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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Half-True Predictions

The thought of blogging predictions for the New Year in Deliverability makes me cringe. I’m not exactly sure why; it may have something to do with the fact that everyone else has already done it – we’ve had a bumper crop so far this year. Mostly, I think, I’d hate to be proven wrong later. So, instead of offering my own predictions (which would doubtlessly sound much like anyone else’s), I’d like to take a look at two different trends in deliverability that came only half-true in 2010, but that are still worth your time to continue to watch in 2011. The two trends are Domain Reputation and Engagement Metrics.

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Shaking Our Fists at E-mail Gods

Last week, Return Path released the results of their bi-annual deliverability benchmark report, and the news for senders is not encouraging.

Across Europe, only 82.2% of legitimate marketing e-mails reached subscribers’ inboxes, down from 85.4% reaching the inbox in the second half of 2009. More than one in eight commercial e-mails (13.6%) are going missing completely – not in subscribers’ spam folders or inboxes, blocked by ISPs before reaching their subscribers – compared to one in nine e-mails (11.1%) going missing six months ago. Moreover, the number of e-mails going straight to spam folders increased to 4.2%, up from 3.6% six months ago.

Return Path hasn’t yet released updated figures for North America, but in the last half of 2009, the numbers were similarly grim: 20% of e-mail in the United States and Canada is still not making it to the inbox while 3% of e-mail goes to the “junk” or “bulk” folder and another 16% goes missing altogether. Only incorrigible optimists are expecting anything other than worse news when the updated numbers are released.

What’s driving this steady erosion in overall deliverability performance? It’s tempting to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the ISPs that do the actual filtering, but that’s not the whole story. By some accounts, up to 94% of the total, unfiltered e-mail volume worldwide is comprised of spam, most of which is generated by armies of compromised computers under the control of criminal spam gangs. ISPs are forced to use ever more aggressive tactics to protect their users from spam, and make sure that just the wanted mail is delivered. If an ISP can’t strike the right balance for their customers, recipients can change providers, often in just a few clicks.

This is an important point that’s often lost on senders who find themselves on the wrong side of the ISP’s filters: delivering mail that customers want is as much of competitive advantage for an ISP as blocking the spam. Within the last few months, major inbox providers like Hotmail and Gmail released new versions of their offerings that measure how recipients interact with  your mail – whether they open it, whether they reply to it or move it to a different folder, even how much time they appear to spend reading a particular message. (Yahoo! and AOL are preparing similar changes in the coming months.) The more engaging and relevant your mail appears to be, the more often it will land in the inbox.

It takes work to find out what engages your recipients – typically an iterative process that requires testing and careful measurement – but it’s a lot easier than convincing an ISP that your mail is wanted in the absence of supporting engagement metrics. One easy way to find out what recipients want is to ask them. Use a survey tool to find out if they want to know about sales or specials, industry-specific news, free webinars, or some mix of all of these – and how frequently they want them. Ask them about other content-areas of interest. If you’re a retailer of Irish-themed gifts an apparel, for example, readers might want to see short vignettes or links to stories about Ireland next to your offer. Then deliver what they ask for (and nothing else!).

E-mail frequency plays an important role in engagement, too. Use recipient-level tracking  to identify those recipients who haven’t opened or clicked in a while – they may be suffering from “inbox fatigue”. Give them a rest from future sends for a while, and come up with a sharp offer – like a coupon code or a discount for your webinar – to re-engage them with later. Avoid recurrences of fatigue with a subscription preferences page where they can specify their preferred frequency. If they still show no signs of engagement, you should suppress them from future sends.

Measure response to different subject lines and calls to action. Sometimes changing a single word in your subject line can make all the difference in open rates. Test different versions on small groups and identify the changes that result in the biggest gains in opens, and roll them out to the rest of your recipients.

It’s tempting to shake one’s fist at the sky and bemoan mistreatment at the hands of uncaring e-mail gods, but senders really are in control of their own destiny. You have the tools you need to make optimization for delivery and engagement easier than you think.

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.