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Avoid Email Blacklists

Matt Blumberg
Avoid Email Blacklists Matt Blumberg

You might think your response rate is the only thing your customers affect when you send them an email campaign. While that may often be the most visible metric, customers also affect your email delivery rates in a major way.

In fact, according to a recent Return Path study, nearly 19 percent of permission-based email does not get delivered to the intended mailboxes by ISPs -- which obviously affects every other campaign metric, as well. Your customers hold an important key to solving this non-delivery problem.

What’s your delivery problem?

The first step to solving your delivery issues is to recognize where your problems lie. Most marketers assume their delivery rates can be seen through bounce analysis. This is a bad assumption, as most non-delivered mail does not generate a response from ISPs or show up in SMTP files. To really know the extent of your delivery failures, you must monitor your delivery rates through an outside vendor or internal seed list system. If that analysis shows that a problem exists, it’s then time to solve it by looking at your technical configurations, content, and IP blacklist inclusion. It is the latter point that your customers impact.

Your customers’ role in email delivery

How, you might ask, do customers have an impact on something as structural as email delivery? This one is easy -- they complain to ISPs because they think your email is spam. In fact, much of the permission-email that gets blocked today is because of such customer complaints. 

Customers can now easily get you added to a blacklist -- in effect, killing your delivery rates -- with the push of a button. When enough customers hit the "this is spam" or "block" buttons within email clients, you can be blacklisted. Unfortunately, there is no published standard for how many complaints are too many, and it varies by ISP. Our experiences show, however, that the threshold is a mere fraction of a percent at many ISPs. Clearly, even a small number of complaints can hurt you deeply. 

Being blacklisted creates two problems: a spam perception by people who should be receptive to your messaging, and non-delivery to customers who did want your emails. If emails don’t get delivered, you can’t get a response. Assuming you don’t want to let 19 percent of your potential revenue go down the drain because of undelivered emails, you have some work to do around keeping customers engaged and emails delivered to the inbox.

Keeping customers engaged and emails delivered

When your customers think you’re spamming them, you have to seriously evaluate how and what you’re sending them. Think about it: enough people find your content so irrelevant to them that they consider it spam. Since they signed up to receive your email, you have to look at where you strayed from the expected. 

First, let’s quickly look at email relevancy. To avoid customer complaints, it’s imperative you spend time up front to make sure people want to be receiving your emails. This should start with a review of your email acquisition strategies. 

  • Do people know when they are signing up to get email from you, or does it happen through a third-party pass-along?
  • When people sign up to receive email from your company, do they know exactly what they will be getting from you and when?
  • Does the email you send live up to what you promised at the time of registration? 

If you answered "no" to any of the above, you’ve found a problem that could be costing you volumes in terms of delivery, response, and reputation. When you aren’t honest about the email you send, customers certainly won’t respond, and they might complain.

There are several immediate steps you should take to reduce complaints, build customer trust, and increase delivery:

  • Use confirmed or double opt-in when building your list, to make sure the people you are sending email to really want to be getting your communications. Sending a welcome message also further verifies your permission to email.
  • Make sure you only send email that matches what you say you’ll send upon registration. For example, if they sign up for coupons, don’t also send a newsletter unless you have explicitly told them you will.
  • Be sure any language surrounding how you use email addresses and what email you’ll send is clearly stated up front. Do not bury it in a privacy policy.
  • If you don’t share your customer information with others, promote your privacy policy at the time of registration, and reiterate your sensitivity to customer privacy in other relevant communications.
  • Make unsubscribe links obvious, and make sure they work. Also, if your company’s list is used by different departments, make sure emails are removed from all lists.
  • Monitor public blacklists to make sure your IP addresses are not listed. If you become listed on a blacklist used by ISPs, your messages could go missing.

You can also increase delivery and response by further engaging the customers who do want your communications:

  • Ask for user feedback. If you can learn what makes your customers tick, and then use that information to improve your communications, you can both limit complaints and hone content to be more pleasing for the average user.
  • Ask customers to add your corporate "from" address to their email address books. For those who do so, your emails will not be subject to spam filtering and should be delivered without incident.  
  • Ask people to reply to your email, which will allow your HTML to work properly at AOL, MSN and a host of other email readers, and will add you to the "approved sender" list for those using AOL 9.0.
  • Allow customers to set email preferences determining how often you mail them, and what you send them. By letting them set the rules, they are more likely to react favorably when they receive communications from you.

Email delivery -- and subsequent response -- should not be considered random fate. Remember that you control a major portion of what happens after you hit "send" on an email campaign. It is up to you to ensure that your customers want to receive your email and that they can help you make sure it gets delivered to their inboxes. You’ll be amazed at the difference that focusing on customers will have on their receptivity and response.

Matt Blumberg is CEO of Return Path, an email performance company that focuses on email deliverability, list maintenance and best practice strategies.

Maximizing your media via video marketing and YouTube

Based on my experience talking with dozens of companies each month, I've noticed one alarming trend: a significant lag in the digital video department. Many brands are fully engaged with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, but few have embraced the power of video and YouTube specifically. For starters, video provides the ultimate storytelling medium; if a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words is a 30-second video at 30 frames per second worth? Furthermore, video offers greater retention and up to five times greater recall than the written word.

Video is also one of the most efficient forms of media. An HD video offers four powerful media form factors to marketers: video, audio (podcast), text (transcript), and still images. Each of these form factors can be edited, optimized, syndicated, and promoted across a variety of platforms, including YouTube, iTunes, a website or blog, and Pinterest or Flickr. Online video ads outperform other online ad formats. According to eMarketer, U.S. online video advertising spending will grow 52.1 percent to $2.16 billion in 2011, before reaching $7.11 billion in 2015.

In terms of social media platforms for video, YouTube is the 800 pound gorilla and the second most popular search engine by volume. A few YouTube stats: 60 hours of video are uploaded every minute, over 4 billion videos are viewed per day, U.S. consumers exposed to a YouTube homepage ad are 437 percent more likely to engage in a key brand activity on the same day than those unexposed, and 70 percent of YouTube traffic comes from outside the U.S. As such, you cannot afford not to create your own channel. To be truly effective, a YouTube channel should contain videos for all four stages of the sales cycle: awareness, interest, intent, and purchase. For more insights, read "The ultimate guide to video marketing on YouTube."

Penguin-proofing your search engine optimization efforts

Over the past two years, Google has spent a good deal of effort cleaning up its search results with updates to its algorithm. Known as Panda and Penguin respectively, the updates were meant to actively target low-quality and spam websites. Unfortunately, many credible websites were caught in the crossfire, and some companies have lost significant traffic and revenue as a result. In this section, I'll outline best practices for determining if your website has been penalized and how to get back into Google's good graces. Spoiler alert: The best place to start is Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

A bit of background is in order. Over the past two years, Google has made a series of updates to its algorithm, collectively known as Panda and Penguin. The Panda update was designed to reward high-quality sites and penalize low-quality sites. According to Google, the Penguin "change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google's existing quality guidelines" including cloaking, keyword-stuffing, aggressive exact match anchor text and domains, doorway pages, duplicate content, and creation of poor-quality content to secure inbound links. Both updates were targeting spam, not over-optimization, yet Penguin has impacted about 3.1 percent of queries (compared to Panda 1.0's 12 percent).

Most business owners felt the impact of penalization immediately, but it is important to confirm that your decline in traffic and revenue is due to the algorithm updates. Start by checking your analytics and map traffic drops against the timeline of known algorithm updates. If you find a correlation, the next step is to conduct an audit of your on-site and off-site optimization elements to ensure you're not guilty of any of the "worst" practices. The most common transgressions include duplicate content, poor-quality content, and suspect inbound links (typically secured by a low-rent SEO firm or junior in-house team member). To solve the problems, once identified, simply reverse or "de-optimize" the elements and resubmit to Google once you have 100 percent confidence the website is clean.

Mobilizing your marketing

Marketers have scrambled the past year or two in order to find a solution to the "mobile challenge." After years of hypothesis, mobile is finally upon us, and there are a variety of elements to consider when developing a mobile marketing strategy. Before you get started, however, conduct the necessary research up front to minimize your investment and maximize your ROI. Don't forget to develop KPIs, embed necessary analytics, and start small with limited testing before committing significant resources. Now let's touch on three key mobile strategies: mobile-friendly websites, mobile ads, and SMS and email messaging.

As with any effective online marketing efforts, I believe your website should be the primary focus. The easiest and most cost-effective approach to developing a mobile-friendly "responsive" website design, with small screens as a key consideration factor, is by using CSS and HTML5 as the backbone. The site should render nearly as well on a five-inch phone screen as a 21-inch monitor, if designed correctly. The alternative approach would be to build your corporate website on a mobile-friendly CMS platform -- one that automatically generates a mobile version (think WordPress). If mobile is core to your business strategy, the logical (albeit expensive) approach is to create a dedicated mobile website (m.companyname.com) with unique content and features your mobile audience will need and appreciate. Regardless of approach, the website should be designed for small screens with properly-sized images and text as well as "thumb-friendly" navigation.

Although mobile advertising is in its infancy, it is growing quickly. The good news is that you can get started relatively quickly and easily with mobile advertising campaigns. For those of you with existing Google AdWords accounts, adding mobile is as easy as clicking a button. Beyond expanding your text and display ads to mobile searches, you can incorporate mobile-friendly capabilities like dedicated landing pages, click-to-call, and call tracking (via Google Voice) to measure effectiveness of mobile marketing efforts. In terms of SMS messaging, think of it as an affordable communication platform and an opportunity to increase the depth and breadth of your marketing database. Since most mobile users prefer email over SMS (due primarily to associated fees), ensure your email marketing platform is mobile-friendly. For more insights, read "Mobilizing Your Mobile Marketing Strategy."

Automating your marketing

In the wild world of marketing, the last mile is the most critical and often the most overlooked. Global brands will spend millions on traditional advertising and related marketing infrastructure, but spend little or nothing on making a smooth handoff to sales. Marketing automation is a relatively new term and industry that bridges sales and marketing disciplines. In short, marketing automation platforms help nurture and qualify marketing leads, typically a grey area that gets missed in organizational charts.

Why is marketing automation a business-critical discipline? Here are just a few reasons:

  • 79 percent of marketing leads never convert into sales

  • 65 percent of B2B marketers have not established lead nurturing

  • 50 percent of leads are qualified but not yet ready to buy

  • 25 percent of leads are legitimate and should advance to sales

Now that I have your attention, let's talk about the features and benefits of implementing a marketing automation platform. For starters, a marketing automation platform helps you develop and analyze marketing campaigns and understand your prospects and customers. While the core functionality focuses on automating marketing campaign development, management, and reporting, these platforms also offer critical lead management capabilities, including lead scoring and nurturing. With marketing automation, the key responsibilities of a field sales team are being replaced by a platform.

Essentially, the marketing automation platform sits between (often plugging into) a lead database platform (like Salesforce) and your email marketing platform or CRM, yet offers rules and logic allowing you to increase the efficiency of your sales team, while getting more mileage from your marketing efforts. There are a variety of vendors currently in the marketplace, including Act-on, Eloqua, LeadFormix, Marketo, Pardot, and Silverpop. I encourage you to evaluate each platform and determine which one is the best fit based on your industry, sales, marketing objectives, organizational structure, and technology infrastructure.

To be a competitive marketer, it is essential to stay ahead of the curve. Embracing the five digital strategies outlined above will keep you in the game, if not ahead. I encourage you to dig deeper into each of the five trends, building your own plan of attack. Game on.

Kent Lewis is president of Anvil Media.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Telecommunications industry" image and "Silhouette of happy couple" image via Shutterstock.

Find out what's important to your audience

It's easy to come up with a promotion that's important to your brand. Throw up a landing page with marketing headlines, a big prize, and a sweepstakes entry form. Done.


I mean "not" if you're leveraging what today's marketing has to offer versus 1995. A killer campaign entertains, engages, and delights people. It also provides an insurmountable benefit to a brand in the form of word-of-mouth. You have to work harder in today's marketing to get people talking and finding out what to talk to them about can be easy. Set down your brand playbook, clean your slate, and study your audience to understand what matters in their life, what makes them happy and, most importantly, where your brand fits into their conversations with their friends. Here are a few ways to learn more about your audience:

Conversation analysis
Use a listening tool to analyze conversations about what people talk about when they aren't talking about your products. Radian6, Sysomos, and Meltwater Buzz are all good tools and they can provide what you need to measure conversations on an ongoing basis.

Facebook data mining
If you're ahead of the curve you might have this in place but most brands aren't doing this. Using Facebook applications, you can get a peek into the likes and interests of your Facebook fans. This reveals what is important to them and what they enjoy in their life.

Take a sample of your top Twitter followers and peruse their tweets and lists to learn about them.

I hesitate to suggest this because I know how quickly a survey can turn into bad data by skewing the questions. If you decide to go this route and ask a question to your followers or pose a set of questions be sure they are open ended and not focused on your product. An example might be "What makes you happy?" or "What's your favorite TV show?"

Key Takeaway: Killer campaigns focus on people not products.

Search all corners of the universe for your "aha" moment

It's all about finding the "aha" moment. It has to be different, surprising, emotional, and entertaining. Tall order, I know. This is why I recommend gathering your brain trust. Creativity can come from the most expected and unexpected places. I say both because time and time again I've seen one of two scenarios: Either the creatives are not involved in idea creation because social media sits in some dark corner of the organization, or the only people involved are the creatives. In my experience, working for years in agencies with top creative minds, I can say I respect what they do. I have also learned that they do not always fully understand how social media works.

I've also learned that the best ideas can also be sourced from people on the outside because they aren't stuck in the brand think. All you need is one strong concept and it might come from the quiet guy in the office who is never asked for an opinion -- or it could come from your top art director. Lead a focused but open forum, then sleep on it, and you'll have some gems to work with when you launch into strategic planning.

As a bonus, you will have let everyone be heard and they will be invested in your initiative making it much easier to push through the organization.

Plant your campaign right in front of your audience

Take your campaign to your audience in one or more spaces they like to be online. While Pinterest is cool and shiny it might not be where your people hang out. If you don't already have a following there it will be difficult to drum up support to launch your campaign with. "Viral" doesn't just happen. It is seeded. Gaining traction for your social campaign involves leveraging your existing audiences and their friends.

Being where your audience is important to driving conversion. People hate leaving their warm, friendly social network to outbound links. It's like asking them to leave a party to pick up milk. Do everything you can to make them comfortable and surround them with friends if you must host the campaign on your website. Integrate social networking features like social sign-on, Facebook Connect, or native sharing buttons to make it easy for people to engage in one click.

Key Takeaway: Be where your audience is.

Develop an integrated strategy

I'm a bit biased so I'll just get it out and tell you that social media is darn special. I will also admit that it's not magic. It can be often treated as a stand-alone tactic. A killer campaign does not stand alone. It involves 360-degree communications, paid advertising (yes I said it!), and many of the other treatments any other promotion would require. Work cross-functionally to develop an integrated communications plan and multi-channel promotion through advertising, email marketing, PR, and other social networks.

Key Takeaway: Integrated marketing is magic.

Execute like a master

The devil is in the details. Human communication is complex and sometimes mind-boggling -- it's what keeps us social marketing people on our toes. Proper execution will make or break your campaign. You have to understand how people speak to each other in Facebook versus Twitter versus Instagram and how they use it. Otherwise, your "follow me on Facebook @brand" will be laughed upon and no one will want to associate with your silly little campaign. "Post your photo on Facebook using #happy" will also be laughed at. If you do not immediately understand why, I suggest hiring a social marketing specialist ASAP.

The same goes for proper technical execution of mobile, interactive design, SEO, or Facebook applications. Successful people hire the best and trust their experts for masterful execution. A successful collaboration of these practices will make all the difference in your campaign working and connecting with your audiences.

Key Takeaway: Poor execution can kill your campaign.

Make it shareable

There's no such thing as social that doesn't involve sharing. It's a key component so be sure to incorporate it. Sharing can be how someone "enters to win" or a way to earn a fun reward or offer. The benefit is two-fold, they engage with your brand and they spread the word to their friends. Every time someone shares his or her message, your content or a link to your page, the effectiveness of your marketing is compounded. Some call this earned media. I call it earned awesomeness.

Key Takeaway: Make it shareable.

Creating a killer social campaign involves great ideas, collaboration, execution, and a little bit of luck. The truth is you'll really never know what will take off until you try it. Be prepared to try different things and try again. Set realistic goals and manage budgets accordingly so that you can continue engaging your audience with room to learn from them along the way.

Melonie Gallegos is the principal and chief social strategist of Fandom Marketing.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Vector illutration of tower" and "Varicoloured child's blocks for games" images via Shutterstock.


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