E-mail: Are You Getting Through?
The landscape in the opt-in e-mail marketing industry is changing. With the online population in the United States expected to grow to 218.6 million by the end of 2007, compared to 141.3 million in 2001 (Jupiter Research), the industry will need to be much more sophisticated when it comes to delivery tactics.
The big concern in the marketplace has become e-mail deliverability. In some cases, legitimate e-mail marketers are finding it challenging to deliver their messages to their customers and subscribers. Spam is the reason e-mail deliverability has become difficult and, in essence, a science.
What is spam? Unfortunately, there is no cookie-cutter definition within the industry. Furthermore, what is considered spam by the industry and what is perceived as spam by recipients differ. Typically, e-mail is considered spam when the recipient feels that the message is inappropriate, unwanted or unsolicited. Spam e-mail is costing not only legitimate e-mail marketers, but consumers, corporations, Internet service providers (ISPs) and e-mail service providers (ESPs).
ISPs and ESPs have directly responded to the issue of spam by extending their service offerings to include e-mail filters and blacklists. These have been placed within ISPs and ESPs (such as AOL, Yahoo!, MSN, Hotmail and CompuServe) to help stem the rising tide of unwanted, unwarranted e-mail.
E-mail filters can do a variety of things, such as instantly delete or block messages red-flagged as spam, tag flagged messages with a color or score, or redirect flagged messages to bulk folders that are either rarely looked at or automatically emptied. Yahoo! Mail, for example, automatically empties a bulk e-mail folder after 30 days.
However, these e-mail filtersalso known as spam filtersand blacklists can report false positives, branding many legitimate e-mail marketers as spammers. E-mail filters are susceptible to these false positives because there is no industry standard where identifying spam is concerned. While e-mail filters do help to eliminate a great deal of unwanted and unsolicited e-mail, they can also block legitimate marketers' e-mail.
Here are a few of the red flags that ISPs and ESPs look for in filtering and blacklisting:
1. Volume of e-mail sent. If a sender has reached a certain ISP's limit for the number of e-mails sent, the ISP blocks the sender or redirects the sender's message to a junk/bulk mail folder. One way to avoid this is to employ a method of e-mail metering that will limit the amount of e-mails sent at any one time.
2. Bounced e-mail. If a sender experiences a large volume of bounced e-mail messages, the ISP, depending on its pre-defined limits, will block the sender. Good list hygiene is a key here.
3. Recipient Yells. As with AOL 8.0 and other ISPs and ESPs, the recipient of the e-mail can label a message as spam. If a predetermined number of complaints are reached against this particular sender's e-mail or IP address, any content from the sender is blocked.
4. Content-based crawl. "If it looks like spam, it must be spam." An ISP or content-filtering technology will scan subject lines and e-mail bodies to search for punctuation, phrases and words that signify spam. If they find what they are looking for, you can be blocked or redirected to their junk box. (See "Helpful Hints," page 23, for examples of red-flag copy.)
5. Into the black hole of blacklisting. If your e-mail or IP address is on an ISP's blacklist, all of your e-mail is automatically blocked. The goal of the blacklist is to block spam, or unsolicited commercial e-mail. However, these lists often result in false positives.
There are two types of blacklists:
Network Blacklist. This is a list of domains or IP addresses that is compiled and given out to anyone who wants it. Some are paid, some are free. (i.e.: Mail-Abuse.org)
Local Blacklist. This is a list of domains or IP addresses collected internally. They are easy to get on, but hard to get off. The major problem with this type of blacklist is the aging of entries and personal agendas.
So how can legitimate e-mail marketers get their e-mail through to customers and subscribers, while keeping spam in check? There's no prescribed answer, but the following four practices can help:
1. Work with a reputable e-mail marketing vendor that has relationships with the various ISPs and ESPs. ClickAction, for example, maintains direct relationships with the top ISPs so our clients don't have to.
Make certain that the e-mail marketing vendor you are working with complies with the guidelines each ISP and ESP sets forth, and that it monitors trends and changes in the industry.
2. Ask your vendors what they are doing to reduce e-mail blocking, and make sure you see results. At ClickAction, we address this by closely monitoring e-mail sent through our servers to determine if and where we are being blocked. Our approach is to contact individual ISPs or corporate domains to whom we send large amounts of opt-in e-mail on behalf of our clients and ask that we be placed on their whitelists. The opposite of a blacklist, a whitelist is a list of marketers permitted to pass through spam filters and have their e-mail delivered.
Furthermore, avoid continuous sending of messages to full or invalid e-mail boxes, and properly identify your e-mail servers. Major e-mail gatekeepers do reverse DNS (domain name system) lookups to make sure e-mail servers are properly identified. If not, a red flag is raised and you could be labeled a spammer.
3 Scrub your lists or let your vendor do this. Suppress suspicious "spamflag" addresses such as abuse@ or marketerspam@. When bounces are reported, clean your list immediately. ClickAction provides its clients with real-time removal of bounces.
There are tools available to help you determine if your e-mail campaign has features similar to those of spam. These tools identify certain wordings, phrases and links that may trigger ISP and ESP spam alerts.
4. Get involved in industry organizations. One such organization is the NAI (National Advertising Initiative).
Trevor Hughes, spokesperson for the NAI, stated that there are two ways to go about solving the broader issue of spam: Sit back and choose to do nothing; or build a solution that is too restrictive, in which case e-mail would essentially become more of a hassle than helpful. He said it's the goal of the NAI to find a balance between the two.
Currently, the NAI is working on a variety of industry solutions to promote continued growth and vitality in the legitimate e-mail marketing industry, including technological, self-regulatory and legislative solutions.
Instead of becoming part of or ignoring the spam problem, work with your e-mail marketing provider to build a stable industry coalition of reputable companies that will be able to successfully continue to market online and through e-mail. Studies have proven that in the overall ad market, online advertising is progressing better and faster than other forms of advertising, such as radio, television and print. Just as consumers deal with junk mail and sales calls during dinner, they will always have to deal with unwanted e-mail.
But as long as legitimate marketers are able to effectively deliver highly targeted, one-to-one e-mail messages to customers, we can continue to expect positive results.
Amy Sheldon is director of marketing at ClickAction. She can be reached at (650) 473-3605 or firstname.lastname@example.org