As our regular readers will know, we spend a lot of time carefully analysing email performance data so it’s easy to overlook some common myths that still pervade the industry. We looked at commonly cited wisdom about email marketing and put together our top 7 myths that need rethinking. From targeting only the most engaged subscribers, to obsessing about the ideal time of day to hit send, this infographic aims to unveil the truth behind email marketing in 2013.
2012 is well under way and we’ve been busy spreading fresh ideas and keeping tabs on exciting new developments in email marketing. In this pick of recent web articles, we’ve highlighted news of an important step forward in email security and some new thoughts on A/B split testing. Plus Loren McDonald from Silverpop’s two-part interview with Alchemy Worx CEO Dela Quist sees some typically trenchant opinions expressed on topics such as email frequency, subject line and ‘the nudge effect’.
Joining forces against phishing
An important new working group, DMARC.org, has been set up to further combat phishing by improving methods of blocking bad email. Sam Massiello, General Manager at Email Security Specialists Return Path, expresses his confidence that this coalition of companies, including AOL, Google, Microsoft and PayPal, will make email business more secure than ever.
Alchemy Worx view
It is no surprise to see the banks involved in this new standard. The reduction in phishing messages that this new working group aims to achieve should serve to further increase the confidence in email marketing.
Read the article
To remove or not to remove?
Is your organisation too quick to remove inactives from its database? In the second part of the Silverpop interview, Dela Quist tells Loren McDonald of his dismay at being removed from databases as a consumer himself, and how it highlights the importance of ‘the nudge effect’ in cultivating customers over a long period. He is also typically outspoken on the topic of subject lines, once again going against the accepted wisdom and arguing, “the shorter the subject line, the less likely you are to convey meaning.” He concludes with some strong words regarding marketers’ “visceral fear that the public hates getting email”. “Ecommerce thrives on email,” he says. “If we can get that message out, everyone would love what they do.”
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Is less really more?
In the first part of this interview with the Silverpop blog, Alchemy Worx CEO Dela Quist tells Loren McDonald why he still feels marketers should be sending more emails, not less. “The challenge is not ‘How do I send less?’,” Quist argues. “It’s ‘How do I get my list to tolerate more?’” He also challenges the trend among marketers towards reducing email volume, arguing that email frequency becomes less of a problem, the better the customer’s perception of the brand.
“How they feel about the email program is actually driven by how they feel about the brand,” he says. “Email is the tail, not the dog.”
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How can your email campaigns best benefit from A/B split testing? That’s the question addressed by Alchemy Worx Marketing Director Riaz Kanani in this feature for the DMA website. In particular, he focuses on manual testing, which is often presumed to be costly and complex compared to automatic testing, but which can be far more useful if you have a specific need, or want to test something that is unique to your organisation. Kanani explains how different approaches are better suited to different amounts of data and sample sizes, and stresses the importance of being patient, letting your campaign run its course before you jump to conclusions.
Read the article
“What words should I avoid in my email subject line to ensure I get to the inbox?”
This is possibly one of the most frequently answered (if not asked) questions in email marketing. To prove the point we decided to do a quick search “how to avoid spam” + “subject lines”
Although we had a sense that we would get a large number of results back, even we were surprised to find that there were about 8550 results for the search! Most of the articles/blogs/sites/white papers are centred around avoiding specific words or phrases that can trigger some Spam filters, or start adding “Spam points” to emails sent out.
In addition to these words many of the experts also advise against using the word unsubscribe, quotation marks, dollar signs , exclamation marks, question marks (one even advises against using any punctuation marks at all), capital letters or – and this made us splutter – use a font size larger than 2!
In effect the advice to legitimate marketers who are promoting a competition, sale or great offer and know that words and symbols like free $, £, win, discount or offer work on TV, in store and every other channel they use; is DON’T! The hit on deliverability and reputation far outweighs any sales uplift you might get from using tried and tested promotional techniques.
But is this still true today?
Like the definition of soft bounces – which we have argued are in definite need of an overhaul we think that both spammers and ISP’s have moved on and that it is time we revisited the issue of “spammy” words and punctuation in your copy and subject lines.
We believe that if you have followed best practice in IP address authentication and reputation management, data collection (opt-in) and list management as well as HTML coding you can within reason use any commercially effective words within the subject line or body copy that you choose. We also recommend you make sure that post deployment, you track all metrics by domain as well to ensure early identification of any ISP specific problems.
In order to test this theory we used two decidedly “spammy”, but definitely relevant subject lines for the last issue of Email-Worx.
To begin with we deployed, two versions of Email-Worx with identical content but different, very “spammy” subject lines: As Email-Worx follows best practice in data and content and is hand coded, we hypothesised that the effect would be minimal.
Subject line A: When to use |: +;&! in your subject line?
Subject line B: It’s – the ; Great & Subject + Line : Separator ? Debate !!!
And the result?
As expected we found no problems with our results according to the standard reports provided by our ESP – in fact they were fractionally better than usual.
- Less than 1% hard and soft bounces
- Open rates and click rates as follows:
- 35% open rate for both messages
- 28% & 30% total click rate for A and B respectively
- 20% and 19% unique click rate for A and B respectively
- No major differences by ISP
But when we looked at the reports in the delivery monitoring tool provided by our ESP we got a completely different potentially, terrifying picture.
- Subject line A was received into the inbox of 45% of the test accounts; 0.28% of junk folders and missing in 54% of the accounts
- Subject line B was received into the inbox of 47% of the test accounts; 0.28% of junk folders and missing in 52% of the accounts
So which if these two measures was right? If the standard reports provided by the platform were accurate our inbox delivery rate was completely normal. If the third party inbox monitoring software provided by the ESP was right on a pro-rata basis our open and click rates would have been 70% and 60% respectively – nearly twice our average!
So we decided to see what would happen if we ran the emails through a spam checker; and the result?
- Subject line A passed 89% of spam filters
- Subject line B passed 100% of spam filters
Curiouser and curiouser!
Finally we decided to ask YOU – the recipients; we sent out a quick survey asking the following questions:
- Did you receive the last issue of Email-Worx?
- Do you have Email-Worx sender address on a safe list or in your address book?
- If you received it in your junk folder what did you do?
- What platform (Outlook, Yahoo, macmail etc.) do you receive Email-Worx in?
- How often do you check your junk folder?
We had a survey completion rate of 8% and everyone who completed the survey has already been sent the full results as a thank you.
As you can see from the above chart the respondents engagement with Email-Worx ranged from the 25% who have only opened between 1 and 5 issues to the one or 2 people who have open over 50 issues! Here are a couple of interesting stats from the survey:
- 87% of respondents received their message in their inbox
- None of the recipients using a web based email client received the message in their junk folder.
We found the last stat very interesting indeed, the ISP’s (the people we worry about most) don’t seem to be paying any attention to subject lines at all!
So there you have it, the worrying results presented by the inbox delivery monitoring tool used by our ESP have been pretty much contradicted by all the other data we looked at, including the data provided by the spam checking tool which seemed to indicate that subject line A would get past almost 90% of spam filters and subject line B would get past 100% of spam filters. Before you ask, the spam checker and the inbox monitoring services we used were from the same company.
At this stage we are not drawing any conclusions – just reporting what happened when we investigated one email, but the result does raise some very interesting questions and we have been running a series of tests to try to answer the following questions and think you will be very interested in some of our findings:
- What has the most impact on inbox delivery – sender reputation; body copy; subject line; message size; images?
- Do all ISPs react in the same way as each other?
- Do ISPs always handle received messages in a consistent manner?
- How does the delivery monitoring software out there compare?
Without giving too much away before our findings are complete, we think that our results will challenge the way you perceive deliverability and junk mail filtering. We’ll be publishing the results in upcoming issues of Email-Worx, so let us know if you any comments on our recent experiment, or any particular concerns about email deliverabilty that you would like us to address.
Typical list of spam words:
|Act Now!All NewAll NaturalAvoid BankruptcyAs Seen On…Buy DirectCasino
Consolidate Your Debt
Give it away, Giving it away
No cost, No fees
|OfferOne timeOnline pharmacyOnline marketingOrder NowPlease ReadDon’t Delete
Save up to
Unsecured debt or credit
Visit our web site
While Supplies last
Why pay more?
Work at home
You’ve been selected
The first response I give to anyone who asks me this question is: Says Who? Swiftly followed by: You have nothing to worry about.
Before anyone gets too excited, I am not saying you shouldn’t worry or care about engaging your subscribers. What I am saying is you should focus on engaging your subscribers because you want to promote your company and/or sell more product and not because it might damage your reputation as a sender.
We first started getting asked this question in December of 2009, no matter how hard we searched we found very little hard evidence that engagement based reputation scoring is becoming widespread, or that ‘engagement’ necessarily means open and click rates.
All we found were the following statements neither of which are particularly controversial:
- Yahoo is looking at any action a subscriber might take when interacting with email: opens, turning on images, immediate deletions, reporting spam, clicking links, moving a message out of the spam folder. The feature is in place today, but the system is still “learning.” The score is not linear, but rather a factor over time: Mark Risher Spam Czar at Yahoo! August 2009
- “Taking this into consideration, we have modified our Enhanced White Listing (EWL) process to benefit IPs with our highest internal reputation score…..This means that IPs being added to the EWL have consistently maintained a low complaint level as well as high user engagement: Christine Borgia of the Postmaster team at AOL in November 2009
Given how imprecise both of those statements are about the meaning of engagement and the fact that there are hundreds if not thousands of ISPs in the US and Europe who have never gone on the record about measuring engagement, let alone opens and clicks, it is hard to see what all the fuss is about.
In our opinion there is very little if any evidence that “People who don’t interact are becoming as dangerous as those who explicitly, negatively interact.” as some experts have been quoted as saying recently.
Now for something that you should be concerned about: ISPs are considering wholesale blocking of ESPs!
While researching this issue we came across an article by deliverability expert Laura Atkins on her blog Word to the Wise. According to Laura in the same way that spammers trying to mask their activities use web based email accounts like Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail to deliver their spam; some less scrupulous companies are using their ESP accounts to send out unwanted and unrequested email in other words spamming.
The ISP’s are seeing more and more spam coming from the ESP space and are threatening to block all email from any ESP that fails to adequately police the activities of their clients. Laura says and we agree “Many ESPs do have proactive monitoring in place, but these strategies are failing. Spam is coming off some networks, and the whole network is at risk of blocking, not just the bad customers.”
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to the ESP’s; The ISP’s have been making their displeasure felt through soft bounces for quite a while now, which is why you should take soft bounces very seriously indeed.
What does this mean to email marketers?
In the same way that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link then an ESP will only be as good as its worst client! So if the ISPs do decide to implement this strategy choosing the right ESP as your partner will be more important than ever. As Laura puts it “There is a clear opportunity here for smart ESPs to stand out from their peers and competitors”. Make sure your ESP is one of the smart ones.
The Nudge Effect in email shows just how hard email marketing is already working for your brand, in powerful ways beyond opens and clicks. But how much more could it do for your brand if you were to develop this pure natural talent?
How to use email to market your brand
Re-define your campaign objectives.
Whether you plan them to or not, your email campaigns will inevitably communicate messages about your brand. But email content and subject lines designed to generate immediate sales may not be as effective at communicating your brand values to your subscribers as subject lines specifically crafted to do so.
This is particularly true of email campaigns for quality or high value brands where it is not advisable to put too much emphasis on “special offers” or “discounts”. Products or services where the “sale” is more likely to take place via another channel are also likely to benefit from this approach to subject lines.
Think long term. Email marketing is a quick, reactive tool that can be very effective at turning around campaigns very quickly. But to get the most out of the medium, especially when marketing your brand, your email campaigns need the same level of planning and strategy as any other media.
So sit down with your branding team and develop a set of brand messages that you want to communicate over the next 12 months. To deliver those messages via email, work out a plan for how to approach subject lines, from name/address, content and snippets.
Work with other channels. Marketing budgets and departmental evaluation are often linked all too directly to revenue directly generated by that channel. But the truth is that people often come to make a purchase as a result of interacting with two complementary channels. An email may nudge a subscriber into calling a sales rep, for instance, or popping into a store so they can touch and feel your product before buying. Use your subject line to test different calls-to-action, and embrace cross-channel collaboration as a means of boosting sales for the company overall.
Develop a branding strategy for your subject lines. Subscribers who do not open an email will not see your offer or message, but you can still make sure that they get your brand messaging. How? Create a subject-line format that incorporates a brand message designed specifically for people who are not going to open the email or act on it immediately e.g. “Acme Financial: Home Insurance for less.”
Consider every aspect of your campaigns from a brand perspective. Almost everyone factors in brand values when it comes to the creative and content. But don’t forget other, often overlooked campaign components, such as the from address/name and snippets. Too many companies work very hard to deliver a great customer-service experience right across their websites and email content… and then fall down by using an alienating “email@example.com” from address.
How to measure the impact of email on your brand
Your emails have a significant impact across all channels. To identify the impact of your email campaigns, try checking for spikes in sales through all channels directly after a message is deployed. Online sales are one of the easiest to reconcile: simply check purchasers’ email addresses against your sent list. Even if these subscribers did not purchase through the email, sales within a day or two of receiving your email are likely to have been nudged by your message.
Also, check website page views, PPC search and affiliate search results. If you find peaks in channels that are costing you money, you may want to consider ways to encourage purchasing through your email programme instead. This may be a discount only available via email, entry to a competition, or even just a more user-friendly purchase process. As you already know your subscribers, the last thing you want to do is to pay for a lead twice.
Finally, conduct some market research to quantify the impact of your email campaigns on your branding initiatives. Choose a USP that is not the key message communicated in any other channel, and use email to promote it. Carrying out research before and after a 12-month campaign will demonstrate the impact of email on awareness of your brand values.
Will using email to impact brand affect my deliverability?
The short answer is NO. If you are marketing to a list of opted-in subscribers; following best practice and you don’t drastically change your frequency and list hygiene standards, it is unlikely you will see any change in your delivery. Don’t forget the nudge effect is going on already without you doing anything!
To get a full understanding of the various metrics you can use to measure the performance your email campaigns, you need to start with knowing how many emails you have on your database, how many emails have been sent and how many have actually been received by your subscribers. As well as giving you a sense of scale, these form the basis of all other metrics used by email marketers.
Mailable list size
The total number of addresses you have permission to send marketing emails to
This definition will give you the true size of your email database. Comparison between this and the total number of addresses in your database is an indication of the effectiveness of your opt in procedures. Email marketers should do everything within their power to grow this list over time, because email is the cheapest way of getting a message to your customers and prospects. New additions to an email list are also more likely to interact with your messages as they have recently expressed an interest in your brand.
Attrition, combined with insufficient list growth will result in a decreasing mailable list size over time. Some attrition is inevitable, (see unsubscribe rate) but should be offset by ensuring sufficient resource is invested in list growth (see subscription process).
The total number of emails sent
This will tell you exactly how many email addresses you sent any given message to. Apart from your mailable list size, this is the only number that’s usually reported. These numbers don’t lie. They represent the scale of your campaigns and give context to all percentage figures reported.
The total number of emails sent may be the same as your mailable list size, or the size of the segment selected.
The number of delivered messages divided by the number of sent messages (expressed as a %)
The number of emails delivered is like the number of people who finish the London marathon, as opposed to the number who started. Any email address that is not reported as delivered is defined as a soft or a hard bounce.
Ultimately, your delivery rate will be affected by your reputation. A high delivery rate is a result of ensuring you (and anyone sharing your IP address) following best practice in data acquisition and management, along with appropriate authentication, white-listing and accreditation.
Don’t automatically assume, however, that because your message is reported as delivered, that it has reached your subscriber’s inboxes. Delivered messages may end up in a junk folder or may occasionally fall into an IT black hole, where an ISP has neither delivered the message, nor reported it as a bounce. Following best practice and encouraging subscribers to add you to their address book will increase your chances of being delivered to your subscriber’s inboxes.
For more information of reputation, watch Talking Email: deliverability and reputation.
Hard bounce rate
The number of hard bounced messages divided by the number of sent messages (expressed as a %)
A hard bounce is caused by a non-existent, invalid or expired email account, or by syntax error in the address. This metric in an indication of the integrity of your data collection processes. A hard bounce rate that’s consistently high or increasing over time suggests a pressing need to investigate your data collection processes or poor list management.
Hard bounces should be removed or suppressed immediately. Failure to do so will negatively affect your delivery rate as ISP monitor levels of hard bounces to assess your reputation.
Soft bounce rate
The number of soft bounced messages divided by the number of sent messages (expressed as a %)
At Alchemy Worx we believe that soft bounces should be treated very seriously indeed. Inbox sizes have dramatically increSoft bounces are defined as temporary delivery failures. Historically soft bounces have not been seen to be a major problem. In fact, almost every definition of soft bounces leads with ‘inbox full’ leaving most people the impression that it was a temporary problem and out of your control. Best practice also states that addresses should be removed after three consecutive bounces, further reducing your sense of urgency.
These views have not been updated for at least ten years, however, here at Alchemy ased over the years so ‘mailbox full’ messages are highly unlikely to occur, so the most likely cause of soft bounces are caused by ISP blocking.
Over the years, the way ISPs deal with spam has become incredibly sophisticated and they are very quick to start blocking emails when they identify suspicious patterns of behaviour from a given sender, IP address or range. Emails blocked in this way are recorded as soft bounces, so your soft bounces are important indicators of poor delivery practices.
Typical causes of blocking are: lack of authentication or accreditation; poor or unproven IP reputation; fluctuations in the volume of messages sent from the IP address you are using and spam complaints attributed to your IP address.
It’s important to bear in mind that you may incur soft bounces because of the behaviour of companies sharing your IP address, making the way your ESP handles its shared IP addresses very important. For more on this topic, see Talking Email: deliverability and reputation.
The unique number of unsubscribers divided by the number of delivered messages (expressed as a %)
The unsubscribe rate is the proportion of subscribers that received your email and requested to be removed from your database. To keep this rate low, you need to make sure you follow best practices around data collection and maintenance, provide sufficient accurate information at the registration stage, and populate your communication with relevant, value-added content.
Certain industries and sectors can have inherently high unsubscribe rates based on the lifecycle of a product/service For instance, a subscriber who signs up to receive daily rental properties from a property website will be likely to unsubscribe when they have found a property. In such a situation, it’s vital to pay particular attention to making the unsubscription process fast and easy. Overall trends should be monitored, rather than actual values.
Whilst it may be tempting to reduce attrition by making it difficult to unsubscribe, the consequences have a big impact on deliverability since, without the option to unsubscribe easily, many subscribers will use the “report SPAM” button to unsubscribe, which will seriously affect your deliverability. A low unsubscribe rate, combined with a high level of complaints, or low delivery rate would indicate that your subscribers find it difficult to unsubscribe, and you should rethink your unsubscription process.
The number of complaints received divided by the number of messages sent via domains which use feedback loops (FBLs) (expressed as a %)
The number of complaints you receive can greatly affect whether your emails are delivered to your subscribers inboxes. ISPs use the number of complaints received to decide whether emails are coming from legitimate marketers or spammers. Not all ISPs have feedback loops so the complaint rate is expressed as a proportion of messages sent to the domains that you are monitoring for complaints. Whilst you cannot then apply this proportion to the remainder of your database with any accuracy, it does give you an indication of the level of complaints you are receiving.
A high complaint rate indicates that you are not following best practice in your email marketing overall. You should ensure that your data acquisition practices are clear and honest, and that too much time does not pass between when a subscriber registers and they receive their first mailing, or between regular mailings. Recipients who were not expecting an email from your company and do not recall signing up to receive communication from you are likely to report your message as SPAM.
If you have a high complaint rate, combined with a low unsubscribe rate you need to assess your unsubscription process as your subscribers may be finding the process difficult or cumbersome. If a subscriber cannot easily unsubscribe, they may simply use the “report SPAM” button to do what is effectively the same outcome for them.
Finally, ensuring your content is valuable and relevant to your subscribers will result in recipients not viewing your message as SPAM protecting both your reputation and your deliverability.
ESPs market their services partly on their ability to get your messages into the inboxes of your subscribers, but when deliverability falls it can feel as though they want to push the responsibility onto you, the marketer.
The marketer, who has selected an ESP partly based on their reputation management, might well ask: is it unreasonable to expect them to be responsible for deliverability? As with many things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Watch the full video to find out how marketers and ESPs can work together to achieve the best possible deliverability.