Is your email program ready to handle the demands of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and other holiday campaigns? I'm not just talking about having attractive content and crowd-pleasing offers. Rather, have you done everything you can to get those great messages delivered to subscribers' inboxes?
Even if you've already launched your first holiday-themed campaign, you've still got some time to make these strategic improvements needed to help your messages avoid the junk folder or the spam filter.
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Make opt-in a truly voluntary act
One simple fix can get you started today: Eliminate prechecked boxes on opt-in invitations, whether on your website, in transactional emails, or any other place you use them. When you try to force customers' hands with checked boxes, you're practically asking them to unsubscribe, delete messages unopened, or file spam complaints.
Unsubscribing won't hurt as much as lack of action or spam complaints. Spam complaints are the No. 1 factor for ISP blocking, whether you get too many or fail to remove them immediately. Many ISPs also interpret lack of action as a sign that customers don't really want your messages. That can hurt your sender reputation.
These two other tactics will also give you better results in the long run:
Stop buying addresses. You might not rent or buy lists claiming millions of email addresses, but email append, which tries to match postal and email addresses, can be just as damaging to your sender rep when those new addresses start getting email they didn't ask for.
Audit co-registration partners. Be sure they're opting in subscribers correctly and passing on unsubscribes quickly. Do the same for affiliates, whether they funnel subscribers to your master database or add them to their own lists for sending email on your behalf.
Get in good with ISPs through whitelisting and authentication
Typically, your IT department or email service provider will handle these technical aspects, but you need to know that the work has been done to demonstrate to the ISPs that you are a legitimate sender.
A whitelist is an ISP's list of senders who comply with its requirements, such as opt-in acquisition, low spam-complaint rate, and no presence on major blacklists. Whitelisting sometimes gives you the ability to send greater volumes, but you have to maintain compliance to stay on, and it's no guarantee of inbox placement; if your recipients complain, your message is headed to the spam folder, whitelist or no.
Most ISPs that offer whitelisting allow you to sign up online. Look for the "postmaster" page on the ISP's corporate website.
Authentication tells the ISP that you are the authorized email sender from your IP address or domain. This usually involves inserting a line of code into your DNS record or following some other protocol the ISP has set up.
Authentication protocols include SPF (Sender Policy Framework), SenderID, and DomainKeys/DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail). Authentication doesn't guarantee inbox placement or rule out blocking, but it does tell the ISP who you are, separating your messages from those whose senders can't be verified.
Move long-term inactive subscribers off your master list
If you want to start a fight among email marketers, ask them if it's better to remove or retain nonresponders. Pro-removal marketers say you end up with a smaller but more active list, which benefits your sender rep and gives you a more accurate picture of your list health. Pro-retainers say removal wastes the potential that an inactive subscriber could come back and the money you spent to acquire that subscriber way back when.
I favor removing long-term inactives (see my reasons in a previous iMedia column) but only after you've tried to wake them up with a reactivation program.
If you can't bring yourself to move them out of your active database, market to them selectively. Send less often, or sweeten your deals to entice them back.
Regulate your sending frequency and speed
Here, you manage both your cadence -- the rate at which you send campaigns, whether broadcast to your entire list or targeted to specific segments of your database -- and the rate at which you send messages to ISPs during a campaign.
Don't pound your list into oblivion. The danger is clear. You annoy subscribers, even those you acquired through solid-gold opt-in practices. Annoyed subscribers drive spam complaints, unsubscribes, and inactivity. (Review the consequences of those actions in item No. 1 above.) If you plan to increase your message cadence, give subscribers a little warning.
Create a separate list for last-minute deals or other special topics. That can help you comply with harried managers who order extra campaigns to make budget in the waning days of the holiday rush. Or, offer an "opt down" list for less frequent mailings.
Watch your delivery speed. Work with your IT department to regulate speed when sending a campaign. If an ISP detects a sudden flood of messages from a single IP address, it might suspect a virus or rogue spammer has hijacked your server. It can "throttle" your messages (slow down the number it accepts per minute or hour), route them to the spam folder, or block them outright. Monitor delivery reports during the broadcast to identify trouble spots and reduce delivery to ISPs that are limiting acceptance.
These strategies might not be as fun or interesting as designing an attractive message or writing compelling copy. But nobody will see your brilliant emails if they get blocked or land in the spam folder. Some grunt work now can make all the difference in your quarterly and year-end results.
Wendy Roth is the senior manager of training services for Lyris Technologies.
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