Talking Deliverability on the Cloudcast

cover170x170I recently had the pleasure of joining Heike Young and Joel Book on the popular Marketing Cloudcast, a regular podcast produced by the Salesforce team. I’m not sure I deserve the introduction Joel gave me, but I think I gave some solid advice. It was a ton of fun to do, and I think you can hear that, too.

Listeners can download the episode from iTunes, or if you’d rather just stream it in a desktop browser, it’s also been posted to Soundcloud.

Five Steps to Optimizing for Engagement

One of the toughest challenges in deliverability is producing content that recipients are likely to find engaging, and to do it consistently. It’s common wisdom that the mail your recipients engage with has an easier time finding its way to the inbox – we can see it in our own deliverability stats, and in some cases, we have it first-hand from inbox providers (like Gmail and Hotmail) that the mail which generates the most user interaction is awarded preferential placement in the inbox. The trick is knowing before the send what content is likely to receive that kind of special treatment.

Part of the reason why it’s such a tough nut to crack is the disparity between senders’ and recipients’ perception of engagement. Senders invest a lot of time and energy producing their message, so we’re bound to find our own content extremely compelling. It’s difficult to disassociate ourselves from our own work, put ourselves in the shoes of recipients, and make a realistic judgement about whether they’re likely to want to read it, too.

The good news is that, like many aspects of marketing and deliverability, we can constrain the amount of guesswork by testing messages with small groups of recipients. And that which can be tested can be optimized. I’m producing a free webinar at the end of March for my employer, Real Magnet, to help senders optimize their e-mail for recipient engagement, with clear, easy action items they can implement right away. Here are a few tips to get started:

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Gmail Priority Inbox: Sort by Relevance

If there were any lingering doubts about the rising primacy of relevance and engagement in successful e-mail deliverability, Gmail has just banished them in a fell swoop.

Google this week announced the incremental roll-out of its latest Gmail feature, dubbed “Priority Inbox”, which as the name suggests, presents the contents of recipients’ inboxes sorted automatically in order of importance. Priority Inbox divides the interface into three broad categories – Important & Unread, Starred and Everything Else – and places what it deems to be the most important mail nearest to the top of the pile.

Gmail is the second major free inbox provider to roll out advanced inbox management tools this year. Later this year, AOL is expected to take the wraps off of “Project Phoenix”, a total rebuild of its free and subscription-based e-mail offerings. Earlier this summer, MSN/Live/Hotmail released a completely revamped interface, which included vastly improved mail filtering and management capabilities, like Sweep, Time-Travelling Filters and Prompted Unsubscribe.

I like to refer to new mail management features like these as “hands free” tools, because unlike traditional e-mail clients, they require little or no user intervention to implement. There are no rules to build, no boxes to tick, no regular expressions to, uh, express in order to sort and filter mail – unless the recipient cares to peek under the hood, where vastly simplified interfaces await to fine-tune the experience.

Google has released only very broad guidance about how, exactly, Priority Inbox makes decisions about what mail is most important, but early reports from users indicate that it is remarkably accurate. And it “learns” user preferences and habits as the recipient continues to interact with more mail.  If the user takes the trouble to dig mail from a particular sender out of the junk folder, Gmail will now remember that, and award future mail from that sender higher placement in the inbox. If the user typically archives or deletes a particular newsletter unread, Gmail will now remember that, too, and will de-prioritize (or automatically archive or delete) future issues.

The message for senders is not new, just more strident than ever: permission on its own is simply not enough to ensure high deliverability. It can be revoked any time your message fails to engage intended recipients.

Permission gets your foot in the door; relevance lets you stay in the room.

Checkbox Synchronicity

Not long after I posted my recent rant about checkboxes and the concept of “passive consent”, this bit of synchronicity played itself out in my own home.

We recently celebrated our daughter’s fourth birthday, and my wife had purchased as gifts some educational toys from LeapFrog, a publicly traded company that produces quality products, and of whom I’d say I have a favorable opinion.

My wife connected the toy to her laptop to download and install files that would allow it to function correctly. She trusts the company, too, so she was more than happy to complete the product registration page that was presented to her when she connected it.

From the other room, I heard her say, “Oh, crap!”

“What happened,” I called from the floor of the living room. I was entertaining our other child, a ten-month-old boy who has recently become remarkably mobile.

“I didn’t notice that the box was pre-checked before I submitted the registration.”

For the record, my wife does not work in e-mail deliverability, but she’s listened to me talk about it for as long as she has known me. She’s pretty familiar with my sentiments on permission and pre-checked subscription boxes. Clearly, she has just now acquired a similar opinion of the practice. LeapFrog has accomplished in a single form what I’ve failed to do in over eight years.

She’s never going to be able to look at mail from LeapFrog again without remembering the small subterfuge they employed to add her to their mailing list. She’ll likely unsubscribe at her earliest opportunity.

Is that really the kind of subscriber LeapFrog was looking for when they decided to pre-check a subscription box and bury it where it was less likely to be noticed? Is that the kind of subscriber any sender wants?

Relevance Is The New Permission?

I’ve been meaning to blog more about this article for a while, in which Sherry Chiger examines the pros and cons of single and double opt-in permission for e-mail. Her opening line is a real attention-grabber – I nearly fell out of my chair when I first read it: “Once upon a time—say, 10 years ago or so—double opt-in was the gold standard of permission-based e-mail.”
Maybe what Ms. Chiger is trying to say is that double opt-in is not the only acceptable standard of permission – which is absolutely true. But it sure has a lot going for it: it’s simple to implement; easy to automate; easy for senders to measure; and happens in-band. For these reasons among others, it’s the best kind of permission to have, and that’s why it’s (still!) the gold standard.
But obtaining permission – even the gold standard – has never been a panacea for delivery issues. The problem with any flavor of permission is that, within the e-mail protocol, there is no way for senders to reliably assert what kind of permission they’ve been given. That means ISPs can’t measure permission per se; instead, they must measure spam complaints and other metrics as a proxy for permission. In other words, if a sender’s message is relevant to the recipients, the performance of a message sent without permission is often indistinguishable from permission-based messages.
Some in the sending community take this as proof that relevance is more important than permission – and this may be the point that Ms. Chiger is trying to make. I disagree. I think the real conclusion to be drawn is that there is no better indicator of relevance than permission – and that’s why permission is so valuable.
I talk to a lot of frustrated senders who’ve segmented their lists dozens of different ways to try and infer what messages are relevant to which recipients. They burn a lot of time, energy and reputation trying to force relevance. I’ve never understood why this is preferable to just asking the recipient for permission.

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.