Say Goodbye to the Days of Lazy Email
Originally published on SpotRight.com.
Let’s be honest, we both know this has been coming for years.
In the last few weeks several large marketers (like EDF) and email marketing platforms (like Salsa) reported that email service providers (ESPs) like Gmail and Yahoo! appear to be flagging “uninteresting” email as spam. How does an ESP determine how interesting our email is? They don’t. Our subscribers do. It appears the ESPs are determining whether or not our email is likely spam – or at least “not a priority” – based on how often and frequently subscribers are interacting with email we’ve sent in the past.
You can imagine this is getting lots of folks in a tizzy. In this longish post, we’ll examine how we got into this mess to figure out how we can get out.
Why Were We So Lazy for So Long?
I have to confess I’m a lot like you. I was once lazy about email, too. And, I know how you’ve justified being lazy, because I have told myself the same story. We have always considered email to be “cheap.” In contrast to direct mail where it costs me $1 to reach a customer, email has always been nearly cost-less at less than a penny to reach that same person. And, in my head the logic went, if email costs nothing and with minimal effort I can attain any conversions at all, why on Earth would I try much harder than the absolute minimum? I could send my whole million-person subscriber list the same version of a single email and get acceptable results. Besides, there have always been plenty of things outside of email that I’ve been trying that aren’t working or desperately need more resources.
So, I asked myself, why segment and test and refine the subject lines, creative, copy, and offers? The true answer is that the results were acceptable…25% of our messages were opened, 3% got clicks and some small but significant percentage converted to purchase or donate.
Now, we will be penalized for taking the lazy route; blasting our whole list with the same message and same cadence to every subscriber.
Here’s what the team at Environmental Defense Fund and our friends at the direct marketing agency Chapman Cubine Adams + Hussey (CCAH) noticed happening. It appears that major ESPs – led by Gmail – have started giving email messages with low interaction rates the express route to your customers’ spam folder. The resulting symptom was that they noticed lower interaction rates (opens/clicks) overall. When the EDF team filtered out the nonresponsive email addresses from the Gmail domain, interaction rates and the actual number of interactions increased across the board.
It’s unclear exactly how the Gmail team and algorithm are making these decisions. And, as Dan Atherton of CCAH pointed out in a phone interview, it’s not in Gmail’s interest to publicly share that information. From an anecdotal (unscientific) sample, it appears that if you were to send, say 1MM emails and the first 100M get only mediocre open/click rates from your subscribers, the remaining 900M get lesser help toward the inbox. Crazy, right?
“But,” you say, “I comply with deliverability requirements!”
In the old days (months ago) we could take this lazy approach to email and maintain good deliverability by staying in “technical” compliance with legal and ESP requirements. We just had to be sure we were abiding CAN SPAM rules, configure domain keys, give subscribers a way to opt out, address spam complaints…and our messages were handled just fine. No longer, my friends.
So, now, what can we do?
For the long run, we need to get our act together and finally bite the bullet. We need to cowboy (or girl) up and focus on sending truly relevant and timely email messages or we could be forever relegated to the spam folder of our customers’ and constituents’ lives.
When I spoke with Dan at CCAH, we made a short list of the things any large mailers should do to stay on top of and improve the delivery of their email to their subscribers’ inboxes:
#1 Pay Attention to Interaction Rates by Domain
Monitor your interaction rates (opens/clicks) over time. BUT don’t just look at aggregate numbers. You’ll need to watch these rates by domain. So, this way you’ll notice a sharp dip in interaction at Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail, etc.
#2 Short Term Fix: Filter Out Unresponsive Recipients
If you see a significant dip in interaction rates by domain, isolate the subscribers at that domain who haven’t opened or clicked in say three or six months time. Suppress them from your next series of campaigns. Assuming this is a significant number, you are likely to see interaction rates at this domain improve as more mail will get to the remaining subscribers’ inboxes rather than a low priority or spam folder.
#3 Get Serious About Monitoring Inbox Delivery
There are a number of inbox and performance management tools out there that can help you look closely at how mail’s being delivered and opened at various domains. It’s unclear if they will be helpful to remediating the problem, but detection is key to managing your reputation. Check out tools like ReturnPath and Pivotal Veracity that can monitor inbox delivery rates for you across lots of domains. Remember, simple spam checkers that provide keyword analysis tools for spamminess (circa 2003) won’t work on this one.
#4 The Real Fix is to Know Your Subscribers and Deliver Value
If you’re going to solve this problem for the long term, you’ll need to make sure your email content and offers are relevant to your audience. The better you know your audience and what motivates them, the better you’ll be able to develop content that they WANT to interact with. If you can determine which of your subscribers are men, women, old, young, plugged in or tuned out, you’ll be able to get them content they’re interested in.
#5 For Extra Points, Consider Proactively Segmenting for Cadence
Consider that not everyone wants the same amount of email. Some want every discount or alert you throw them. Others want a weekly digest. And, hey, some of us only want the email for the summer sales spectacular (thanks, Patagonia!). Consider creating a series of tiered target groups that send a maximum number of messages per month to group members. Very few bulk email tools make this easy to do. But, many will let you create dynamic groups that contain subscribers who have opened “X emails in Y months.” At the VERY least offer subscribers the chance to opt into a weekly or monthly when they sign up (or better yet) when they unsubscribe.
What do we do next?
What are you making out of these new challenges to sending email? What are you doing about it?