Email Deliverability: Best Practices and Future Trends

The first part of this series went over email deliverability issues and began discussing best practices. This article continues our discussion of best practices (including ways of making sure your message is relevant to your prospects) and looks to the future when authentication and reputation will matter even more than they do currently.

“The fastest do not win races, nor do the strong win battles, nor do the wise get all they want, but time and chance happen to them all.”

–The Bible

Improving Email Deliverability: Outcomes

In the previous article on email deliverability we looked at the way spam has driven email providers to take stronger measures to make it harder to deliver email to their subscribers, decreasing the deliverability of marketing messages. I advised marketers and website owners, in response, to use the opportunity to increase the browsing experience of their subscribers, which would at the same time increase their odds of getting their emails delivered, opened and acted upon. The points I mentioned included following a checklist of best practices to ensure the email is delivered to the inbox folder of the user, and designing for preview panes by avoiding large graphics at the top of the email.

In this article we will look at ways of ensuring that your desired outcome is carried out, while still following best practices so as to ensure that your message is not misinterpreted and that there are a minimum amount of complaints (user can’t unsubscribe or other issues) directed against your site.

We will also look at how the sender’s reputation will affect email deliverability in the future, and the form it will probably take.

Before you Send the Email

The most important thing that will affect your email campaign is the one thing you can not have factored in: how your prospect feels when your email gets into his/her box. Still, you can increase the likelihood of getting your prospect to do your desired outcome by targeting a specific profile in your email campaigns.

You can target specific users with specific offers (micro segmenting your mailing list) and you can also design emails with an eye to the seasons in the year. Brick- and-mortar businesses do this to perfection; for example, a clothing shop’s winter line catalog is very different from its summer line catalogue.

Not every email is for everybody. A simple way of knowing more about your subscribers is to design an offer and get them to give away more information about themselves, information such as gender, location, ethnic group, age, and other interests. Not only will this help in targeting your email offers, it will help in designing new products, especially if you discover that a particular demographic makes up a large percentage of your mailing list.

Getting profiles will also help in targeting niches, which is the real beauty of online marketing. Finally fringe communities get the products they need! If you run an ancient history site and you have a small number of Egyptologists, do you design a monthly ezine for them? Does the Grinch hate Christmas? By the time they start telling their fellow Egyptologists about your unique service, our Egyptology page will be the biggest online resource for Egyptologists outside research web sites.

Micro segmentation will allow your web site to target fringes with such needs, and market to them aggressively. This increases your value in their eyes and ensures that your email is anticipated. The opposite of this is when your email gets into the inbox, and the prospect thinks “omigosh, not them again.”

Watch the Seasons

Seasons dictate buying circles; families shop the most during Christmas, spend the least in January, and average out for the rest of the year. Movies come out at a higher rate in summer and rap music albums always seem to clutter store shelves between September and December. What is the buying circle of your service? Your sales record will surely give it away. At what seasons are your services or information most needed?

Does your email campaign give holiday offers? Mother’s Day, Father’s Day? Can you write an offer that ties into Valentine’s day, or some other occasion which your prospect takes seriously?

This sort of attention to the seasons and to the individual increases the chances of your desired outcome being carried out, since you are taking into account the seasonal pattern your prospects’ lives follow, their holidays, their work circles and other things that affect their mood. By reviewing the pattern of your industry’s main magazine, you can plot what obtains in the seasons.

Here are a few more best practices, to ensure that your email is rendered the way you designed it, and that you are positioned to limit the amount of spam complaints against you.

Provide a Feedback Email/Contact Address

If you use an automated mailing system, and you have the standard “do not reply to this email” statement on it, you give your prospects nowhere to turn if they want to file a complaint or respond to an offer. Perhaps your unsubscribe link is not working properly, and the user has clicked on it, but still receives mail. It may not even be your fault, but if you are a big email sender and have a few hundred thousand subscribers, you could get sued if it continues. An illustration is the case of passionup.com, who blatantly ignored unsubscribe requests, until Yahoo pursued legal action against them in 2003.

Simply providing the email address of your customer care division should be enough. Also include a link that allows the user to change the email address(es) at which they would like to receive your newsletter, so that if they change their primary email address, they can still receive your mail.

Design Dos and Don’ts

Include a text version of your email that is user friendly and easily readable. There are several email marketing products that allow you to send both HTML and text versions of an email. This will give your deliverability a boost and will make your email render properly, no matter what email service your subscriber is using (some email providers don’t render graphics properly, others require a text form for deliverability).

Hand Code Properly

Some HTML editors are inconsistent across browsers (Microsoft FrontPage, anyone?). Macromedia’s Dreamweaver is my personal favorite, but the purists have it right: only upload code that has being edited in a text editor like Notepad. Avoid CSS, not only because of cross browser compatibility, but some email providers have been found to strip away CSS that is put in head tags.

Do ensure that all links are working.

Avoid Flash and JavaScript

Embedded flash may not render properly, and JavaScript may be stripped off. Images and text alone often make a beautiful design; besides, going overboard with animations will slow down loading time and will not necessarily make for the best design.

Track your conversion and open rates. This will tell you the effectiveness of your emails. Some web analytics packages allow you to track your email; you can also pay a professional agency to do it.

In the last article I wrote about the growing awareness of email accreditation protocols such as authentication (SIDF and DKIM) with the large email providers seeking to have more senders following these protocols. Their wishes may not be fulfilled as quickly as they would like since a large percentage of mail is sent by small web sites, which may take years to join the protocols.

The next measure which may occur after authentication is reputation. This is where the best practices checklist comes into play. After the sender is verified by the authentication procedure, the reputation service checks bounce rates, unsubscribing practices and other highly subjective data. The reputation service will then probably give the sender a rating which will be provided to all users by the email service.

Current data  being collated on practices will definitely go a long way in determining future ratings of email senders by reputation services. For long term planning, it is best to start observing best practices now, instead of after authentication. As with all other things online, it will probably gain a following long before it becomes a standard.

Pure Paranoia or Justifiable Concerns

Are all these precautions necessary? Are email providers over reaching them selves? Is all this just an opportunity to bash advertisers? Mail marketing, door to door sales, and cold calling have always been integral parts of marketing. Email marketing, even spam, is just a logical extension of this trend. But consider that the Internet is a whole new media, and the main attraction it gives to its users is the amount of control they have over it. Unsolicited mail reduces that control.

Yahoo surveys show that 77 percent of their users find spam unpleasant to deal with, and 8 percent actually think spamming is a criminal offense. The idea that a website they subscribe to could begin to send them spam makes them wary when dropping their email addresses on websites (forums, sales, newsletters). This is not helpful to sites that actually follow best practices (hopefully, yourself included). If you are intent on providing a great experience for your users, following best practices and taking the appropriate precautions will surely help. 

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