David M. Keene, Managing Director
Viguerie Political Lists
At Viguerie Political Lists, we see the email side of our business as much more than just building lists. Our job is to ensure emails to our lists are seen , not just sent . To do that, we carefully manage our data and engage with our email audiences to ensure that our clients’ messages make it to the inboxes of the people on our lists.
With the growing importance of email fundraising for political organizations, charities, and political candidates, it is vital that email marketers have a clear understanding of what deliverability is, what it means, and how every part of an online marketing program can impact email deliverability.
Ask any marketer who uses email as a part of their marketing mix what their biggest headache is, and many will likely respond: “Email Deliverability.” That isn’t a surprise. In fact, according to Return Path’s 2015 Deliverability Report, inbox placement for commercial emails is down to 79% a metric that should give us all cause for concern.
First, a bit of background . . .
We at Viguerie Political Lists are well versed in the techniques of direct response. We have, as a commercial entity, been building postal lists for fundraising and advocacy purposes for over a half century. As we’ve moved into email, we’ve brought with us the professionalism and dedication that has set us apart and helped us set the standard in our industry for so long.
We may not be the largest provider of political e-lists, but we are able to offer some of the best metrics in the marketplace through consistent email deliverability to engaged audiences of donors and activists.
We also aren’t the largest email sender, but we send 8-12 Million emails each month, with an average delivery rate of 99.2% metrics that leave us uniquely positioned to address matters of email deliverability within our market segment with confidence.
As you probably know, there has been a marketing arms race between spammers and ISP’s for well over a decade now. Every few years brings new standards and rules for us to live by to ensure our messages are not tagged as SPAM.
Email being sent in any large amount is constantly being measured, analyzed, tracked, and watched not just by the marketers, but also by the ISP’s and Blacklist providers. Based on the results of their own obsessively complex and constantly changing algorithms, machines make determinations on how to treat the millions of emails being sent EVERY SECOND.
As a result of these ever changing yardsticks, your messages may be designated as SPAM, and blocked. But, being tagged as SPAM isn’t the only terrible or disruptive thing that can happen to your email.
Your messages can also be ‘bulked’ - which is tantamount to being tagged as SPAM. This means that your email has been designated as possibly SPAM, but not blocked. As such, your messages may end up in bulk mail or SPAM folders not in the Inbox of your target audience; thus your deliverability numbers may still look good, but open rates and click rates decline dramatically.
Possible Delivery Outcomes
In order to better understand this process, we will first need to examine the various possible delivery outcomes of a sent email message:
- Soft Bounces
- Mailbox Full
- Recipient Server Offline or temporarily unavailable
- Email is too large
- Hard Bounces
- Undeliverable (Bad Address)
- Recipient Server Rejected (typically cause by being tagged as SPAM)
- Categorized as SPAM/Junk
- Categorized as BULK mail
- Categorized as Promotional (Gmail)
So, even with excellent delivery rates, you may experience declining open and click rates as a result of being ‘Bulked’ or categorized as ‘Junk.’ The trick to ensuring your emails are seen lies in understanding and playing towards the combined strategies employed by ISP’s in determining inbox placement.
The Technical Side of Email Deliverability
Email deliverability is heavily influenced by the aforementioned evolving algorithms employed by service providers. Those algorithms use many different factors to determine how your email is treated.
Many of the things impacting deliverability are technical, though the importance of the technical components is diminishing with the rising importance of realtime measured engagement, they are nonetheless still incredibly important to ensuring proper inbox placement.
Many professional marketers are familiar with the technical components of email sending, things like SPF, DKIM, rDNS and dedicated IP’s terms you may be aware of, or have heard mentioned, and weren’t sure what they were; the following is a brief explanation of what many of the technical and legal factors that influence deliverability are:
SPF Record (Sender Policy Framework) A TXT record added to the DNS record for the sending domain, it basically tells recipient servers that the actual sender of the email is authorized by the named sender of the email that it is okay to accept the message.
DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) An encrypted key to validate the authenticity of the sender basically a more secure version of SPF, it is also added to the DNS record for the identified sender domain.
rDNS/PTR This is used to associate an IP with a specific Domain name, and helps recipient servers ascertain the validity of a sender’s IP address.
Sender IP IP addresses develop reputations over time based on the volume of email sent, and how email sent from the IP address performs. This means that things like a dedicated or shared IP can impact the reputation of that IP, and therefore can impact the reputation and treatment of mail coming from a specific IP address. That said, many major ISP’s, such as Google, or Yahoo!/AOL now rely more heavily on the sender ID and Domain of the sender.
Mailing Volume A sender’s overall volume of mail is monitored, and is now associated with not just the sender IP address, but also with the sender, and the message itself. This means that during a large-scale email campaign, a message being deployed to numerous lists can experience lower overall metrics as a result of the mailer’s message being fairly static. Any dramatic shifts in sending strategy, if not properly managed, can impact deliverability.
Bad Addresses/Bounces ISP’s constantly monitor the number of bounces and bad addresses being mailed to by a sender and sender’s IP address. Higher bounce rates indicate poor data management strategies on behalf of the sender, and also indicate a higher risk of SPAM. This is one of the most heavily weighted of the technical components used by ISP’s in determining deliverability.
Honeypot/SPAM traps ISP’s also monitor for spammers by converting old email addresses that have been abandoned into ‘SPAM traps.’ These addresses are monitored by ISP’s and SPAM monitoring companies, and if a new sender begins targeting that email address, then the conclusion they draw is that the email was obtained improperly, and thus is SPAM. This is another heavily weighted technical component in determining deliverability and inbox placement.
SPAM Compliance Issues This is a collection of rules promulgated by the FTC as a result of the CANSPAM Act of 2003. These requirements, if not met, can impact deliverability significantly, and can also have severe regulatory and legal repercussions if not followed:
- Unsubscribe Compliance All mass email messages must have an operable and visible means for processing unsubscribe requests.
- Content Compliance All messages must have an accurate and appropriate sender name, subject line, and a valid physical mailing address for the sender.
- Data Compliance Using names collected from public reports in an automated fashion.
Technical Aspects of the Message Emails are typically composed of a collection of text and images, and the composition and validity of the html code that is the email message, as well as the presence of specific components is also weighed in determining delivery outcomes. This includes:
- Sender Appearance This is how the messages look . Is the header the same for all of your messages? Is the formatting consistent?
- Proper html is the html proper? Does the message show up properly during tests?
- Inclusion of a text only variant of the message some email clients cannot parse and render html email properly, though this is becoming very rare. Not including a text only version can impact your deliverability.
- 3rd party URL’s URL’s that lead to sites not associated with the sender can impact delivery.
- Occurrence of SPAM trigger words This is a once important, but now waning factor in deliverability but is still used. The occurrence of certain words like “Free” or “Sale” can negatively impact delivery.
- Balance of image to text ratio Spammers attempting to circumvent language parsing by ISP’s to identify SPAM trigger words often resort to using images containing the trigger words so large imbalances of image to text can cause problems in deliverability, though this is declining in importance.
The Inextricable Link Between Engagement & Deliverability
As mentioned previously, realtime measured engagement is rapidly becoming the most dominant factor in determining inbox placement. The fact is, even the worst spammers can adhere to or game just about any collection of technical rules or requirements to circumvent the filters put in place by ISP’s. But one thing that is almost impossible to reliably fake: the engagement of recipients.
ISP’s and commercial filtering companies are monitoring how people interact with your email, and determining how to treat your email as a result of those interactions.
If you send a message that people respond negatively towards, it can impact not only the deliverability and performance of that specific message, but of subsequent messages as well. It also means that overall engagement with your audience is inextricably linked with the technical components of email deliverability and requires email marketers to understand this link better than ever before to ensure success.
Possible Recipient Interactions
Once an email is delivered, it can be interacted with in various ways by the recipient:
- Marked as SPAM
- Seen and Ignored
- Opened, then...
- Clicking to show images, then...
- Clicked a link
- Came back and Complained/Marked as SPAM
- Complained/Marked as SPAM
- Clicked a Link
- Complaint/Marked as SPAM
- Move to SPAM/Junk Folder
- (This is not every possible interaction, and is meant to be illustrative.)
Email marketers are very familiar with how a low open rate will impact the total absolute numbers of clicks an email receives. What is difficult for many to now grasp is that a low CTOR (ClickThrough to OpenRate) can also lead to a lower open rate. That is because of how ISP’s are responding in realtime to emails being deployed.
If an ISP’s algorithm determines that the negative interactions being generated by your message are too high in proportion to positive engagement, your email may be moved into bulk mail folders or even disappear from inboxes before the recipient even has a chance to check their email.
The Road Ahead
Now that we have looked at the various things that can go wrong with your message, let’s take a look at the things that we can do right, and the strategies we can employ to avoid running aground in our email efforts.
We’ll address the issues of Data Hygiene, Segmentation Practices, Sending/Scheduling Strategy, and Messaging Strategy & Engagement.
Email deliverability starts with proper data hygiene. It is one of the most important components of ensuring good inbox placement and deliverability for your messages without it you’ll be classified as SPAM in an instant. By ensuring your data is ‘clean’, and that you are mailing engaged names, you will be able to ensure that your messages have more impact.
Professional email marketers know that deploying to a larger list is not always the preferred course of action. We know that this is because the more bad addresses mailed, the lower your delivery rate will be, and the lower your delivery rate the fewer inboxes you’ll reach. This is, not just in terms of the rate , but in terms of absolute numbers, and is the direct result of being penalized as a sender due to evidently poor data hygiene practices as inferred by the ISP’s.
What do we mean by ‘hygiene’ and ‘clean’ data anyhow? Generally this is a reference to the means and quality of the initially collected data, ongoing data management practices, and identification of bad addresses.
So what exactly do I have to do to ensure my data is ‘clean’ and deliverable?
- Ensure that the people you are mailing are in fact people who want to hear from you. Many email marketers will tell you that this means always double-opt-in your names. That is ideal, but not always practical or efficient. The main thing, is to ensure that the people you are mailing are likely to be receptive to your messages that the content is going to be relevant for your audience. This crosses the line between messaging and data, but is incredibly important to ensuring the longterm viability of names on your file.
- When Performing Email Appends to Your Data Be VERY Careful.
- Avoid performing household level matches - match to the individual level whenever possible.
- Focus on names you have on file that exhibit recency recent petition signers, actions taken, donors, etc.
- Provide a simple opt-out mechanism for names as part of the on-boarding process if they don’t want to hear from you, let them tell you so. Accept it and move on.
- Regularly (at least quarterly) Scrub Your Data. Use an email data hygiene service like NeverBounce, Xverify, or FreshAddress to ‘clean’ or scan for known SPAM traps and invalid email addresses and don’t mail them. Ever.
At Viguerie Political Lists, we maintain a master exclusion list of known bad addresses, and we update that list every couple of months after performing regular scans of our email lists. We also use that list across multiple accounts in order to maximize the benefit we derive from those efforts.
It is vital to understand that sending more emails does not necessarily mean more people will see your message. Eliminating bad addresses enhances overall deliverability in a significant way and brings us to the next piece - segmentation.
Anyone familiar with direct-response marketing of any sort knows that the best predictor of future response by a person on your list is the recency of past response(s). This is also true for email.
To ensure high levels of engagement, it is vital to segment people into both ‘Active’ and ‘Inactive’ categories:
‘Active’ in this context can be a varied criteria depending upon your specific use case. We typically call anyone who has opened an email in the last 3 months, has clicked a link in the last 6 months, or was added to the file in the last 45 days ‘Active.’ This is not perfect, because we sometimes don’t know if someone opened an email or not depending upon their location, device, email software or ISP when they opened the email. Even so, this is the most accurate way to determine recent activity.
‘Inactive’ is everyone else.
Some email marketers believe that you should only mail ‘active’ email addresses, but we take a slightly different view on the matter. Collecting and engaging with people via email costs money, and we don’t want to invalidate potential leads just because they were busy, or lost interest, for a few months.
It is true that ISP’s will penalize us for mailing to too many inactive names, so we have to strike a balance between maintaining high levels of engagement and not completely jettisoning our inactive names.
We’ve found that by splitting our inactive segment into multiple smaller segments, we can conduct each send to all of our active names, and just some of the inactive names, thereby maximizing our reach.
The proportion of inactive to active names being mailed is a mix unique to your specific situation, and is largely dependent upon the overall engagement of the list in question. For us, we have found that by limiting the proportion of inactive names to 20% or less of the overall send size, we generally don’t see any appreciable impact on overall deliverability and inbox placement for the active people on the list.
Email Service Providers over the last few years have also begun pushing the idea of regular ‘win-back’ or reengagement efforts for names that have become inactive or dormant. There is indeed value in creating such programs, but there are a few factors that those proposing these efforts often fail to see or address:
- Building these programs costs time and money.
- By sending email to ONLY inactives, you are practically guaranteeing that the email will end up in SPAM traps or inbox purgatory.
We are not suggesting that these programs are a waste of time, merely that by using the alternative data management strategy that we employ, you are able to continuously leverage active names and try to reengage with inactive names.
For us, we have even begun further classifying names as inactive, and ‘extremely inactive’ and varying the proportion of names from each to ensure the best possible inbox placement for everyone and targeting extremely inactive names with content designed to reengage with them the implementation of our own unique win-back strategy.
Some email professionals will tell you that there is an optimum time and frequency for email messages to be sent. We disagree with that.
It is true that some times/days or levels of frequency may perform better for your list, but that is mostly the result of what people on your list are accustomed to. Far more important than picking send times and frequency, is ensuring that your sending volume and timing is consistent.
This is not just a matter of ensuring people see what they expect to see, and thereby respond in a predictable way it is also about ensuring that your sending volume is predictable. Sending volume over time is a key determinant ISP’s to look for possibly compromised email servers. So, if your volume alters dramatically, send times change, and your audience is not responding consistently, you will likely encounter deliverability problems.
You can always change that strategy, and test alterations, but you must be cognizant of the potential impact on deliverability due to both technical and engagement reasons.
Messaging Strategy & Engagement
A key part of overall engagement is about more than just segmentation and technical concerns but about the one word you will see in any email marketing survey: Relevance. Ensure that the messages that you are sending are relevant to the people on your list or when renting a list, relevant to the people on that list. Without relevance, your messages will be ignored, and then not seen.
For us, we ensure engagement by offering news and content that people on our list find interesting. We give them a chance to vote on various issues, and then share the results of those polls and surveys with not just participants, but the entire list. A key part of that process is sharing the results and constructively allowing for an ongoing interaction with your audience. Without that, it is just data collection, which is not useful. If you don’t use the data for something, then you are wasting you (and their) time.
We’ve found time and again that the best way to ensure ongoing engagement is to give people on our list a chance to be a part of a community, and to interact with that community in a structured way and for us to respond to that community.
This can mean reading the website submissions and responding to them from time-to-time, or making changes in response to requests from readers. For us, we increased the font size in the emails and on the website because our audience tends to be 60+ years old, and we had received several complaints about the text size being too small. For every complaint you see, there were likely 20 times as many people who just moved on to another site for the same reason.
Ultimately, if you can find a way to leverage the unique low-cost interactive nature of the medium, you will build an engaged audience.
This may all seem a bit daunting for the uninitiated. This is a lot of stuff! That said, don’t let mistakes or issues stand in the way of your efforts to communicate with your audience. It is not often that every technical i will have its dot, or every t be properly crossed within your copy strategy and that’s fine (though not preferable).
Email is a direct response medium that has unique features to be leveraged to the benefit of both the sender and recipient and one of those features is the potential interactivity and immediacy of the medium. In conducting campaigns, or keeping members up-to-date on your policy initiatives or even offering products for sale remember: you don’t like to have your time wasted, and that you are looking for enriching experiences and remember that the people you are attempting to communicate with probably feel the same way.
So, it’s complicated, but with proper data management, cohesive strategies, and an understanding of the factors involved, we can overcome the hurdles put before us by spammers and ISP’s and connect with the people who care about the issues and messages we need to communicate about and ultimately use this mature communications and direct response medium in meaningful ways.
If you have any questions or would be interested in discussing your specific deliverability issues with us, please feel free to reach out. Also, keep an eye out for expanded information and case-studies contact us!
David M. Keene
Managing Director, Viguerie Political Lists