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?

Random

Your ESP and the Jedi Code

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Just a little Friday Funny that harkens back a few years to the time when everyone wanted to send attachments with their bulk email. At one time, it seemed like every other call with a sender was a lament on our ESP’s inability to attach files to emails. With the huge rise in cloud storage and hosting, this question is much more of a rarity these days but who can resist the combination of Star Wars and email humor?

– BG

Random

A little help?

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photo courtesy of The Aerial View

This blog is dedicated to helping email marketers understand deliverability and how to get mail delivered, but today we’re asking for a bit of help from you. In exactly one month, I (along with my wife) will be going bald in solidarity with kids with cancer. In conjunction with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, we’re raising money that directly funds childhood cancer research at one of 368 institutions around the world.

If you aren’t familiar with St. Baldrick’s, they sponsor events where participants shave their heads to raise funds for childhood cancer research. Affected children and their families attend the events and share their stories, and volunteers run the show. They’re great events and always family-friendly.

If you’re concerned about giving responsibly (and you should be), St. Baldrick’s gives $0.71 of every dollar directly to research facilities, $0.26 goes toward fundraising expenses, and only $0.03 gets used for administrative expenses.

We’ve done this together 4 times and raised over $5,000 (and counting!) for this great organization. Via the link below you can donate securely online, and even anonymously if you’d prefer. Any dollar you can spare is one dollar closer to a cure for childhood cancers.

Donate Now

Thanks for your time. Please donate if you can, or find an event near you and see for yourself why this organization holds a special place in our hearts. You’ll only see this post once each year, and I promise we’ll bring you more email delivery wisdom before you know it.

– BG

Industry Updates

Verizon email is gone, but when?

verizonThere’s been a lot of industry buzz recently around Verizon’s announcement they are in the process of shutting down their email business. Most in the email industry knew this was coming, but with no solid details the ‘when’ remained a bit fuzzy. Even now, the official FAQs don’t provide a concrete timetable for the shutdown, and it seems likely it will happen in phases.

According to MediaPost, Verizon account holders have been receiving email notifications informing them of a 30-day deadline to take action. These actions include choosing to keep their verizon.net address (serviced by AOL going forward) or migrating to another service provider altogether. If no action is taken during that 30 days, the customer loses access to the account and all associated services.

Once account access is terminated, the email account is subject to Verizon’s typical account deletion timeline of 180 days of inactivity. The FAQs don’t specify, however, if the 6-month countdown starts from the most recent login or from the end of the 30-day window when access is terminated.

Verizon spokesman Raymond McConville estimates that, of its 4.5 million total accounts, 2.3 million have been active within the past 30 days – though that’s no guarantee they’ll take action on the shutdown notice.

What does that mean for senders? Sometime within the next 6 months you’re likely to see a large portion of your verizon.net subscriber addresses disappear as over 2 million Verizon email accounts are deleted. Most senders don’t have a huge component of verizon.net addresses, but it’s certainly a good idea to check now so you’re not taken by surprise by an abnormal bounce rate.

– BG

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

Industry Updates, Laws and Regulations

CRTC levies first CASL fine against an individual

Last week the CRTC, the Canadian regulatory body tasked with CASL enforcement, issued notice of yet another notice of action for violations of the Anti-Spam Law. The Commission imposed a penalty of $15,000 against William Rapanos, alleging that messages sent by Mr. Rapanos in mid-2014 were in violation of multiple provisions of CASL.

This decision is noteworthy because it represents the first time a CASL penalty has been levied against an individual. All previous actions to this point have been issued against companies or corporate entities: names like Compu-Finder, Porter Airlines, PlentyofFish, and Kellogg Canada are among those hit with prior penalties.

The CRTC decision indicates that messages from Mr. Rapanos were sent without the recipient’s consent, did not clearly indicate the sender of the message, made it difficult or impossible to contact the sender, and (in at least one case) included no unsubscribe method.

Another interesting tidbit is that the Spam Reporting Centre received a total of 58 complaints about Rapanos’ messages. These complaints were mostly unique, with 50 different recipients lodging complaints to the SRC.

In discussions about CASL, I’ve heard quite a few people theorize that the CRTC is only looking for large-scale violations and penalties against smaller senders or individuals are unlikely. William Rapanos may have thought the same thing. Or he may have thought the effort and cost involved in CASL compliance weren’t worth it. Then 50 people complained, and now he’s on the hook for $15,000.

I think this decision – and the resulting penalty – proves to Mr. Rapanos and to all of us that compliance is definitely worth it.

Have questions about CASL compliance? Disagree that compliance is paramount for every sender? Leave a comment or email me to keep the discussion going!

Delivery Essentials, Random

A guide to blacklists, as illustrated by Donald Trump

Unless you’ve recently taken residence under a hardened mineral formation, you’re probably familiar with January’s U.S. executive order that effectively bans travel from several specified foreign nations. There’s been all sorts of political and humanitarian debate about the ban, and rightfully so…but we’re not here for social commentary at the moment. Regardless of your thoughts on the ban and its originator, its existence could prove useful as a tool to better understand one of the most common issues that senders face: blacklists.

Blacklists and how they operate are often a point of confusion for senders. To help aid in understanding, let’s look at some of the ways the recent ban mirrors the process of email blacklisting.

  1. Blacklist providers maintain a list of mail servers (usually designated by IP address) that are not considered “trusted” mail sources. This blacklist mirrors the list of countries included in the executive proclamation. The blacklist is designed to identify mail servers that have a history of sending spam or unwanted email messages.
  2. Mailbox providers (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc) use the data from the blacklist to check inbound mail. They check each message to determine if it originated from one of the listed servers, then determine how to proceed. In essence, each email provider is like a U.S. airport, receiving the messages and determining whether to allow them in based on the information provided by the blacklist provider (i.e. the Executive Branch).
  3. If the source of a message is one of the blacklisted mail servers, that message will be disposed at the mailbox provider’s discretion. Some providers may choose to route the message to the Spam or Bulk folder based on the listing. Others will reject the message outright, returning a negative response to the originating mail server. This response sometimes provides specific details (i.e. this message was blocked due to Blacklist X) or may be more generic. These differences in processing messages from blacklisted servers draw parallels to the disjointed communication that occurred around the implementation of the travel ban. 

Another significant similarity between an email blacklist and the travel ban is the mixed receptions received by both in the court of public opinion. In the email industry, there are no shortage of folks who believe that blacklists are crippling senders, unnecessarily complicating the lives of people who desperately need to reach their intended audience. And of course, there are those of us who realize that blacklists are a vital part of the email ecosystem (even if dealing with them occasionally gives us headaches). I’m not sure the opinions are quite as heated as those over the travel ban, nor do I believe they should be.

One of the closest parallels between the two situations arises when a sender’s mail is sent from a shared IP address/mail server. This often happens to senders who are using an email service provider and do not have enough mail volume or send consistently enough to maintain their own server. When one or a small group of senders using that server are flagged for sending spam, the entire mail server gets blacklisted. Because of that blacklisting, all mail from that server – even the mail from senders who never sent any spam – could be rejected.

If you’re using a dedicated IP address, the best way to avoid blacklisting is to keep your list clean and engaged by regularly targeting and eventually culling non-engaged recipients, as well as avoiding sending to any list that was obtained without a clear opt-in. If you’re on a shared server, your best bet is to follow those same practices along with maintaining a good relationship with your ESP. If you’re using a reputable provider, the likelihood of problems will be lower and they’ll be quick to respond when issues arise.

Of course, there is one major, glaring difference between the effects of a blacklist and the travel ban: emails are important, but they will never be as important as people. Thanks for allowing me to indulge a bit of tongue-in-cheek discussion around a serious issue, and I sincerely hope the comparison has helped clear up a little of the confusion around blacklists. If you have questions about blacklists or anything else delivery-related, please feel free to reach out

– BG