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

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