"Best practices are the same all year round, but the stakes go up at holiday time --
the senders care more, the receivers have higher volumes,
and the customers are more annoyed."
– anonymous mailbox provider
Every fall, mailbox providers see huge increases in promotional mail as email marketers try to reach consumers who may be shopping for the holidays. The chart below from one of our data feeds shows that 20% of total yearly marketing volume from our Return Path Certified senders comes in November and December.
At the end of each year, marketers who are trying to increase holiday sales find their mail bulked, blocked, throttled, or even blacklisted. This year, I wanted to find out whether the mailbox providers make any changes to their programs during the holidays in response to this increased traffic. (With fifteen years of combined postmaster experience on my team, we have some experience here, but we wanted to find out what others are currently doing.) So I reached out to contacts throughout the industry and the globe and have compiled their responses below.
(Please note: In most of the below categories, the responses represent more than one organization.)
What do you normally experience during the holidays?
- Popular filter provider: During the holidays we see volumes go up. We also see some senders pushing their luck in terms of changing sending practices to get out as much volume as possible without paying as much attention to good sending practices.
- DNSBL: Senders start mailing to inactive subscribers, old lists, or purchased lists, and as a result they hit more spam traps and end up blacklisted.
- Corporate mailbox provider: Increased spam and less legit email because work slows down.
- Brazilian mailbox provider: Major decreases in legitimate mail volumes because people are beginning their summer vacations. Increases in marketing mail and spam complaints at the same time make the marketing mail really stand out.
- European mailbox provider: Generally total volumes and spam complaints drop during holidays. Actually the percentage of spam increases because legitimate use is reduced (many people don’t use email on vacation while spam goes on or increases.
- Major webmail provider: Spam complaints increase as users respond to the increased level of marketing mail they are receiving.
Do you change anything in your normal anti-spam processes during the holidays?
- Popular filter provider: No, but we generally see more poor sending practices as senders try to maximize their exposure vs. their competitors.
- DNSBL: The processes do not change on our end, but more IPs might be listed as the sender changes what they are doing.
- Corporate mailbox provider: Somewhat increased vigilance – It becomes a more target-rich environment. Entities that we should block year-round due to bad practice become easier to distinguish and add more permanently to filters. Additionally, the criminals (malware, phish etc.) are counting on decreased vigilance and up their efforts, so we need to stay ahead of it.
- Major webmail provider: Our goal is always and forever to put all the mail our customers want in the Inbox, and all the mail they don't want somewhere else. If mail our customers don't want goes up, so do our spam and block rates. We don't have to turn any knobs to do that; the senders and customers will do that.
- North American cable provider: During moratoriums and major holidays we go into a blackout to prevent system breakage and possible communication problems. We are an ISP as well so we can handle larger loads but we do have systems and policies in place to prevent abuse. We take time off during the holidays and so your issue may not get resolved in a timely manner like it normally would outside of that window.
- European mailbox provider: We don’t change any policy during holidays.
Do you typically block, bulk, or throttle more mail during the holidays?
- Popular filter provider: Our processes do not change for the holidays, the poor mailing practices are what push senders into the spam folder, or cause more throttling or their IPs to be blocked.
- DNSBL: We don’t try to list more IPs, but it will happen if the senders change their practices and send to stale lists.
- Corporate mailbox provider: We don’t spam folder or throttle at all, but we block a lot more mail during the holidays.
- Brazilian mailbox provider: We spam folder, throttle, and block more because of increased volume and complaints.
- European mailbox provider: Not purposely, just at Christmas there is a noticeable increase of spam.
Do you have any advice for email marketers during the holidays?
Popular filter provider:
- Don’t bend to poor mailing practices during the holidays. Continue to follow M3AAWG guidelines for good sending practices. If you’re a relatively high volume sender, particularly if you’re sending more volume than usual, don’t send it too fast. While you may want all your mail delivered in a 30 minute window, the ISP may not have the same goal. And don’t use new IPs in order to get more volume through faster.
- Try not to send a lot of mail to users who haven’t been recently engaged with your brand. These are the people who are more likely to hit the spam button if you send too frequently.
- We also advise against sending to lists that you acquired externally. While it’s tempting to do this over the holidays to reach more people, it’s very likely that your acquired lists will have spam traps on them. Hitting a lot of spam traps all of a sudden, is likely to get your messages sent to the spam folder or your IPs to be throttled or blocked.
- DNSBL: Remember that the consequences for poor behavior during the holiday season last longer than the season.
- Corporate mailbox provider: Don't treat it as open season for sending stuff people didn't ask for.
Major webmail provider:
- We have more mail and fewer staff during the holidays. Senders are more anxious. This would be a really good time NOT to send me mail that says "Why are you blocking mail for my client? They are a major medical facility!" and instead to send me mail saying "Starting on Nov 2, we are getting error such-and-such this often for the From: address firstname.lastname@example.org sending from these IPs: <ip list> Can you help me with that?" This is always true, but it gets even more true when there are piles of requests to deal with and you are in a hurry.
- If you are the only sender in the world who is suddenly sending lots of mail, sending it all as fast as you can from the same machine and then going away may work. If you and everybody else on the planet up volumes by 10X or more, you probably want your load balancing and sending rates to be right. Again, it's the same best practices it will be on January 10 -- there's just a lot less slack in the system.
- Don't assume the entire world is celebrating Christmas. People get a lot of that, and it is bound to make them cranky, and cranky people press the "spam" button even when they were kind of interested in you before.
Brazilian mailbox provider:
- I don’t know what Cyber Monday is. But last year some online stores tried to “import” Black Friday and it backfired. The people called it “Black Fraude”. The word “Fraude” (fraud) in Portuguese sounds similar to Friday.
- This also marks the beginning of the summer season. When the schools are closed and the companies operate with reduced personnel because summer is the traditional vacation period. Nobody likes to come back from vacation and finds out his mailbox full.
- Dilute your campaigns in the longest possible time window, don't treat them like a race to the user's inbox.
North American cable provider:
- Our systems are built to deal with inbound sending demands that are much higher than the normal load. That doesn’t mean infinite capacity, but so long as senders have reasonable expectations about both the volume of mail they’re asking mailbox providers to handle and the timeliness of delivery of said mail (remember, you’re not the only sender trying to send “Have We Got A Deal For You” mail to that provider), there shouldn’t be any issues.
- Senders who plan on sending to us may want to ensure that their connecting MTAs have an active FBL with good sending reputations
- European mailbox provider: I would ask to change their delivery time because all of them send usually on Tuesday and Thursday morning causing us a lot of problem due to saturation.
If you could have one special holiday wish granted, what would you ask marketers to do during the holidays?
- Popular filter provider: Don't change your good sending practices and replace them with bad ones. If you've been mailing well all year why mess it up for the holidays? If you maximize your content rather than frequency and you're far less likely to annoy your subscribers and cause them to hit the spam button or to run into other issues.
- Corporate mailbox provider: Take a vacation so I can have one for a change. ;-)
- DNSBL: I would ask retailers to be very careful with point-of-sale address collection, as typos and fake addresses provided by consumers can cause large volumes of email to be delivered to the wrong person. Confirmed opt-in (COI) will help eliminate these mistakes.
- Brazilian mailbox provider: Mail only to double opt-in lists and remove inactive users (bounces and/or no interaction with the last campaigns - 60 days or more)
- European mailbox provider: Focus not only on adding new addresses to your list, but just as much on clean-up. Also make sure bounce addresses and unsubscribe links work. Lastly, many senders require too many hard bounces before unsubscribing.
In summary, mailbox providers, spam filters, and DNSBLs worldwide see increases in marketing mail volume, spam complaints and trap hits during the holidays. This leads to cluttered mailboxes for consumers resulting in increased spam complaints, which fuels more bulking, throttling, and blacklisting. Mailbox providers would like to see marketers be selective in their holiday mailings, sending to their most engaged users, and spreading mailings out so they don’t saturate the receivers’ mail systems. Also, they encourage senders to be mindful of cultural differences. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, South Americans are not shouting "let it snow!", and not everyone wants to be a part of the US’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday madness. Your customers are individuals. Know who they are and what mail they want. Respect your customer and their mailbox provider, and it should be smooth sailing.