IAB Releases Guidelines for Email Deliverability

In mid-October, the Interactive Advertising Bureau released a 14-page white paper on a topic of interest to anyone who sends out regular advertising or marketing emails. If your email marketing campaigns haven’t given you the return on investment you’ve been expecting, you owe it to yourself and your business to read this paper. Keep reading to learn some of the high points.

The white paper is titled “Marketer & Agency Guide to Email Deliverability,” and is available from IAB’s web site in PDF format. It starts off with a little history, explaining how we ended up with the current email environment in which it’s difficult for an honest advertiser to get his message out to prospects. It gives a definition of email deliverability, goes over the factors that affect it, and points out what email marketers can do to improve the odds of their emails safely reaching user inboxes and being opened.

The white paper was issued by the IAB’s Email Committee. We’re likely to see more from this group, since the paper is more of a starting point, albeit a good one, than a definitive document. As it correctly points out in the executive summary, “It is important to recognize that the deliverability landscape changes multiple times per year and the best practices for monitoring and resolution change with it.”

That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful right now. “Providing the marketers with a single standard definition of deliverability as well as accurate and timely information around causes of deliverability problems and measurements is an extremely important step in solidifying email as a critical performance marketing vehicle,” said Craig Swerdloff, General Manager, Customer Acquisition Programs at Return Path and IAB Email Committee Chair.

Definitions are always a good first step. It’s interesting to note that one reason click fraud has been so difficult for search engines and SEMs to get a handle on is because nobody can agree on a definition. So what’s the definition of email deliverability? It’s the ability of an email marketer to deliver email to a recipient’s inbox with all of the functionality the recipient expects (i.e. HTML or text) as stated in his or her preferences. Contrary to popular belief, deliverability itself is not a metric; it is made up of several metrics. Now that you know what it is, let me explain why the IAB thinks it matters.

You might not care about the deliverability of your marketing emails, or think that it simply isn’t a problem. Either you’ve been very lucky up to now, or you’re living in denial. According to the IAB, more than 60 billion emails are sent out every day, and of these, 80 percent are spam. This is more or less in line with what anti-spam organizations such as Spamhaus have stated.

With all that noise, it stands to reason that there are some false positives out there. In fact, the IAB believes that more than 20 percent of the legitimate marketing messages, sent by honest businesses, are incorrectly identified as spam. These messages wind up in a user’s spam folder or get filtered out at the server level; either way, they miss the target. With messages going missing, marketers see lower open rates, lower response rates, and lower conversion rates.

In short, deliverability issues mean your advertising campaign doesn’t perform as well as it should. If you still think it’s not a problem for you, look at that number again: 20 percent. That’s one in five. If you maintain a large mailing list for, say, a weekly or monthly newsletter, that can really affect your performance. We’re not particularly unusual in that regard; Developer Shed sends out a weekly newsletter to 220,000 subscribers, and another 15,000 or so subscribe to our SEO-specialized newsletter. I can tell you there would be much consternation here if we found that one out of every five of our newsletters was not reaching its destination!

If you’ve done everything right, your users care about the deliverability of your email as well. It’s true that many consumers find most marketing messages to be an annoyance at best, even the ones for which they have signed up; people do change their minds. But if your message is truly relevant, users look forward to seeing it. Even if they don’t convert then, they may well convert later. So how do you make sure they have that opportunity? The first step involves understanding the hurdles you face.

The IAB identified no less than seven different filtering methods used by ISPs and corporate system administrators to make sure their clients don’t have to deal with unwanted email. If you want your email to make it to its destination, you need to know how these filters work. You may not be able to do much about some of them, but others you can definitely avoid triggering.

Blacklists, public and private, account for one of the seven filtering methods. You can find out easily enough if you’re on a public blacklist such as the ones maintained by Spamhaus or Spam Cop; they are, after all, public. These are lists of the IP addresses of suspected spammers. If you find yourself on a public blacklist, the web sites usually explain what you can do to get yourself removed from their list. Private blacklists are maintained by ISPs and some corporations for internal use. They’re often based on user complaints, but may also be based on other criteria.

Fingerprinting and machine learning-based content filters account for two more filtering methods; both are content-based. The latter technique looks at words and phrases in the body or header of the email, and is commonly used for client-side filters. Fingerprinting, used by Brightmail, matches known spam content with new email and filters based on how closely they match.

Spam traps are email addresses that are used specifically to attract spam. Maybe the address was active at one time, but hasn’t been used in years; or maybe it was specifically created to attract spam. Either way, a lot of anti-spam organizations monitor spam traps.

Other filtering techniques include setting a volume cap on connections for sending email; “challenge response” to prove you are a real person (used by SpamArrest among others); and not accepting email from those whose servers are not configured correctly.

Those of you who read Akinola Akintomide’s recent two-part article series here on SEO Chat will find much that is familiar here. Interestingly enough, what the IAB advocates sounds very much like what Spamhaus advocates as the right way to send bulk email. The key point is that most of the issues that keep your email from being delivered are things you can fix yourself. These issues center around complaints, content, unknown users, server configuration, and spam traps.

Take spam traps, for instance. If you want to avoid that problem, you need to keep your email lists scrubbed and up to date. While what counts as an “old” email address will vary depending on your field, if an address has not opened or clicked on an email from you in the past 90 days, it should probably be removed from your list. You want to use a double opt-in system anyway, and send welcome messages to new subscribers. If any of those emails bounce, or you get complaints, remove those subscribers immediately.

As for your content, you need to make sure that your prospects really want to see it. You can do that by telling them very clearly what to expect when they sign up for your newsletter, including size, frequency, and what kind of material you’ll cover. You also need to make sure that your content is unlikely to trigger a spam filter. Email delivery service providers can test your messages in a spam lab. You can also test them yourself by sending them to emails that use some of the most common filters. Remember, it’s not just use of the word “free” that will trigger the filters. They’re a lot more sophisticated these days, but that doesn’t prevent false positives.

The unknown user issue can get you into trouble with ISPs. If you get a lot of “unknown user” errors when you send out a mass emailing, that’s enough to make ISPs block email from your domain. This is another case where keeping your mailing list current and using a double opt-in subscriber sign up will serve you well.

You need to make sure your technical department knows how to configure your servers correctly so that your email doesn’t get blocked. You must have a reverse DNS record, for instance. There are other rules covering authentication, relays and proxies; break those and ISPs will ban your email without a second thought.

Finally, the issue of complaints is really the largest because you need to do so much to make sure you have consent from your prospects. Plus, the majority of email users think the “spam” button is for unsubscribing (that’s actually a legitimate approach with real spam, because a true spammer treats an “unsubscribe” request as a sign that the email address is active). Make sure your unsubscribe link works, and handle all unsubscribe requests promptly, before the next mailing. Double opt-in lists will get you fewer users who complain or unsubscribe; the approach leaves you with a smaller list, but it’s worth it to be sure your email is getting through to users who really want to see it.

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