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).

tumblr_mslx9kwdn11rkumvuo1_400

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!

euro-1144835_640

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