Improving Your Email Deliverability

What is the difference between marketing email and spam? A lot of harried Netizens can’t tell you the answer to that, and the way some email campaigns are conducted, it’s no wonder. This article, the first of two parts, will show you some of the best practices to help you make sure your ezines are not only delivered, but read.

Spam is a bad word, unless you are an online marketer. Then spam is just customer paranoia (that was a joke). However, spam is real, and online users find it inconvenient to have their inbox filled with unwanted emails from companies which want to sell to them. This reduces their browsing experience and makes robotic tasks (reading and deleting emails, archiving, storing, replying and other unimaginative, unproductive tasks) take longer. It also means users have a harder time viewing and replying to really important messages.

Improving the users’ browsing experience has become an integral part of the relationship between users and web sites. Even in a field where it seems all the rules have already been made (ezine marketing or email campaigns) there is still a lot of room for continuously improving the browsing experience of the web surfer. If it is a joy to navigate through your ezine, and the content in it is actually useful, it goes without saying that your email will be anticipated before it actually gets to the users’ inbox. And then, you are truly on your way to not just selling, but to building relationships with the members of your opt-in database. But first, online marketers may have to change their current view of reality.

The changing times

It is spamming to send unsolicited mail, but with a few technical sounding words on the “we hate spam” statement below the register button, websites can get away with selling or renting their mailing lists to “partner sites.” This brings extra income to the web site, but the user did not subscribe to these services. Even if it is not sold to a partner site, the database obtained by one division of a company is ritually plundered by other divisions in their monthly marketing sprees. So a user that subscribes to the a home appliance newsletter (said home appliance company being a division of a larger engineering conglomerate) gets three emails in a month from three other sites, who put it in small print that you are getting this email because you subscribed to it from our site or an affiliate site. The marketer gets his numbers, but the user ends up suspecting that someone somewhere hoodwinked him.

Simply put, his/her browsing experience has been compromised. And if the content sent is irrelevant, at best it will not get opened, while at worst the user will report it as spam (the unsubscribe button is hit only if you are lucky). The very first thing to do if you are serious about getting awesome returns on your email, is to make sure you are invited to the users box. If you cannot avoid buying an email list, then you are constantly at risk of mediocre or just average returns. You will need to buy a huge volume to increase your odds of marginal success, and a large percentage of your emails will simply not get the required response.

If you buy a list that was built by a website that offers services identical to yours, it drastically increases your chances of getting your emails opened. Still, the best option is to build relationships, hence your own mailing list.

Not every website owner or SEO analyst will agree with this. “It takes too much time,” and they argue velocity is essential in any business. Even so, overnight success is impossible. If you truly want to establish long term relationships with your subscribers, you must pay the price, and that price is time.

A model that I enjoy studying is http://www.about.com/. This site offers thousands of newsletters and successfully builds relationships; many users subscribe to 3-8 separate newsletters. And this was accomplished without having to send unsolicited ezines to subscribers; the subscriber gets in his or her mailbox the exact topic s/he subscribed to, but there is a kicker that continuously gives the user the option of painlessly adding more ezines. About does this by sharing resources; articles from related blogs are placed in the ezine, the user clicks a link that displays the related blog, and there discovers that s/he can subscribe to this particular ezine.

So the website avoids having other divisions dump unwanted email in the user’s box, makes the user feel like a net head for discovering resources which were underfoot, and increases advertising revenue incrementally, while increasing the bonding between themselves and the user.

Delivery essentials

Delivering ezines/email consists of two things: getting past the spam blockers, and getting the user to do what you want, needless to say. Your desired outcome includes opening the email, reading the email and getting on your site to read your content or get to your order page.

To get past the spam blockers, you should follow best practices. A lot of them will already be part of your SOP (standard operating procedure) but you can go down the check list and see whether you have missed anything. 

Ask for confirmation

Send an email asking the client to confirm subscription, especially if it is a paid subscription package. This will engender commitment in the user, which will translate to your emails getting opened by the user.

Request to be added to the address book

This is tricky, but it can be done, especially if you emails come addressed as if they are from individuals. But even if they do not, a politely worded request could do wonders. You could ask the user to add you to his/her address book; this way, you are sure you will never be blocked by the email provider’s spam blocker.

Have a working unsubscribe link

Without it, major email providers will not let you into their customers’ inboxes. However, unless your email campaign never passed the Stonehenge stage, I believe this part will be covered.

Have your street address on the email

Policing online is currently in a state of flux, but as your email campaign gets larger, this will change. To avoid legal complications, put your offline office address on all your emails.

Looking to the future

There will be some protocols that will become standards for deliverability to inboxes in the next few years. Yahoo has always led the campaign against spam, closely followed by Hotmail. But the following protocols are not yet strictly enforced due to the fact that they have not become standard practice among email senders. However, considering the weight of the institutions backing them (Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft), they could very well be required for deliverability in the next few years.

Authentication

Email authentication is fast becoming a standard just two years after its introduction, as email providers use it and sometimes (like Hotmail) send notifications to their users if an email cannot be authenticated.

About 35 percent of emails being sent are authenticated, according to E-mail Senders & Providers Coalition (ESPC). As big email providers lobby harder in order to fight spam, this percentage will become larger. Positioning yourself by joining the party will assure that you do not have to rush it when it becomes a standard for deliverability.

There are currently two protocols: Microsoft’s sender ID framework and Domain Keys Integrated Mail supported by Yahoo and Cisco. The protocols are complementary to each other. According to Craig Spiezle, director of the technology care and safety group at Microsoft, companies will probably choose to implement both solutions.

Now after getting past the email providers vetting systems, are you prepared for the user’s personal vetting system?

Senders address

A lot of users do not open email with strange addresses; they don’t even bother to check it, and they either delete it immediately or (in this age of large inbox capacity) simply ignore it. The best thing you can do is place an easily recognizable address on your message to ensure that the user recognizes where it is coming from. Ideally it should have your company name included in the address section.

Subject line

Avoid subject lines which are too long and that contain special characters. Anybody will see that it is generated by a not very intelligent robot, so unless the user really needs your service, you will in all probability be ignored. A topic should convey the email’s purpose and should not be too generally worded; telling the user s/he will “win a free iPod” when s/he must first buy a product to qualify for winning the iPod is not a best practice. The issue of conveying the email’s purpose with a subject line should be worked on. Ideally an email campaign should not be rushed, but should be done in a timely fashion

Personalize the subject line. Including the subscriber’s name makes it sound like you sent an email just to that individual. If it is content you are offering, don’t just put Blah.com’s weekly newsletter. Actually include a teaser for the new, novel content you are offering. If you are making a sales offer, put in a call to action.

Design for the preview pane

You have to optimize your message for the preview pane of email providers. If you are still a fan of the large animation or picture at the top of your emails, note that a lot of email providers (fortunately, not all) block images by default, and the preview will only show a segment of the message and not the whole thing. Put helpful text on top; any images should preferably be at the bottom or at the side.

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