Do your email marketing messages come across as, "Spam I am," only to be filtered out and never reach the intended targets? Seventeen percent of permission-based email messages get incorrectly blocked or filtered by the top 12 Internet service providers, according to a study released in August by Return Path, Inc.'s Assurance Services division. Even email communications addressed to prospects who have indicated they want to receive your messages may never see the light of day.
What can marketers do to insure that people who want to receive emails from their companies, can? Understanding some of the tactics spammers use -- and avoiding them -- and grasping the technical aspects of filtering out spam are essential to avoid being perceived in a negative light.
A little sensitivity goes a long way
Central to the problem of receiving spam is that spammers don't respect recipients' privacy, time or wishes. To avoid being perceived as spam, legitimate marketers should be sensitive to all three. In particular, marketers should avoid coming across like spam by avoiding all caps and extensive hype and sales jargon in the subject and content -- like overusing the words "free," "limited time offer" and so on.
Simultaneously, legitimate email marketers need to put in place policies and procedures that respect recipients' rights. Marketers should:
- Ensure the security of customer data.
- Not over-send.
- Require double opt-in registration.
- Never send to non-validated lists.
- Put in place simple opt-out processes.
These steps will help to ensure that when the message does get through, it will less likely be perceived as spam.
Working within the parameters of the spam filters
To learn how to operate in a spam filter environment, marketers need to understand what types of filters are out there.
Spam filters aim to weed out unwanted emails. They typically reside in two locations: server-side -- on the mail server or ISP -- and client-side -- on the intended recipient's computer. Four categories of filters exist (each can reside on the server or the client side): white list, black list, content and hybrids.
White list filters
White list filters assume that all email is bad and check each message coming in against a list of senders that are "approved." Many white list filters have a challenge-response mechanism that sends an automated message to an unapproved sender that asks, in essence, "Why should I read this piece of email?" The sender, if it is an automated sending program, will not likely respond, therefore the mail remains filtered. However, people who choose to respond and indicate why the email should be received typically are sending legitimate one-to-one email and are let past the filter.
Getting on an email recipient's white list of approved email addresses can be simple -- just ask. When a prospect signs up to receive an email from you, send an email back to them to confirm their opt-in. At that time, ask the recipient to add your domain or address to their white list. Many times, it is as simple for them to add your email address as to add a contact in their address book. Other times, they may need to tell their systems administrator to add your email address or domain to the corporate white list. Either way, it requires a little effort on your prospects' part, but ensures that they will be able read your email messages when they arrive.
To handle the challenge-response mechanism, ensure that your email is coming from a legitimate email address that is managed by a human who can answer requests from software filters. That way, individuals can indicate that your messages should be received by the intended recipients.
Black list filters
Black list filters assume all email coming to it is good, and check email against a list of known spammers. If the email coming in matches a blacklisted provider, then the email remains filtered.
Black lists can be avoided by practicing good, safe email policies. Still, even the smartest, most sensitive email marketer can get on a black list. In some cases, all it takes is for one user to complain. Some black lists are difficult to get off of, but if you start building good relationships with the major ISPs you should have a way to get off those lists, provided that you can prove that you have up-front opt-out policies, have documented confirmed opt-in of your list entries and are protecting the rights of the ISPs' customers.
Hygiene is also essential in avoiding black lists. Marketers should keep email lists clean by removing bad or bounced addresses, typos and spam addresses. A common practice of spammers is to send mass email campaigns to made-up addresses (typically at the major email providers like AOL and Hotmail) to find those that are received and valid. Those ISPs pick up on the undeliverables and stop the remaining messages from going through. So, if you start sending to a lot of undeliverables at once to the same ISP, you can get blacklisted at that ISP.
Content filters are often the most difficult for marketers to deal with because they are the most touchy and non-standard. Content filters deny email containing elements that the filter doesn't like. Sometimes that may be words, such as "free" or "win." Sometimes it may be formatting such as all capital letters or non-standard colors. And, some filters will look at header information to ensure that the email headers contain legitimate and accurate information, rather than forged message code.
To avoid being picked up by content filters, marketers must employ a middle ground between the usual promotional advertising-speak and unusual tactics, such as using images in place of text or non-standard characters. This requires that marketers be more creative in getting messages across. Using too many non-standard characters, images and advertising-speak may get messages filtered.
"To," "from" and "subject" line fields are important. Each of these needs to accurately match the content in the body of the message. Some content filters also check that the content and tone of the subject line matches that of the body.
There are all sorts of companies developing hybrids of the above, plus there are people that employ one type of filter on the server, with another on their client. Another popular, but less arbitrary content filter is Bayesian filtering that, like TiVo, learns over time what the user does and does not want to receive based on the actions he or she takes on the email received. Bayesian filtering builds a black list, plus identifies spam content that is unique to the user.
Both content and hybrid filters are more difficult to avoid due to the inconsistency among providers. The best way to avoid them is to be upfront about your intent and respectful of recipients' rights. With most filtering, it is up to the recipient to keep you our lose you. If you are providing valuable information, you will stay on their white list.
What does this all mean?
With all of the complexities and technical details of email filters, it is easy to get bogged down in the details. Keep in mind that, as a marketer, you are not in the business of avoiding spam filters -- that is what spammers are trying to do day in and day out.
However, you will need to understand them to get to the prospects and customers that want to receive what you are sending. The fact that they have signed up means that they are likely consumers of your product or service. And once the message does get there, prospects are more likely to pay attention. Data from DoubleClick show that open rates for permission-based email marketing rose to 38.8 percent, up from 37.6 percent for the same period a year earlier, and click-through rates increased to 8.3 percent, compared with 7.5 percent last year.
Besides filtering out unwanted email for your recipients, marketers can rest assured that the filters are out there eliminating some of the noise so you can speak clearly with your customer.
Reid Carr is the President and Strategy Director for Red Door Interactive in charge of helping organizations, such as Sharp Systems of America, San Diego Convention Center, The National Brain Tumor Foundation, Hawthorne, SkinMedica and others, to lay out strategies for their online Web presence and interactive marketing activities.
Google News sitemap
If you have a background in SEO, you're intimately familiar with an XML sitemap. You might not be aware that there is a News sitemap option as well. This is good news for PR professionals who are comfortable creating content for a news room (SEO pros can see the previous page for details). If you're a PR pro, you just need to know that an XML News sitemap allows Google to more effectively locate, index, prioritize, and rank content available in your news room.
To create a News sitemap, simply visit your Google Webmaster Tools account and follow the basic steps to create and post the sitemap to your website. Once properly configured, the News sitemap should increase visibility of the content you've already created as well as all future news room content.
If you're a social media wonk, you may be familiar with the SEOmoz Followerwonk tool. PR pros are often compensated based on their ability to "influence the influencers" like the press. When I first started out in PR in the mid '90s, we used print and CD-ROM based tools like Media Map and Bacon's to identify appropriate editorial contacts at target publications. Nowadays, social media has infiltrated the media sphere, and with it, tools have followed to help PR pros identify "new media" influencers, whether they be traditional (print), digital (online), or social media (bloggers).
Followerwonk provides a simple interface that allows you to identify and sort influencers as well as compare them against each other. The tool also allows you to analyze and track followers over time, including trending gains or losses of fans and followers. Additional capabilities include searching of Twitter bios for keywords and sorting followers by location and how they follow. For SEO pros, this tool can help identify influencers and segments for your content marketing strategy, whether they are traditional print-based editors, bloggers, or social media mavens with a large following relevant to your target audience. If you have an SEOmoz Pro account, you'll benefit from a full version of Followerwonk. If not, a free trial is available.
With a bevy of social influence measurement tools available, it's often difficult to discern which one or two to focus on as a reliable and consistent data source. I've always been a fan of Portland-based Twitalyzer, but the data has historically been Twitter-centric. Other tools are more robust and even complex, but data paralysis is a very real problem with many of the options available.
As such, I recommend keeping it simple, and nobody does that better (arguably to a fault) than Klout. Like a high-tech mattress, Klout offers a single "sleep number" you can easily track and compare. The tool provides a dashboard that includes score trending and the ability to compare multiple profiles. Klout offers a secondary data point to triangulate influencers across multiple social media platforms (albeit aggregated), which can be helpful, as each tool pulls from different data sources and scores the data differently to create a "score." PR and SEO pros alike will find this tool helpful in identifying influencers across the social graph to target for content marketing, link development, and PR-related initiatives. If you're looking for a third data point for triangulation, try Twitalyzer, as it's a "checkbook to Klout's FICO score."
If you're not already taking advantage of the free Google Alerts tool, you must be living in a spider cave. Regardless, it only takes a few minutes to set up a Google Alert based on a target keyword or phrase of your choosing. After setup, you will receive timely email updates whenever there is a match in Google's database. I set up Alerts for my name, company, clients, prospects, competitors, and industry terms. The Alerts can provide timely insights into emerging trends for PR and content marketing programs, and it is a free and easy way to identify mentions of your brand, including reviews and coverage. This tool is best used to augment more robust research and tracking tools, but it is extremely reliable and easy to manage.
So far, we've focused on the influencer as a person, but there are tools that help identify credible and influential websites. PR pros will appreciate the ability to quickly assess the validity of obscure niche industry websites, publications, and blogs. The Compete tool aggregates and measures website traffic, which can be used for trending and comparative insights. For PR pros, this tool is not only helpful in identifying new media targets, but also in evaluating the relative "reach" of syndicated articles and coverage on a specific website. Keep in mind that low-traffic sites might lack sufficient data, but that doesn't mean they should be ignored. Cross-reference inbound links (see the tool on the next page) and mentions in the social graph for better triangulation and insights.
The SEOmoz Fresh Web Explorer
I'm a big fan of SEOmoz, as it provides a suite of powerful tools for SEO pros. A newer service available to Pro accounts is the Fresh Web Explorer. The platform was recently acquired and added to the SEOmoz toolset, offering SEO and PR professionals the ability to "research and compare mentions and links to your domain using the power of the Freshscape index. Analyze mentions of your brand, your competitors' brands, and industry topics, and discover the latest relevant content being published on the web."
Fresh Web Explorer compares mentions of your brand (or keywords) against actual inbound links and offers great insights into competitors and content strategies via trending analysis. For more information on the new tool, read a blog post by co-creator Matthew Brown.
One of the most compelling updates to the Google ranking algorithm is the addition of Authorship. Also known as Author Rank, Google rewards content creators based on the quality and quantity of their contributions.
Start by creating a Google+ account, which is essential for personal and corporate SEO. Link your account to blogs and articles you've authored. Be sure to upload a photo and byline as well. Once set up, Authorship offers insights into the visibility of your content. PR pros should incorporate this strategy for high-profile clients and executives. Over time, your Google+ profile will build equity and improve your rankings and credibility.
You can't manage what you can't measure. As such, it is critical to understand the impact of your PR efforts on your overall search visibility. The most affordable way to accomplish this goal is to create a free Google Analytics account. Once an account is set up, simply incorporate the code and tags provided by Google into all appropriate pages of your website. With minimal configuration, Google will provide insights into top ranking pages on your website, including PR-related content from the news room.
Analytics will also inform you of top referring websites and pages, which often include press coverage or social media mentions. Adjust report settings to identify trends over time and set up custom reports for PR-related content. For bonus points, create conversion funnels for PR-specific activities (leads originating from news room content, media inquiries, etc.). In a recent development, Google has dramatically improved real-time data for events and segments, which is ideal for PR-based initiatives. The savviest of PR pros can develop content and stories based on insights gained from closely monitoring website activity, including popular pages and referring search terms.
I'm a big believer in syndicating articles to target publications and blogs. Being published on third-party websites provides validation that increases credibility and visibility. It also provides PR pros with the greatest single impact in terms of link building: third-party links from popular websites. If you write the article, be sure to embed relevant links back to your website or business and link it to your Google+ account.
Measurement becomes critical in evaluating the impact of syndicated articles, and the LinkTally tool is a great resource. LinkTally provides a summary of the number of times specific content has been shared across social platforms including Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It helps provide insights on relative reach of any giving article (or page), which can be used to validate PR and SEO efforts as well help identify popular and trending topics for future content marketing and PR efforts. Where Compete or other tools might fall short in providing absolute traffic for specific pages or articles, this simple tool offers a relative impression number for comparison purposes. Note: The numbers provided by LinkTally appear to be the same as many bars available in popular social sharing plugins.
Social media marketers typically rely on social monitoring tools like Radian6 or BuzzMetrics to understand what people are saying about their brand. These platforms can be cost-prohibitive, but there are free or low-cost alternatives. Social Mention offers a free solution to listening and includes more than just results for a given search phrase. The platform provides sentiment, strength, passion, and reach metrics that can be particularly powerful when evaluating evolving trends for content marketing and PR activities. You can set up regular updates via the website or email for given search terms, similar to Google Alerts. The platform is perhaps most powerful for identifying and validating new content ideas based on keyword research. Tracking the four key metrics mentioned earlier (sentiment, strength, passion, and reach) over time is also helpful to measure the impact of PR-related messaging campaigns.
By properly using the tools mentioned in this article, you can expect to generate a much greater return on investment for your SEO and PR efforts. Whether you have a PR or search background, it's never too late to leverage the benefits of both disciplines, and these 11 tools will give you an edge over your competition.
Editor's note: This article is based a recent presentation by Kent Lewis at SMX West in San Jose on the topic of leveraging public relations tools for search engine optimization.
"3d stainless human social network and leadership as concept" image via Shutterstock.