Ghosts of Holidays Past: What to Watch out for This Year

Last week, I showed you the email marketing ghosts of holidays past, what to prepare for now and what could go wrong in the future. Like Scrooge learned in “A Christmas Carol”, it all depends on the actions you take today.

Last year, email volumes increased exponentially leading up to Black Friday and through Cyber Monday. Volumes declined from their highs but remained above average until just a few days before Christmas. This Christmas year should email volumes increasing again, but early data is showing that email volumes rose faster and earlier this year with more retailers forgoing Thanksgiving promotions this year for earlier Black Friday deals.

In Christmases past, subscribers complained more, read less and marketers saw more emails delivered to the spam folder. But in 2018, it seemed that not only did subscribers tolerate more emails, but they also liked receiving them as open rates, or read rates, didn’t see a decline. Likewise, subscribers complained less, or marked email as spam less, than they have in prior years. In 2019, no doubt some marketers will see challenges, but if they are sending email promotions their subscribers want, 2019 should be another banner year for the email marketing channel.

But what if your future holiday season sees ghosts of its own? Many of you wrote in with your questions of how to deal with unexpected holiday horrors.

1. Don’t add to the holiday stress.
Avoid making major changes such as adding a new IP address. While it may seem logical to add an IP address now to avoid dreaded “too busy, try again later” messages, unless you’ve already “warmed” the IP addresses to have a positive reputation, it’s too late at this point add an IP address and experience positive results. Wait until after the new year.

2. Skip the Black Friday lines.
If you’re receiving the above mentioned “try again later” bounce error when trying to send to certain ISPs and mailbox providers, check your connection and throughput settings and changing them if needed. If you’re still seeing this error, consider aligning and sending time-sensitive campaigns at non-peak sending times.

3. If you’re making a list, check it twice.
Email marketers see their subscriber and customer lists increase after the holiday season. But bad data can come back to haunt you next year if you’re not validating addresses and cleaning up invalid records. Also, resist the urge to send to lists you haven’t mailed to in a while, such as bounce lists, suppression lists, or inactive lists as it almost always results in mail being delivered to spam or blocked.

Want to know more about to handle some of the most common holiday email nightmares? Check our recent webinar The Email Marketer’s Holiday Survival Checklist.

Christmas Time is Here—Is Your Program Ready? [New Research]

The holidays are a wonderful but hectic time of the year, especially for marketers. Consumers are in a purchasing mindset as they work through their holiday shopping list for family and friends. which presents you with a great opportunity.

To take full advantage of the season, you need to make sure your emails are optimized to both reach the inbox and resonate with your subscribers. To help you get your program ready, we created our latest ebook—Have Yourself a Merry Email Christmas. Inside we explore the performance of last year’s holiday season and highlight some essential tactics you should implement in your program so you can join in on the holiday cheer, including: 

  • How many emails were sent during the holiday season 
  • How consumers interacted with messages during the holiday season 
  • How different industries performed over Black Friday and Cyber Monday 
  • And more! 

Read the report for tips and tactics to make your holidays merry and bright.

The “Gift” of Complaints

The holidays are right around the corner, so you know what that means—you have to start getting gifts for everyone! It is often said around here that “feedback is a gift.” If that is the case, then spam complaints should be considered a gift as they are feedback from subscribers that something is turning them away from your mail.

If you have had the chance to read through The Marketer’s Guide to Subscriber Complaints, then you will know that with this gift of complaints, there are lots of ways to make sure you can get your email program back on track. Using the information from the guide, you can either proactively or reactively mitigate complaint issues.

The Subscriber Welcome Gift

In order to reduce complaints its best to start where your subscribers start; during the opt in process.

  • Consider implementing a confirmed/validated opt-in process
  • Use real-time email address verification
  • Scrub list for any malformed addresses or unknown users
  • If sending third party mail—consider a separate opt-in process and email verification

It’s also important to consider what will happen after your latest subscriber signs up for your mail. You will need to make sure the customer receives a prompt welcome message and even consider a welcome series.

But what I think is the greatest gift you can offer your subscribers is setting the proper expectations. Be sure to:

  • Communicate what type of mail they will be receiving
  • How often they can expect emails from you
  • Will they be receiving mail from affiliates or other brands?

The Gift of Relevancy

Have you ever received an email that was tailored perfectly to you? Maybe it was highlighting something you had recently been shopping for? Or sending you something related to a milestone in your life? No matter the content, it always feels personalized when we get emails tailored to our specific wants and needs.

Subscribers are less likely to complain when they feel the emails being sent to them are relevant to them. Preference centers are an excellent way to capture subscribers’ interests that will allow you to trigger more relevant messages to those who want it. I always appreciate it when the company I sign up for “gifts” me with the opportunity to update my preference on the welcome message. I also love it when the preference center shows examples of what the subscriber would be receiving like this example from Lowes.

If you don’t have the ability to implement a preference center, or just like to collect more data to send triggered messaging, you can always use other data sources to target and personalize to your customers. You can use data such as browser behavior or purchase behavior. You can even use data from Return Path’s Email Client Monitor to further achieve personalized content. For example, by using the location and subscriber ID features in Email Client Monitor, you will see where your subscriber is opening up their mail. If you notice your subscriber is consistently opening up their mail in Miami, you might want to send them emails about swimsuits and not winter coats.

And the Gifts Keep on Coming…

By reading the Marketer’s Guide to Subscriber Complaints, you will be able to take a deep dive into the gifts you can give your subscribers in order to reduce complaints. I think it’s important to mention to not forget to:

  • Offer an easy way for subscribers to unsubscribe so that they do not complain
  • Sign up for feedback loops (they are a free gift!)
  • Pay attention to your frequency—do not send too much mail to overwhelm the subscriber but also don’t send too little that they forget about you
  • Think about your subject line—make your subject line stand out (use the Subject Line Optimizer tool from Return Path)

And if these are not enough gifts to get you through the complaints of the holiday season, check out the Marketer’s Guide to Subscriber Complaints. Email deliverability gifts are always the gifts that keep on giving.

New Webinar: The Email Marketer’s Holiday Survival Checklist

We all know Murphy’s Law–anything that can go wrong, probably will–and we can apply that to email marketing during the holiday season as well. Clearly, Fate knows that you have no time to deal with any deliverability problems during the busiest time of the year, which means you’ll probably deal with deliverability problems. It’s also true that luck favors the prepared, so the best way to avoid deliverability issues or minimize their impact is to prepare for them.

So, join us on November 20th at noon EST (9AM PST) for our latest webinar, The Email Marketer’s Holiday Survival Checklist to help you prepare and experience a stress-free holiday season. We’ll see what the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future have in store for us and explore some of the most encountered deliverability issues and what you can do to resolve them.

Have a question or concern that you want us to address during the webinar? Let me know by submitting your questions anonymously using this form.

The Email Marketer’s Holiday Survival Checklist
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
12pm EST / 9am PST

Register here

Submit questions here

Remember the Little Things this Holiday Season

Fall is my favorite time of year. The changing colors, the crisp air, football, and the anticipation of gathering with friends and family for the holidays. It is often a time for reflection, to think of days past, accomplishments, failures, and the promise of tomorrow.

For marketers, Fall is less a time for reflection, and more a time for action. It is a very important time of year as the revenue gained from upcoming holiday sales may determine if your business is profitable for the year. The pressure to achieve results is stronger than ever.

In an effort to achieve better results, many marketers look for new technologies such as Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI), and Artificial Intelligence. The hope is that implementing these technologies can help improve the customer experience, introduce your brand to a larger audience, and lead to an increase in email revenue. In my experience, the new technologies get a lot of attention from marketers and rightly so. The competition for the inbox is fierce, and if you are not innovating and striving to improve, then you risk losing your customer to a competitor.

With an increased focus on new technologies and the increased holiday workload, what happens with many marketers this time of year is that the little things in your email program get overlooked and fall to the bottom of your priority list. It is understandable, but it is important to realize that all of the little things you do as a sender actually do matter.

While these little things by themselves may not have a large and direct impact on your inbox placement (some have bigger impact than others), having bad sending practices or metrics in addition to ignoring these little things can make reaching the inbox a bigger challenge.

1. Data quality: The quality of your data directly impacts deliverability. Syntax errors such as a misspelled domain name, a misplaced period, a missing username, and a missing @ sign are missed opportunities. Keeping your data clean improves your chances of reaching the inbox and making the sale.

2. Design errors: Misaligned columns, bad text and background color combinations, missing graphics, and misspelled words may cause your email to be perceived as spam.

3. WHOIS record: Ensure you have updated contact information and do not use a domain privacy service. Spammers use domain privacy services so be transparent about who you are and how you can be contacted.

4. Role Accounts: Ensure you have the abuse@ and postmaster@ role accounts configured to receive email and monitor them daily for communications from subscribers or mailbox providers. 5. Add your abuse@ and postmaster@ role accounts to Mailbox providers may look up your information there to try and contact you.

6. Personal whitelisting requests: The major mailbox providers and spam filter companies all recommend asking subscribers to add your sending address to their address book or contact list. In most cases, your sending address in their address book or contact list causes your email to bypass the spam filter and land in the inbox.

7. List Unsubscribe: Most major mailbox providers use the list-unsubscribe header. It provides recipients an option to unsubscribe rather than complain, leading to a better sending reputation.

8. Reply-To address: Mailbox providers find you more trustworthy when people reply to your emails. Encourage this behavior and be responsive when contacted. Be sure not to use ‘do not reply’ as a username as it sends the wrong message. a. Use a Reply-To header if you need replies to go to a different address than your sending address. By default, replies are sent to your sending address.

9. Monitor Out-Of-Office messages: Congratulations! Spam traps don’t send messages when they go on vacation; you have reached a real person.

10. Bad links: Make sure that all links go to a legitimate landing page and that there are no page errors. Be sure to check the links in your pre-header and footer as these areas are often ignored.

11. The email footer: Be sure to link to your preference center and promote other important aspects of your business like: About Us, FAQ, Contact Us, Unsubscribe or Privacy Policy.

12. Privacy Policy: Ensure the privacy policy link is located near the submit button and update the language to provide clear (non-legalese) language about how the email address is used and how to unsubscribe.

13. Personalization: Be sure to address your subscriber by their first name or title (e.g. Hi Jane, Hello Mr. Smith). Be sure that the message personalization is working and not inserting the database field name or just a person’s last name (e.g. Hi <first_name>, or Hello Smith).

14. Alternative Text with Images: Display actionable and engaging text that appears with a disabled image. Most email clients disable images by default, so alternative text can help describe your message or offer in the preview pane.

In most cases, these little things require a small number of resources to implement or fix and they contribute to mailbox providers seeing you as a more trustworthy sender. So be sure and take a few minutes each day to focus on the little things in your email program. Looking for more insight on what can block you from the inbox? Join our upcoming webinar—The Fact and Fiction of Email Filtering—on Wednesday, October 23rd.

Check Your List Twice This Holiday Season

It’s the holidays and so many marketers are under pressure to deliver on their lofty goals, beat last year’s numbers, and go from red to black as early as possible. Email is a low cost, high margin medium, and executives all over the world are turning to email marketing managers and their digital team in hopes that their email marketing program will propel the business to levels this holiday season. 

Two common asks from the top? 

1. Mail to more subscribers—Let’s stretch the limit of who we’re mailing to. People are looking to shop this time of year and we don’t want to miss out on potential customers because we have suppressed subscribers who want to get mail from us.

2. Push email sign up at the point of collection—There’s no better prospect than a consumer standing at a register or in our store. Let’s incentivize our employees on the floor to collect email addresses and then mail away! 

As a marketer, both of these asks can be frightening. Naturally, you have suppressed those subscribers in the past for a reason. Mailing to them again without proper precautions can cause serious damage to your reputation and deliverability. Even more daunting is the idea of adding a large number of addresses to your list that are either riddled with misspellings or the customer made up on the spot and don’t actually exist. That is a surefire way to get blocked from the inbox.  

Check your list twice
To accomplish your two new directives while also protecting your access to subscribers inboxes, you need to verify each address before you add them to your list. To make help ensure thilist doesn’t contain invalid addresses that can harm your reputation and impact your KPIs, run these addresses through a list validation service. Email validation services are able to identify email addresses pre-deployment as either valid or invalid in three different ways.  

1. Determines if the email address follows the correct syntax and has the physical properties of an email address (i.e., does it have an @ symbol, Is the suffix a recognized email format, such as .com, .org, .net, .edu or .gov, etc.,) 

2. Authenticates the validity of the email domain (MX record) for the email address to make sure the email domain can send and receive emails. 

3. Connects directly to the email server to authenticate if the email address exists on the server.  

Once you verify which addresses are real addresses, segment the subscribers you don’t normally mail to into their own list for a while to monitor engagement and interaction with your mailings before you add them to your larger mailing list. Your email reputation is sensitive and is a constant focus for your team. One hiccup in your mailing strategy can cause problems that take months to clear up, ruining your entire holiday season. Make sure you aren’t adding any grinches to your list that will ruin Christmas. 

Send More Emails This Holiday Season

The holidays are a wonderful time of the year, especially for marketers. As subscribers start planning out what gifts to give their friends and loved ones, they frequently check their inboxes for inspiration. To take advantage of this, many marketers ramp up their frequency over the holidays. However, while subscribers may be looking to buy more and might appreciate an increase in email offers, they will still get annoyed if you take it too far. 

Significantly increasing your send frequency can result in increases in complaints and unsubscribe requests, which will, in turn, harm your reputation and deliverability. So while increasing your frequency might seem like a great way to increase revenue, if you do it incorrectly you could end up harming your program during this crucial season. 

Increasing in send frequency presents both an opportunity and a risk. To safely increase your frequency and take advantage of the holiday season, follow these five tips:

  1. Gradually increase your frequency. Don’t suddenly go from three emails a week to ten. Instead, slowly increase your frequency to get your customers used to the new, higher frequency.

  2. Monitor your subscribers’ reactions. Complaints are bound to increase with a ramped up cadence. Make sure that you are signed up for all available feedback loops and whitelists. Immediately remove complainers from your list. Continuing to mail customers who complain will have an adverse effect on your reputation and can prevent your engaged customers from receiving your mail.

  3. Give them something they want. You always want to make sure that you are sending your customers information and offers that they will find valuable. If your increased messages are not relevant, subscribers will start to disengage with your brand.
  4. Segment your list. Review your email metrics (opens and clicks) to segment your customers based on their engagement with your brand. You can then adjust your frequency based on activity. For example, it may be possible to increase frequency for customers who consistently open or click your emails, but you may need to decrease the frequency for customers who engage less often.

  5. Give them options. When customers feel that they are being over emailed, they are more likely to unsubscribe. Send them to a preference center so that they can set the frequency they feel most comfortable with. 

Changing Your IP Address to Combat Holiday Traffic?

It’s finally October and Black Friday is less than two months away. For many email marketers, this means it’s time to double check plans and ensure we don’t run into any deliverability issues when trying to send our subscribers leading up to Black Friday and beyond. Competition in the inbox for subscribers’ eyeballs and clicks will be stiff as marketers vying for consumer dollars will increase both the volume and frequency of their special offers. Last year, email volumes for Black Friday were 53% above average, and 2019 will likely be even higher. 

To cope with the increase of email traffic, and to ensure their emails aren’t throttled, blocked or sent to spam, many marketers add new IP addresses to handle the increased sending load, or to get a fresh start. But marketers, beware! Mailbox providers treat new IP addresses with no sending history almost the same as they would an IP address with a bad reputation. In a perfect world, it’s best to stay put, or at least add a new IP address many months in advance of the holidays. According to our 2019 State of Email Marketing report, senders that moved to new IP addresses or email service providers (ESPs) typically see lower performance when compared to those on established IP addresses.  

 But I know we don’t live in a perfect world. Many times, email marketers have no say in the matter of when they move to a new ESP or maybe adding a new IP address didn’t become necessary until just now. In order to establish a reputation on a new IP address and avoid any deliverability issues, you will have to do the following: 

  1. Determine your typical volume. Start small by sending batches of only a few thousand per day. After a week of sending small batches, ramp it up to a few thousand per hour the next day, and continue increasing sending volume over the coming days and weeks until you are able to send your typical volume of email messages. You can determine these thresholds by using tools like the Return Path Platform and Microsoft’s Smart Network Data Services (SNDS). 
  1. Verify that your MTA is also configured for each Mailbox Provider connection and throughput settings. Each mailbox provider has their own specific rules on how many connections a sender can have and how many messages you can deliver during a specified time period. If you fail to adhere to them, you risk your mail not being delivered or accepted. 
  1. Authenticate and whitelist your new IP address(es) and update all available feedback loops.Update your exisiting SPF records, if needed, to account for your new IP address(es). If you’re changing ESPs, verify they are also correctly signing your emails with DKIM. Additionally, updating existing feedback loop accounts will help keep complaints low. If you’re on any existing whitelists or in the Return Path Certification program, update your records with your new IP address. 
  1. Monitor, monitor, monitor. Continually monitor your mail server’s log files to see if ISPs are returning any policy related bounce messages. Also check for complaint rates, spam trap rates and any change to your reputation score. 

Whether or not you decide to add a new IP address, you may still meet with some resistance. When sending your messages, you may want to consider deploying during “off peak” hours. With the increase in volume at all mailbox providers this year, more senders will experience the dreaded “too busy, try again later” message. By sending between the hours of 12:00 AM to 5:00 AM, you can avoid some of the gridlock and experience a little less competition for the prime spot in the inbox.