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Email Optimization: A Changing Landscape

Recently I completed the initial phase of a client project to help them optimize their email marketing program. Sending out over 1 million emails each month they rely on email as their main communications channel with prospects and clients. This year, with ISPs, webmail providers and corporate mail administrators using more, and better, tools to fight spam, deliverability has become a greater issue than ever. In some cases they couldn’t get any email through to certain large ISPs and webmail providers. Forget about optimizing emails to get them opened, and better calls to action to convert recipients. If they can’t get their emails through to the intended recipients “optimization” becomes an irrelevant term.
h2. “1 out of every 5 marketing emails never make it to the intended inbox!”
That’s what ReturnPath, a leading provider of email delivery auditing solutions, says based on their ongoing research.
Since I started this project a number of other clients and prospects have asked me to advise them on email optimization. In every case I have started reviewing their deliverability, the ability to get a marketing email through to the inboxes of intended recipients. It has been surprising to find out how few email marketers have any accurate idea of how many of their emails are actually reaching inboxes. And more surprising is how few of the email service providers track their deliverability regularly and manage it on an ongoing basis.

That’s less than 80% deliverability! Pivotal Veracity, another leading email delivery auditing company, has worked with many email service providers and marketers to measure deliverability rates. Recently they ranked one company, ExactTarget, Indianapolis, IN, at the top of their rankings with greater than 98% deliverability. So how do you get from 80%, the “average” from ReturnPath stduies, to the high 90’s, level Pivtoal Veracity says ExactTarget is at?
h2. Unfortunately the answer may lie in the email service provider you are using.
First and foremost, no matter how well you create a marketing email to be low-spam, or even spam-free, if your email service provider has their IP adresses(es) or domain(s) blocked by anyone you stand the risk of messages not being delivered to the inbox. This type of blocking is common and is typically caused by repeated reports of spam originating from the particular service providers servers. Sometimes this is because self-serve customers break the rules, but mainly because the technology provider does not have the proper deliverability or white list relationships with the big ISPs and webmail companies who set the standards. Furthermore, if the technology you are using builds messages with header information that does not comply with the technologies and formatting required by leading ISPs and webmail providers – like Sender Policy Framework (SPF), Sender ID (Microsoft’s Sender ID Page), Domain Keys and other email authentication measures – you face having your messages flagged and possibly sent to a spam/junk folder or, worse, automatically deleted. Again, proper relationships with the ISPs and webmail providers is the key. If you know what they expect and include this with your marketing emails, your deliverability rates should be high.
Once the technology platform is optimized for deliverability you still need to ensure the content and formatting of your marketing emails is also optimized. There are lots of words and phrases to avoid, starting with “free” and “sex”. I would hate to be a legitimate seller of Pfizer’s Viagra as this term is almost always blocked…but maybe not V.i.@.g.4.r.a. However, your legitimate brand would not look good that way, just like Microsoft doesn’t look good when used as M.!.c.r.0.s.0.f.t. Another content no-no is not having a valid unsubscribe link in your marketing emails. Even though Canada doesn’t yet have a spam law, the US CAN-SPAM laws are often applied by ISPs and webmail providers, especially if they are US-based or rely on US-based technology. This means you should always include a physical mailing address at the bottom of your emails. Basically it’s a way for people to contact you by mail if they prefer to unsubscribe that way. So far none of my clients have ever received mail that way so it’s not a bad thing to comply with this best practice, even if it stems from US compliance.
For Canadian email marketers we have an added issue. Even if we turn to Pivotal Veracity, ReturnPath or Piper Software for delivery auditing tools, they may not all provide a good service or exact metric for deliverability to Canadian ISPs such as Sympatico (Sympatico.MSN), Rogers, Telus, Shaw and Cogeco. If your email database has a lot of Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL addresses you will find they work very well. But if most of your database has Canadian domains, like those above, you may find the metrics less than perfect. However, my feeling is that if you are doing things right by Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL, whose standards and requirements are some of the toughest, you are likely to have good deliverability with most Canadian ISPs, too.
h2. Test your own deliverability.
If you do worry about deliverability issues you can contact Pivotal Veracity and use their one-time auditing of your email service provider. For less than $1,000 they will run a test with your current email marketing platform using their own test content and special test addresses and provide you a full report of the deliverability ranking of the technology platform you are using. They will also provide suggestions on what can be done to improve your deliverability. To me this is good peace of mind if email is an important part of your marketing program.
As you look to optimize your email programs you should first take a look at your email deliverability. No matter how good your offers and calls to action are, if people never get your messages it doesn’t really matter.