Some Email Industry BS We Should All Be Wise to by Now

Quick! Which email service provider has the best delivery rate? Don’t know? Neither do I. Let’s try and find an answer. According to a list put out by ranking firm topseos, Pinpointe On-Demand has the best delivery rate of 10 email service providers it ranked for January. Let’s just cut to the real problem with Topseos’ rankings list—that it mentioned ESPs’ so-called “delivery rates” at all.

Quick! Which email service provider has the best delivery rate?

Don’t know? Neither do I. Let’s try and find an answer.

According to a list put out by ranking firm topseos, Pinpointe On-Demand—as topseos referred to it—has the best delivery rate of 10 email service providers it ranked for January.

The company name is actually just Pinpointe, but let’s not quibble.

No, let’s just cut to the real problem with Topseos’ rankings list—that it mentioned ESPs’ so-called “delivery rates” at all.

ESPs don’t have delivery rates. Or they shouldn’t anyway.

Why? Because every major lever that affects whether email gets delivered to people’s email boxes is under the list owner’s control.

Email inbox providers’ spam filters have traditionally relied on three major metrics to determine whether or not email coming from a specific sender is spam: the number of spam complaints, the number of bad addresses a mailer tries to reach and the number of spam traps they hit.

And these days, ISPs are reportedly increasingly looking at engagement metrics—clicks and opens, for example, or lack thereof—to weed out unwanted mail.

All of the above-mentioned metrics are directly attributable to the sender’s behavior, not the ESPs’.

Yet, some email service providers tout their so-called delivery rates in their sales pitches.

For example, Constant Contact claims its delivery rate is 97 percent. But when one reads why its delivery rate is so high, it becomes clear

“We hold our customers to high standards with good email marketing habits and practices,” says a headline on the page touting Constant Contact’s delivery rate.

There is nothing wrong with Constant Contact touting high standards.

And this isn’t to say an ESP has nothing at its disposal that can affect delivery rates. For example, an ESP can affect deliverability by throttling-or sending the messages at a slower rate—so ISPs are less likely to block them.

Also some ESPs have better support structures in place than others. As a result, delivery rates can reportedly vary from ESP to ESP. But it’s not the ESPs’ delivery rates we’re discussing here. It’s the senders’ delivery rates.

This may sound like a ridiculously minor quibble. But referring to email delivery rates as the ESPs’ shifts responsibility for behavior that helps ensure high delivery rates from where it belongs—the sender.

Senders of commercial email must continuously be made aware that the responsibility for ensuring high email delivery rates lies mostly with them and there’s not an ESP in the world that can magically overcome the deliverability consequences of sloppy email address acquisition practices and poor list hygiene.

How a Dirty Mind Can Help Save Your Creative

My journalism mentor Charlie Adair [RIP] was an utterly twisted human being, but in the best way imaginable for a student who wanted to learn to be the best reporter he could be. He could have taught marketers a thing or too, as well-for example, about empathy, hitting deadline, and always thinking on one’s feet. The final exams for Charlie’s infamous interviewing course were legendary for putting students in excruciatingly uncomfortable positions. … Team Obama could use a Charlie Adair.

My journalism mentor Charlie Adair [RIP] was an utterly twisted human being, but in the best way imaginable for a student who wanted to learn to be the best reporter he could be.

He could have taught marketers a thing or too, as well—for example, about empathy, hitting deadline, and always thinking on one’s feet.

The final exams for Charlie’s infamous interviewing course were legendary for putting students in excruciatingly uncomfortable positions.

According to a post on his eulogy, one class “was merely given phone numbers to call for interviews. The students discovered people who were blind, who had AIDS, who were in great distress—all assembled by Charlie for the exercise.”

“Typical Charlie,” I thought as I read it.

For another exam, he loaded the entire class into an Econoline van, drove them to the front gate of New York’s Attica state prison and told them to go in and get quotes from lifers.

The final exam for my interviewing class was a quote scavenger hunt that included having to find, phone and quote people who were obscurely referenced—maybe by just a name or nickname. This was before the Internet.

My exam also involved getting a quote from Buffalo, NY’s then mayor Jimmy Griffin, a man legendary for physical altercations with reporters.

I aced that exam. For example, I knew Mayor Griffin would get increasingly agitated by the calls from Charlie’s students and would stop accepting them, so I made sure I was first.

Charlie called his interviewing class “boot camp for the terminally over privileged.”

Just before he died, I met him for lunch during a trip back to Buffalo. After we shook hands, I produced a copy of iMarketing News, the dot-com trade newspaper I had launched for DM News.

“Everything you taught me is in play in this newspaper,” I said. “Your name’s not on it, but you’re all through it.”

He died in 2000 from unexpected complications from what was supposed to be minor surgery. He was 58.

I think of Charlie often, especially when circumstances arise that he warned us would come about.

In fact, I thought of Charlie recently and how he would have chuckled when an email arrived from the Obama team with “Michelle” in the “from” line.

“Sometime soon, I want to meet you,” said the subject line.

Team Obama could use a Charlie Adair.

One of the simplest but most enduring lessons he taught me was that the best editors have dirty minds. They can help avoid publishing embarrassing copy with unintended meanings.

For example, I once saved a reporter from including a line in her piece about a football practice bubble that had been “problem plagued since its erection.”

If a Charlie Adair were on team Obama, he would have told them that subject line in the “Michelle” email sounded like something from a pornography spammer.

Everyone can use a Charlie Adair on their copy team-including you. That guy or gal on your team with the dirty mind could mean the difference between a sale and a giggle.

Astonishing: The One Email That Made It Through

An astounding email hit my inbox this week that perfectly illustrates the value of triggered messaging, or email sent as the result of some sort of action or inaction by the recipient.

An astounding email hit my inbox this week that perfectly illustrates the value of triggered messaging, or email sent as the result of some sort of action or inaction by the recipient.

The email itself wasn’t particularly astounding. It was pretty run of the mill.

What was astounding was that it made it into my inbox when every other email sent by this particular merchant over the course of the last year has been diverted to my spam folder.

Gmail had correctly identified the message as the sole email I would open from that sender all year long.

Wow.

Here’s the story: I run a fantasy football league for email marketing service providers under the brand of my newsletter The Magill Report.

The winner of The Magill Report Fantasy Football Championship gets a tasty, regulation-sized football-shaped sweet bologna sausage from Dietrich’s Meats in Krumsville, PA [Mmm. Mmm.] and a lead crystal championship trophy with the winning company’s name inscribed on it.

I bought last year’s trophy from Crown Awards. I will buy this year’s trophy from Crown Awards. Their stuff is reasonably priced and high quality. The service is great.

Here’s where it gets interesting from an email marketing standpoint: Crown has been emailing me with offers I’m not interested in on a regular basis ever since the first purchase. I don’t mind. I simply don’t have any reason to do business with Crown accept once a year.

Gmail’s spam filtering system apparently figured this out. Every single message from Crown has been diverted to my spam folder without me having done anything indicating I’m not interested in the messages.

Until this week, that is.

On Monday, an email from Crown arrived in my inbox with the subject line: “Crown Awards – Time to Order.”

The body of the message contained a copy of last year’s championship-trophy order and a call to action asking me to re-order, which I most certainly will.

Think about that for a moment: Gmail’s anti-spam team has developed technology that identified the one message I would want among dozens from the same sender over the course of a year.

There are a number of possible explanations: The re-order email wasn’t part of the regular blasts. It was personalized and people are probably much more engaged with Crown’s re-order messages than its broadcast campaigns.

Inbox providers see this engagement as an indication their subscribers want the messages so they deliver them to their inboxes.

And here’s where the Crown example fits into the bigger picture: Responsys recently wrapped up a study of 100 retailers in which the email service provider found close to a third of the merchants were sending regular email to addresses that had been inactive for three-and-a-half years, and another 23 percent were sending the inactive addresses messages, but at a reduced frequency.

The study also found that marketers who have large lists in which 50 percent of the addresses have been inactive for a year or more are at serious risk of getting all their mail filtered into recipients’ spam folders.

But many of these mailers won’t even know their broadcast messages are getting filtered as spam. After all, they’re not bouncing. They’re simply being pushed into recipients’ spam folders.

As email inbox providers increasingly rely on engagement metrics—such as opens and clicks, or lack thereof—to separate wanted from unwanted email, the Crown example above points to what should be the increasing attractiveness of triggered email programs.

I moderated a webinar for this publisher recently in which online marketing guru Amy Africa discussed triggered emails. Here, in part, is what she had to say:

“The thing about triggers … is you get a higher response rate, better deliverability by far and improved lifetime profit,” she said. “The great thing about them is you design them once, tweak them a little and they last for years. I have clients who have been mailing the same thing since 1998.”

An average triggered email should outperform a marketer’s best broadcast email by four to six times, she added.

So which triggered emails work best?

According to Africa, abandoned-cart, -search, -site and -lead-form messages are all top performers. The success of abandoned-shopping cart emails has been well documented. The same tactic can be employed to reach people who, say, begin filling out a form to download a white paper or attend a webinar, but stop for some reason.

Confirmation emails are also top performers, said Africa. “Anything you can confirm works really well,” she said.

Emails based on past purchases are also workhorse messages, she said.

“They take a little time to get your formula right, but after that they’re golden,” Africa said.

Indeed. Just ask the folks at Crown.

Email’s No. 1 Misunderstood Metric

So you’re sitting around a conference table discussing your company’s email marketing and someone starts talking about the program’s open rate. To the uninitiated, common sense says “open rate” refers to the average percentage of emails that get opened. … But that’s not what it means all.

So you’re sitting around a conference table discussing your company’s email marketing and someone starts talking about the program’s open rate. To the uninitiated, common sense says “open rate” refers to the average percentage of emails that get opened.

But that’s not what it means all.

An “open” is recorded when the receiving machine calls for graphics from the sender.

With most email inbox providers blocking images by default these days, a lot of email is getting opened and not registering as such.

At the same time, email landing in boxes using so-called preview panes—those small windows that allow users a glimpse into their email’s content—will register as having been opened whether the receiver read it or not.

So the open rate is useless, right?

Well, not really. While the open rate has been widely criticized—including, at some points, by me—it can be useful as long as it’s used correctly.

While it can’t be measured with even close to 100 percent accuracy, the open rate can serve as a barometric measure.

For example, it can indicate how engaged recipients are with a marketer’s brand. A high open rate means people are making the effort to turn on the graphics in the company’s messages, indicating they’re highly engaged.

Not surprisingly, though, open rates can be misleading. A newsletter I once edited, Magilla Marketing, had a low open rate, but at least one advertiser determined I had a highly engaged readership based on its ad activity.

The issue? Our designers had designed the newsletter so well it was highly readable without the graphics turned on.

In any case, what’s an average open rate? According to email service provider Epsilon, the average open rate across all the industries it tracks for the first quarter of 2011 was 23.3 percent.

However, open rates in the report varied widely from industry to industry, from a low of 14.1 percent for retail apparel to a high of 37.4 percent for financial services.

And like response rates in direct mail, open rates will vary widely from marketer to marketer even within the same industries based on many variables, such as how the list was built, how much email the firm sends, the types of messages it sends and the types of offers.

Nonetheless industry benchmarks can serve to manage expectations.

Where an email program’s open rate can really be useful, though, is when it changes.

If it’s going up, it means the sender is doing something right and recipients are getting more engaged with the brand.

If it’s plummeting, it means the marketer has probably begun doing something wrong. For example, maybe the marketer just added purchased names to the file-a big no-no-and email inbox providers have begun treating the marketer’s messages as spam.

Also, if opens begin plummeting in addresses managed by a specific ISP, say, Gmail, it means something has happened on Gmail’s end that needs to be investigated.

The open rate can be quite useful. But it needs to be understood, first.

Four Email Marketers, My Gmail Account, and Why They Matter to You

Let me tell you the story of four marketers’ emails and their placement in my Gmail account. Trust me. Their story matters to you. I gave none of the four marketers permission to send me email. Yet, two are making it into my inbox. Two are being shunted off into my spam folder.

Let me tell you the story of four marketers’ emails and their placement in my Gmail account. Trust me. Their story matters to you.

I gave none of the four marketers permission to send me email. Yet, two are making it into my inbox. Two are being shunted off into my spam folder.

The four merchants are Walmart’s PictureMe Portrait Studios, Kmart, Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens Products.

The two marketers getting shunted off to my spam folder are PictureMe Portrait Studios and Kmart.

PictureMe Portrait Studios began sending me email after I had a mug shot taken for my website at MagillReport.com.

Somehow, Gmail recognized PictureMe Portrait Studios’ messages immediately as spam. I can only guess, but PictureMe Portrait Studios’ emails were probably being delivered to people’s spam folders long before they started spamming me.

Regular offers on having portraits taken sent without permission is probably prompting people to hit the spam button. How often does the average person want their portrait taken, after all?

Kmart started sending me email after I gave my address during a big-dollar purchase to Sears, its sister company under the Sears Holdings Corp. umbrella

Astoundingly, while Kmart’s email is being delivered into my spam folder, Sears’s email is being delivered to my inbox.

Why is that astounding? Because I gave permission to one of Sears Holdings’ brands and not the other to send email. Gmail has apparently somehow discerned this and is treating their email accordingly and they are the same company.

Meanwhile, Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens are getting delivered into my inbox. Weber-Stephens began sending me email after I bought a grill refurbishing kit from its online store. Cigar Auctioneer began sending me email after I did business with its parent, Famous Smoke Shop.

Neither had permission to send me email. Yet both their messages are marked as priority emails in my inbox.

Why? Because I open every single message I get from them. Weber-Stephens sends a recipe-of-the-week email every Friday. I look forward to them. I open them and I cook about half the recipes in them.

And because of Cigar Auctioneer, I haven’t paid retail prices for my hand-rolled smokes in months. I don’t always get my favorite brands, but boy do I save money.

And here is why my inbox experience matters to you: Email inbox providers are reportedly increasingly eying how individuals interact with their email to determine whether or not it’s spam. As a result, email is increasingly becoming more about engagement.

Translation: You can get a little fast and loose with your permission practices with customers as long as you send email they want and interact with.

Conversely, you can exercise the gold standard in permission practices-fully confirmed opt in where people must respond to a confirmation message in order to be added to your file-but if you send a bunch of unwanted crap, your messages will be treated as such.

Email inbox providers’ spam filters are designed to deliver email people want and filter out email people don’t want.

Send messages people want and you’ll be fine. It’s really that simple. Or not, depending upon what it is you’re selling.

Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens have fairly obvious advantages over other marketers. Their messages invoke thoughts of highly self-indulgent experiences. As a result, they stand a better chance of being welcomed than email from marketers whose products and services don’t invoke similar pleasurable thoughts.

So Cigar Auctioneer and Weber-Stephens can afford to be a little loosey goosey with their permission practices while Kmart and PictureMe Portrait Studios apparently cannot.

The lesson: Make an honest assessment of your product or service and what it represents to customers and prospects. Then make an honest assessment of the email program you’ve set up around it.

Can you honestly say people are likely to want your messages? If not, go back at it. Something needs to be changed.