Deliverability 101, Delivery Essentials

Deliverability 101: IP address and domain reputation

Reputation can be very important in all walks of life, and email is no different. For senders with a good reputation, mail is more likely to be delivered to the inbox, giving your recipients more chances to read and interact. On the other hand, if your reputation is “not so hot,” you’ll be more likely to see your messages end up in the spam folder or even rejected altogether. So what exactly is this mystical “reputation,” and how is it determined?

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IP Address Reputation

Before we address (no pun intended) the reputation aspect, let’s have a brief refresher on the nature of IP addresses. Every device connected to the internet – computer, router, even your smart thermostat – is assigned a numeric value known as the Internet Protocol address. This IP address is how your mail server is identified on the internet. When you send mail to a recipient, their mail provider will see where the message originated, identified by that IP address.

Most inbound mail servers will also attempt to use that IP address to determine whether the sender of the mail is trustworthy. If mail from that IP address is often sent to invalid addresses, or the mail generates too many complaints, the inbound server may choose to route incoming messages from that server to spam, or block them outright. Many mailbox providers also use third-party IP address blacklists like Spamhaus or Spamcop, choosing to filter or reject mail from IPs that appear on those lists.

A few years ago, IP address was the gold standard for sender reputation. As content filters that looked for “spam words” became less effective (MILLI0NS OF DOLLAR$ IN VI4GRA, anyone?), IP reputation helped receivers identify habitual bad senders. The receivers could then act on all mail sent from those servers instead of chasing down ever-morphing content to filter inbound mail. This often caused issues for ESPs with smaller clients, because many clients were often sending from the same IP address (This is one of the reasons many ESPs tend to be more strict with shared-IP clients – because mail you send can impact delivery for many other senders on your IP).

A fact that is not widely known outside tech circles is that the internet is running out of IP addresses. As a result, a new standard for IP addresses was created: IPv6. This standard allows for a seemingly infinite number of IP addresses – theoretically 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 to be exact. With that many IP addresses, anyone whose IP is blocked can simply start using a different IP address, essentially bypassing IP address-based filtering.

Domain Reputation

There are times that an IP address alone doesn’t give the whole picture. The shared IP pools used by some ESPs, as mentioned above, are a prime example. Another example might occur when multiple divisions of a single company or organization use the same IP addresses to send mail. Because of this, and the onset of the IPv6 standard, domain reputation has become increasingly important in mail delivery.

How domain reputation is checked can vary depending on the mail server. Some providers check only the domain the mail is actually sent from, while others look at all the domains in the message headers. Some providers, including Google, check every domain in the body of the message as well. So if you send your mail from example@example.com, you can bet the reputation of example.com will be checked, but other domains in your message could be checked as well. If you are using an ESP or other hosted mail solution, there may be domains in the header that belong to your host that will also be checked (another reason authentication is so important). And don’t forget those links in the body! Many filters will block a message if it contains links to domains that have been flagged as spam or dangerous. If you’re linking to a domain you don’t own, it’s a good idea to check its reputation using one of the handful of free online tools available (we’ve compiled a few on our Resources page).

Not surprisingly, a domain’s reputation is typically impacted by mail sent from that domain or using that domain in the body. However, it can also be affected by the reputation of that domain on the web as a whole. If a specific website has gotten a bad reputation for, say, gaming Google’s search engines or potentially scamming customers, that can also impact mail delivery.

The ‘Secret Sauce’ of Sender Reputation

When it comes to actually filtering inbound email, every mailbox provider uses a unique combination of factors to determine whether mail reaches the inbox. For many providers, IP address reputation still ranks at or near the top of the list of these factors. Domain reputation is typically very close behind, if not in the top spot. After that, there are typically various ingredients that make up the proprietary methods used by each organization. Trying to figure out the secret sauce for each ISP is a fruitless effort – even if you do manage to find a trick that bypasses or overcomes a specific filter for a time, it will invariably change and you’ll be left looking for another backdoor.

While the specific components of spam filters change constantly, your sender reputation – both IP and domain – will continue to play the largest role in getting your mail to the inbox. Manage that reputation well, and you’ll save yourself a lot of delivery headaches.

For more information on IP addresses or the IPv6 standard, check out these resources:
What is an IP Address? on HowStuffWorks
Word to the Wise – IPv6 archives
IPv6.com – A Beginner’s Look

– 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

 

 

Delivery Essentials, Random

Pass It Along: the State of Knowledge Sharing in Email Deliverability

E-ZPass Toll PlazaOver the weekend I heard a great message focused around passing wisdom and knowledge to the next generation. In this context, the “next generation” was not specifically referring to children, but instead to those who may be struggling in areas we’ve worked through ourselves. Truthfully, the message could likely apply to most any aspect of life or field of work, but I felt it was especially relevant to the email industry.

One of the key tenets was that everyone needs a mentor of some sort to succeed. I’ve never met an “email prodigy” – someone who just knew delivery, compliance, and privacy without any guidance from others – because they just don’t exist. Everyone that knows email knows it because they had help along the way from someone who came before them.

Personally, I often say I “fell into” this industry, and many of my colleagues share similar stories. In 2004 I was thrown headfirst into an ESP startup, managing delivery, compliance, and abuse issues I previously didn’t even know existed. In the early days, I ran on the “fake it ’til you make it” philosophy – and I faked it a lot. During that time I gained a lot of knowledge through trial and error, but I didn’t fully grasp the intricacies of the email business (and delivery in particular) until I started to work with and around others who had far more knowledge than myself. Working alongside industry professionals, attending events like M3AAWG, and even reading blogs from email experts helped me to reach the next level in my mastery of email and deliverability.

In this same message, the speaker encouraged transparency about the process, not covering up our shortcomings or the hard work it sometimes takes to resolve issues that might seem very cut and dry. This is something that used to happen a lot more in this industry: there were a limited number of people who had some sort of connection or inside information, and they were hesitant to share it with others. Perhaps it was out of job security concerns, perhaps to maintain an advantage over colleagues or competitors, but I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that, at least from my perspective, our industry has made great strides in increasing transparency. Many experts regularly post information about issues they’ve seen and how others can avoid or resolve them. Industry groups and forums abound, with their membership numbers soaring in contrast to the small, closely guarded groups of years past.

This increased transparency has certainly had a positive impact on the industry and up-and-coming deliverability specialists, but the biggest boon may be for email senders themselves. In the past few years, the amount of delivery knowledge disseminated to senders through consultations, webinars, articles, and other resources has increased astronomically. As email delivery has become more and more complicated, industry professionals have created more and better resources designed to educate senders on not only what to do, but why to do it. This knowledge sharing is vital, and we all have to do our part to keep it going if we want to continue the improvement of the industry as a whole.

Even as a seasoned email professional, I still learn new things daily. Email deliverability changes so rapidly it’s impossible to stay in the know if you rest on your laurels. Don’t be content with the knowledge you have today. Ask questions. Read every article and blog post you can find. Make connections with folks who were once where you are. And if you’re a sender, seek us out and let us help.

– BG

Delivery Essentials

The silent killer hiding in your old email list

“…details at eleven.”

351px-Villainc.svgIf you grew up watching local news broadcasts in the ’80s, you probably recall the teasers touting all sorts of hidden dangers that could affect your family. And of course, when the payoff came, there was a sigh of relief as we all realized the story was blown way out of proportion – merely a ploy to raise ratings. Fortunately for us, our pantries, medicine cabinets, and refrigerators were not just teeming with potential killers, and now we can all read our scary “hiding right in your cupboard!”-style headlines on Facebook or Twitter instead.

Even though those ’80s news threats were mostly imagined, there are some legitimate “hidden killers” when it comes to email marketing. For senders, one of the biggest potential minefields comes when you decide to send to an old list of email addresses. It’s probably happened to you: someone from another team (or a superior on your own team) brings you a list of addresses that is clearly outdated. They were acquired sometime during the Clinton administration, last mailed 2 years ago (or was it 3?), and probably haven’t been updated…ever. They gave you permission to send all those years ago, so sending to them now is no problem. You’ll remove the hard bounces, then you’re left with a good list of opted-in contacts just waiting to boost your sales numbers. Sounds like a win-win, right?

Not so fast. Even if you received permission to email these contacts, if it happened very long ago there are a number of reasons that permission may not matter. The address may have been abandoned, deactivated, reallocated to a new user, or even repurposed as a spam trap. Let’s look at each of these scenarios and how they can wreak havoc on your sender reputation.

Abandoned addresses

Email addresses, though personal, are a somewhat disposable commodity. With workers switching jobs more than ever, and freemail services providing a myriad of email address options, it’s not uncommon for a recipient to simply abandon an email address. The address remains active and accepts mail, but the user rarely if ever accesses the mailbox.

Most mailbox providers, as we’ve previously discussed, rely heavily on engagement metrics to filter mail. Senders who see good engagement rates from their recipients are more likely to reach the inbox. What you may not know is that many of these providers also look at how many “zombie” mailboxes you send to regularly. If you are frequently mailing to recipients who rarely if ever check their mail, that can have a negative impact on your delivery rates.

Deactivated addresses

This one tends to be the easiest to see: when you send to an address, the message is bounced and you receive a rejection response. Many senders simply gloss over this point because their ESP automatically suppresses bounces, so they know they won’t be mailing to them again. But even a single send to a large number of invalid addresses can cause delivery issues. Once you’ve damaged your sending reputation, the time and effort required to repair it are often much more than would have been required to ensure the list was clean before sending.

Reallocated addresses

If you haven’t mailed to an address in months or years, it’s possible the address was abandoned or surrendered by the previous owner and now belongs to someone else. If this is the case, that recipient hasn’t provided you permission so any mail you send to them is technically unsolicited. These recipients are much more likely to mark your message as spam or report it to a blacklist or spam filter provider.

This scenario is most likely if you haven’t mailed a recipient in well over a year: most webmail providers keep an address active for a minimum of 6 months before it is deactivated, and it’s not uncommon to see another 6 months or more lapse before the address is reassigned to a new user. If the address belongs to a corporate domain, though, the turnover time is often faster.

Spam trap addresses

Of all the problematic addresses, these have the potential to cause the most damage to your reputation and sending ability. Abandoned addresses (and sometimes entire domains) are brought back to life to serve as spam traps, either for the domain owner or a third-party provider like Spamhaus. These trap admins monitor all mail sent to their traps and take action against senders who are seen to be mailing traps with regularity. (For more on spam traps, check out Deliverability 101: Spam Traps.)

Spam traps are most dangerous because they are inconspicuous. They don’t reject mail or throw any red flags to indicate the address has been repurposed as a trap. If you haven’t sent to an address in more than a year, the potential risk of it being a spam trap is greatly increased. While there’s no hard and fast rule, it’s often said that addresses typically remain dormant for 6 to 12 months before being reactivated as a trap.

As a marketer trying to squeeze all possible value from limited resources, sending to an old list can be quite appealing. That appeal, however, vanishes pretty quickly when that old list causes spam folder placement, an ISP block, or even a major blacklisting – preventing all of your recent, engaged recipients from getting the mail as well.

– BG

Delivery Essentials

Transactional email and the unsubscribe link

3542845394_68b995ff48_bThere’s been a fairly long-standing debate in the email industry about transactional emails and the unsubscribe link. The main point of contention is whether or not a transactional email should include an unsubscribe link and if so, what types of messages should be stopped when it’s clicked. With the renewed discussion of the Canadian Anti-Spam Law (CASL)* ahead of its pending changes, this topic has made its way back into regular discussions with clients.

You may already know that CASL requires all transactional messaging to include an unsubscribe link, even though transactional messages don’t technically require consent. So in essence, the CASL-compliant unsubscribe link is designed to allow recipients to opt out of other commercial messages from the sender, but not transactional ones. But what if someone really doesn’t want to receive any more transactional messages? As senders, are we concerned with adhering to the letter of the law, or with improving our customer experience? The answer, of course, isn’t always cut and dry.

For starters, not everyone means the same thing when they reference a “transactional” email message. While a receipt for a purchase is considered transactional by most everyone, some other types of messages can present more of a gray area. Under CASL, a transactional message completes a transaction (duh!), delivers a product or service, presents warranty information, distributes legally required notices, or provides information pertaining to an ongoing contract, membership, or subscription. Sounds pretty similar to the US idea of transactional, with one major exception: under CASL, any promotional content in the email makes it a ‘commercial electronic message,’ or CEM, and therefore potentially subject to consent requirements. This differs from the “80/20 rule” that is considered best practice in the US (80% transactional content, 20% marketing).

Whether or not it makes sense to include an unsubscribe link in your transactional messaging depends on a number of factors. Let’s look at some of the most important ones for most senders.

Location, location, location

If you’re based in Canada, or your recipients are, you’ll have to include that unsubscribe link in your transactional messages to comply with the law. You’re only required to remove clickers from your commercial emails, but be sure to remove any promotional content from those transactional messages!

Transactional or transactional?**

One of the biggest factors to consider is just how essential the message may be. If someone purchases a software download and your email provides them the link to the software, or the license key, you’re not ever going to want to allow someone to unsubscribe from that. These are often referred to as triggered transactional messages, and they almost always facilitate or record a transaction involving the recipient.

For messages that are more relationship-based, such as a monthly update on benefits available to members, it may be a good idea to allow recipients the option to unsubscribe. Most recipients won’t unsubscribe, but those that do were only going to drag down your engagement metrics (and your deliverability as a result). If you start to see a swell of unsubscribes from these types of messages, it’s likely a good time to re-evaluate the value they are providing to your recipients.

Your audience

Do you have a receptive audience who opens and clicks on each email with almost religious fervor? Or do you have recipients who only open an email when they want to make a purchase? Analyze your audience engagement and segment based on those recipients who rarely if ever engage. It may be a good idea to provide these non-engaged recipients with the option to unsubscribe from non-critical relationship messaging.

In the end, it’s up to each organization to determine their ideal policy for allowing (or disallowing) unsubscribes in transactional messages. Aside from the mission-critical type triggered messages, the question really boils down to what’s most important: getting your message out, or giving your recipients the choice of what they want to receive?

– BG

*Of course, since we mentioned CASL, we also must mention that nothing in this post is legal advice. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. 

*Everyone who’s ever watched a cheesy mafia movie knows that when you say the same word twice, but with extra emphasis the second time, the distinction is being made between the literal and figurative uses of said word. Capisce?

Deliverability 101, Delivery Essentials

Deliverability 101: Spam traps

It's a trap!Recently we presented a basic guide to blacklists using a rather colorful example ripped from today’s headlines. In that post we described what happens when you’re on a blacklist, but as a sender you probably want to know how to avoid getting blacklisted in the first place. And if you’re already blacklisted, you’ll certainly want to find out how you got there. Understanding spam traps can help with both.

What is a spam trap?

While the name might conjure thoughts of being lured into a sticky situation via canned meat, a spam trap is actually an email address. Sometimes referred to as honeypots, spam traps are addresses that exist for the purpose of identifying senders who are not following best practices.

A spam trap isn’t used by a real person to send or request email. Each trap is monitored by the trap operator (typically a blacklist or mailbox provider) and any mail sent to the address can cause the sender to be put on a blacklist. While the potential exists for blacklisting based on a single message sent to a trap, providers most often look for patterns of repeated hits. This could mean multiple mails to the same trap address, mail to multiple distinct trap addresses, or both.

There are two main types of spam traps in the wild: pristine and recycled. Pristine traps were created for the sole purpose of being a spam trap. These addresses have never been used by a real person and have never requested any emails. If you send mail to purchased lists or scrape addresses from the web, there’s a good chance you’ll run into this type of trap.

Recycled traps, by contrast, are the type most commonly seen by legitimate email marketers. These email addresses did, at some point in the past, belong to a real person. That person likely sent emails, signed up for mailing lists, and provided the address to others as their point of contact. Then, for whatever reason, that person abandoned the address – maybe due to an organizational change or migration to a new mail provider.

Once the recipient abandoned this address it sat dormant for some period of time (generally at least 6 months), during which time the address would have rejected all mail. After that period, the address was reactivated and became an active spam trap.

How do spam traps get on my list?

Since spam traps are designed to identify senders not using best practices, it stands to reason that failure to follow best practices typically leads to their presence in your database. Mailing to recipients who have not given opt-in permission, sending to old or outdated lists, and lack of proper bounce handling are some of the most common reasons spam traps end up within your list. In addition, typographical errors at the time of address collection can introduce traps into your list – particularly with less accurate address collection methods such as point-of-sale address transcription or collecting addresses via telephone.

What happens if I have spam traps in my list?

When you send mail to a spam trap address, the trap monitor will note the sender of the message and typically take some action against that sender. Most trap monitors also maintain their own blacklists, and in many cases these blacklists are publicly used by many ISPs and mailbox providers to filter mail. In short, sending to spam traps will probably get you on a blacklist, and that blacklisting will probably get your mail rejected by at least one major email provider.

I’m not being blocked. Why does it matter if I have spam traps in my database?

If you receive word (from your ESP, delivery monitoring service, or a trap owner) that you are sending to spam trap addresses, it’s tempting to gloss over the warning if you’re not seeing any large-scale delivery issues. A word of advice? Don’t ignore spam traps.

The presence of spam traps in your contact database is an indicator of an underlying issue with either your email acquisition practices or your list maintenance protocols. When you have spam traps in your list, you are sending mail to contacts that don’t want it or never requested it. This means that alongside the traps, you are also mailing real people who will (at best) ignore your message or (at worst) report you to their mailbox provider or a third-party spam filtering service. Even if the spam traps haven’t gotten your mail blocked (yet), you can bet the spam complaints and low engagement are keeping you out of your recipients’ inboxes.

How do I get the spam traps out of my list?

Removing spam traps from your list is, by design, a difficult process. A spam trap doesn’t (usually) bounce or reject mail. It doesn’t provide any signs or signals that it’s a trap. The trap operator doesn’t want you to be able to spot the traps in your list, because then you could simply remove the traps and not address the underlying issue.

If you have traps in your database, the best place to start is typically contacts who haven’t engaged with an email (opened or clicked) recently. Typically, we recommend targeting contacts who haven’t opened in 6-12 months. Send a confirmation request to those non-openers, asking them to confirm they are real and they still want your messages. Once that message is sent, you’ll want to suppress from your list anyone who doesn’t respond. It’s also a good idea to repeat this process at least once a year.

In conjunction with addressing spam traps already in your list, you want to make sure you cut off traps at the source. Check your list acquisition practices to be sure all of your incoming recipients have opted in for your mailings. Add CAPTCHA to any public-facing web forms to prevent automated sign-ups. Think about adding a confirmation step to your opt-in process. This could be a traditional confirmed opt-in (COI) where recipients have to click a link to be confirmed, or it could be a “soft confirmation” that considers an open to be a confirmation action.

If you can take actions that make it harder for spam traps to end up in your list, you’ll proactively decrease your risk of dealing with the difficult process of culling your list to get rid of them later.

Have a war story or questions about dealing with spam traps? Leave a comment or shoot me an email to chat!

– BG