Sending More Mail Will Not Make It Suck Less

If you haven’t been keeping up with the current deliverability tempest in a teacup, you haven’t been missing too much. There’s some interesting material on both sides of the argument and at least one amusing troll, but there’s nothing there that, by itself, should make you change how you’re doing things. (Unless you’re spamming. If you are, you should stop doing that right now.)

It all comes on the heels of remarks by a Microsoft representative at a recent email conference, in which he appears to have reiterated that does not measure clicks on links in email. The premise advanced by some observers following the conference seems to be, “Free inbox providers don’t count clicks, so marketers should send more mail.”

Maybe I’m just not the the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I don’t see how they get there from here. Continue reading

Engagement Totally Matters

I read an interesting blog this morning that advances an argument that I thought, like the anti-vax movement, had been debunked by actual data a long time ago. And like that movement, the argument still keeps coming up over and over again. Continue reading

All About the Opens

Last week, I got to host my first Deliverability webinar for my employer – if you missed it, you can catch the recorded version any time. We spent about 40 minutes looking at a few key concepts that senders should understand to begin to actively manage and improve deliverability. We received a number of compliments from attendees after the session, but we also received many more questions – far more than could be answered in the time allotted for Q&A after the session.

Today’s post is the first in a series that will attempt to answer some questions we received during (and after) the webinar that we just didn’t have time to address, or answer more completely. We’ll focus on a pair of questions about open rates.

What’s a good open rate for e-mail marketing? What kind of open rates can I reasonably expect?

This is a question we hear often from senders who are just getting started on their e-mail strategy. A quick check of the search engines will show that some of that data has been available from time to time, but it’s not a good idea to use these as a gauge for the success of your own program.

There are so many variables in the way senders approach e-mail – even within the same industry (non-profits, insurance, accounting services, etc.) – that the data is not terribly useful as a benchmark. This type of data rarely addresses some of the qualities of the mail it’s reporting on – information that’s far more important than the category of industry:

  • Are they sending newsletters or more promotional mail, or some mix of these (and in what proportion)?
  • What is the quality of their lists, and what “flavor” of permission have the recipients given to the sender?
  • How much effort does the sender devote to list hygiene, and to subject line and content testing?
  • And how does all that compare with what you are actually doing or planning to do?

Without a way to qualify these and many other variables, it’s very hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison. But if I had to produce an average open rate number upon pain of death (or unemployment), I’d say that a sender in any industry who strictly adheres to best practices, including confirmed opt-in acquisition methods, should reasonably expect to see between 15% and 25% of their mail opened.

What kind of technologies do ESPs use to track when e-mail is opened? How reliable are they?

My employer inserts a transparent image file into each message as it is built immediately prior to the send. The image is only a single pixel in size, and each image file is uniquely named so that it is associated with a specific message and individual recipient. The images are stored on our server, so that when the recipient opens the mail and their e-mail software displays it, we record the call to our server to download the image file. We make a note of the time and date of the download, and add it to your tally of opens. Just about every ESP of any size uses a nearly identical process to record and track opens.

When a recipient reads mail with images turned off, the image file isn’t downloaded and the open is not recorded. However, when the recipient clicks on a link in your mail, we report both the click and an open.

It’s difficult to know when a recipient opens or previews a message with images turned off. Some e-mail software or recipient domains always turn images off by default. Many of the older models of Blackberry smart phones don’t render images at all. Most ISPs and e-mail clients give the recipient the option of changing the display settings to turn them on by default or on a sender-by-sender basis.

Many of the most popular e-mail packages and free inbox providers will display images in mail from senders who appear in the recipient’s Contacts folder or address book. That’s why it’s always a good idea to ask your recipients to add your From: address of your e-mail to their address book.

In the next installment, we’ll answer a question from a sender about what to do about recipients for whom mail always seems to bounce, and what to do with recipients who seem to have stopped opening or clicking through on your e-mail. Until then, keep engaging!

Let Your Free Flag Fly!

A long time ago, someone put forth the plausible-sounding notion that the use of certain words in e-mail will trip all kinds of spam alarms at the recipients’ ISP and get mail blocked. That might have been true for a few weeks in 1996, but it certainly isn’t now; ISPs today rely far more on sender reputation when they make delivery decisions. Nonetheless, there still seems to be a significant amount of superstition regarding content filtering.

I have a friend whom I’ll call Christine (since that’s her name). She’s a brilliant, energetic, one-person social media consulting firm, and she sends terrific mail – pithy, engaging, with great voice and compelling offers. But she insists on misspelling (or “munging”) the word “free” in her creative to put the spin move on content filters. “F.R.E.E. 5-Part E-Course”, “Fr*ee Teleseminar”, and “a half-hour of F-RE-E consulting” were all on offer in her last send. I tried to talk her out of mangling her creative a few months ago, but like some some habits, superstitions die hard.

That’s not to say that ISPs don’t perform some types of content filtering – they do, but not in the way Christine and others think. ISPs look at links in the body of the e-mail to catch two species of spam in particular: “phishers”, who are trying to collect log-in credentials for, say, on-line banking or social media accounts; and spam that sends clicks through to web sites that will surreptitiously load a worm, a virus, or other malware onto the computers of unsuspecting visitors.

Many ISPs and private inbound mail servers use a content filtering package called Spam Assassin. Spam Assassin assigns a cumulative score to the content of an e-mail message based on a wide range of criteria, all of which are highly configurable by the servers’ owners. If the score crosses a threshold – which is also configurable by the owner – the message might be rejected as spam based on content. But since the score is cumulative and weighted, the presence or absence of any single word – like “Free!” – is not sufficient to block mail.

Besides, free samples and trials are perfectly legitimate marketing tools used by the biggest companies in the world, every day. Customers enjoy receiving them, and respond positively to them. ISPs risk blocking legitimate, permissioned mail by blocking on words like “free” – so they just don’t do it. There are plenty of other, far more accurate ways of finding and blocking spam.

The take-away: senders with good reputation shouldn’t feel hampered by content filters when assembling their creative. Senders should feel free (see what I did there?) to use the language they need to present the sharpest offer possible.

An E-mail Oxymoron

I recently stumbled across a new term for an old idea that is as bad today as it was when I first heard of it (sans catchy moniker) nearly thirteen years ago.

The term is “passive consent”, and it appears in an article by Sherry Chiger published in DIRECT Magazine two weeks ago. The term in this context appears to be the invention of Jay Schwedelson, President and CEO of list firm Worldata, and he uses it to describe a flavor of permission that lies somewhere between confirmed opt-in and opt out.

The classic example of passive consent (and the one used in the article) is the pre-checked subscription box on an on-line form. It’s not entirely clear whether it’s Chiger or Schwedelson who asserts “it’s legitimate,” but Schwedelson applies the “passive consent” description to the practice, since “the consumer does not need to take action in order to be placed on the company’s e-mail file.”

Let’s be clear: “passive consent” is not legitimate. It is “consent” in the same sort of way that the family cat is a mode of transportation. Which is to say that it isn’t. It’s an e-mail oxymoron. Any time a recipient does not need to act to start receiving mail, there is no consent.

The granting of consent must be an informed, affirmative act if it is to be at all meaningful. The check box lets recipients indicate to senders that they understand what kind of mail the sender proposes to send, and that they want to receive it. If the box is pre-checked, there’s no way to know whether the recipient even saw it. It’s impossible to infer with any accuracy exactly why the form was submitted with the pre-checked box still checked.

Chiger is correct when she observes that confirmed opt-in is not the only acceptable standard of permission for sending mail. But senders who build lists using “passive consent” can’t know which kind they have. They may not have any kind of permission at all.