Thoughts on Six Sigma Deliverability

Posted by George Bilbrey on

As a former statistical analyst, I was pleased to see the recent Email Insider column by Loren McDonald on Six Sigma email deliverability. I think Loren makes an excellent point: marketers should pay attention to deliverability in precisely the same way that U.S. manufacturers paid attention to quality control.

You can read Loren’s column for details, but the gist is that the keys to deliverability are:

  1. Define your goals (e.g., “inbox placement of 100% at the following ISPs: …”)
  2. Measure deliverability
  3. Analyze – find the root cause of the delivery problem
  4. Improve the root cause of the delivery problem and
  5. Keep those root causes under control

In our experience most marketers have no problem with “define” — they want 100% deliverability. And measure can be hit or miss if we think about email marketing broadly, though certainly the top-tier of brand marketers understand the need to monitor their deliverability.

Where we see fall off is with analyze and improve. The marketer defines the problem, measures the reality and then gets totally stuck.

First place they get stuck is on analyze. Sure, I now know my deliverability is 87% (very far from my 100% goal), but they don’t know what is causing the failures. They don’t look at the right data in terms of unknown users, complaint rates or spam traps. If they are sending email internally they don’t know how to evaluate their infrastructure. Clients who get stuck in this phase tend to spend a lot of time focused on fixing the wrong stuff – namely content – instead of figuring out the bigger picture improvements that will really push them forward.

Of those that nail the analysis, there is a significant percentage who then fall down on improve. These are usually the marketers who were hoping they could call the postmaster at AOL or Yahoo! and explain that they are “a really, really good mailer” and that the blocks would be lifted by magic. This just about never happens. If email is being blocked, particularly by a top-tier ISP, it is usually because there is something wrong with the program. Which means that something wrong – which could be too many complaints, too many unknown users, too many spam traps, a screwed-up mailing infrastructure, or all of the above – needs to be fixed. Some fixes are easy and some aren’t. But they all require some amount of time and resources, which can be hard to come by in a modern corporation.

But here’s the good news. When a client does the analyze and improve steps correctly, they almost always nail the last step of control. This is because many of the fixes turn into permanent changes that keep the program on track with little if any additional effort. And, it’s also because those pieces that do require vigilance (watching for complaints, for example) has become ingrained in the team. No one wants to have to go back to the beginning.

So our advice to all marketers is focus on getting great data, of course, but make sure you are analyzing it correctly. Then, make a commitment to really improve your program. The rest, including near-perfect deliverability rates, will fall into place around those two activities.


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About George Bilbrey

George Bilbrey is the founder of the industry’s first deliverability service provider, Assurance Systems, which merged with Return Path in 2003. He is a recognized expert on the subjects of email reputation and deliverability and is active in many industry organizations, including the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG) and the Online Trust Alliance (OTA). In his role as president of Return Path George is the driving force behind the ongoing innovation of our products and services. Prior to Return Path, George served as Director of Product Management at Worldprints.com and as a partner in the telecommunications group at Mercer Management Consulting. He holds a B.A. in economics from Duke University, and an MBA from the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, University of North Carolina.

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