The Path to Holiday Email Optimization Part I: Checking Your Foundation
For just about every consumer marketer, the winter holiday season generates the majority of revenue for the year. It's the season in which most businesses invest the bulk of their time and money in their marketing programs, and rightfully so. As the opportunity approaches email marketers typically concentrate on gaining consumer mindshare and showcasing value, laying the foundation for holiday purchases. The leaders do even more.
Before focusing time and money tactical program elements, like crafting the perfect subject line, the leading marketers begin by reassessing their programs' structural integrity. That phrase may sound weird in the context of email, a purely virtual marketing channel, but the literal concept of structure does indeed translate. If your program is not solid at its base — and easy to visualize and adjust — you can't build on it. It's basically a stack of cards waiting to fall apart.
Having a structurally sound email program also grants you breathing room to experiment and explore new ways to market to your customers. You can use the precious weeks ahead of Black Friday to get creative and test new ways to engage subscribers when it matters most.
Metrics to Watch
The first step toward building — and maintaining — a solid email program foundation is knowing where your emails end up. To do this you need to understand which metrics to track and what they can tell you.
Inbox Placement Rate (IPR)
This metric is the percentage of your email that arrives in your subscribers' inboxes — essentially your program's deliverability. Unlike your delivery rate IPR counts only messages placed in the inbox — not the ones that land in the spam folder or go missing — giving you a more accurate understanding of your program's ability to reach your audience. This is a key metric that helps uncover fundamental problems in your email program, which can be difficult to see or diagnose otherwise.
Reputation (Sender Score)
The next metric you need to know and track is your reputation, or Sender Score. This is essentially a credit score for email marketers — the higher the score the more trustworthy a sender is to mailbox providers. Your sender reputation is linked to the IP addresses you send email from. When email comes from a given IP, mailbox providers typically consider reputation when determining whether to place your email in the inbox. Sender Score is a proxy for this reputation. Mailers with a high score (90-100) have a higher percentage of their email delivered to the inbox while those with a lower score will see more of their email routed to the spam folder or blocked outright.
Steps to Take
After you have a better understanding of your metrics, take action to strengthen your foundation. These steps will help you patch up the holes in your email program and solidify the structure so you can begin optimizing for performance.
Clean Your Lists
To ensure you have a solid email base you need to perform a thorough cleaning of your subscriber list. This doesn't necessarily mean cutting it, but there are some cases in which removing addresses with increase the total reach of your email program. The first case, which is admittedly uncommon, is unknown addresses. Most sending platforms remove these automatically, but if your list has hard bounces — addresses that the mailbox provider can't resolve — get rid of them. Marketers that continue to mail to unknown addresses signal to mailbox providers that they employ poor list hygiene, and their reputations and deliverability suffer as a result.
Another kind of address you shouldn't have on your file, but absolutely must get rid of, is spam traps. There are two types of spam traps: recycled and pristine. Recycled spam traps are email addresses that used to be real subscribers' accounts, long ago before they were abandoned, and have been reactivated by mailbox providers to detect senders that send to people who can't possibly have opted in or reconfirmed their interest recently. The second type of spam trap are pristine spam traps that were never used by real people. These are used by mailbox providers and email security specialists to detect senders that can't have ever received consent of any kind to send messages to these accounts.
The last step toward a solid email program foundation is authentication. Phishing attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and by not authenticating your program you are leaving its structure open to an attack. Mailbox providers want to help you to protect your program and your brand (and their account holders) from abuse, but they need a way to determine whether messages attributed to you are legitimately from you. Authenticating your email accomplishes that and enables you to use DMARC to proactively defend your program from criminal abuse.
DMARC allows you to tell major mailbox providers to deliver authenticated mail from you to your subscribers, and to stop unauthenticated — and potentially fraudulent — messages from reaching their inboxes. Implementing and testing DMARC ahead of the holiday season will help ensure that your marketing program, as it accelerates and works harder to generate sales in this critical period, won't be used by cyber criminals to defraud consumers.
Once you have a sound email structure, you can begin to build on your foundation by finding ways to optimize your program. In Part II, I'll identify the metrics provide a deep analysis into your programs health and tactics that will help boost your performance for the upcoming holiday season.
Tom Sather is Return Path’s senior director of email research. Tom uses his knowledge of ISPs, spam filters and deliverability rules to advise marketers on how to get their email delivered to the inbox. He began his Return Path career as an email deliverability consultant working with top-brand clients like eBay, MySpace, IBM and Twitter. Tom’s previous experience includes roles with email service provider Experian and on the abuse desks for AOL, Bellsouth, AT&T and GTE.