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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Email Design Best Practices

One hour before the event started, I learned about a webinar titled "Email Design Best Practices" presented by Kara Trivunovic, the founder of The Email Advisor (http://www.theemailadvisor.com). I'm very busy but the recent Email Marketing Certification course I took last week with MarketingExperiments (http://www.marketingexperiments.com/) still has be buzzing with interest, ideas and questions about optimizing email design. One more hour with a leading industry expert is easily justified.

Kara covered a lot of ground in an hour but here are the highlights. Firstly, she defined email success using a 40/40/20 rule.

40% of success requires a good audience
40% of success requires a good offer at the right time
20% of success requires good creative design


She followed this up by quoting a colleague of hers saying something like "writing about a good offer on a cocktail napkin using lipstick is acceptable as long as you give it to the right person and the right time." Clearly, Kara is referring to the big buzz word in our industry...RELEVANCE. It's important to send interesting and engaging emails to your customers at the time they're most likely to be receptive in order to maximize effectiveness and minimize unsubscribers due to recipient frustration. As an accountant, "relevance" as outlined in the FASB "Statements of Financial Accounting Concepts" is easy for me to relate to.

Five Email Design Secrets

I'll only summarize Kara's "Secrets" here and hope that you'll read more on The Email Advisor blog and sign up for their newsletter on the website at http://theemailadvisor.com/.

Secret #1:
Limit font variations because it's distracting, and don't make it flash on and off. This refers to the font face, weight, color and size and includes the use in text and image copy.

Secret #2: White is the new Black - Keep background colors white or light because it improves readability. This is in contrast to the recent trend towards dark or black backgrounds with white/light text. I wear glasses now that I'm ... ripening and could not agree more with this. I'm sure that if your message is targeted to a younger crowd, rules like this need to be flexible.

Secret #3:
Images don't have to be static. In other words, if you can identify two or more different audiences within your mailing list and feel sending each their own version of an image in the email would make the email more relevant, then do it. All Web Email, and many other ESPs, can customize virtually any piece of your email from email header fields, Subject, body copy (text) and even images. (We don't actively advertise this, but we even customize your messages to ISPs like AOL, Yahoo & Hotmail using individualized delivery rules, in order to maximize your deliveries to the Inbox).

Secret #4:
It's all about the Golden Triangle. The what?? In short, your message has to do a lot in the top 250 pixels (2-4 inches) of the email. You need to squeeze in your Headline, Brand, Navigation, Offer, Call To Action, Table of Contents (newlsletters) and potentially Unsubscribe instructions. WOW! Don't waste the top of your email with pretty logos and other irrelevant information. Get right to the meat and potatos.

Secret #5:
Write at 60 miles per hour. Kara refers to scanning emails with a billboard mentality. You've got about 3 seconds to communicate your message and get them to engage, Folks don't read email any longer, they scan ("F" shaped eye-scan pattern). It's important to keep your message short and sweet. Newsletter type emails have a bit more flexibility here due to the nature of the content and the audience. However, I would still suggest you stay on topic.

Here is the most important lesson I learned. "Never use the same Subject line over and over". I am so guilty! Actually, this makes perfect sense. Kara suggests that using the same Subject line repeatedly, like you might do to announce your recurring newsletter, causes the Subject to become "virtual wallpaper". Recipients simply recognize the Subject, glaze over, and move on to the next message in their Inbox. Subjects should do more to excite the reader and lead them to Open it and read it. I was able to apply this new secret golden nugget for a client, about 30 minutes after the end of the webinar. We have a client that sends a newsletter to their entire list once a month.

Old Subject: Skyline Update...

New Subject: Skyline Update...plus New Club Skyline Benefits


This email isn't scheduled for delivery until Friday, but I will report back on the Open rate statistics of this campaign, as an addendum to this article. Stay tuned!

Thank you Kara and The Email Advisor for a great webinar. I hope those of you reading this will get one or more golden pieces of information that you can instantly implement, to improve your email effectiveness. I did!

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How To Create a High Quality Mail List

We've talked about how to get your email delivered to the inbox of those who are on your mail list. In future blogs, we'll discuss design and technical issues that can help or hinder the conversion of a delivered email to a sale.

For now, let's step back a bit and discuss how to gather the list ... and how NOT to gather it. The real objective is to gather a quality list of email addresses, which means that more of your email will reach the inbox ... and that more of the users will be glad to see your email when it is delivered. This, in turn, translates to more sales!

The avoidance of spam is at the heart of most of the roadblocks to reaching an inbox, so let's define exactly what we mean by spam:

Spam is email that is both Unsolicited and Bulk Email (UBE). Bulk email is simply email that is sent to many recipients at once, though portions of the message might be customized for each receiver. Spam is sometimes also called Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE). Spam is NOT about the content ... it is about the consent!

There are several options for acquiring a mail list and the different approaches produce different levels of list quality. Here are the four methods, shown in order of best quality to worst:

  • Confirmed opt-in (COI) - With confirmed opt-in, the subscriber must take active steps twice, to become a subscriber: The first when signing up and the second, when replying to an email or clicking an activation link in an email.

  • Unconfirmed Opt-in - With this approach, a new subscriber to a mail list will get a confirmation email. No further action is needed by the subscriber unless they have changed their mind and don't want to subscribe. In that case, they must take some action to unsubscribe.

  • Opt-out - New subscribers are automatically added and they must take some action, to be removed from the list.

  • Purchase a list - Buying a mail list is NEVER a good idea!

Now, let's further discuss each of these four methods for subscribing email addresses.

Confirmed Opt-in (COI)
This method is also sometimes called confirmed subscription, closed-loop opt-in, or double opt-in. But, watch out, because spammers have twisted the term double opt-in to make their UBE seem to be legitimate email. COI provides a verification, that it was really them who signed up. This is the best practice for responsible Internet mailing lists, because it ensures users are properly subscribed, from a working address, and with the address owner's consent.

Unconfirmed Opt-in
This approach is also called single opt-in or simply opt-in. Again, however, spammers have corrupted this term to be any address on their list. Some marketers contend that confirmed opt-in is like asking for permission twice and that it constitutes unnecessary interference with someone who has already said they want to hear from the marketer. However, if an opt-in request is unconfirmed, then it cannot be verified and if it cannot be verified then a bulk email sender can just say that someone opted-in. This is why unconfirmed opt-in lists are sometimes referred to as "dirty lists" in the respectable bulk email industry.

Opt-out
Instead of giving people the option to be put in the list, they are automatically subscribed and must take some action, to be removed from the list. By definition, this is Unsolicited Bulk Email or "Spam". It's surprising, in light of this, that a recent study found 31% of companies added customers to their email lists following a purchase, without requesting permission.

So, What's Wrong with Buying a Mail List?
Never buy a list from someone on the Internet ... not even if it is supposedly permission-based ... because it can't be! The users on the list may have opted-in to some mail list, but certainly not to yours. There is a high probability that someone receiving an email from someone who purchased a list will hit the spam complaint button. Since spam complaints bear so much weight in decisions to forward your email or not, purchased lists are always a bad idea.

Quality Mail Lists Are Worth More!
There is a clear correlation between a properly gathered and maintained mail list and a higher percentage of email deliveries that convert to sales. Although the best quality mail lists are typically smaller, they result in more sales.

Don't forget that a mail list must be continually maintained, to keep only those who want to remain on the list. And, like dead branches on a tree, dead email addresses must also be regularly pruned.

Although AllWebEmail.com won't provide you with an email list, they will make it easy for you to manage one. See http://www.allwebemail.com/delivery.html.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

MarketingSherpa 2009 Email Marketing Summit Summary

For starters, I'll be straight with you and admit it's been a while since I've been to a "summit". Did I enjoy it, learn a lot, meet some fantastic people, and justify our significant expense? Absolutely! Will I go to the Email Marketing Summit already on the books for March, 2010? Definitely.

I've spent many years on the summit scene. The problem with these, is usually not the variety and quality of topics and speakers discussed, but the amount of time allocated to each subject. I spent much of the last day meeting with several of the vendors that were displaying outside the conference rooms. As it turned out, I had some very detailed and high quality discussions while the rest of the 400-500 people were inside listening to 30 minute summary presentations.

Several email marketing themes were repeated by presentation speakers and vendors throughout the event. Here are the most discussed (and Tweeted).

- Increased attention to list segmentation in an attempt to get the right message in front of the right recipient at the right time. The days of blasting a message to the entire list aren't completely going away yet, but the smartest marketers will leverage new technology to cost effectively reduce list churn (unsubscribes) by increasing message relevance to the recipient.

- Looking for new ways of integrating email marketing with Web 2.0/social media like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, SMS and others.

- An increase in automated/triggered messaging where messages are sent automatically. These include everything from simple "Welcome" and followup messages to new subscribers, messages triggered by actions initiated by subscribers on the website or sales channel, and messages geared to re-activating inactive subscribers.

I was surprised that deliverability was not discussed much and the complete lack of attention to actual HTML coding practices critical to ensuring that an email renders the way you expect it to across the top email clients. Perhaps our Hal Seltzer can offer his time to present this topic one day.

By far, the highlight for me was the Email Messaging Optimization Professional Certification class offered by MerketingExperiments on Sunday. I learned enough before the morning break to justify the entire 5 day trip for both Hal and myself. We came away with valuable information that we have already started implementing for our clients that will surely have positive results.

I have to thank Senior Strategic Manager Ana Gabriela Diaz of MarketingExperiments for spending so much time with us evaluating our website and for all of the great suggestions she offered. Despite working with us at the tail end of the final day, she quickly identified several areas for improvement and clearly explained why. We will implement every single one of them.

While the email marketing industry is still struggling for structure and strategy, I'm glad to see that many companies plan to improve email marketing effectiveness by increasing the relevance of the messages to their recipients. It's especially nice to come away from an event like this seeing that All Web Email continues to innovate in areas that will ensure our competitive advantage while providing all the same bells and whistles to our clients that other higher-priced ESP's offer.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Monitor, Fix Problems & Then Do It Again!

Last time, we said that your sender reputation was the single biggest factor in getting your emails to the inbox. And, we said that achieving and maintaining a good sender reputation was an iterative process, as illustrated below.
This time, let's talk about how to go about monitoring your reputation and fixing the problems.

Monitoring Your Sender Reputation
Monitoring is the only way to know for sure, if your email is making it to the inbox. It will also help you determine what happens once it is delivered: Did the receiver open it and scroll through the message or was it left unopened in the junk folder or was it simply deleted, without being opened?

Most importantly, monitoring will help you identify the problems that exist, which are hurting your sender reputation! Once they have been identified, you can then set about fixing the problems.

By far, the most effective way to accomplish this step is with a monitoring service, which creates 'seed' email accounts. Seed accounts have good addresses, which means that if you send email to them and it doesn't reach the inbox, it is likely because of your sender reputation with that ISP.

Fixing the Problems & Reducing the Complaints
When a sender's reputation has been damaged, it can be repaired, by fixing the things that caused the reputation drop. Of course, part of this process is analyzing the complaints and doing things to reduce the complaint rate.

Here are some example 'fixes' for problems that can hurt your reputation:
  • Too many complaints - This one is multi-pronged, with several potential remedies. First of all, you should register for ISP feedback and then act on it by immediately removing a member who complains. If the complaints are mostly from new subscribers, then you need to do a better job of making it clear what they should expect. Also, avoid a long delay before the first message is sent to a new subscriber. If most complaints are coming from one source, such as a purchased list, you might consider not using any addresses from that source, without first reconfirming permission from each member.
  • Too many complaints, part 2 - Some complaints are related to your content ' a receiver decides they are not interested, or they don't like the message or the format, or perhaps they feel the emails come too frequently. Once you determine the cause of the complaints via monitoring, you can then take appropriate action. Always follow best practices for subscribing, to keep complaints as low as possible.
  • Too many 'unknown user' addresses - Have registrants enter their email address twice, to avoid typos. Send a welcome email and immediately remove all addresses that bounce. For longer term members, you should still remove them from the list after 2 such 'hard' bounces. This also reduces the chances that your email will get caught in a spam trap.
  • Too many 'soft' bounces - A common reason for a soft bounce is 'mailbox full'. It is recommended that list members be removed after 7-10 soft bounces.
  • Unsubscribed members - Promptly remove any list members who unsubscribe. And, make it easy for someone to unsubscribe. These things will help reduce your complaint rate. Even receivers who don't complain can hurt your reputation, by increasing the number of emails that don't get opened.
  • Too much volume - Too much volume can get you incorrectly labeled as a spammer. One way around this is to 'shape' the traffic that is generated, by not sending it all at once, but in measured amounts.
  • Authentication and Infrastructure problems - Once identified, these problems simply need to be corrected.

Monitoring Continuously
It is extremely important to continue to monitor and fix the problems uncovered. Otherwise, your reputation can be brought down. As an example, let's suppose that you are promoting a special spring sale and you temporarily increase your mailings and see a corresponding increase in sales. Unfortunately, more than a few subscribers saw the increase as too much email and hit the 'This is spam' button, instead of unsubscribing. When your complaint rate goes up, your reputation goes down! Without continuous monitoring, your reputation could be seriously hurt, before you even notice the longer-term loss in sales.

PS...To learn more about how AllWebEmail.com can take care of details like this for you ... or to sign up for your FREE email evaluation, visit our website at http://www.allwebemail.com/.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sender Reputation & What Affects It

Last time, we said that 77% of email delivery problems were based on sender reputation. It's not just about the content any more!

There has been a major shift in how ISPs handle high-volume commercial email. They no longer use crude tools that filter an email because it has "FREE" in the subject line. Today's "filters" are highly sophisticated, dynamic analysis processes that collect huge amounts of data to determine a sender's reputation, based on their sending practices.

One way to think about sender reputation is that it is kind of like a credit score. If yours is good, you have a high probability of being approved for any credit for which you apply. If it is poor, you will likely be turned down. With a good sender reputation, your email has a high probability of reaching the inbox; with a poor one, it will likely not make it to the inbox.

Although the criteria used by each ISP varies, any of the following items can affect your sender reputation:
  • Complaints - This is by far the most important element of your sender reputation. ISPs collect complaints in a number of ways, the most common being a "this is spam" button. Another complaint method is an email sent to an ISP directly or indirectly, from a third-party service like SpamCop.

  • Unknown User Rate - If you send large volumes of undeliverable email then either you are "guessing" at email addresses in an attempt to spam or you have poor list management practices. Either way it's going to hurt your reputation.

  • Rejected Rate - Rejected mail is defined as any message blocked due to policy, blacklisting, or content.

  • User Action - Another factor that affects your reputation is what the user does when one of your emails is delivered, either to the junk folder or the inbox: If the user opens it, unblocks images in it, clicks a link in it, forwards it, archives it, scrolls through it, prints it, or adds the sender to the white list it is good for your sender reputation. However, if the user does none of these things, but just deletes it or leaves it in the junk folder, it can hurt your reputation.

  • Volume of email sent - High volumes of email are indicative of spammers and will likely trigger closer watching by the ISP. How high is too high? Most service providers will compare statistics from other providers and about other email marketers and "too high" is significantly more than others. If your volume is high, then the negatives in your score, especially complaints, had better be low.

  • Authentication - Although not all ISPs insist on authentication, many do and eventually they all will. ISPs use several methods to validate your identity. Since even spammers can authenticate their email, it isn't a complete solution. But, if you're not willing to authenticate your identity, many ISPs won't deliver your email.

  • Infrastructure - There are specific ways that ISPs like to see a mailing system set up. Most important is correct configuration information. Infrastructure problems aren't common, but they are easy to diagnose and correct.

  • Spam Trap Hits - A spam trap is exactly what it sounds like: ISPs reactivate dead accounts to trap spammers. Since these accounts have never signed up to receive any email, if you have these addresses in your lists then either you are not properly pruning the lists or if a purchased list, questionable practices were used to build it. In either case, lots of hits will hurt your reputation.

  • Content - As we saw earlier, content is not as important as it once was in classifying an email as spam. Current research indicates that content is a factor in only 17% of blocking decisions. This is a good thing, since the other elements listed here are far easier to monitor ... and far harder for a spammer to fake.
There are other factors, as well, that might be considered ... and, it is constantly changing, so maintaining a good sender reputation is an ongoing, iterative process, as illustrated below.Next time, we'll discuss what's involved in monitoring your reputation and fixing the problems ... and why it's important to keep doing this.

Of course, the easy way to accomplish this is to let AllWebEmail.com take care of all of the details for you!

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What Is A Feedback Loop (FBL) & Why Should You Care?

Welcome to the first of many blog entries about some of the concepts, technologies and techniques used by AllWebEmail.com to try and make sure your email reaches the inbox of your customers and prospective customers.

I've developed courses... I've written articles, how-tos, and book... But this will be the first time I've been a blogger and I'm looking forward to it.

I hope you will enjoy the posts and hopefully learn something that will help you get the most out of your email campaigns. So, let's get started!

What is A Feedback Loop?

In general, a feedback loop (FBL) is a mechanism, process and signal that are looped back to control a system within itself.

In the context of email, an FBL or complaint feedback loop is an inter-organizational form of feedback, by which an Internet service provider (ISP) forwards email complaints originating from their users, back to the senders' organizations. Generally, ISPs expect that these transactions are processed as unsubscribe requests and that the sender researches the nature of the request, to reduce the incidence of such complaints.

The most common method for ISPs to receive users' complaints is by placing a report spam button on their webmail pages or in their email client. Or, the user may send the email to the ISP Postmaster. In rare cases, these feedback loops may not be based on user reports. For example, they may be based on automated virus detection, or similar mechanisms.

Some ISPs remove the email address of its customer before returning the message to the sender, for privacy or legal reasons. This means it is important for senders to utilize some method other than an email address within a message, in order to identify the recipient.

There is considerable effort involved in setting up an FBL with each ISP. In some cases, you must first set up domain authentication or other such security-related process. Fortunately, AllWebEmail.com takes care of all the details for you!

Why Is A Feedback Loop Important?

As of May 2008, there were 12 FBLs in place at several of the world's largest ISPs including AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo. Feedback loops have become an email industry standard.

This is excellent news for email marketers. The data returned as part of the feedback loop system is extremely valuable in a couple of ways:

  • The first is for list hygiene: Members who complain through a feedback loop can be unsubscribed, thereby reducing future complaints. Some may call this list-washing, but it's just common sense. Even if someone previously opted in to receive messages, if the user complains, the first thing you should do is cease mailing to that user.

  • The second use of FBLs is to analyze the complaints. There is a wealth of data in who complains and what they complain about. Regardless of whether you believe the complaints are unfounded, if they complained they were dissatisfied. Smart marketers aim to avoid dissatisfied customers or prospective customers.

Campaigns, subject lines and "from" addresses can also be monitored to ensure that campaign elements are working well. You can identify areas that need improvement. If a particular mailing, list, or list segment produces too many complaints, it bears further investigation. Many complaints are caused by a failure to meet expectations. As an example, there may be a high complaint rate among new subscribers. This can be caused by subscribers not getting what they thought they signed up for or by a long delay between sign-up and the first mailing.

To further complicate matters, most ISPs have complaint rate thresholds above which your messages may be filtered or blocked. Unfortunately, most ISPs don't publish these thresholds, which vary by ISP. Monitoring the FBL data will improve your email practices, while ensuring complaint rates do not exceed Internet Service Provider (ISP) thresholds.

Twenty percent of legitimate email never reaches the inbox and one study found that 77% of these email delivery problems were based on sender reputation. That reputation, in turn, is based on several things, with FBL complaint rates likely being the most important consideration. This means that proper use of FBLs can have a dramatic effect on your inbox performance.

AllWebEmail.com is continuously using feedback data to help maintain the best possible sender reputation.

Sender reputation is a topic to be discussed in a future blog.

What Is Questionable About Feedback Loops?

The spam button brings some very imprecise functionality. Automatic unsubscribe is an example. For years, end users have been told not to trust email unsubscribe links, to avoid confirming that the message was received and opened. So, many users hit the spam button as a way of unsubscribing. Users have to trust their ISP to not get into agreements with spammers, in the strict sense of the latter term.

The spam button may also be used in error, as a means of expressing disagreement with the message content, or as a means of expressing antipathy towards the message sender. Using the same button for multiple conditions implies guesswork in interpreting the data.

The bottom line, however, is that the benefits of FBLs far outweigh the cons.

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Introducing Bloggerette Barb Nolley!

I'm happy to introduce our readers to Barb Nolley. Barb has agreed to take the responsibility for overseeing the content of the All Web Email blog and writing about all subjects relevant to email marketing and valuable to our readers. A few of the articles Barb is currently cooking up include Feed Back Loops (FBLs) and why they're important, Spam Traps and how to avoid them, and factors that affect your Sender Reputation.

While blogging is new to Barb, technical writing is her forte. She comes to us with a long career in technical writing and a resume that requires an engineering dictionary accompaniment. Her technical areas of expertise involve Networking and Data Communications including two-way satellite communications. Her clients include the likes of Cisco Systems, Novell, Apple Computer and MCI. Along with degrees in Computer Science and Mathematics, her certifications include Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Certified NetWare Instructor (CNI) and Certified NetWare Engineer (CNE). I know this is only a summary of her capabilities, but they are the only bits I could understand from her long resume.

Welcome Barb!

If you'd like to hear what Barb has to say about a certain topic, send your suggestion to her directly at barb@allwebemail.com.