100 Rule"It takes $1 to verify a record as it's entered, $10 to cleanse and de-dupe it, and $100 if nothing is done, as the ramifications of the mistakes are felt over and over again."
By investing in high-quality content, you will give your campaigns the best possible chances for success:
Make sure that your email renders correctly in HTML and that all graphics are high quality. Make sure your technical team takes the time to fill in all HTML metadata, such as ALT tags on images. A service such as Litmus can help you review how your email message will render in various email clients and devices.
Great content in an email marketing campaign is easy to describe, but hard to create. Truly excellent content aligns with your company’s brand strategy, presents a clearly actionable opportunity to the reader, enhances your deliverability reputation, and delights your customer.
This information is provided as a discussion of how legal issues (which can change with little notice) may affect marketers, and is not to be considered or perceived as legal advice. Every organization may be affected differently; we encourage you to seek legal counsel for answers to any questions.
In the U.S., the law covering email marketing is The CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing) Act. This law says that all email must meet a number of criteria:
Privacy laws in the E.U. are more stringent than in the U.S. Please see Act-On’s paper The EU Data Protection Requirements for information specific to the E.U, the U.K., and Germany.
Before you hit the Send button, review these items:
Track your email response rates, including deliveries, clicks, responses, non-responders, bounces, and actions taken on any external links that are in an email. Reporting is the key to understanding and improving your campaign performance, and it has a role to play in delivery assurance as well.
It’s important to know what your average delivery, bounce, and engagement rates are, so you’ll see anomalies clearly and quickly. The rates below are industry averages; bear in mind that numbers vary widely from industry to industry, and that various service providers and marketers may calculate them using different formulas. Develop and use your own benchmarks. If your results suddenly worsen, investigate.
Here are a few broad guidelines:
Consistently low rates suggest that your email is uninteresting or your list is bad. Either will lead to higher “delete” rates, which will affect your reputation and delivery.
Every legitimate email marketer wants to be sure not to be mistaken for spam. Table A offers some quick dos and don’ts from spamassassin and the Apache Software Federation to help you avoid a spam label:
|Are You a Legitimate Mailer?||…Or Do You Look Like a Spammer?|
|Use email composition and mailing tools that work correctly. Well-constructed emails (technically correct) can be readily identified as not-spam.||Emails with missing mime sections, invalid or missing message-ids, invalid or missing date headers, subject or other headers with unescaped Unicode (and so on), are frequently spam.|
|Don’t include a disclaimer that your email isn’t spam. Don’t claim compliance with some legal criteria, especially one which is not actually law in your country.||Only spam needs to claim compliance – non-spam is supposed to already be in compliance.|
|Use normal conversational language. Don’t use excessive spacing and/or capitalization in your subject line.||Spammers use “cute” spellings, S.P.A.C.E out their words, and put str@nge |etters 0r characters into their emails.|
|Do not use invisible text within emails. Make sure your text colors and sizes are distinct enough and large enough to read.||Invisible text is often identified as a sign of spam.|
|Do not use invisible web bugs to track your emails. If you must track your emails and whether they’re read, use visible graphics.||Spammers try to hide malware in invisible elements.|
|Don’t use ‘bulk-mailing’ tools used by spammers or advertised through spam.||If a bulk mailer’s product’s feature list includes ‘stealth sending’ or similar terms, all mail sent by that program will be treated as spam.|
|Be careful where you advertise, and be careful which advertisements you carry.||Spammers advertise with companies that send out spam, and their domains are flagged as being related to spam.|
|Be visible and public in your domain and hosting registrations.||Spammers use bogus entries in domain registrations, or “private” or “hidden” annotations.|
|Make sure you have active and monitored abuse and postmaster email addresses. Register them with abuse.net.||Spammers try to hide from unpleasant public feedback.|
Retention email’s primary focus is to obtain, nurture, and retain a customer relationship once you have established the initial permission to make contact.
For example, let’s say that Mary buys something from YourStore and provides her email address and permission to contact her after her initial transaction. At this point, Mary is 100% opted in to your program – this is good. What you do next will establish your ability to communicate with Mary and ultimately drive ROI with strategies and offers based on her preferences and expectations.
To begin with: Now that you have her attention, it’s imperative that you get her engaged with your program almost immediately to ensure continuity and deliverability.
As your customer becomes more engaged, this engagement in turn will enhance deliverability, reputation, and ROI.
Acquisition email’s most common goal is to convert potential leads into sales- and retention-based customers; the barriers to success are more complex than the retention-based email activities.
One of the key factors driving acquisition success is data (email addresses in this case) and the way it’s collected and permissioned.
There are many organizations that supply (rent or sell) email addresses that have a level of permission (opted in) that will allow you to send them communications and ultimately utilize this data to grow your house file or generate sales.
A scenario: A marketer acquires a list of addresses through a third party and emails an offer to the list, hoping that some percentage of those recipients will be interested in what the marketer’s company is selling.
Here’s how addresses get on that list: Suppose you bought a product or signed up for a webinar, and didn’t read the fine print…in which the vendor stated that unless you opted out of something, your email address would be shared with third parties. Your email address then went into a list comprised of other addresses gathered the same way. The third parties rent or sell that same list to lots of organizations that will use it to conduct acquisition email campaigns.
As a worst-case scenario, let’s say your company buys a list and sends an email to an individual named “Tom.” You know nothing about Tom (other than he once attended a webinar or bought a product, which in all probability he doesn’t remember), so if you send him an email about a product or service, it likely has NO relevance to him whatsoever.
Tom’s a busy guy, so the irrelevant email irritates him and he hits the “Mark This as Spam” button. So do a lot of the other people on that list. This results in a high complaint number, which in turn results in negative deliverability and reputation. Not good.
As you can see from the example, the risks to acquisition email campaigns are high. Especially as you are potentially relying on third parties to supply you with the data (and its accompanying permissions) to initiate the outreach.
However with a little change in plans and program management, you can use the acquisition channel to your benefit. Here are tips for success:
Acquisition email is hard to do. There are many pitfalls and barriers in place to trip marketers up and limit campaign progress. In the context of the entire email ecosystem, acquisition email falls on the low end of the ladder.
Take small steps as you enter the acquisition channel…take it slow. Know your audience, your vendors, your data, and most of all – your deliverability.
Messages that have NO commercial content at all are considered transactional email messages and don’t have to comply with CAN-SPAM. Order confirmations, promotional messages, and informational newsletters are examples of transactional communication. Where marketers may get into hot water is when they use the transactional message to cross-sell or upsell their commercial products in the same message.
Let’s take a look.
When you use transactional messaging to promote your commercial products under CAN-SPAM, the Primary Purpose rule comes into effect. This is where the gray area of transactional messaging kicks in, and it can easily be misunderstood.
Under the Primary Purpose rule, if the recipient perceives that the “primary purpose” of the message they received is commercial in nature, then the message MUST be CAN-SPAM compliant, without exception. That means: No matter how certain the marketer is that the message’s primary purpose is transactional…it is the recipient’s perception that determines whether the message is commercial. This is not a negotiable issue.
There are a few other interpretations of the Primary Purpose rule under CAN-SPAM, but it’s better to comply than not.
So, what factors would drive a recipient to think that a message is “commercial” in nature?
Adopting and implementing these best practices will give you results and benefits that will affect deliverability, reputation management, engagement, and ultimately ROI.