As a marketer, you work hard every day to grow your e-mail list. You run promotions, solicit Web registrations, fight battles with other departments and basically do anything you can think of to build your list. Unfortunately, not all the data you gather is sound. People make mistakes on registration forms. Customer service reps make keystroking errors. There also are bad apples out there intentionally trying to cripple your list.
And what happens over time? What was once a predominantly healthy list begins to ail. People move. Individuals change jobs. E-mail addresses change.
It’s up to you to keep your e-mail housefiles healthy. The good news: Once you understand the symptoms of an unhealthy list, you can treat them.
Understand the Symptoms
The continued vitality of your e-mail list depends on you noticing the following signals of decay:
Bad e-mail addresses seeping into your list. FreshAddress has been in business since 1999 and has processed more than a billion e-mail addresses for clients. In that time, we’ve never seen a perfectly healthy list. Typos (email@example.com) and bogus entries (firstname.lastname@example.org) are everywhere.
In most computer environments, people are becoming more reliant on technology to catch typos. We’ve come to take for granted the precision of spell-check, the scrutiny of grammar-check and the speed of Microsoft Word’s autocorrect. Unfortunately, those same technology assists are not usually available on Web site registration pages.
In a recent study, FreshAddress registered the same 13 invalid e-mail addresses on 50 top retail Web sites. Not one site tested offered a correction for common spelling errors (e.g., yaho.com). Also, no Web site blocked more than 37 percent of the invalid e-mail addresses entered. Most sites overlooked misspellings, syntax and formatting mistakes; “dead” domains; and bogus e-mail addresses.
The potential ramifications of bad data in your list include:
- Lost revenues: For every invalid registration you accept, you lose profits you would have made.
- Dissatisfied customers/prospects: When visitors to your Web site enter a typo, it is typically unintentional. However, when they don’t receive the newsletter or offer they signed up for, you are blamed.
- Wasted marketing dollars: Sending e-mails to undeliverable addresses is wasting your deployment budget.
- ISP blacklisting: Every repeatedly bouncing e-mail address on your list drives down the quality of the list, which ISPs notice. You run the risk of being labeled a “spammer” and jeopardize your future ability to get your messages into your customers’ inboxes.
Inactive e-mail addresses sitting latent in your list. Even a good, deliverable e-mail address for your customer isn’t guaranteed to work forever. Those of you from the postal world know that customers move, and you need to work hard to maintain their updated street addresses. The same is true of e-mail addresses. People change e-mail addresses for many reasons—they switch jobs, retire, graduate, change ISPs, open secondary accounts, try to avoid spam, etc. In fact, studies show you probably will see a 2 percent to 3 percent natural reduction in the size of your working list every month. That’s 30 percent or more per year!
Don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s only the bad e-mail addresses (i.e., bounces) on your list that are a problem. You also must identify the inactive addresses. Here’s why:
- Often, when a person changes his e-mail address, he abandons his old account. This means that for many months the account still receives e-mail, but nothing is read. You only see it begin to bounce when the ISP does an account cleanup, which could be six months or more later.
- Some bogus e-mail addresses are actually deliverable because the domains (e.g., “asdf.com”) are overwhelmed by incoming e-mail, and rather than laboriously bounce it all back, the managers simply delete the incoming messages.
- Some e-mail addresses on your list may be spam traps. Spam traps are seemingly legitimate e-mail addresses that are not actually used by any individuals. Instead, they are created by ISPs for the sole purpose of catching unsolicited incoming bulk mail and blacklisting the sender.
How do spam traps get on your list? They can result from reckless e-mail acquisition practices, including questionable e-mail list rentals/purchases or e-mail scraping/harvesting off the Internet. Spam traps are sometimes maliciously registered by a vigilante or perhaps a competitor. And spam traps can be old e-mail addresses, even former e-mail addresses of your customers, recycled by ISPs.
To clean out bogus e-mail addresses and avoid spam traps, you need to define what an “inactive e-mail address” is for your company. And for every company, this definition differs. For example, if you are a marketer for a weather service that e-mails daily and 60 percent of your recipients click through your e-mail to your site, you may want to define “inactivity” as “no open or clickthrough in the last 30 days.” Alternatively, if you are a marketer for, say, a home goods catalog that e-mails monthly and has a lower clickthrough rate, you’d obviously want to come up with a looser threshold.
There are a number of easy and cost-effective ways you can build healthier houselists from the start:
Allow your customers to notice their own typos. One simple way to do this is to enlarge the size of the input box. A second way to allow customers to catch their own typos is to provide a confirmation page. You’d be surprised how many users actually will reread what they typed and correct any errors.
For lists that absolutely have to be perfect from the get-go, consider implementing “double opt-in.” Double opt-in means that after individuals register, you send them an e-mail with a special link that they must click through to join your mailing list. While this method can be highly effective, it is not always reliable, as it (a) is tricky to implement correctly and (b) can be frustrating for your users, resulting in registration abandonment. That said, for certain industries, such as financial services, double opt-in is highly recommended.
Make sure there is a clear value exchange and you provide sufficient reassurances regarding privacy. Users tend to enter bogus or secondary e-mail addresses because they see no upside to getting an e-mail from you. So make sure you send something your customers want to receive.
Use technology to catch typos. Your Web site probably already does baseline validation (e.g., it refuses e-mail addresses without an “@” sign, etc.), and you can easily expand upon this. By working with your internal tech team or an outside vendor, you can improve your front-end coding so it flags common e-mail address errors and catches and corrects misspellings, just like spell-check.
Now that you’ve identified what ails your list, it’s time to remedy the problems, including:
Allow customers to proactively update their e-mails. If you have happy customers, they will want to keep you informed of any e-mail address changes. Make it easy for them by:
- Clarifying what e-mail addresses you have for them and providing an easy, user-friendly way to update them—use your Web site, e-mail communications (e.g., “annual member renewals”), point-of-sale employees, call-center reps, etc.
- Responding in a timely manner to requests from your customers regarding updates; assure them you are listening to them and respecting their needs and wishes.
- Asking for backup e-mail addresses during registration. Should there be a problem down the line with the primary address, don’t miss a beat by switching over to the backup.
Capture corrections when customers are in e-mail limbo. For many of your customers, there will be a fleeting moment (typically a few days or weeks) when they have new e-mail addresses but are still checking e-mail at their old addresses. You can envision some of these scenarios: those last two days at a job, signing into dial-up one last time before switching to high-speed, etc.
During this period of limbo, you have a golden opportunity to obtain your customer’s new e-mail address. While this may sound like a shot in the dark, every update you make is a saved relationship. Here are some ideas:
- Set up an intermittent “check-in” interstitial page so, on a routine basis, you ask your customers to review and confirm their e-mail addresses. My bank occasionally asks me to confirm my e-mail address at log-in, and I don’t mind, as it is just one click to confirm. You also can set up your point-of-sale and customer service reps to confirm e-mail address information.
- Send dedicated “account maintenance” e-mails, asking for confirmation that you are reaching your customer at her preferred e-mail address.
- In addition to providing an unsubscribe link in your e-mail communications (in accordance with CAN-SPAM), provide an e-mail update link for those customers with whom you are communicating at the wrong addresses. You also can add this option to your unsubscribe landing page.
Reconnect with lost customers by updating your list. The bad or inactive e-mails on your list aren’t necessarily worthless; they just need a little TLC. They’re your customers; you invested plenty to acquire them. The value of reconnecting with them is huge. Conveniently, there are several ways to do this:
- If you have expertise with postal communications, you can consider a print campaign. A “we’re sorry we lost touch” theme with an incentive may prove fruitful. Be sure to keep a careful eye on ROI, as postal campaigns can be costly and response rates can be slow and low. Also, to minimize keystroking errors, point customers to a landing page where they can enter their own updated e-mail addresses.
- In much the same way you would ask for an update via postal mail, you can do the same via telephone or point-of-sale. Again, ROI on these initiatives could be tricky in terms of human resources and keystroking accuracy.
- By reviewing your list by hand or running it through a hygiene process, you can flag bogus and invalid e-mail addresses for permanent removal and obtain suggested corrections for common typos. If your list is too large for your internal team, an outside vendor can process it at a nominal cost.
- Just like using NCOA for your postal file, an ECOA (e-mail change of address service) can process your bounce/inactive e-mail list. Be sure you understand where the e-mail changes came from, as you want to be certain the customers you are recovering truly want to be found.
Your list is a critical part of your company’s livelihood. If the health of your list wanes, so does the prosperity of your company. Invest in the wellness of your list. By doing so habitually, you’ll reap the rewards of higher revenues, lower costs and happier customers.
Austin C. Bliss is president and co-founder of FreshAddress, an e-mail database services provider in Newton, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com or (617) 965-4500.