Industry Updates

Is Canada’s eleventh-hour CASL PRA halt good for senders?

canada-2026425_640You’ve probably already heard the news.Maybe it was in your Twitter feed, or on LinkedIn, or even gossip around the water cooler this morning: CASL’s Private Right of Action is (temporarily) dead.

The announcement triggered a collective sigh of relief from marketers in North America and beyond, even eliciting a happy dance or two.

But what does this announcement actually mean? Matt Vernhout of EmailKarma details the next steps, which include a parliamentary review of the CASL provisions and a pronouncement of the new effective date.

It’s possible the legislation could remain unchanged and simply take effect at a later date, but that seems unlikely given the concerns raised by the industry in response to the pending provisions. Per Return Path, some of the key concerns included:

  1. potentially bankrupting small and medium-sized businesses (due to the legal costs of defending a class action)
  2. inordinate court time and court resources being devoted to frivolous claims
  3. litigation counsel receiving a disproportionate share of damage awards (or settlements), and
  4. negative impact to consumers where businesses (both foreign and domestic) avoid electronic communication, delay the introduction of software technologies, and pass along the cost of PRAsettlements or rulings in the pricing of consumer goods

For the past 3 years, we’ve been hearing opponents of CASL voice many of these concerns, and it appears their cries have finally made it to the ears of the Canadian government. Unfortunately it’s still too early to tell if this is a full-on reprieve or merely a temporary stay of execution.

With the deadline looming so closely, it’s likely most senders have already double- or triple-checked their compliance processes. If you fall into that camp, stay the course. Even without the PRA, the CRTC can and has levied hefty fines against CASL violators, so making sure your processes are airtight can only help minimize your risk.

Based on my interactions with senders, there are many who haven’t completed their compliance efforts. If you’re one of those who was still scrambling to beat the deadline, don’t lose that head of steam. The delay of the PRA provides a bit of breathing room, but if you’re not 100% sure you’re compliant the risk of complaints and fines isn’t going away anytime soon.

– BG

 

Delivery Essentials, best practices

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

Privacy & Security, Random

Want to unsubscribe? Just confirm your email address first

Here’s a Public Service Announcement for your Monday: confirming your email should never be required to unsubscribe from a mailing list. I’m sure I’ll hear from someone who has an example of an edge case where it’s necessary, but the vast majority of cases should require no such thing. Possibly the most compelling reason not to require confirmation of the address? Spammers require confirmation of addresses in order to “unsubscribe” – with the exception they don’t actually unsubscribe you. Do you want your email to have something in common with most spam? We don’t recommend it. Add to that it’s likely a violation of CASL as well, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Inbox

I’ll have a full post coming up tomorrow but seeing this in my inbox (a dedicated email asking me to unsubscribe? They must be extra compliant!), along with recently speaking with senders who wanted to do something similar, prompted me to issue this brief admonition.

– 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

Industry Updates

Protected Sky blacklist a fraud?

Had trouble with your IPs being listed on the Protected Sky blacklist (bad.psky.me)? You’re not alone. Since the blacklist came onto the scene in 2015, many senders have bemoaned the lack of delisting process and high rate of false positives, as well as the inability to contact anyone working for the list provider.

Recently, Spamhaus issued a statement revealing that this list was fraudulently republishing IP listings from the Spamhaus blacklists by siphoning the data from a user of the Spamhaus data feeds. The affected user has since added security measures to prevent this data from being passed to Protected Sky.

Personally, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen mail rejected solely due to a Protected Sky listing, but after this announcement it’s a pretty safe bet that anyone left using the list likely won’t be doing so for long.

Thanks to Laura at Word to the Wise for the heads up on Spamhaus’ statement. 

– 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?