A few years ago, in a different life, I was privileged to work with the folks that first developed reputation engines for spam filtering. I spent 2 years before we rolled it out banging on the drum, warning marketers that Reputation Was Coming And It Would Change Everything. When it did finally arrive, it did change everything, very fast, and most email marketers were left scrambling to adapt or have their email programs fail. For a while, Reputation was enough to stem the tide, but predictably enough, spam evolved and so the spam-fighting systems needed to evolve as well. Enter stage left: Engagement, or how ISPs measure their customer’s interest in the email they get. They measure it any number of ways, some of which are known -including opens, clicks, if mail is moved to or out of the spam folder, if a mailbox is logged into in X amount of time, etc. Of course, there is also the Secret Sauce – ISPs certainly do not reveal more than a fraction of how they do what they do.
Ken Magill wrote an excellent article about the state of email marketing at the moment. He points out that ISPs that do not control their email interfaces the way AOL, Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo do, are increasingly turning to blocklist and filter vendors such as Spamhaus and Cloudmark to help control their incoming spam problem, and as Laura Atkins writes, Spamhaus has become increasingly effective in the last year. They and other filter vendors are able to do stuff with their data that wasn’t even imaginable when the reputation engines first came out, allowing for better insight into the email streams, and a decreased ability for bad and marginal mailers to fly under the radar. Better tools mean faster work, which leaves time to pay attention to new classes of email, including ESP marketing mail. Along with this development, ISPs are looking increasingly at content and engagement…and if your content and engagement levels are not acceptable to them, your carefully nurtured brand that once had a good reputation will suddenly lose it and your mail will start getting spamfoldered or blocked outright. Getting that good reputation back is a non-trivial task, as some marketers who ignored best practices over the holiday season are now finding out the hard way.
Marketing mail is increasing steadily in volume, for lots of reasons – maybe the recession is causing people to decide that “best practices” are optional and only matter when the economy is not tanking? If so, they are wrong! There are also a lot of companies getting into email marketing for the first time, who mean well but do not know what the best practices are and so they blunder along until something bad happens that encourages them to find out!
A direct side effect of these things is subscriber fatigue. People are just heartily sick of getting so much email and instead of taking less brutal actions such as choosing to only get mail once a week instead of once a day – assuming that the email marketer that has upset them even offers such an option! – they just unsubscribe. And they don’t look back. There’s an article on Reddit about one guy’s experience with an online petition site which neatly underscores what I just said. If there’s such a thing as “spam rage”, I think it’s in full bloom now. People are just overwhelmed by the amount of mail in their inboxes, and are resorting to slash-and-burn methods to make it stop.
According to Magill’s article, spam complaints are on the rise, ISP filtering is getting tighter, relying on being a big household brand to get by is becoming fruitless, and ISPs are becoming much less responsive to requests for assistance or remediation. Gmail does not offer any avenues of appeal whatsoever, for example.
List hygiene, clean data acquisition practices and analytics are becoming ever more important. Just removing bounces and complainants is not enough to protect your program from engagement based filtering. My observations from where I am sitting these days agree with Magill, as do many of the industry experts that blog. I’ve had some conversations with the folks that pull the triggers at the ISPs and blocklists and they agree, too. This is a dicey environment, it always has been and it’s just getting more so.
Scary business! So what can you do?
There are a lot of things that you can do to help maximize your email marketing program’s effectiveness, beyond using an opt-in program, removing invalid addresses and spam complaints immediately.
Putting “best practice theory” into “best practice reality” is made much easier when you have the right tools to hand. Tools within IBM’s Enterprise Marketing Management suite (EMM, comprising Unica Campaign, and eMessage) enable the marketing analyst to add customer identifiers to a global suppression list, to ensure that customers who shouldn’t be contacted, never are. Not even by accident. In addition, analysts can build re-usable lists of customers, known as “strategic segments”, that can be used across marketing campaigns to save time in rebuilding campaign selection logic.
Powerful segmentation functionality is nothing without the power to access data from disparate databases and files in the first place. The reason IBM EMM software is so successful is that your data can stay in situ in your Marketing Data Mart or Data Warehouse, rather than being loaded into another tool before you can work with it. IBM eMessage can draw your data directly from your existing databases.
These features allow the user to create segments that represent individual ISPs and manage their reputation at an ISP level, as well as allowing you to offer products and services to the right selection of people. This helps create positive reactions in your recipients. Careful segmentation is critical for engagement – if you’re a 15 year old girl, you don’t want email about health concerns affecting older men, do you? How many of you folks reading this have gotten mail that is completely irrelevant to you, even offensively so? What is your reaction? At least an eye-roll, and depending on your mood, anything from the eye-roll, up to and including deciding you don’t want mail from that company anymore – you get enough of it from everywhere anyway!
If the worst happens and your reputation takes a dive, then segmentation by ISP can also be a useful tool in damage control – for example, if you’re having trouble with Gmail, you can separate out Gmail customers from the rest of your mailable universe and treat them differently until your reputation with that ISP improves. Ideally, you won’t ever need to do this because you are putting best practices in effect across all ISPs you send to.
It was accepted a long time ago that personalization is a good thing. With IBM EMM eMessage, we now commonly see customers’ PII driving conditional content. If you are willing to go to these lengths to ensure that the customer gets the right message, then why not segment and target carefully? This would allow you to make sure that not only are you maintaining your reputation, but also maximizing your reach. It is also absolutely crucial to your program’s success that you respect your customers by not over-mailing them, keeping content relevant to their desires, and honoring their unsubscribe requests immediately. Failing to respect your customer base drives subscriber fatigue and contributes heavily to decreased IP reputation and inbox placement.
Very often, we find that marketing departments are at best skeptical. and at worst appalled at the suggestion that they remove non-responsive customers from their mailing lists in order to improve their reputation. Yes, at first it seems counter-intuitive…but isn’t this what marketers are supposed to be good at? Segmenting, sampling and splitting?
IBM EMM has a team of people at hand that have broad-ranging and long standing experience in the email marketing world; these folks are available to give expert advice on many of the problems that the evolving anti-spam measures create for marketers.
Old fashioned email marketing programs are becoming increasingly ineffective. We are happy to be able to provide our customers with the tools and advice needed to succeed in navigating the more stringent rules of the new email world.
(This blog post written in collaboration with IBM EMM’s Gordon Patchett, Technical Account Manager extraordinaire. Many thanks for your time, Gordon!)