Best Practices

Spammers Anonymous, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Send Email

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Hi, my name is Brad, and I’m a spammer. 

Recently I discussed how the perception of consent often varies pretty widely from sender to recipient, and asserted that sending any unsolicited mail (no matter how innocuous) makes one a spammer. In retrospect, and in light of a rousing debate currently occurring in a popular industry forum, it may be helpful to expand a bit on that statement.

Much like politics, most of the voices you hear in the email industry tend to vary between two extremes. One one hand, there are the anti-abuse crusaders, those who propose hefty penalties for anyone who sends even a single unsolicited email. On the other, you have those who believe that because someone provided their email address somewhere public (i.e. on their employer’s webpage), they are giving free reign for marketers to send them anything they want. Most of us, thankfully, are somewhere in between. Those of us who send email on behalf of others (email service providers, particularly) generally have to be closest to the median as we balance the needs of senders who want to keep their business growing with the ability to reach recipients (more accurately, their mail providers) who don’t want to receive spam.

To that end, I say this: unsolicited mail is spam. Unless your intended recipient asked you directly to receive what you’re sending, you’re sending spam. The thing is, we’ve almost all done it – even those of us on the anti-abuse side of things. If we haven’t sent spam directly, we’ve been party to it. Maybe it was the marketing team at our company. Maybe it was a salesperson, contractor, or vendor. No one likes spam, but very few of us can say we are completely removed from it.

Go ahead, let it out. It’s cathartic.

Does that excuse sending sending spam? Not even close. Just because we’ve all likely done it doesn’t mean it’s okay. What it does mean is that the damage can be fixed – but how? In Spammers Anonymous, there are just 3 steps on your path to email enlightenment:

Get permission.

This one is the simplest, but often causes the most problems. Don’t send to addresses that were found on a website or forum. Don’t purchase lists or use any list generated by a third party (including government lists obtained via the Freedom of Information Act – those are some of the worst). If someone makes a purchase from you or joins your organization, give them the option to receive your marketing emails. In some jurisdictions (I’m looking at you, Canada) it’s a requirement that you provide separate consent options.

Set expectations.

When someone provides you their email address they’re trusting you to send them the information they’ve requested, and not to send them other, unwanted mailings. Honoring that trust helps build loyalty and keeps your recipients happy. One of the best ways to ensure your trustworthiness is to set clear expectations at sign-up. At the point of email collection, make clear designations of the type and frequency of mailings you’ll be sending. It doesn’t have to be hyper-specific; something like “weekly informative newsletters” does the trick without excessive wording. Bonus upside: when your recipients expect your email, they’re ready to engage when it shows up and often tell you when it doesn’t (which helps identify potential delivery issues).

Acknowledge there is a higher power.

OK, so this one may sound familiar – but in this case we’re talking about mailbox providers. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL, among others, provide mailboxes to millions of recipients and their primary focus is ensuring those recipients get only the mail they want. One of the biggest ways they do this is through engagement monitoring. Recipients who read and reply to your messages are more likely to see them front and center in their inbox. This means that your job is not only to get the initial opt-in, but to ensure your recipients continue to want your mailings. One of the best ways to do this is through re-engagement campaigns. Every 6-18 months (depending on your sending frequency), reach out to recipients who haven’t engaged and ask if they still want your mailings. For those that don’t, purge them from your list and look at other ways to market to them, such as phone outreach or snail mail.

If you’re sending unsolicited email, attempting to justify your practices won’t matter to the mailbox providers who are routing your mail to Spam, or to the blacklist admins who have flagged your IP address for hitting spam traps. Instead of hiding behind the “everyone’s doing it” mantra, take action and make your program better than everyone else’s. It takes some work to follow best practices, but taking these steps will help ensure your mail gets delivered and boost your business in the long run.

– BG

Best Practices, Delivery Essentials

Recipients (and their mail providers) don’t care if you think they want your mail

There, I said it (and so did Laura at Word to the Wise, among others).

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During my years in the email industry, I’ve heard countless senders try to explain to me and others why their messages really aren’t spam. Usually it involves the fact that the messages are personalized, the recipients have been highly targeted, and the products or services advertised aren’t illegal or inherently spammy (you know, like male enhancement and Nigerian princes). If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard “We’re sending email people want to receive,” I’d probably be swimming in nickels Scrooge McDuck-style. I’d have to think that phrase is probably right behind “Let me tell you about my business model” in the lexicon of things spam fighters and anti-abuse staff never want to hear.

Many of the senders making these arguments fall into the B2B market Laura mentions in the above-referenced WttW article. They are often sending to companies or individuals in a specific industry or who they believe are in the market for certain products or services, who are just waiting for some shrewd marketer to find their email address and send them an unrequested solicitation for a product they didn’t even know they wanted.

If your recipients didn’t ask for your emails, they’re spam. You are sending spam and are, by definition, a spammer. That doesn’t make you a bad person, or mean that your business is illegitimate. It also doesn’t (necessarily) mean your mail will get filtered or blocked, but it does mean you’re at a higher risk of your mail being rejected or sent to the spam folder because technically it is spam. It means the major mailbox providers are working to prevent mail like yours from reaching their users’ inboxes. And if you’re sending in certain jurisdictions, it may even mean you’re committing a crime.

All the major mail providers are using engagement metrics to determine how to route mail. Mail that consistently gets opens, replies, and other positive engagement is going to end up in the inbox. And consistently, the mail that gets that type of interaction is permission-based. All the subject line optimization, flashy promotional content, and discount offers in the world can’t give you the kind of consistent engagement you’ll find from sending to people who asked for your emails. It’s an extremely simple concept – but one that many marketers seem to not quite grasp.

– BG

Best Practices, Delivery Essentials

Smooth transaction; highly recommended; great sender!

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Earlier this month I attended the Email Evolution Conference in New Orleans for the second year. It was a great event with hundreds of marketers and featuring excellent content, particularly in the Technology and Deliverability track. In addition to the content, listening to the questions asked by marketers during these sessions really helped to illustrate some of the common challenges seen on the sender side.

One particular question that stuck in my mind was regarding transactional messaging. Following a raised hand was a statement to the effect of, “All the best practices on the web are for marketing messages. What about transactional mail? Where are the best practices for that?”

As email experts we often tout separating transactional email from marketing mail, but we don’t often provide tips for optimizing those transactional emails. Today we intend to make that right with 3 key tips on managing your transactional emails.

1. Determine if the mail is truly transactional

The definition of a “transactional” message is likely to vary depending on who’s answering. There are many definitions of transactional – some senders consider anything sent to a member to be transactional, while others strictly limit the category to things like receipts and shipping notices. In their CAN-SPAM Compliance Guide, the US Federal Trade Commission describes a transactional message as one that:

  • facilitates or confirms a commercial transaction that the recipient already has agreed to;
  • gives warranty, recall, safety, or security information about a product or service;
  • gives information about a change in terms or features or account balance information regarding a membership, subscription, account, loan or other ongoing commercial relationship;
  • provides information about an employment relationship or employee benefits; or
  • delivers goods or services as part of a transaction that the recipient already has agreed to.

All of these types of messages require the recipient to have some sort of commercial transaction with the recipient – either a purchase or membership, but beyond that the waters can get a bit murky. The general consensus is that things like membership renewal notices, legally required notifications, and purchase receipts are considered transactional.

As a side note: if you’re sending to or from Canada, the Canadian Anti-Spam Law’s rules on transactional or relationship messaging are similar to those imposed under CAN-SPAM.

2. Stick to the 80/20 rule

To avoid issues when sending transactional messaging, you always want to be sure the primary purpose of the message is transactional in nature. While the definition of “primary purpose” is subject to some legal interpretation, the most commonly cited guideline is known as the 80/20 rule. This rule indicates that no more than 20% of a given message’s content should be promotional, with 80% or more transactional in nature.

In addition, most email professionals employ the less-scientific “sniff test” to determine if a message is transactional. This test looks at the most prominent elements of the message: subject line, preheader, the content presented first in the message body. If any of these elements is promotional in nature, the message would likely fail the “primary purpose” test. As a good rule of thumb, any promotional content should be presented below the transactional content of each message and should not be the focal point of the email.

In Canada, however, the 80/20 rule is not as relevant. Any amount of promotional content in a message may render it a “Commercial Electronic Message” and likely subject to the consent requirements of CASL. If you’re sending to or from Canada, we suggest avoiding any promotional content in your transactional messages unless you’ve consulted your legal counsel on potential implications.

3. Employ total separation between promotional and transactional streams

You’ll often hear a recommendation to have transactional (and other high-value relationship) messages sent from a separate IP address from your promotional or marketing emails. In theory, this separation prevents any potential issues with marketing emails (spam complaints, high bounce rates) from impacting the highly valuable transactional stream, which typically sees very high engagement and low complaints. However, best practices dictate going even farther and using separate subdomains for each stream.

With the impending flood of IPv6 IP addresses, major mailbox providers are relying more and more on domain reputation. If your transactional and promotional mail streams all originate from yourdomain.com, the reputation of the two streams will intermingle. One of the best ways to manage sending domains is to leave the top-level domain yourdomain.com for your corporate mail system, then use subdomains like promo.yourdomain.com and transaction.yourdomain.com for your marketing and transactional streams, respectively. This will help insulate your transactional traffic from any delivery speed bumps that might occur with your promotional sends.
Transactional emails can be a vital tool for maintaining customer loyalty and consistently see among the highest engagement rates of any email stream. They are also often underutilized. How are you managing your transactional streams? Have feedback on any of these tips, or have some of your own to share? Let us know in the comments!

– BG