Email Marketing Engagement Goes Well Beyond Permission

Posted by Stephanie Miller on

When it comes to engaging subscribers and understanding the relationship between engagement and permission, you probably have a lot of the same questions as attendees at a recent email deliverability webinar put on by Exact Target where I was a panelist along with Jamie Tomasello, Abuse Operations Manager for Cloudmark and Al Iverson, Director of Privacy and Deliverability. Chip House, also of Exact Target, moderated the discussion and shared some stats from the extensive Exact Target research bank.

We talked about the history of email filtering and how it has changed from a primarily content-based system looking to keep the bad stuff out, to a sender reputation-based system looking to get only the good stuff in. We dispelled any myths about “secrets to inbox placement” – there is only one way in, and that is to create amazing subscriber experiences, consistently and continually. Those experiences, by the way, are not measured by internal corporate desire to promote something, but by what subscribers actually find interesting and valuable.

We emphasized the importance of monitoring and managing your sender reputation, a score built from a marketer’s practices and showing how likely your messages are to reach the inbox in the next 30 days. We talked about ways that you can try to correct a poor reputation if you have one – mostly by relentless and disciplined focus on the root causes. These are typically high complaints (a measure of value and engagement with your subscribers), list hygiene (how clean your list is, and how you source data) and infrastructure (all those details around volume, throttling, MTA configuration, if your reverse DNS and MX records are set up correctly and if you process bounces and complaints appropriately).

We ran out of time and could not answer all the questions, so Chip asked me to address a couple of them here. Al did the same here.

Q1: How do we measure the negative engagement events? Can movement between folders be measured?

I think this question refers to a comment by Jamie at Cloudmark on how she views the various engagement metrics used by Cloudmark and the mailbox providers like Yahoo! and Gmail. Things like complaints are “negative,” inactivity (lack of opens or clicks) is “neutral,” and opens and clicks are “positive.” Jamie clarified that while Cloudmark doesn’t track or utilize all those things, the idea of “positive engagement” is a good metaphor for how email reputation systems work. Complaints, still the biggest contributor to reputation, is clearly a negative, and is viewed as a proxy for subscriber satisfaction. Today, most of the data is based on “negative engagement” metrics like complaints. Things like opens and clicks is generally thought to be tracked by major mailbox providers like Yahoo! and Hotmail/MSN, but use of those metrics for filtering decisions is still in its infancy. (Note that some “honeypot” accounts can register opens and clicks, as well.) Marketers can track complaints by signing up for feedback loops. Monitoring actual inbox placement by campaign is also a great way to keep an eye on and isolate reputation problems. Third party certification like Return Path Certification provide even deeper campaign level data. Going forward, Return Path is working with our mailbox provider partners around the world to help make some of these other metrics more transparent – without tipping anyone’s hand to the spammers.

Q2: How do you go about cleaning up a dated, dirty list? Is it better to remove or suppress honeypot/spamtrap addresses? What is the best way to get to a clean list to reengage with?

Yes, it is imperative that you remove spamtraps and immediately stop mailing to them. Sometimes the spamtrap holder (like Spamhaus) will tell you what date or time they received the message to a spam trap address, and that helps you identify and isolate the potential records by campaign. Often, you need to re-permission a portion of the list by sending a specific message. If you do no segmentation, you may have to re-permission your entire file to remove the spam traps (along with whomever else doesn’t respond to your campaign). This can be painful. Expect to lose at least half of your file. In addition to the benefits of better targeting that improve response, spamtrap removal is a very good argument for segmentation of your file.

The best way to solve this problem is try to avoid spamtraps in the first place by adopting strong list hygiene practices and sourcing new subscribers only from websites or forms that you own directly. Remove inactive subscribers from your file (12 months is a good starting point, but some businesses may require a much stricter rule and several publishers suppress non-responders at the 30 or 90 day mark. Always quarantine new data from any outside source prior to adding it to your main file, so that if there are spam trap or list hygiene issues, you contain them.

If you are doing a win-back or re-engagement campaign with addresses that have not responded (no opens, clicks or conversions from email in the past xx number of days), then first try to run them through a cleansing service or email change of address prior to mailing. Data that is 6-12 months old should be on your radar for suppression – keep data as recent (currently active) as your business model and mailing frequency allows.

Q3: If starting a lead generation campaign that needs to go out to some recipients who may not have heard of your brand/company, how can you acquire permission from these leads? Leads, who previously have come from list rentals…

This question makes me nervous. Why do you have data on your file that has no permission or includes people who have never heard of your brand? That sounds like a very poorly acquired file. If you are doing list rental to an outside file (never, NEVER buy a list! Read more here about how rental of a file from a reputable list owner can be successful consider a campaign that first introduces your brand and value, and ask for the sale later. Offer something of real value to start the relationship, like a whitepaper, an interactive tour of your product line, an interview with a celebrity in your industry or a research report. All of these things should bring visitors to your site, introduce your brand, and of course, encourage people to sign up for your email file directly. (Be sure to make the sign up offer compelling and prominent). Then, once you have a relationship and the subscriber has demonstrated interest, you can promote your services more directly.

If you attended the event and have other questions, or if you have a comment or follow up to these great questions, just use the comment page below. Thanks again to Exact Target for having me as part of this session.


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