The internet was designed to be a free exchange of information wherein anyone, upon a loose framework mainly having to do with networking and rendering capabilities, could join, share and digest what they wanted. Email was developed as a predecessor to the internet. Again, one in which, as long as you had the most basic SMTP compliancy between networks, messages would be handed off between point A to B.
Today, email has turned into a monumentally powerful marketing tool and communication channel that still rivals the internet and other upcoming social networks, regardless of which side of the "email is dying" debate you fall under. With email marketing, forward to a friend, sharing links, email filters and forwarders, along with major ISPs providing outsourcing solutions (like Google Apps), the audit trail of an email is sometimes all but impossible to decipher without CSI level forensic header analysis.
But, you don't care about all this.
What should you care about?
When you place an order to have something delivered with the USPS, UPS or FedEx, that item almost never leaves that company's chain of custody. Meaning, if you dropped it off with FedEx, the recipient will most likely receive it with FedEx. Again, there are exceptions, but the vast majority of the time this is the rule. When you send an email out, though, it may be going to a Yahoo! domain address, then forwarded on to a Gmail domain address and finally rendered in Outlook 2007. What can you do to ensure that your mail has the highest rate of making it to its final destination regardless of the cyber hops in the middle?
1. Ask your recipient up front if their email address is still, indeed, the right one to be using. I check over 8 different email accounts on a normal day, and with inbox email aggregators with dynamic collection addresses (such as OtherInbox), I probably have several hundred email addresses (with OtherInBox I can use disposable email addresses) that will get to me somehow. However, the email address to sign up with your service when I was a fresh college grad and using my Alumni account may no longer be at the top of my list. So, I appreciate it when companies I do business with ask me if that's still the one I should have on my account. If it is, I click through on a prompt when I login. If not, it takes 2 seconds to change. I don't get asked this every time I login, but perhaps, every 6 months or so to ensure the email address is fresh. Guess what? My Alumni account is forwarded to my Yahoo! account. So, I changed it to have my Yahoo! account receive the email directly (and thus avoid any errant filtering on the part of my school).
2. Authenticate outbound email. Period. DKIM was designed not to break when making multiple hops in an email's path to the final destination. Unfortunately SPF will because of the technical nature of email headers, but with DKIM enabled mail, if it comes through at Gmail verified and then is forwarded on to AOL, the DKIM signature stays intact and the message has a higher likelihood of being delivered.
3. Here's the bad part. Just like you as a sender pushing mail out to a recipient, when email is forwarded to another domain by the recipient domain, the reputation and deliverability of that mail falls back on the ISP doing the forwarding. For instance, I run my own domain hosted through Gmail. When you send an email there, it gets forwarded to Yahoo! which is what I consider my central email nervous system. But, sometimes, email from Gmail gets bulked at Yahoo! because of Gmail's reputation. This means I don't get my mail. What can you do about it? Gently remind your subscribers to check their spam folders for mail that may have accidentally fallen prey to a filter somewhere. In my case, I'll get email that randomly gets bulked (as opposed to breaking any obvious best sending practices) and have made it a habit to check my spam folder often.
4. Check your content in multiple web clients. Oftentimes, an email sent to a Comcast domain looks fantastic, but when forwarded to an AOL accounts, looks horrible. Now, like in #3, a lot of this is out of your control if the actual content is changed en route by the ISP. But, if you ensure that your content looks good in the different clients, you increase your chances that when an ISP doesn't reach in and play with the HTML when it's being forwarded along, it will look fine in the end email inbox.
5. Have unique identifiers in your unsubscribe links tying an email address back to a particular sender. If I unsubscribe from my Yahoo! address on an email that was sent to me originally at a Gmail account but was forwarded on, you could end up shooting yourself in the proverbial foot. I could have any wanted email to my Yahoo! account stop but the Gmail email continue. Recipients will oftentimes setup multiple email addresses for one account, or across multiple accounts you as an ESP or single sender support, so directly tying that recipient's unsubscribed email address to their preferences (and not the one that happened to actually do the unsubscribing) is key.
This is pretty technical stuff, folks. But, in order to stay on top of the original intent of email being free flowing and having as few barriers as possible, you must be cognizant of the challenges in your path. Reach out to your technical team to ensure you've got these points covered. And remember, an email address is easily disposable. We, as marketers, tend to see them as having high stickiness. But, recipients can come and go with fluidity and tracking them along the way with their permission (ultimately their keeping you informed of their moves) keeps you in touch with your customers.
Director of Deliverability
Christine Borgia from AOL announced this week that the long-standing Report Card program has come to an end. For those of us who have been in the email marketing world for any period of time, we know this marks the end of an era. I go way back with AOL from my previous role running email operations at Travelocity. I started back at the dawn of "email time" in 1999. I had the privilege of sending AOL Travel email, in addition to my regular Travelocity mail. This gave me some insider type access to the Postmaster Team at AOL. I won't tell you that everything was always smooth. In fact, I had a pretty rocky year, one that I've tried to delete from my memory banks. Looking back, that was when the discipline of deliverability was born. AOL was way ahead of the curve in the implementation of the Report Card program. If you aren't familiar with the Report Card, here's a sample:
You are receiving this message via AOL's automated "Report Card" process because our available data indicate that in the last 24 hours your domain's mail stream has exceeded an inbox complaint rate of 0.30%. This email is only an indication that your domain's mail stream has exceeded a pre-defined complaint threshold; it is not necessarily indicative of a spam problem. We send a report card to every domain that exceeds this threshold, regardless of what type of mail is sent. We hope that it may be useful to help identify potential issues. For additional information please visit our http://postmaster.info.aol.com Postmaster website, where one can find a more detailed explanation of how the Report Card system works, AOL's technical requirements for sending email to us, AOL's best practices guidelines for bulk-mailers, and more.
This was really great stuff! Imagine an ISP sending you an email each day warning you that you had slipped into the danger zone. You didn't have to build any reports, aggregate any data, or haggle over "hanging spams!" This kind of service just isn't around anymore, and I fear we took it for granted. It means we're back to "new school" techniques with AOL. Their feedback loop program is top-notch and has always been the leader in FBL technology. (You are signed up and watching your FBL complaints/statistics…aren't you? Of course you are, because we all know that complaints are the bellwether statistic for email marketers.)
Goodbye, AOL Report Card. I will miss you. Actually, I will miss those days from long ago when a day without a Report Card meant we had aced our promotion. We were good enough, smart enough, and AOL liked us!!
- Kevin Senne, Director, Deliverability & Social Networking, Premiere Global Services, Inc.
A recent review of practices by top brand email marketers makes me think that there is something really wrong with our collective ability to follow best practices when it comes to creating compelling subscriber experience for new subscribers. Return Path just released the results of a study of 61 companies on this topic, and I tell you, the findings were pretty disappointing.
Below are some highlights from Great Email Experiences - Is Your Brand Relationship Worthy. I'd love your feedback. Does this synch with what you find in your own inbox? In your own marketing programs?
The biggest shocker for me is in the depth of the missed opportunity. Relatively simple and firmly proven best practices were NOT followed by some pretty large brands—Best Buy, Nike, Sony, and Disney, to name a few—all with smart email marketers in house. Does that suggest we have the wrong best practices? Or that sending relevant email really takes THAT much more work than just spitting out broadcasts? It shouldn't, right? Yet, maybe it is that much harder, which is why so few of us actually spend the time to do it well.
We were rather surprised by the findings:
1. A majority (60%) of the companies in our survey did not send a welcome message. Of the 40% that did send a welcome message, only 33% sent it within 24 hours. The remaining 7% took anywhere from two days to three weeks.
2. The shock of the missing welcome messages was compounded by the astonishing number of companies—30%!—who didn't send any email within a month of sign up. While the majority did start sending email soon after subscribe, engagement—which is key in the first 30-days—was lacking.
3. 70% of companies asked for a lot of data (name, address, birthday, and so on) at subscribe, and the bulk of them (75%) never used it. This "just in case" mentality is not a good experience for subscribers that are forced to complete long forms and preferences when the potential benefit is never realized.
4. Even across four very different industry verticals, the marketing offers (Free Shipping! Discount! Sweepstakes!) were surprisingly the same. Often these types of offer strategies are self-fulfilling and addictive. Why not use valuable content to drive readership and stand out from the crowd?
Look forward to your comments!
—Stephanie Miller of Return Path