Author: Katherine Beaumont

Holiday Mailing Lessons for 2019

The 2019 mailing year is already well underway. For many senders, that means dealing with reputation fallout from sky-high holiday volume and re-implementing best practices on outbound campaigns that may have been improperly removed. For the Oracle Deliverability Operations team, it means reflecting on the patterns and practices we have monitored over the November and December mailing period, and leveraging those lessons to improve mailing for our customers in the year to come. No matter where you find the current state of your own mailing program, our insights below will provide a foundation to improve your mailing practices in 2019.

Volume

Yet again, we continued to see a year-over-year increase in overall messaging volume for the holiday mailing period in both November and December. Considering US shoppers registered record-breaking levels of shopping over Cyber Monday in 2018, this is not surprising. But it is important to remember record-breaking email volume isn’t necessarily a good thing for everyone.

Many senders think launching more email will result in earning more ROI, but user fatigue can cause serious harm to a mailing list. This is particularly true if the increase in volume is due to repeat messaging rather than an organic increase in general mailing list size. Bombarding recipients—or worse opening up targeting to an entire list regardless of opt-in status or engagement—will drive spikes in bounces, spam complaints, and negative brand awareness. This will lead to reputation and spam placement issues that can take weeks to resolve. It is important to give recipients a break in the inbox and to only target individuals who are opted-in and engaged.

Gmail Reigns

In other unsurprising news, we saw the largest volume of outbound mail go out to Gmail. Gmail has long been a top email client for users in terms of market share and could even surpass the Apple iPhone for the top spot in 2019 if growth continues.

2018 saw Gmail focusing on improving the user experience with updates to their inbox interface, including added features allowing you to:

  • Snooze messages
  • View messages in confidential mode
  • Receive annotations on messages before they are even opened.

What does this mean for senders going into the New Year? It tells you that best practices are more critical than ever before.

Senders have the ability to feature their messages in the inbox in new ways, but none of this will matter if campaigns keep finding themselves landing in the spam folder.  

Speaking of Landing in the Inbox at Gmail

Throttling and reputation-based filtering appears to be the new normal on a larger scale at the Gmail ISP. While user preferences (i.e., if a receiver adds a mailing address to their address book, drops a message in a particular tab, or flags a message as spam, etc.) still have the power to override the ISP’s placement algorithms at an individual level, more and more senders are falling victim to overall deferred or delayed delivery based on their reputation alone. As has long been the case at other ISPs, this is determined by the same underlying factors, namely IP- and domain-based reputation.

Lax best practices and increased volume over the holidays can add up along with everything else, and the result. If engagement-based criteria (such as how much time has passed since a user opened or clicked a campaign) are overridden, unsubscribes ignored, or acquisition best practices (i.e., confirming opt-ins) allowed to fall to the wayside, it’s likely that hard bounces, spam complaints, and reputation issues will swiftly occur.

Senders need to make sure they are:

  • Targeting their best users (those who are regularly engaging)
  • Acquiring their users correctly
  • Removing inactive segments/processing unsubscribes on an ongoing basis

Now is the time for senders to take a step back, review their campaign performance, and assess what strategies did and did not work for them. And most importantly, it’s time to triple check that all best practices are applied and functioning as they should be on outbound mail in 2019.

Learn more about emails and how you can use to their utmost potential on mobile with Oracle Marketing Cloud’s “Mobile Email Guide.”

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Loyalty Programs and Holiday Mailing

As Cyber Monday sales top $7.869 billion for 2018, a 19.3% year-over-year increase from 2017, many marketers are eager to “reward” their customers for their loyalty with ongoing promotions and offers to the inbox. It’s a great strategy when executed correctly. Brands are able to create special, individualized offers for existing customers and continue to drive sales through the rest of the holiday season. But there is a very important, often overlooked, caveat to this marketing strategy. Loyalty programs should always be treated as promotional, and not transactional, messaging.

Particularly for senders with dedicated transactional IPs, the idea of sending loyalty campaigns as a transactional message is tempting. Transactional campaigns are highly engaged with (receipts, shipping confirmations, recall notices, etc.), and typically have much higher delivery rates as a result. But this should never act as justification for the “ends justifying the means” of a bad mailing practice. In this case, the bad far outweighs the good and it’s your customers who could end up paying the price.

Keyword: Transaction

When asking yourself, “can this be sent as a transactional message?” consider the keyword in that sentence: transaction. Is the goal of this message to convey information about an existing transaction? Or is the intention to drive a further transaction? If the answer is to motivate a new purchase, the message is promotional. Period. Through this lens, loyalty programs clearly fall into the latter category. 

You may be thinking, “But this loyalty/reward was earned because of an existing purchase. It’s a logical follow-up communication. Clearly, that makes this transactional.” However, the intent of the message still needs to be considered as the determining factor. Ultimately, the reward in question is meaningless unless a further transaction is completed by the customer. It is still a tool to drive further sales. And when it comes to protecting your transactional mail, it is better to be safe than sorry. 

Promotional vs. Transactional

Keep in mind that ISPs don’t distinguish or care if the IP you are sending from is promotional or transactional. All inbound mail will be treated with the same scrutiny. Delivery will still be determined based on reputation and reputation is still based on all standard mailing metrics. Loyalty programs run the same risk of spam complaints, delete without opening rates, or bounce/trap rates as any other promotional message. The difference is the reputation impact they can have on a transactional stream of mail is far disproportional to that of general promotional mailing. Don’t risk the delivery performance of those critical messages that need to get to your subscribers’ inboxes. Keep loyalty programs promotional.

And read this blog post for further information on promotional vs transactional mailing guidelines.    

Getting your message delivered is vital to revenue performance. A slight increase at the top of the funnel can make a huge difference to your bottom line. Check out our guide Do More With Email Deliverability and Privacy for tips to tackle email deliverability and privacy.       

The Real Bottom Line: Open Rate and Customer Engagement

As a marketing channel, email shows no signs of slowing down. Nearly 233 million of the world’s 3.7 billion email users are located in the US, and that number is expected to grow to nearly 255 million by the year 2020. It should come as no surprise then that over half of marketers plan to expand their budget for email in the same period to leverage this growing audience.

But as email adoption increases and brands invest more in the space, traditional KPIs like opens and clicks are falling behind money generated per email as the key decision and strategy driver for larger marketers. This begs the question, what happens to deliverability when attention is solely on the bottom line?

Performance Impact

There is a perpetual concern in the email community that open rates are falling. Customers are receiving more and more mail—ignoring even messaging they’ve opted into—and subscriber fatigue is a real issue. Recently, email performance expert eDataSource analyzed “Back to School” email campaign performance YOY for 2017 and 2018, and noticed the same downward trend. Almost universally, email read (or open) rates underperformed from the year previously.

This made me curious – was it increased fatigue generated by a specific type of campaign that individuals could easily ignore, or was there something larger at work here? Leveraging eDataSource I decided to pull performance across a few additional industries for the entire month of July in both 2017 and 2018 to compare.
 

Category

MM/YY

Inbox Rate

Read/Open Rate

Apparel & Accessories

J-17

77.096

18.887

Apparel & Accessories

J-18

84.987

17.654

Restaurants, Bars, & Food Service

J-17

83.753

18.797

Restaurants, Bars, & Food Service

J-18

89.963

18.021

Sporting Goods

J-17

77.896

18.174

Sporting Goods

J-18

84.440

17.652

It’s Time to Refocus

The results were certainly interesting and confirm what others in the space are seeing. While Inbox rates did go up, open rates dipped across the board. Combined with numerous industry studies, a larger picture is starting to emerge here. Customers are receiving more mail, marketers are focusing more on monetary returns per campaign, and a deliverability impact is coming.

The importance of open rates cannot be understated. This is a key indicator to ISPs that an individual actually *wants*to receive and engage with a brand’s messaging. It sends a direct signal to the ISP to deliver this mail to the inbox. Essentially, the higher the open rate, the lower the spam rate, the better deliverability is likely to be overall. Not to mention the fact that a customer can’t spend money on an offer they never receive or look at in the first place.

It is critical that marketers don’t lose sight of traditional engagement metrics in their efforts to capitalize on returns. Standard best practices should always apply. Leverage a double opt-in, always apply engagement-based segmentation and cease mailing to customers who opt out or do not re-engage. These are the building blocks to ensure campaigns continue to deliver functionally to the inbox.

Email marketers, also make sure to read 'Tis the Season for Holiday Planning (Now!) from Kenna Hilburn, Director of Account Development at Liveclicker. She has four tips, to highly engaging email campaigns your customers will love. 

Christmas in July: Consistency is the Key to Email Success

Identifying suspicious sending behavior is the name of the game for ISPs trying to protect their networks from bad actors. They’re constantly updating algorithms and leveraging machine learning to identify spam and preserve the inboxes of users. To avoid being caught up in the same net, legitimate senders need to avoid red flags on their own sending activity. At no other time of year is this more critical than the holidays.

Why talk about Christmas in July? Because sending volume matters. To ensure the success of larger campaigns during the holiday season, you have to start planning and prepping your lists. Now.

In the eyes of ISPs, good senders are consistent. They have consistent open rates, consistent positive engagement with their recipients, and are sending consistent volume to their networks at regular intervals. Unfortunately, make-or-break holiday revenue will cause some marketers to ignore these practices and roll the dice with abnormally large volumes of mail. This typically manifests itself by senders overriding the engagement criteria on their campaigns, and batch-and-blast mailing to entire lists of subscribers with heavy frequency, fatiguing subscribers.

It’s My List, Why Can’t I Mail as I Please?

The most obvious problem with this type of mailing behavior is that it is not consistent with the behavior a sender exhibits throughout the rest of the mailing year.

Consider the ISP’s perspective: A known sender to their network suddenly doubles, triples, even quadruples the amount of mail hitting their servers for a single campaign—and at a much higher frequency. Not only does the ISP detect a spike in volume, but spam trap hits increase, hard bounces increase, and a wave of fresh spam complaints are generated by the change in activity. Must be spam. Block.

Opening up campaigns to entire mailing lists means opening up sender reputation to a host of issues. ISPs determine reputation by 24-hour, 7-day, and 30-day performance trends, so week-to-week and month-to-month volume fluctuations are critical. If an ISP notices any dramatic deviations from a sender’s volume patterns, it will raise a red flag.

Slow and steady wins the race: By starting increases now, peaking around 2-3 weeks prior to the start of holiday mailing, this activity will appear normal to the ISPs receiving it.

So, What Can I Do?

If larger sending is on your holiday horizon, now is the time to start expanding your lists in small chunks.

Segmentation should remain a key consideration as you expand:

  • Users who have opted out should never be included in campaigns.
  • Riskier segments—with lengthier and lengthier lapses in email engagement—should be monitored carefully. As segments trigger negative metrics (e.g., hard bounces, spam complaints, etc.), they should be removed from regular sending unless they can be re-engaged.

Actively weed out inactive addresses:

  • Plan re-engagement campaign cycles now so users are active and up-to-date for holiday mailings.
  • Use a confirmed opt-in to eliminate unengaged users from entering campaign lists right out of the gate.
  • Users who decline to confirm an opt-in or re-engage should be removed from your lists.

The last thing you want to face is a blacklist or block going into the holiday season. Reputation damage, once it occurs, requires weeks of consistent sending to correct. Often by the time the damage is inflicted, senders don’t have time to recover before the holiday mailing season. Slowly increasing mailing volume, meticulously reviewing metrics to weed out and remove risky segments and contacts, and adhering to confirmed opt-in guidelines will help line up a successful holiday season.

Mailing to New Customers and Managing Deliverability Risk

List size is an important metric for many marketers. It dictates the number of inboxes they have access to and can drive internal conversations around budgets, initiatives, and available resources. As a result, the same question is often repeated to our deliverability operations team:

How do we grow our list and mail to new users?

Today, I want to focus on the second half of that question: How do we mail to new users. It is important to understand that mailing to new email addresses comes with a unique set of challenges and pitfalls separate than those associated with general mailings. These are addresses that have never previously been included in your marketing campaigns and are inherently risky as a result. In short, brands should not forget that new users are strangers. Applying scrutiny to these addresses before considering them potential customers will do tremendous good toward protecting sender reputation.

Stranger Danger

Any new address can cause real harm to a mailing list as a potential spam trap, invalid contact, or unengaged user. To avoid reputation ramifications, the first thing a marketer should do is consider the motivation a particular user had for signing up for emails.

All acquisition channels come with their own unique drawbacks:

  • In-store sign ups may not have realized they were providing contact information for more than a simple receipt.
  • Shoppers seeking to collect on discounts or sign up incentives may not be interested in mailing content long term.
  • Form completion addresses may have simply been trying to get beyond the paywall or pop-up add blocking their view.

All are susceptible to improperly set user expectations, and the likelihood that users have supplied false, or inaccurate data is high. As such, no marketer should simply release a new address into the full scope of their email ecosystem.

Put Your Users to Work

Especially in the wake of new global privacy regulations like GDPR, implementing the correct procedures surrounding consent is critical for mailers. Implementing a confirmed opt in allows the user to do a portion of this work for you. A confirmed opt in requires further action from a user in order to confirm that they do wish to opt into receiving messages from your brand.

After signing up, a welcome email is triggered to these users prompting this confirmation. From there, the path is clear: Those who take action to complete this confirmation can be funneled into regularly scheduled campaigns – those who do not, should not.

Shortcuts Aren’t Worth the Risk

Inevitably, there will be senders who do not have the patience for organic list growth and development. From this vantage point, list purchasing and appending can sound very appealing.

But let’s be quite clear about this:

  • Email addresses added to mailing lists should *never* be purchased.
  • Email addresses that are acquired for mailing should *never* be from appended lists.

These strategies not only go against Oracle recommendations and myriad privacy regulations, but they are also guaranteed to negatively impact your sender reputation in the eyes of ISPs. Spam traps and invalid addresses will enter your mailing stream via these methods, and spam complaints, hard bounce rates, trap hits, and unengaged users will all increase as you attempt to contact them. Spam folder placement directly correlates with these negative metrics, and an inevitable blacklisting will further destroy your inboxing rates and overall standing in the eyes of ISPs.

Once lost, mailing reputation requires weeks of pristine sending to correct. Ask yourself: Is it worth it? Instead, stick to best practices, use a confirmed opt in for your users, and slowly release your new senders into your larger mailing campaigns. Your performance will be stronger as a result.

Learn how to achieve email deliverability that really delivers. Download Email Deliverability: Guide for Modern Marketers.

Email Deliverability Guide

The Cost of Free: Subject Lines and Email Deliverability

An enticing subject line is a critical tool in a marketer’s arsenal, driving open rates, engagement in the inbox, and ultimately conversions. A subject line is the first preview a recipient has to the message that awaits them, triggering a split-second decision regarding the fate of a campaign. The question is, will your subject lines drive users to delete, open, or flag your messages as spam?

What’s at Stake?

The risks to a sender’s deliverability and reputation are very real. Spam is increasingly in the eye of the recipient, and good marketers know that relevant content is key to combating user fatigue and maintaining a strong sender reputation. The use of engaging subject lines is a dynamic part of this strategy, but it can tempt otherwise good senders into desperate bids for opens. We’ve all seen such offers in our inboxes:

  • “$$$ Act Now!”
  • “FREE FREE FREE”
  • “Money Inside!”

The reasoning makes sense on the surface: strong deliverability requires an engaged audience regularly opening emails from a brand, and what better way to accomplish this than by convincing users a great deal is only a click away.

But at what point does this language have the opposite effect, getting lost in the shuffle of traditional spam messaging from bad actors trying to reach the same audience? Can using traditionally spammy words like free and money in a subject line sink the performance of a sender otherwise adhering to best practices?

The Results

Using the email performance and deliverability tool, eDataSource, I pulled performance metrics on campaigns sent Q1 2018 (January 1—March 31) for four industries: Apparel: Online Fashion, Financial Institutions, Petcare & Supplies, and Travel Services & Tourism. I then drilled into the performance of only those campaigns that included the word, “free,” in the subject line, as well as those that included the word, “money,” for each industry over the same period.

Subject line dataAdmittedly, there are countless factors that can account for the inbox rate of a particular campaign beyond subject line, but I strongly believe the data above tells a compelling story for marketers trying to figure out the best way to reach their audiences. Although minimally in some instances, the average performance for campaigns featuring free or money in their subject lines performed lower than the industry averages overall in all four categories.

Interestingly, money seemed to have little impact on Travel Services & Tourism and Petcare & Supplies, whereas free caused a significant drop in performance. Only one category, Financial Institutions, seemed largely immune to this drop-off, with a less than 2 percent performance impact for either keyword. Both keywords triggered a significant performance drop for Apparel: Online Fashion.

What This Tells Us

The standard industry wisdom to avoid using free and similar messaging in subject lines still seems to carry weight. Why? Try assuming the perspective of the recipient. Not only are users inundated with mail on a daily basis from myriad brands, they are conditioned to perceive all unwanted messages as spam, regardless of whether or not they were properly opted in. Today’s email recipients have even gone so far as to create spam-specific email accounts, taking active steps to avoid spam messaging regardless of the offers listed in their subject lines.

So does this mean senders should never use this language? Not necessarily.

It’s Not All Bad

While the deliverability operations team recommends certain words to avoid, the use of a keyword in a subject line is not enough to drive lower deliverability on its own, as demonstrated by financial institutions’ results.

Traditionally, financial institutions are much more susceptible to spoofing or phishing. These are brands that deal directly with the money and finances of their users, and as such, are very attractive to spammers trying to obtain the same information for nefarious purposes. Within this industry space, words like free and money are often unavoidable.

So how do they avoid performance issues? Best practices.

Ensuring proper authentication is in place, that users are being properly opted into campaigns, and that engagement-based segmentation is universally applied. These are still a sender’s best bet for reaching the inbox and are likely more strictly applied in today’s high-stakes email environment.

So, once you’ve applied this to your own sending and have consistently reached the inbox, it’s time to figure out if your subject lines are doing more harm than good. Review your results, analyze the performance of these types of campaigns against the larger whole, and make informed decisions.

Download Email Deliverability: Guide for Modern Marketers to find out how to achieve email deliverability that really delivers.

Email deliverability ebook

Bouncing: Don’t Limit Success to Delivery

When it comes to delivering messages to the inbox, senders are always aiming for 100%. Unfortunately, the nature of email itself makes a 100% delivery rate nearly impossible—something the Deliverability Operations team often reiterates when we discuss healthy thresholds with our senders.

There are many reasons why messages will bounce back rather than successfully deliver. Hard bounces indicate an invalid address, or an address that no longer exists, but soft bounces cover a much wider range of issues—not all of which are always the sender’s fault.

So if some amount of bouncing or undelivered mail is a guarantee, how much is too much, and what is considered business as usual? Here are some thresholds to keep top of mind:

Hard Bounces Should Not Exceed 2%

A hard bounce will only be returned when a sender attempts to deliver to an address that is invalid or no longer exists. As such, hard bounce rate is a key metric to gain insight into the health of a list and assess whether it is active and up-to-date. In general, hard bounce rates should never account for more than 2% of a sender’s overall bounce rate. Even at a low threshold, crossing this volume will lead to reputation issues in the eyes of ISPs.

Overall Bounces Should Not Exceed 5%

Overall bounces rate includes both hard and soft bounces. Anything from a temporary hosting issue on the ISP’s side, to a recipient with a full inbox who is unable to accept mail, can be returned as a soft bounce. These temporary issues are expected from time to time, however, exceeding the recommended threshold could indicate a block or reputation issue is at play.

Although addresses will bounce from time to time for reasons outside of your control, this should not be taken as a get out of jail free card, or as an excuse to justify significant bouncing in your reporting. Keep in mind that any bounce rate that crosses the thresholds set above can trigger reputation issues at ISPs. As all senders know, this will only lead to exponential delivery issues if not addressed.

But it’s also important to consider the limitations of basing deliverability health on “delivered” rates exclusively. A message may be successfully delivered to an ISP, but sent to the spam folder rather than the inbox. Would you consider that a benchmark for deliverability success if no distinction is made?

When it comes to deliverability, consider the big picture. Don’t limit your outlook to messages delivered. Dig deeper and always take into account the engagement of your users with those delivered messages—including negative engagement metrics like spam complaints when available. But if you have to focus on delivery, know that some bouncing will always be outside of your control.

To be a mobile marketing rockstar, you have to give your customers a seamless experience. Considering that 40% of emails are opened on mobile devices, our Mobile Email Guide is here to help improve the mobile marketing experience.

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The Customer Is Always Right: Email Marketing Spam Edition

As a member of the Deliverability Operations team, I can tell you that we spend a lot of time discussing the importance of list hygiene and good mailing practices with our senders.

Typically, this covers everything from ensuring recommended customer acquisition practices are in place, engagement-based segmentation is utilized to monitor for inactivity, and that customers are appropriately removed from mailing lists as activity lapses or unsubscribe requests are received.

The purpose behind these conversations is always the same: to highlight the importance of maintaining brand reputation in the eyes of ISPs, and ensuring that messages continue to get delivered to the inbox. A key component to achieving this is making sure customers themselves do not perceive the messages they receive as spam.

While there are official regulations such as the CAN-SPAM Act in place that make clear determinations when it comes to spam, it is also important for senders to keep in mind that “spam” is increasingly in the eye of email recipients themselves. And as far as an ISP is concerned, the recipient is always right.

So What Counts As "Spam"?

If a customer receives emails that they feel do not apply to them, that they were not expecting to receive in the first place, or even that they simply do not wish to receive any more (regardless of being properly opted in), they may mark the message as “spam” in their inbox.

This triggers a spam complaint to the ISP hosting their mailbox, and can impact reputation to that entire network—even in very small values. This is yet another reason why maintaining best practices is critical to avoid negative customer engagements and maintain inbox placement.

How Do ISPs Use This Data?

Even more critical however, is that ISPs themselves use customer evaluations of the communications they receive to inform their own filtering mechanisms. Recently, Microsoft detailed this strategy within their own Spam Fighters program. For the uninitiated, Spam Fighters essentially works by surveying a randomly selected portion of Outlook users.

In order for Microsoft’s filters to work successfully, they need to identify both good, and bad mail. What better way to inform their machine learning than by asking their users themselves? The question placed to the selected users who volunteer to participate is simple:

Is this spam? Or non-spam?

This binary statement highlights the importance of customer perception to senders. While there are other factors that contribute to a message ultimately being flagged as spam (authentication, attachments, sending IP, etc.), how the message comes across in the inbox cannot be underestimated. So put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

A positive customer experience with relevant content going only to engaged users is the best way to ensure you don’t become another example in the “spam” category.

While we're on the subject of email marketing, how confident are you that your emails are contributing to a positive customer experience on mobile? If your subscribers are dealing with poor formatting, long load times, and unresponsive links, you're losing their attention. Download our Mobile Email Guide to learn how to fix and prevent these problems. 

Mobile Email Guide

Photo credit: Skley via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Closing the Gaps in Point of Sale Address Collection

Chief among top concerns for marketers is email list size and the never-ending task of growing that list. Unfortunately, this issue is often considered with little thought as to how acquisition strategies can impact email deliverability. A particularly popular method for retail marketers is “point of sale” or “in-store” address collection at the point of purchase. It is also one of the riskiest methods for your deliverability health.

The standard point of sale strategy should be simple: a customer checks out at the register, provides their email address for an e-receipt or promotional offer, is asked to confirm that the spelling of said address is correct, and is then opted into communications for that brand AFTER receiving a confirm opt-in message triggered immediately. However, if not done correctly this method presents multiple opportunities for failure points that could lead to reputation issues for senders, including:

  • Customer intentionally provides a false address, or a “ghost address,” for promotional mail only
  • Customer inadvertently provides an incorrect address via misspellings, etc.
  • Customer does not realize the scope of messaging they are opting into at the time, prompting a negative experience and spam complaints down the road

For all of the above, senders place themselves at high risk for uploading inactive contacts into their list, uploading inaccurate contacts that will drive bounce rates and potential spam trap hits, and driving overall spam complaint spikes on campaigns sent to recipients who did not anticipate further communications. As a result, the point of sale address collection presents a pain point for both the sender seeking growth and the overall customer experience of those who feel bombarded in the inbox.

 Even with the best of intentions, consumers have short attention spans. If they do knowingly sign up for communications in the moment, they may forget about this later—particularly if they do not receive a timely confirmation. This gap in the customer’s expectations for the mail they will receive becomes particularly problematic with in-store acquisition techniques that do not involve a check-out or actual purchase, including:

  • Offline “list-building” apps where customers input their information into a tablet, or even a traditional pen and paper sign-up sheet for customers to handwrite addresses
  • “Text-to-join” signage that offers customers sales or promotional offers by texting their information to collect via email
  • In-store wifi access form walls that require an email address in order to log on

In each of these instances, setting customer expectations is vital. The most critical thing a sender should do upon receiving a new customer’s email address is sending them a confirmation message prompting further action if they wish to receive communications. In situations where customers may only be after offers, wifi access, or even simple e-receipts, senders are simply not completing their due diligence to ensure they are bringing good contacts into their list. It’s important to remember that quality trumps quantity and shortcuts could have real ramifications for your performance overall.

Are you trying to choose the right Martech stack for your business? Download the Guide To Building Your Technology Stack for information on how to spend more time innovating, and less time integrating. 

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Ghosts of Past Email Signups Driving Down Inbox Placement

Promotional offers, discounts, and coupons are enticing carrots for subscribers, and can drive high sign up rates with the promise of a ‘good deal.’ But what happens if that incentive is the only reason a subscriber signs up for your messaging? And worse yet, what if that individual is using a “ghost” email account reserved exclusively for such promos? The chances would then be good that the user never intends to engage with your content again.

Ghost of a Chance

“Ghosting” is an issue affecting more and more marketers as users opt into brand communications only to disappear from engagement metrics after an offer is claimed. Recently, a report by the U.K.-based Direct Marketing Association (DMA) shed significant insight into this phenomenon and the email practices of everyday subscribers. It found that among those surveyed, “almost half (45%) of consumers [admitted to having] ‘ghost’ [email] accounts that are active but no longer used.”

When applied to the whole, this would translate to at least 19.5 million ghost accounts in the UK alone. The same study also corroborated the fact that the top reason consumers share their email with a brand is to receive money off discounts. It’s not hard to see an emerging pattern in consumer behavior. Subscribers are increasingly dedicating a secondary email address to process their promotional sign ups, in order to receive benefits while avoiding future communications in their primary inbox.

As a result, you can bet a portion of your list fits the bill of only opting in to receive an initial offer and going dormant. The question then becomes, how do you keep this portion of your audience from dragging down your reputation? Because if left unchecked, the negative engagement metrics of these “ghost” users will impact your sender reputation in the eyes of ISPs.

And if reputation dips low enough, it will even prevent active subscribers in your list from receiving your content in their inboxes. This is why it is essential that all marketers have a strategy to quickly identify this segment of the audience, and remove them before any damage is done.

Targeting Unengaged Users

“Ghost” accounts will not provide any open or click data for you to segment off of. Applying standard open/click engagement criteria on all of the campaigns that you launch (i.e., only mailing to those who have opened or clicked a campaign within the last ‘x’ months) will easily ensure your contacts are valid, active, and up-to-date. Any address that does not fit these criteria (including “ghosts” who never re-engaged in the first place) will be eliminated. As a best practice, this engagement-based segmentation should always be applied to campaigns.

Re-Engage Lapsed Users, and Adjust Volume

And yet just eliminating sending to users who do not open and/or click is not enough. Eventually inactive accounts can become invalidated or even converted to spam traps by ISPs. It is a critical component of list hygiene that these users are also eventually removed from your contacts list entirely. When a customer lapses (i.e., does not open or click for ‘x’ months) you can deploy a re-engagement campaign to gauge their interest and entice them back to your active user base.

However, subscribers who still do not engage at this point should be sent mail less often—weekly instead of daily, monthly instead of weekly, etc. This removes the likelihood of flooding subscribers with content that they have demonstrated they do not wish to engage with—even when presented with the opportunity to do so. It also greatly reduces the volume of mail you are likely to send to any “ghosts” on your list.

Re-Permission and Remove

But eventually you need to pull the trigger and delete inactive users from your list. If re-engagement campaigns and reduced volume of sending does not entice a subscriber to return, you can offer one last pass for an opt-in via a re-permission campaign. This type of campaign confirms that the user wishes to stay subscribed, and requires an action on their part to do so. If they click to confirm, they can remain opted in. If they do not, the address should be removed and no longer contacted.

Modern Marketers must orchestrate and deliver marketing messages that are relevant to individual preferences and behavior. Getting email delivered to the inbox is critical to this process. 

Download Email Deliverability: Guide for Modern Marketers to find out how to achieve email deliverability that really delivers. 

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