Follow the Bouncing E-mail (594 words)
By Brian Howard
The e-mail bounce is inherently unpleasant. On its face, it is rejection—a message turned away. It may not be the information you want to receive, but it's information you can and should be using.
Even if you outsource your e-mail campaigns, it's important you know how your application service provider (ASP) handles your bounces.
"If you're ignoring bounces," says Bill Nussby, CEO of ASP SilverPop, "you're probably applying a 10-percent to 30-percent haircut on any response rate you're liable to get."
Think of a bounce as a chance to streamline. Proper handling of bounces should eventually increase your response rate, reduce per-message fees, help keep your list clean and maintain good relations with Internet service providers (ISPs) who will blacklist e-mailers with unacceptably high bounce rates. (Rates vary by ISP.)
Self-service and full-service ASPs have bounce controls built in. With a self-service ASP, you set the rules governing your bounces yourself; with a full-service ASP, bounces are handled entirely by the outsource provider, but you still need to determine beforehand how they'll be handled.
"Bounces are deceptively simple," says Bruce Sattley, vice president of product marketing, Yesmail, an ASP. "Many times they are addresses that are no longer valid, but there are lots of other reasons for bounces as well."
When you send a message to an address that just does not exist, you get what is called a hard bounce. However, there are many other causes. Full mailboxes, system resource issues and plain old down systems are just a few of the reasons your messages could bounce from perfectly functional e-mail addresses. These often are called "soft bounces."
And determining which is which is a major challenge for an e-mail marketer or ASP.
"Technologically, there's no difference between a hard bounce and a soft bounce," says Tricia Robinson, vice president for marketing communications, Socketware. "It's what you do with a bounce that determines whether it is a so-called hard or so-called soft bounce."
A hard bounce is something you want to remove from your list; a soft bounce, you'll want to reserve judgment on.
"A hard bounce, generally by definition, means that a marketer can safely and comfortably remove it from their list," says Nussby.
But determining what is hard and what is soft is getting trickier.
"If we couldn't reach the recipient's e-mail server, we don't know that it's not a valid address," explains Chris Curtin, vice president of engineering, SilverPop. "So rather than giving you a hard bounce, we'd rather take the risk that in five minutes or five hours or five days that server will come back online and your message can be delivered."
Further complicating the issue is a lack of standardization in bounce reporting among ISPs. "They may report back the wrong type of bounce," says Sattley. "As a marketer, you're trying to interpret these error codes and do the right thing with your list. You don't want to continue mailing an address you know is bad, but if the ISP isn't giving the right codes back, then it's very difficult to keep track of what's actually going on."
So what's an e-mail marketer to do?
Robinson suggests establishing an equation for how to handle bounces. "If a message to a particular recipient bounces 66 percent of the time," she says, "You should mark that address as a bad address."
Bad bounce decisions can cause problems as minor as higher per-message fees to big issues like blacklisting. Most reputable ASPs will provide bounce management, but it's important to ask before you make a decision.