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

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

Delivery Essentials

The persistent lie of “targeted” purchased lists

ecto1aIn recent days, I’ve noticed a few missed calls from an unfamiliar phone number based out in Southern California’s beautiful San Fernando Valley. Once or twice I’ve even answered but there was no one on the other end. Today, I finally got to speak with the man behind these mysterious phone calls.

“Hello Mr. Bradley, this is [mumbled] from [mumbled] and we have many databases of qualified leads. I’d love to go ahead and send over some samples. Do you do any email marketing?”

I understand Mr. Mumbles has a job to do, so I didn’t want to be too hard on him. I politely (but somewhat incredulously) informed him that I was in fact the person in charge of making sure purchased leads don’t get sent through our system, and that it was best for all parties if he kindly removed us from his database.

We could simply laugh this off as poor targeting, but think about it in a different perspective: what if you bought this list? What if you sent me an unsolicited email as a result? Not only did he have me in his database, but he didn’t know if I did email marketing – even though he called me on a phone number owned by an ESP! If he has my details in that list, it’d be a smart bet he also has the contact details of others in the anti-abuse and deliverability industry, and probably more than a few spam trap addresses.

But my list broker is different!

Unfortunately, they’re not.

Think about your in-house contact database – customers, paid members, newsletter subscribers, and others. How large is that list? And what did it cost you to acquire that list? Now, let’s ask the most pertinent question: would you sell it?

You likely answered “no” to that question, but if you didn’t, what price would be adequate to profit from selling your list? To compensate for the time and effort you put into building that list, you’d have to see a pretty high premium, right?

Why would any list broker be willing to sell a much larger list for a smaller fee? If the list is as qualified and targeted as they claim, surely they had to expend significant resources to acquire it – does the cost reflect that?

The sad truth is that even the most reputable list vendor is selling a list of indeterminate origin, and full of people who have never even heard of you. They didn’t ask for your emails and – if they’re even a real person – they will be far more likely to report you as spam than actually buy your product or service. Recent statistics put the response rate of emails sent to purchased lists at just over 1 percent. Is that worth the potential of trashing your sender reputation and seeing mail to your confirmed subscribers delivered to the spam folder or outright blocked?

– BG

 

 

Industry Updates

The CRTC wants to help you avoid CASL penalties

Canadian TV
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Tkgd2007

Much has been said about the Canadian Anti-Spam Law, CASL, both before and since its effective date in July 2014. On the anti-CASL side, one of the loudest arguments is that the law places undue burden on lawful, legitimate marketers instead of the malicious spam peddlers of the world. However, it seems the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is trying to address those concerns and reach out to marketers who fear running afoul of CASL regulations.

In an address to the Canadian Marketing Association on Tuesday, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais reiterated the importance of allowing consumers full control over their digital communication channels. Comparing spam messages to personal violations of privacy, he noted that “[J]ust as we don’t like it when strangers intrude on our personal spaces or show up on our doorsteps, we don’t like it when unwanted messages and annoying calls enter the private spaces of our smartphones.”

Blais went on to address the feelings of many marketers that the CRTC is targeting too many legitimate businesses, asserting “[w]e don’t go out looking for dragons to slay. We much prefer helping marketers comply with the law than enforcing it after they’ve broken it.” Blais’ statement here seems to address the high volume of complaints received by the CRTC that have ostensibly driven most of the penalties assessed thus far. As for his personal preferences on marketing email, he stated “I actually want [brands] to tell me (as a consumer) when they’ve got specials, as long as there is that trusted relationship.”

Later, Blais reminded those in attendance of the new provision of the law coming into force in 2017 that allows private citizens the right to take legal action and seek damages against senders. Along with the reminder came a warning that the CRTC may be the least of some marketers’ worries: “Once there’s a private right of action, I won’t be able to help you … you’re on your own. Good luck with that. All the more reason to get into compliance as much as you can with us, because it will diminish the risk.”

– BG

Delivery Essentials

Socks for Christmas? Still better than spam under the tree

spam socksNow that the new year has begun, it’s a good time to step back and reflect on the recent holidays. We can reflect on the time spent with family, the travel we may have enjoyed (or endured), and of course, the gifts we received from those we love.

We’d probably all love to get nothing but fancy gadgets and luxury items in our proverbial stockings, but it’s much more practical to hope for those things we need; for staples like…a new pair of socks. And no matter what’s on your list, isn’t it nice to get what you asked for?

Of course it is, and the same principle rings true for your email inbox.

Signing up to receive emails is like making a wish list. The subscriber finds your form, completes it, and asks to receive your emails. But what kind of emails? How frequently? Completing a sign-up form that doesn’t clearly lay out what you’re getting and how much of it doesn’t make for a very good wish list. Give the subscriber a clear indication of what they’re asking from you. Or better yet, give them options!

What if you really, really wanted socks for Christmas, so you made a wish list consisting solely of socks. And what if you got those socks, but you also got lots of other unwanted gifts? Maybe a coupon for a product you can’t use, or a free meal at a restaurant with no locations in your region.

When it comes to gifts, they say it’s the though that counts – but is your email a gift to the subscriber? Sure, you’re offering a great deal or some useful content, but what you consider valuable doesn’t always carry over to your subscribers.

In the email marketing industry, there’s a long-standing debate over whether or not to “send more email”: some say it always produces better sales; others say it encourages fatigue, while most are somewhere in the middle. But here’s a novel idea to start 2016…why not just send your subscribers what they asked for?

– BG