A ‘Back-to-Business’ Email Optimization Checklist

Back to school is also back-to-business time. Set aside a few hours this final week of summer to freshen up your email program and take advantage of the silence before the rush. Here are six ways to quickly improve reader satisfaction and response rates:

Back to school is also back-to-business time. Set aside a few hours this final week of summer to freshen up your email program and take advantage of the silence before the rush. Here are six ways to quickly improve reader satisfaction and response rates:

1. Put on the proverbial tie. Just as we don suits again in September, smarten up your email look with a template minirefresh. A simpler, more streamlined template will focus subscriber attention on key content and calls to action. Gather your creative and content teams and do a quick inventory of all the changes made to your newsletter template in the past nine months. Remove those that no longer make sense. Nearly every program has them, including the following:

  • small image, link or headline additions requested by the brand, product or sales teams;
  • the multilink masthead that no longer matches the landing pages;
  • that extra banner at the bottom of your emails promoting a special event that never seemed to go away;
  • a bunch of social networking links that no one has clicked on (usually, you’ll find two or three that your subscribers actually use. Keep those and give them breathing room so they’re more appealing and inviting); and
  • extra legal or other language in the footer.

2. Insure against failure. Take a quick look at two key engagement metrics this year: unsubscribe requests and complaints (i.e., clicks on the “Report Spam” button). First, ask everyone on your team to make sure the unsubscribe link works. Then, take a look if the unsubscribe and complaint rates for your various types of messages (e.g., newsletters or promotions) are erratic, growing or steady?

If erratic, you may find certain message types or frequency caps need to change. If growing, your subscribers may be moving to a new lifestage and are now uninterested in your content, or a new source of data may be signing up subscribers ill-suited for your brand and/or content. Both of these are great segmentation opportunities.

3. Turn frequency into cadence. Back when everything reached the inbox, being present was enough to earn a brand impression. So, many marketers just broadcast often to be near the top of the inbox. People are now fatigued from inbox clutter, however, and are employing more filters as a result. Being relevant and timely trumps volume. Subscribers visit their inboxes expecting to see timely messages tailored to their interests. On the other hand, repeated reminders about last week’s sale may turn them off forever.

4. Adopt a new attitude. Gather new information about subscribers, and use it to test content or segmentation strategies. Run a few instant polls to gauge how important key demand drivers are to your subscribers. Ask for a vote on some product taglines you’re considering. To get higher participation, make it fun by featuring the results of the poll on your Facebook fan page, inviting comments that you can share. Or keep a Twitter tally of response in real time.

5. Arm yourself for the crush. Just as traffic swells on the highways and commuter trains this time of year, the email transit way also fills up as marketers promote their fall offerings and gear up for the holidays/Q4. Just like in any rush hour, the more email traffic, the higher the likelihood that your messages will wait in line or be filtered.

Make it a habit to check your sender reputation every day that you send broadcast mailings — it only takes a minute if you have access to inbox placement data. If you don’t have this data, get it from a deliverability service, demand it from your email service provider (ESP), or even check simple diagnostics such as my firm’s free email reputation service SenderScore.org or DNSstuff.com, another free email reputation service.

Sender reputation is directly tied to inbox reach, and the best senders enjoy inbox placement rates in the 95th percentile. Don’t be fooled by ESP reports of “delivered” (i.e., the inverse of your bounce rate). Even for permission-based marketers, about 20 percent of delivered email is filtered or blocked and never reaches the inbox, according to a study by my firm. You can’t earn a response if you aren’t in the inbox. Imagine the immediate boost on all your response metrics if you move your inbox placement rate up 10 or more points.

6. Make new friends. You likely already read a number of blogs or e-newsletters that cover topics relevant to your brand and important to your audience. Audit these for new, fresh voices, then regularly link to those websites in your own messages as part of a regular “view from the world” feature. Your subscribers will appreciate the additional heads up to interesting or helpful articles, and you’ll start to build a network of experts and potential referrals back to your business.

These might be tasks already on your to-do list. Do them this week and get back to business a bit stronger and ready to optimize. Let me know what you think; please share any ideas or comments below.

Stephanie Miller’s Engagement Matters: Why Good Email Gets Blocked as Bad

Our first step in email marketing return on investment is to reach the inbox. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Yet, I’m always amazed at how many email marketers either don’t appreciate the negative impact of blocked messages or don’t know what they don’t know.

Our first step in email marketing return on investment is to reach the inbox. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Yet, I’m always amazed at how many email marketers either don’t appreciate the negative impact of blocked messages or don’t know what they don’t know.

There’s no shame here. Every email marketer gets blocked occasionally, even if you have permission or generally follow best practices. The best defense is good offense: Be knowledgeable on the root causes of blocking, respect subscribers and measure inbox deliverability.

This is no tree in the proverbial forest. If your messages don’t reach the inbox, they won’t earn a response. It’s not something that happens to “that other guy.” In fact, about 20 percent of legitimate, permission-based email marketing messages and newsletters never make it to the inbox, according to a study by Return Path earlier this year. (Full disclosure, I work for Return Path).

Any lift in inbox placement goes right to the bottom line. All your metrics (e.g., opens, clicks, page views, conversions, ad revenues, etc.) will rise concurrently. The good news is that marketers can absolutely impact how messages are treated by ISPs like Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail, and corporate system administrators.

Do not delegate inbox deliverability — a very important step to ROI — even if you delegate delivery. Your email broadcast vendor or ESP can’t do this for you. It’s a shared responsibility. A good broadcast vendor will operate an efficient delivery system, give you full reporting that includes actual inbox placement (Note: this is NOT your bounce rate) and help you follow best practices. However, no vendor can control your message content, frequency and acquisition practices. The buck stops with the marketer or sender.

You need the following four things to reach the inbox consistently and earn a response:

1. A solid infrastructure. For either an in-house system or a vendor, check frequently to be sure you know that your infrastructure is sound (e.g., proper reverse DNS, MX records, authentication and volume throttling) and your bounces are managed properly. Make sure you fully understand the metrics used in reporting as well.

2. Low complaints. There’s a penalty for irrelevancy in email marketing that doesn’t exist in other channels. It’s called “complaints.” A complaint is registered every time a subscriber clicks the “Report Spam” button. It only takes a few complaints to get all your messages blocked at Yahoo, Gmail or corporations (which use many of the same data sources). Subscribers complain when they’re not happy or interested in your messages, even if they’re customers and gave you permission. They complain even when they claim to love your brand.

Yikes! Imagine what would happen if Yahoo or another major ISP blocked all your messages for the next 30 days (the length of time many deliverability failures take to correct). Revenue would drop like a brick and you’d be under the spotlight to explain why your mailing practices earned such a wallop.

Relevant messages have low complaint scores. It’s the single most powerful factor in a good sender reputation, which dictates if your messages reach the inbox and earn a high response. It’s up to marketers and publishers to engage subscribers with every message rather than assume an opt-in gives you license to send whatever you want whenever you want.

Increase relevancy by developing a subscriber-focused content strategy. Address the editorial needs, buying cycles and life stages of your subscribers. New subscribers may welcome more email than long-time subscribers — or the opposite may be true. Tailor messages for subscribers who are up for product or service renewal, have recently purchased, visited a particular section of your website, abandoned their shopping cart, clicked but didn’t convert, downloaded a whitepaper, or haven’t opened or clicked in the last quarter.

3. A clean file. Keep a clean list by doing the following:

  • Be sure everyone on your email marketing file really wants to be there. Offer choices and make it easy to unsubscribe and change preferences.
  • Try to win back fatigued subscribers who are ignoring you early in the relationship. If you see a customer hasn’t opened or clicked in the past 90 days, you may have an opportunity to re-engage.
  • If someone hasn’t opened or clicked in 12 months, take them off your file.
  • Only accept subscribers from legitimate sources — e.g., your own website, partners you vet carefully and publishers with high sender reputations. It may be nice to have a large file, but it’s always better to have a file that’s more responsive and engaged.

4. Good reporting. You can’t manage or optimize what you don’t know. Track complaint data by signing up for all ISP feedback loops, and quickly remove those subscribers who complain. (Detailed instructions can be found here.) Be sure you actually know your inbox deliverability rate, by campaign and message type. This is not your bounce rate (typically 1 percent to 5 percent), but the actual number of messages that reach the inbox. You must seed your campaigns to get this data. If your email broadcast system or vendor isn’t reporting this to you, ask them for it.

What are you doing to better manage inbox placement as part of your response metrics? Let me know what you think by sharing any ideas or comments below.