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The Evolution of Deliverability and Email Optimization Through Automation

I read a great article over at Litmus recently about automating your email development workflow. It got me thinking about the importance of automation and its potential effect on the email industry, including deliverability and email optimization.

The discussion of automation goes back hundreds of years and it’s a big topic that I see and read about every day. The future outlook of automation varies greatly relative to its potential impact to society. We are either a few years away from a robot apocalypse or at the cusp of an explosion of new industries similar to what happened when personal computers entered the mass market in the early 1980s.

It’s an important topic, because no matter what your personal opinions are about it, it will have ripple effects into deliverability and email optimization for which all of us must prepare.

The different phases of automation
Adoption of technological advances usually occurs in phases starting with the early adopters and over time being accepted by the general public. It takes time and money to develop the technology and additional time and money for the consumers of that technology to change their behavior as they learn how to use that technology. As the initial technology matures, other technologies are invented to improve upon, complement or replace the initial technology. It’s an ongoing cycle of innovation and email automation is following the same path.

The initial phase of automation involved automating specific email messages within your email program such as with triggered and transactional messages. Most marketers send a welcome message when someone signs up for their email program. If engaged in e-commerce, you likely send a message confirming a purchase as well as additional shipping and delivery notifications.

In most cases, these messages are automated and not sent by a person. The logic required to set the triggers is set up by you, along with the conditions to trigger it and the email templates sent when those conditions are met. There is still some human intervention involved to get this automation to work properly and consistently, but there are numerous benefits received for both your customers and your business once it is set up.

Over the past several years, more and more Email Service Providers have been evolving into marketing automation platforms that allow you to configure these types of messages and it is now open to a much larger number of marketers due to its simpler set up and relatively lower cost.

As this first phase of automation technology has become more widely adopted and is starting to mature, the second phase of automation is rising, which is about automating your workflows and business process in support of your email marketing efforts. Litmus gave some great examples of the second phase with using standardized templates, reusable code, and shortcuts. Many Email Service Providers have drag and drop email building software and other visual editing capabilities as well.

The next phase
The next phase of automation involves all aspects of the email marketing ecosystem integrated into a simple, easy to use platform. It leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomously adjusts and adapts your email content, sending patterns and list composition to maximize subscriber engagement to reach the inbox and increase conversions.

Below is a list of different parts of the email ecosystem that is currently automated or will be automated in the future.

  • List quality and hygiene
  • Email creative and design development
  • Real-time contextual messaging
  • Send cadence, time and frequency
  • Infrastructure updates
  • IP and domain warmups
  • Email volume and throttling
  • Real-time multivariate testing
  • Analytics and reporting
  • Knowledge sharing

This next phase is already underway. There are companies out there that are attempting to solve problems through automation within the different parts of email ecosystem in one way or another. But, right now they are all like puzzle pieces spread out on the table, waiting for someone to put them together.

The evolution of deliverability and email optimization
The result of all of this automation is the evolution of deliverability and email optimization. Deliverability problems will become mostly invisible because your inbox placement is automatically optimized to fit your business model. Because all aspects of your email marketing process, development and deployment will be automated, each mail flow can be tailored to fit the expectations and requirements of both the subscribers and the mailbox providers.

For example, you might be more profitable with 90 percent inbox placement rather than 100 percent if your sales cycle and business operations need to allow for a higher number of inactive users. Figuring out what inbox placement is right for you will be handled by the automated system. New email addresses will automatically be scored, vetted and sorted based on their likelihood to engage with you and buy your products. And, the email content will be automatically tailored in real-time depending on multiple variables like their location or purchase history. If your Sender Reputation Data (SRD) rate at Outlook.com is getting too high, the automated system will make adjustments to bring it down. If subscriber engagement level is too low at Gmail, the automated system will adjust to raise it. If the DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) verification fails, the automated system will identify and fix the cause with your hosting provider.

It’s time to prepare
Although none of this will happen tomorrow, the future impact of automation on deliverability and email optimization should not be ignored. The concept of deliverability will evolve and look differently than you know it today. It will require less human intervention and allow you to focus more on what’s most important to your customers and building your business. It will help you keep costs low and maximize your profits.

Prepare for the future and look for opportunities to automate all aspects of your email marketing program, including your creative development, process workflow, deployment, and analytics. Talk to your Email Service Provider so they can help you understand how best to use their current automation services, and give them feedback to help them develop future services.

 


Three ‘Missing’ Email Metrics That Could Change Your Priorities

Most email marketing teams spend much of their available time building and optimizing creative. Most testing that takes place is on subject lines, calls to action, and other elements of the email creative.

If email teams have a little more time (and investment from their organization), they may invest in building triggered, contextual messaging programs that will drive deeper client relationships and more opens, clicks, and conversions per subscriber over time.

These are worthy investments. Based on my conversations with many email marketers over the last year, this focus on optimizing creative and more “contextual” programs is based on three factors:

These are well-understood investments. Marketers have made these sorts of investments before, and there are well defined “templates” to follow

These projects can be achieved with the people currently on the email marketing team. They don’t require (a lot of) additional people resources.

However, I think there is a third reason that, although subtle, is important:

Common email metrics drive focus on creative optimization and program strategy.  The metrics commonly provided metrics by email service providers (ESPs) focus on campaign-level (and sometime program-level) open, click, and other performance data. This invariably leads to a focus on improving open and click rates by changes to subject lines, offers, calls to action, etc.

Let me present three alternative metrics that could (and in many cases would) drive focus on different “levers” for performance:

1. List quality: Reviewing the read rate performance (similar to open rate) for several thousand marketers across a consumer panel of 2.5 million mailboxes reveals a counterintuitive fact: The marketers that drive the highest read rates (and reads per subscriber per month) frequently use the least-sophisticated marketing. They use little segmentation and rely primarily on traditional “batch-and-blast” techniques.

How can this be? It turns out that the major factor determining read rate performance is quality of the subscriber list. If the marketer has a list comprised of highly active, primary accounts, their email marketing performance will inevitably be strong. Secondary or inactive accounts rarely respond to email.

So marketers should have access to reporting that shows the makeup of their list and gives them an understanding of the “natural limit” of what they can do with their email marketing program. This data could come from consumer panels or through data cooperatives that allow marketers to see how responsive each address on their list is with other email marketers.

If email marketers had access to this kind of metric, they would focus more on understanding the quality of addresses that come from each acquisition source and investing more on address acquisition from channels that drive higher quality addresses. They would focus on the value proposition and calls to action at time of signup to review which “treatments” drive higher quality subscribers.

2. List churn: One of the weaknesses in ESP reporting is the way unsubscribes and complaints are displayed — usually per campaign rates. Each campaign will show far less than 1% of subscribers churning off the list by unsubscribing or hitting the “report spam” button at a consumer mailbox provider.

However, over many campaigns, the number of terminations adds up. It’s not uncommon for a marketer to lose 20%  to 50% of starting subscribers over the course of a year. Careful analysis of those who unsubscribe shows that they are better than average subscribers, which can mean that list churn causes the overall list quality to decline over time. Ideally, ESPs would show aggregate list churn over time and calculate the cost of list churn in terms of changes to list quality and future opens, clicks, and conversions that are now not possible.

With access to this kind of metric, it’s likely that marketers would focus more on cadence and targeting, increasing list quality, and dramatically increasing the expected lifetime value of the list as measured by clicks or conversions.

3. Competitive loyalty: Much of email marketing investment is justified by deepening the relationship with customers and building greater loyalty. However, there is little loyalty data available to email marketers to see how they are doing in terms of share of transactions, share of spend, or share of eyeballs. This kind of data is available through market research and through consumer panels.

To get this metric, marketers would likely run tests to see which program types optimize loyalty: lifecycle, contextual based on web activity, etc. They could also take some guidance from what is working for other email marketers

There are likely other “missing” metrics. What kind of metric would you like to see?

This article origionally appeared on Media Post.


You Don’t Click What You Don’t Trust

Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship and email is no exception. When a subscriber decides to opt-in to an email program, they are initiating a relationship with that brand. Though the subscriber makes the first move, it’s the brand’s responsibility to lay the foundation for a long and meaningful email relationship. By keeping subscriber trust in mind, marketers are more likely to drive increased engagement and contribute to greater lifetime value from subscribers.

There are two intertwined concepts that relate to subscriber trust: security and confidence. Many subscribers have learned to be cautious when it comes to the emails that they interact with. There have been many widely-reported cases of phishing, fraud and hacks. If elements of a message arouse suspicion, subscribers are less likely to interact. As brands lose impulse opens and clicks due to moments of subscriber hesitation, ROI can be diluted. Marketers need to look at ways to ensure that messages are secure and come across as such to subscribers.

The rest of this post can be viewed on Target Marketing.


The Unique Value of ThreatWave Data, Available Exclusively from Return Path

Earlier this year, we shared the exciting news that Return Path acquired ThreatWave, a Colorado-based email data company that captures and processes billions of emails each month and parses these messages into a unique data source for email intelligence. I wanted to take this opportunity to share a bit more about ThreatWave and the value their unique data set brings to Return Path.

ThreatWave data is unparalleled in size and scope. ThreatWave owns and operates one of the world’s largest spam trap networks, as well as the resulting data set. By processing billions of emails monthly from around the globe, ThreatWave has created a massive and global source of email telemetry for threat, reputation, and market intelligence use cases. No other provider has the data scale to provide insights across campaigns, domains, and IP addresses.

ThreatWave data enhances Return Path’s existing capabilities. ThreatWave’s global email data provides unparalleled visibility into the threats facing the email ecosystem—spam traps, bad senders, and more. While Return Path is already the world’s foremost leader in email deliverability and campaign optimization, the addition of ThreatWave data extends our ability to drive meaningful insights. ThreatWave derives its email data from a variety of unique and proprietary sources, making it the perfect complement to the Return Path Data Exchange.

ThreatWave data offers an early warning signal of potential deliverability issues. ThreatWave data is unique, in that it acts like a “canary in the coal mine,” helping to identify list hygiene and acquisition issues before they become a problem. The data provides key insights about the quality of marketer’s email lists, subscriber acquisition methods, and more granular information about reputation issues. It also helps marketers to identify brand protection issues, like domain spoofing that can damage customer relationships.

ThreatWave data provides deep, specific insights. Typical spam trap reporting offers little more than the number of hits and dates. But ThreatWave data includes additional campaign metadata showing hits by day, IP address, domain, subject line, from address, and more. This detail allows you to quickly identify issues, take corrective action, and keep your reputation intact.

ThreatWave data is available exclusively through Return Path. By acquiring ThreatWave, we’re able to offer Return Path customers and partners exclusive access to this massive email intelligence data source. Return Path currently offers the ThreatWave data via direct feed, which can be obtained in a variety of formats: Amazon S3, ARF messages, RESTful API, and more. Starting Q2 2017, we will be incorporating ThreatWave data into the Return Path product suite for ESP partners, offering visualizations and the ability to download the data directly from the user interface.

To learn more about the unique value of ThreatWave data, please contact us.


Ramping Up Email Volume Without Risk [New Case Study]

Growth is a business goal nearly every organization hopes to accomplish on a continual basis. However, with this positive growth comes associated hurdles and complications, especially in the world of email marketing.

DonorsChoose.org, a non-profit organization connecting millions of teachers and donors on a daily basis, found themselves in this exact scenario. As the business began to expand, the organization wanted to get ahead of any potential deliverability issues related to sending more email. To do so, DonorsChoose.org reached out to Return Path to learn more about their Certification program.

“As we grow, and our email volume increases, we’re at a greater risk for upsetting spam filters. Not to mention the ever-evolving landscape of deliverability. We knew that we needed an expert like Return Path to ensure we were getting in the inbox.” — Charles Best, Founder and CEO

After being added to the industry’s most recognized and valued certified whitelist, DonorsChoose.org improved to a 99 percent inbox placement rate at Yahoo and 100 percent at Microsoft. 

To learn more about DonorsChoose.org and how Certification helped them ensure teachers get the materials they need for the classroom, read our latest customer success story here.


Meet Goldilocks and the Three Email Marketers

Once upon a time, there was an email marketer named Goldie. Like most email marketers, she has questions about how often she should send to her subscribers…

Do I send too much and run the risk of complaints and unsubscribes?  
Do I send too little and miss out on increasing engagement and revenue opportunities?
How do I figure out what is just right?

Goldie knows she’s not alone in wondering about frequency so she wants to ask her three email marketer friends for help.

We’re now one week away from this year’s annual MarketingSherpa event in Las Vegas. To hear how this fairy tale ends, you’ll have to join us at Return Path’s Solution Showcase—Tuesday April 11th at 12:50pm in the solution theater on the exhibit floor.

Return Path’s Chief Marketing Officer, Daniel Incandela, and Send Frequency Optimization expert, Jake Curtis, will share Goldie’s journey to better understand how each of the three email marketers can better perfect send frequency and drive a higher return on email program investment.

Getting email send frequency “just right” is a hard task, but with Return Path, it’s a lot easier!

Can’t make it to MarketingSherpa and want to know more about Send Frequency Optimization and other email solutions? Request a demo.


What Verizon’s Emails Moving to AOL Mean for Your Program

Verizon acquired AOL in June of 2015. Since then, Verizon has gradually migrated their email accounts (ending in @verizon.net) over to AOL, requiring Verizon customers in some regions to use mail.aol.com as their email portal. Verizon has now announced that they are getting out of the email business entirely and will be migrating or closing all @verizon.net email accounts by April 28, 2017.

Any Verizon customers wishing to keep their @verizon.net email address will need to migrate the @verizon.net account to AOL. These customers will keep the @verizon.net address as their AOL login. Verizon customers who do not request migration to AOL will have their email accounts closed by April 28, 2017.

Recommendations for Email Marketers
Below are a few recommendations for marketers to reduce the impact of this change on your ability to reach your customers.

  • Ensure bounces are being properly handled. Customers who do not migrate will lose their @verizon.net email address. Marketers should expect high volumes of bounces from verizon.net on or after April 28th.
  • Try to identify a new email address for @verizon.net customers. Consider collecting a secondary verification method (i.e. secondary email address, mobile number, security question(s), etc.). from your customers before April 28th.
  • Prepare an in-web / in-app prompt if the Verizon (or any) address bounces, notifying the subscriber that the address doesn’t appear to be valid and asking the subscriber to update the address on file.
  • If available, leverage your list hygiene provider to test Verizon addresses for bounces before deploying emails after April 28, 2017.
  • Read the help pages provided by AOL and Verizon. Both AOL and Verizon have put together help pages to support their customers through this transition. These pages will help answer most questions.

Deliverability to @verizon.net Addresses
While this current migration is moving @verizon.net addresses to AOL, Verizon once partnered with Yahoo!, allowing their customers to use Yahoo! Mail as their email portal. These Verizon customers will continue to use Yahoo as their email portal moving forward. This means that upon completion of the Verizon email shutdown, customers with active @verizon.net addresses will either be using Yahoo! Mail or AOL Mail as their email provider. Deliverability to @verizon.net addresses will be impacted by which email provider the customer is using. Email marketers will not be able to identify which email portal a @verizon.net customer is using unless they have access to the email header. If marketers have a deliverability issue at either provider, it will impact a portion of their @verizon.net email.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to discuss with your Technical Account Manager.


Worst Case Scenarios: Email Marketing Edition

On February 28, 2017, Amazon Web Services went down, taking with it websites and apps like Slack, Trello, Venmo, and Adobe that rely on its hosting services. In our office, there was an audible gasp (not kidding) as people realized what was happening and searched for more information. Now this is far from a “doomsday” situation, but needless to say, it was not a welcome event. Though outages of this magnitude are rather rare, they do happen—and could even affect your email marketing program. Here are three things you should proactively consider today to ensure that your emails can withstand hosting issues, outages, and other unforeseen circumstances:

1. Build emails with a backup in place
If the text, images, or other features of your email are hosted by a server that fails, you need a backup so that the email doesn’t appear completely broken. Using styled ALT text will ensure that your message gets communicated no matter what—subscribers will see the text you enter if they’re not able to see the image. In general, it’s a best practice to always include alt-text for your images so that someone can see and engage with your message, regardless of whether or not images are displayed.

2. Plan for the unexpected
If your Email Service Provider (ESP) would shut down tomorrow with no warning, what would you need to continue your email marketing program? If you only maintain lists and other email data in one place, consider backing it up on a regular basis. The same goes for storing content on just your laptop’s hard drive, etc. Redundancy is key.

3. Have processes in place to stop the presses
Chances are, you’ll never need to put everything on hold. But if you do, do you have a plan of how you’ll accomplish it? Think of the worst case scenario in which you stop all outgoing emails. How long will it take? Others may need to be involved, like your ESP contact, your IT team, etc. If you have to stop each email program manually, work with all parties involved to determine if there might be a better way.

Disaster recovery plans that concern technology are very common, and for good reason. When problems arise that you have no control over, you need to know what to do. Being able to minimize the damage is critical! Even though email marketing is an important business process, you might not have given it a second thought. Let the Amazon outage be a lesson to us all about preparing for the worst – and let’s hope you’ll never have to use it.


What is a Feedback Loop?

I’ve come across several clients recently that are not aware of how a feedback loop works and how it can be used. I’m hoping this blog will be a useful reference point for those types of conversations.

What is it?
When a recipient has decided to click “This is Spam” on your email, it is considered a “complaint.” Some Mailbox Providers allow visibility for when this happens by allowing the sender to sign up for a feedback loop. Feedback loops, or FBLs, allow senders to receive messages back from members who complained. The Mailbox Provider forwards the message complained about back to the sender at a designated email address that has been set up, primarily so that the sender can suppress this user in their database.  See diagram below:

What Mailbox Providers use FBLs?

Unfortunately, not all Mailbox Providers give senders the option for a feedback loop process to be set up. Below is the list of Mailbox Providers that make this available currently:

If you noticed, Gmail is not on this list. Gmail, among other Mailbox Providers, does not offer a feedback loop service. However, there is some useful data that you can collect from Gmail and can read about it more here.

How do I get it?
The sender must go through an application process to enable a Feedback Loop with a Mailbox Provider, and can usually be found on the postmaster site. The information required will vary across the different applications. Some of the essential items you will be asked to enter include contact information, IP address, and what email address has been set up on your end to receive the messages. Specifically Yahoo!, requires senders to authenticate with DKIM to enable the feedback loop process. In Yahoo!’s application you will be asked for the d= and s= values from your DKIM signature, so have that ready!

What do I need to do?
Feedback loop email address:
You will need to set up an email account on your end that will receive the messages being sent back from the Mailbox Providers. This email address should have a parsing script looking through all the messages coming in to remove the needed information.

Collect data:
The information being sent back to the sender’s feedback loop email address is simply a copy of the message that the complaining member received. The most popular format that most Mailbox Providers use is Abuse Reporting Format (ARF). Now, the sender can collect any information it wants from this message it received back, which includes the header and body of the message. At the very minimum, the sender should strip out the email address so that it can be added to the suppressed list. Unfortunately Mailbox Providers sometimes redact the member’s email address from the message sent back, so the sender should find another way to identify the member from the message. This can be done through tracking links in the body or subscriber identifiers in the x-header that the sender has put in place.

What are the benefits?
Remove complaining members:
The main purpose for the feedback loop process is to be able to unsubscribe a member from your database. You want to avoid members submitting multiple complaints, which will hurt your deliverability. Aside from that, complaints also drive future emails to a member’s spam folder. As ISPs are moving more toward engagement, the amount of mail going into the spam folder can also hurt your reputation.

Identify compromised hosts:
Network security is something not to be taken lightly. FBLs help point out security issues by letting the sender see all complaints for the sender’s IP space. If your IPs have been compromised, you may receive complaints on pieces of mail that you never sent.

Identify problematic campaigns/acquisition methods:
Collect more information from feedback loops like a campaign ID number or list acquisition ID in the header. Take the first step in identifying which campaigns are most problematic, followed up with an evaluation of factors like content and frequency. This is also a great tool if you have multiple list sources. It could be that you have a more problematic list source that needs to be reevaluated or segmented into another IP, to not harm the rest of your email program.

Check out our e-book A Marketer’s Guide To Spam Complaints to get a better sense of what practices contribute to a high percentage of complaints.