Email marketing deliverbility

The number one measure of effective email marketing is the number/percentage of positive responses to an email campaign. A positive response can have many diverse definitions; entering and returning a response form, a link-click to an advertised website, opening a specific response page or simply just clicking and opening the email body. Before any of these measures apply, the precursor is the arrival of an email in the inbox of each recipient email addressee – what percentage of emails transmitted are passed through the recipient’s mail server as opposed to being bounced.  And this measure – delivery rate, is the grand-daddy of analytics; without a good delivery performance, opens, link-clicks etc become little more than a percentage of a percentage.

This is unfortunately the case that a poor deliverability score is a very common problem that bedevils pretty well all users of email marketing.

Deliverability score can range from unacceptable to 99% plus. i.e. 99% plus of the emails transmitted are passed through by the mail server to the local PC. Although not a robust industry measure, in general a good deliverability score is anything above 90% and a poor score is anything below 30%.

So what are the factors that affect deliverability and what measures can be employed to achieve and hold a good score.

Originator reputation.
Originator reputation is an obtuse way of defining something which is actually quite specific. The originator in the first instance is the name of the company or organisation that appears in the ‘sent from’ box and is not referring to the server or IP from which the email has been transmitted (that is the email marketing service provider’s server/IP). Reputation does not (usually) refer to the general perceptions of the company/organisation but the specific email originator score – either the cumulative number of times that this particular email sender has been spammed by recipient’s mail servers or whether or not the originator name has got itself on a black list (see below).  So how does a poor originator reputation come about?

There are two stages to filtering at the receiving end of an email;

1. The mail server via which the email is served to the end user’s PC provides the first and most important line of defence against spam. This could be at the ISP’s server centre (eg BT, hotmail etc) or could be a local mail server for a more complex internal network within a larger company for example. Either way, the mail server will subscribe to an email filtering or firewall network, which continuously assesses and marks the ‘spam’ score of all email origination sources. Every-time a recipient hits the spam button and sends a received email to the spam folder, chances are that this is controlled and monitored by the mail server and in turn the subscribed email filtering network service. The result is a steady deterioration in the originators ‘spam’ score to the point where all emails coming from that source will be auto-blocked by ALL mail servers subscribing to the particular firewall network (ie black listed) – and that could be many millions, and you end up with a poor deliverability.

The problem for the user of email marketing services, is that although the address list may comply with all double opt in regulations and all recipients have signed up to receive your emails, users that get tired of the same old format or content of your emails just hit the spam button instead of going to the trouble of unsubscribing.  Our statistics show that over 60% of users who don’t like the content of emails from a particular source send it to spam instead of formally unsubscribing.

2. The second line of defence is the local firewall in the end user’s PC. It is more difficult to measure deliverability at the receiver PC as this does not show up on standard analytics which record bounces from the mail server only. But much the same issue of spam versus unsubscribe arises. Users will prefer to send to spam than open the email and unsubscribe. The former damages your deliverability score, the latter doesn’t. Usually, this generated spam classification is only applied at the end user’s PC and there is no general networked black listing issue but it is always possible that local spam designation will be networked.
What about the email marketing service provider’s score?

Unfortunately for email marketing service providers, suspected spammer classification will often also be attributed to the server/IP from which the email campaign originated as well as the actual originator. So it is not only the user that suffers the consequence of a high spam rejection score arising from an email campaign. Add into the mix a small number of other users of the service that have also developed a poor reputation with one of the international anti-spam firewall organisations and the result is a degraded server score for the email marketing service, effectively knocking out that server and possibly a whole IP range – a risk that has to be rigorously controlled by the service provider. It is for this reason that email marketing service providers are paranoid about email address list provenance when vetting incoming customer lists.

What do email marketing service providers do to control delivery reputation?
Poor deliverability is probably the biggest cause of customer complaint following an email campaign. So what measures do service providers take to protect their delivery reputation and that of their customers?

The email broadcast market has grown exponentially and is likely to continue so doing for some years yet. During this market growth, the standard defence against spamming reputation has been to deny service to all potential customers who cannot guarantee the purity and provenance of their address list. And it’s true, as we have said before in these series of articles, that a good address list is the silver bullet of email marketing.

As an example, if a school bars entry to all potential pupils with an IQ below 125, they will achieve a high exam performance pass rate. So just the same, if an email service bars all potential customers who cannot guarantee the purity of their address list to a high standard, the prime cause of poor server/IP delivery reputation will be significantly reduced. Not to say that this eliminates the cause because there is still the problem of recipients just getting bored with poor received content and clicking the spam button, resulting as explained above with a degraded deliverability due to deteriorating reputation.

So what’s the answer?
Spam or unsolicited email traffic is a huge problem – it is the background noise that threatens to rise to a level that effectively blots out legitimate emailing. The industry fights back by progressively raising the defences with technology that identifies sources of spam and blocks them – raising the bar in step with the problem.

The cure is near deadly itself and as the spam defence level keeps rising, the water is lapping at the feet of all legitimate email marketing service providers. Raising the customer entry bar by requiring more and more stringent address list requirements merely provides a false palliative – it is the service providers who have learnt to swim that survive whilst those that keep moving up the mound are delaying facing up to the problem.

Of course it remains imperative for email marketing service providers to carefully vet incoming customers to ensure that premeditated ‘spammers’ are denied entry,  but it is vital to recognise that a huge mass of potential customers do not have IT departments 50 strong with large incumbent customer bases from which a high quality email address list can be extracted and maintained.
The key skill now required with the ‘swimmers’ – those email marketing services that deal with the issue rather than avoiding it, is the development of highly complex technology and algorithms that scan and cleanse address lists. This technology is developing all the time and provides a means for small/medium companies to access email marketing services without the need for the IT and marketing overhead that larger companies can afford. Technology leaders in the email marketing industry today focus on working with their customers to hone the quality of email address lists rather than simply saying – “sorry we can’t accept you as a customer.”

Relying on a high rejection rate of otherwise valued and legitimate customers simply because they cannot accommodate stringent address list verification proofs, cannot in the end present a viable business model. I for one, regularly hit the spam button when I receive the same boring email offering a meal for two or 25% off deal from an otherwise perfectly legitimate blue chip company that had used full double opt-in to obtain my email address.

Let’s be honest, it’s quicker to hit spam than to open the email and send an ‘unsubscribe’ that works only rarely in my experience. So I’ve compromised their delivery reputation with the anti-spam filtering organisation I subscribe to – oh dear. Perhaps they should subscribe to a more technologically advanced market leading emailing service that would have identified the signs in my responses and removed me from their list at an earlier stage.

Michael Peters
Email Blaster UK