Email Deliverabilty and What It Means for Marketers and Researchers

Email Deliverabilty and What It Means for Marketers and Researchers

The mail must go through…

I’m reminded of an inscription from the James Farley Post Office in New York City that reads:

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

This quote is a translation from Herodotus, c. 500 B.C.E. That means we’ve been dealing with “getting the message through” for a long time. Add spam to that list and you have the context for getting email delivered to your customers and prospects.

First, the good news: spam is now under 50% of all email traffic, down from a high of just over 70% two years ago. Now for the bad news: without spam filtering, every other email in your inbox would be spam. Making things worse, if you are a business trying to reach your customers, spam filters still trap legitimate email.

Getting legitimate email through to its intended recipient is a challenge. Let’s spend a little time understanding why this is, and then discuss some simple – and not so simple — things you can do to improve the situation.

First, some history…

noun: email
Messages distributed by electronic means from one computer user to one or more recipients via a network.

verb: email
send an e-mail to (someone).
“You can e-mail me at my normal address”

E-mail has its origins in the 1960s on mainframe computers. It allowed users on the same computer to send messages to each other. In 1972, Ray Tomlinson of BBN wrote an e-mail application to send messages between computers on a distributed network. Nearly ten years later, in 1981, Jon Postel authored RFC 788, defining the SMTP protocol, ushering in the core technology we use to this day for moving email around the Internet.

Internet E-mail depended on senders and receivers playing by the rules and generally being good network citizens. That is, the recipient trusted that the sender was who she said she was and that she was contacting the recipient for a legitimate reason. This worked pretty well for a long time. Friends and colleagues could share information, collaborate on projects, or send each other the occasional joke.

Then spam arrived on the scene…

noun: spam; plural noun: spams; noun: Spam
1. Irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of recipients.
Unwanted or intrusive advertising on the Internet.
“an autogenerated spam website”
2. trademark – a canned meat product made mainly from ham.

verb: spam; 3rd person present: spams; past tense: spammed; past participle: spammed; gerund or present participle: spamming
Send the same message indiscriminately to (large numbers of recipients) on the Internet.

The first spam message is attributed to Gary Thuerk in 1978, advertising a new model of DEC computer. The first major commercial spam incident came sixteen years later when the husband and wife attorney duo, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, used email to promote their immigration law services. While similar in intent, that is, to sell you something, these early efforts are dwarfed by the scale of the spam industry we know today, which is credited with generating just under half of all email traffic.

Governments around the world have stepped into the fray with legislation to help address spam. Some (EU countries come to mind) take a very dim view of spam. Others, well, less so. Bulgaria says spam is A-OK. In the US, CAN-SPAM attempts to help. The fines are stiff but enforcement is difficult. Practically, it has done little to stem the flow of spam.

Enter the spam filter. Early filtering tools, based on keywords, patterns, and special characters, started showing up in the late 1990s. These tools were blunt instruments, blocking messages that were OK, rather than just stopping the spam (we call these wrongly blocked messages “false positives”). This led to whitelisting, or adding a sender (or sender’s domain) to a list of approved senders. This is like telling your postman that letters from Warren Buffet were OK to deliver – or that anything from Berkshire Hathaway is OK. All of which is great, provided you can be sure Warren Buffet really sent the message.

During the mid-2000s, SenderScore and other reputation-based schemes emerged to help avoid false positives. These systems work much like a FICO credit rating: do good things, like keeping your server’s hard bounce rate down through good list hygiene and the score goes up; do bad things and it goes down.

Reputation systems helped, but they did not address the issue of making sure the sender really is who he says he is. Technologies like SPF, SenderID, and DKIM were created to help make sure the sender is who he says he is and they have improved the situation. But… spam continues to happen. And good, useful messages continue to get trapped in spam filters.

To get a message through to my business address means going through three different filters: a spam appliance between the Internet and the mail server; a spam filter on the mail server; and, finally, a spam filter on my email client. That’s a lot of filtering. Some days, it feels like an arms race.

Practical impact…

All of this leads to the real meat: email deliverability. I run a small mail server to deliver mail when clients want to reach out to their customers and get honest opinions because, it turns out that if Big Brand A asks your opinion about their product and you know Big Brand A is asking, you respond differently than if someone else asks you. I constrain the volume of mail I send with this server. I require clients to provide only opt-in lists. I don’t mail things that are even questionable under CAN-spam. I have SenderID, SPF, and DKIM configured. And, still, mail gets caught in spam filters. Why? I’m glad you asked. Here’s a starter list – and things you should consider:

  • My mail server doesn’t have a relationship with the addressees in the lists my clients provide. Sure, there’s a relationship with my clients – but that is tied to their mail servers and individual senders, not mine. Remember our good friend the “whitelist”? It doesn’t help in this situation.
  • My mail server is small (by email volume) and doesn’t do regular mailing to the same set of people, making it harder to build a good SenderScore.
  • Not all clients are good list stewards. They keep stale addresses that end up as hard bounces for my mail server. Remember that notion of doing good things and avoiding doing bad things? Hard bounces are bad.

There are some things you can do to help your message get through:

  • Ask your customers to “whitelist” your email address and that of your domain – and send mail from your domain.
  • Use an email contact management platform like Constant Contact, EMMA, etc… that pays real money to have its email “certified” by eTrust and the like.
  • Require your customers to opt in to receive marketing / sales communications. Sure, it looks good on a monthly management report to say that you added 15,413 new email addresses to your CRM platform – but when only 413 of these actually want to hear from you… You get the idea. “Talk” to people who want to talk to you.
  • Communicate regularly with those who do opt in. And, while you’re at it, provide something useful in your communications – useful, that is, to the recipient, not just you.
  • Keep your list up to date. Periodically send mail to each address in your list asking the recipient to update the contact information. Email addresses change. Your list should reflect this.
  • Track and remove addresses with repeated hard bounces. You’ll see email marketing platforms with different thresholds for this measure. Chances are good, if you see three hard bounces in a row to mailings that are more than a few days apart, the address is bad. Continuing to send to addresses like this will not help your SenderScore.
  • Honor opt-out requests. Really honor them. Remove these addresses from your contact lists.
  • Properly configure your email server, if you run your own. This includes SenderID, SPF, DKIM and the rest of email configuration alphabet soup.

While it can be tedious and difficult to reach your clients and prospects, email remains a leading vehicle for business-to-business communications. Make the effort to do it well – or risk losing a very effective sales, marketing, and customer support channel. If you don’t know how to manage this, reach out for help. You’ll be happy you did – and so will your customers.

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