Return Path’s New Year Community Challenge: Week 2

Quick reminder that the Email Evolution Conference is fast approaching – and if you aren’t signed up yet, use the discount code JAN09 to get a full conference pass for just $999. Now more than ever we all need new ideas, a stronger network and great case examples.


In addition to my session, which I wrote about earlier this month, our CEO Matt Blumberg will be on an all-star panel discussing deliverability. What are the latest challenges you need to worry about? What changes are the ISPs making to how they filter incoming email? What is the future for authentication and what do you need to do now to prepare? All these questions and many more will be answered. Matt will be joined by ExactTarget’s Chip House, StrongMail’s Spencer Kollas, and Pivotal Veracity’s Michelle Eichner. We anticipate a lively conversation.


If you are planning to attend, please drop me an email. I’d love to meet you there.

This week’s best practice is: Keep Your List Clean


Cleanliness is next to Godliness, a fact that is no less true when it comes to email lists. In fact, list hygiene issues are one of the top five factors that can lead directly to deliverability failures.


Broadly speaking, list hygiene is a process of cleaning bad addresses off your list on a regular basis. Bad addresses fall into three buckets:


Unknown users: These are email addresses that have been turned off – the person left that job or canceled their account. Unknown user accounts generally report back as a hard bounce and should be taken off your file immediately.


Inactive addresses: Inactive addresses fall into two categories. The first are addresses that are still in use by someone, are not unresponsive because they are no longer interested in your messages. The second category is addresses that have been abandoned but not closed. You will not receive a bounce message. There is no way, from your metrics reports, to know which category your inactive addresses fall into.


Spam traps: A spam trap is an address that was created specifically to catch senders who harvest records or attempt dictionary attacks (making up addresses to see what doesn’t bounce). By definition, all mail going to that account is unsolicited. This is a great tool to catch spammers. Spam traps can also be formerly active addresses that may have signed up for email, but that have been inactive for some period of time. These addresses usually turn into an unknown user first.


So, what can you do to make sure your list stays clean and free of unknown users, inactive addresses and spam traps?


1. Know how your server processes bounces: You don’t have to understand every technical nuance, but at a high level your email service provider (ESP) or your IT person should be able to explain to you how bounces are handled. Dead accounts (aka: hard bounces) should be taken off the list immediately. Also, be sure you are running basic list hygiene processes on your file. This means regularly clearing out (or not accepting at all) role accounts ([email protected]), clearly non-used addresses, ([email protected]), dead domains ([email protected]), and errors ([email protected]).


2. Quarantine new data until you send a welcome message and do not receive a bounce. This keeps you from adding bad addresses to your regular campaigns, among many other benefits (read last week’s best practice for more on Welcome messages).


3. Make it easy for your customers to give you updated information. People change email addresses all the time and often they will be willing to update their contact information if you make it easy for them. Even if you don’t have a full preference center, offer change of address and frequency options at the point of unsubscribe.


4. If you collect email addresses in person or by phone, train employees to take down information correctly. Send a welcome message immediately to confirm the correct address.


5. Consider confirmed opt-in (sometimes called double opt-in). Marketers who make subscribers take an action – usually clicking a link – to confirm their subscription generally have smaller lists than they would otherwise, but those lists are much cleaner than non-confirmed lists. They also tend to have lower complaint rates and better deliverability.


6. Vet data sources carefully. Most spam traps and complainers end up on your list via sketchy data sources. (See my column in MediaPost with more on the value of complaint analysis.)


7. Email your list regularly: Email lists are not static. The less often you send email the more likely you are to see high bounce rates. Infrequently emailed lists are also more likely to harbor spam traps as those old addresses have been converted into trap addresses.


8. Consider removing inactive records after some time. Certainly try to reactivate these subscribers, but if someone is on your file for 1+ years and has not responded at all, to anything you have sent them, then take them off the file. Shorten that one year to 6 months or even 90 days if you mail frequently or send third party advertising.


If that sounds like a lot of work with the result of making your file smaller, consider how essential it is to keep your file clean.


1. The presence of just one spam trap can drop your deliverability rating by up to 53% (See our Reputation Benchmark Report for more.) Being listed on just one blacklist – a common result of poor hygiene – can similarly drop your deliverability score by more than 65%.


2. Quality really does matter in email marketing. Having addresses that are not responsive or interested in your program does not make your program stronger, and masks your true success by diluting your response metrics. Plus, the ISPs are getting wiser to the old trick of reducing complaint rates by mailing to non-responsive accounts. That just does not work at the major North America ISPs any longer.


Get inspired with this cool list maintenance idea from Rock Creek Outfitters. And learn more about spam traps by listening to our interview with Tom Sather in Episode #5 of Reputation Radio.


Start talking:

  • What are your biggest list hygiene challenges?
  • What new or creative ideas have you implemented to keep your list clean?
  • Got a question for the email community? Post it now.

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