Avoid Email Blacklists

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.