Best Practices, Delivery Essentials

Zombies are everywhere…including your member database

WARNING: PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE ZOMBIESYesterday morning I received a bit of a surprise in the form of an email from Tumblr congratulating me on the 9th “birthday” of my blog. I checked and it seems I last posted on Tumblr just over 3 years ago…and only three times ever. In March 2013, I posted a photo from a photo sharing app called Streamzoo – an Instagram alternative that, apparently, wasn’t a good enough alternative and shuttered in 2014. In 2012 I posted a photo from Instagram, but from an account that no longer exists (it was deleted among the wave of privacy concerns about Instagram around that time.)

The fact that I got this notification is a good thing, as it means I’m still using the email address I used to create the Tumblr account – but what about all those accounts I created with previous addresses?

As I dug through websites I hadn’t thought of in years – MySpace, LiveJournal, even Angelfire! – it brought to mind a common issue for the association groups I work with: zombie members. While the use of zombie imagery in reference to old email addresses and web accounts isn’t new, paying attention to those undead records is more relevant than ever for organizations whose email program relies heavily on membership rolls.

Too often when troubleshooting delivery issues, membership organizations completely exclude their active member list from any sort of list hygiene initiatives. The reasoning makes sense on the surface: if someone is an active (often paying!) member of your organization, clearly they want your emails, right? Unfortunately, that often doesn’t take into account some of your most loyal members.

It’s an oft-quoted statistic that 20-30% of email account owners change their email address each year, often due to a change in internet provider or employer. Over the course of 5 years, that equates to a greater than 1 in 3 chance a recipient has changed their email address – but did they tell you? How would you know?

Let’s talk through some of the most common assumptions used to justify why an email address shouldn’t be subject to list hygiene practices and how they can lead to trouble.

1. “They logged into our website.”

This seems like a slam dunk: your website uses email address as username, and the member had to log into their account to renew (or you can see a record of their login.) That definitely means the address is good, right? Nope. Every web browser since Netscape Navigator (and probably before) has been able to save login information so you don’t have to remember those pesky passwords. If members aren’t required to confirm their email address regularly, they have little incentive to change their username (assuming they even realize they’re using the old address).

2. “They attended a conference.”

Like logging into your site, this is a great sign they’re engaged with your organizationbut not necessarily with your emails. If the registration for the event took place on your org’s website (that same one with the saved password, above), attendees may be using the same saved information to register. It may seem unlikely, but I’ve worked with many orgs who were unpleasantly surprised by the number of recent event registrants whose information was out of date.

3. “CAN-SPAM says we can send to members no matter what.”

It is true that CAN-SPAM has an exemption for messages deemed to be pertaining to a transaction or ongoing relationship. The FTC has issued some guidelines around this, but there’s still quite a bit of grey area. Sending a message announcing conference registration to your members? Maybe a promotion for a Continuing Ed course for industry professionals? Most experts would tell you these aren’t exempted messages.

Truth be told, whether they are or aren’t exempt is irrelevant to the discussion. CAN-SPAM allows you to send almost any sort of unsolicited email as long as you provide contact info and an unsubscribe method. This is the bare minimum required to comply with the law (and any reputable ESP will require permission.) However, every major email provider has implemented complex spam filtering systems designed to block or reject mail their recipients don’t want.  If their recipients don’t open your emails, or they mark them as spam or unwanted, your mail won’t get delivered. So yes, you may have legal permission to send them email, but that means absolutely zero when it comes to whether your message reaches the inbox.

How can you be sure your members’ information is valid?

While none of the above methods should be considered a reason to keep an email address in your list, there are a few options for confirming addresses that are a bit more reliable.

Send a reconfirmation email

The gold standard of email verification is the confirmation email. Once per year (often at the time of renewal), send an email to the address on file that requires a click on a confirmation link to stay on your list. If someone clicks, you know you’ve got the right person and the right address. If they open but don’t click? That’s a bit more of a grey area. Depending on the language in your email, you may want to keep them around but limit the emails they receive. Non-openers should be suppressed from your email campaigns going forward.

Look for recent opens or clicks

Most orgs are hesitant to require annual confirmation, which is understandable. It’s likely to shrink the size of the email database, a prospect that rarely elicits a thumbs-up from the executive team. In those cases, you can still look for recent activity from the recipient in the form of opens, clicks, and replies. If you have records indicating a recipient opened, clicked on, or replied to an email in the past 12 months, it’s generally a safe bet to keep them around. You may even want to use this in conjunction with the annual confirmation – only those records with no activity have to reconfirm. That will require a bit of additional work, but could pay off in spades if you avoid the loss of legitimate member email addresses.

Conduct an outreach campaign

If a member has no recorded interactions with an email, they’re not dead to you just yet. Many orgs conduct targeted outreach via phone, postcard, or even in-person meetings to get updated information from members. We’ve seen a number of associations have success driving traffic to their online information forms through these offline methods.

Once you’ve gone through these steps, you’ll likely have to decide to suppress some email addresses from your member list to maintain good deliverability. When this happens, remember that removing a member from your email list doesn’t negate their membership – they may still attend events, participate in forums, and engage with your organization. And each of those interactions is another opportunity for you to get updated information from them and bring them back into the email fold.

– BG

Industry Updates

Google Postmaster Tools Reputation data issues (UPDATE: Appears Resolved)

IP_Reputation_-_Postmaster_ToolsUPDATE: As of this morning (9/12) IP reputation data appears to be displaying correctly and domain reputation data is being provided.

If you’ve checked Google Postmaster Tools lately, don’t freak out just yet about your IP reputation. As first reported by Word to the Wise,  the IP reputation metrics appear to be broken at the moment, displaying a “Bad” reputation for all IP addresses since 9/9. I’ve seen this in my own Postmaster Tools account, along with a lack of data for domain reputation since 9/8. Authentication and Encryption metrics appear to be working correctly for me, but I can’t say for sure whether the Spam Rate, Feedback Loop, or Delivery Errors charts are correct – they all show zero since 9/8, but that’s not uncommon in my experience.

Like Laura, I’ve not seen any delivery problems associated with the change in metrics, with bounce and open rates at Gmail pretty consistent based on a few spot checks.

As of yet there doesn’t appear to be an official confirmation from Gmail, but clearly something is hosed with their data. Is it possible this is tied to the Postmaster Tools updates that were promised a few months back? I’d say it’s unlikely…but a guy can hope, right?

– BG

Industry Updates

US, Global inbox delivery rates increase slightly

2017-Deliverability-Benchmark_pdf2This time of year is a little like email Christmas, between the recent State of Email Deliverability from Litmus and now the Return Path 2017 Deliverability Benchmark Report landing on our proverbial doorstep. Last week Laura at Word to the Wise provided some great insight from the Litmus report, pointing to just how important list acquisition really is. I’d recommend checking it out in addition to downloading the report.

This week’s Return Path report also provides some interesting data as usual, but few surprises. Of note, the global inbox delivery rate rose 1% to an average of 80% for the year ending June 2017. This stat has remained fairly consistent since Return Path started generating this report a few years back, with fluctuations being fairly minor. What is a bit surprising is that with all the changes in the industry around user engagement and email filtering, this number remains so constant. However, while email marketing as a whole has seen inbox delivery rates hover around 80% the past few years, individual countries, industries, and specific senders typically see much wider swings depending on a number of factors.

In the US we still manage to lag behind the global average, managing a 77% inbox delivery rate. On the positive side, this is an increase of 4% over last year’s numbers but still comes in at the bottom of the list of countries referenced in the report (Canada and Australia tied for best with 90% inbox delivery). It’s also down 10 points from the high of 87% back in 2014. It also continues to be concerning that in the US, 16% of the mail that failed to reach the inbox was categorized as “Missing,” indicating it wasn’t delivered to either the inbox or the spam folder. Typically this means the message was rejected at the server gateway and bounced back to the sender.

If you’re in the Automotive, Insurance, or Technology industry, take heart! These three industries, typically among the worst in inbox delivery, all saw double-digit increases over the past year, with Insurance jumping 13 points to 89%. The question here: did the insurance industry really clean up its act, or did the current state of affairs prompt more people to start assessing their risk?

2017-Deliverability-Benchmark_pdf

As a reminder, all of this data came from Return Path clients – over 2 billion messages sent during the past year. These are marketers who are paying for RP services to help optimize delivery, so the data obviously excludes off-the-grid spammers and botnet operators. This means that for well-known brands and organizations, typically running opt-in campaigns, 1 out of every 5 emails still doesn’t reach the inbox. Could you use 20% more revenue, donations, or members? If you haven’t already, it’s time to start paying attention to deliverability.

– BG

Best Practices

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

anonymous

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

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

 

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