Guidelines For A New Sending Paradigm Part 5 of 5 Continuously Evaluate Your Strategy
Sustainable email sending programs in an inherently hostile environment now require great care and planning. Before considering technical complexities and marketing tactics, email senders must adopt this basic paradigm shift.
The five guidelines included in this series should become watchwords for ezine emailers as they incur the risk and responsibility of sending newsletters or any other repetitive type of email.
Part 1 of 5: Treat Email as a True Risk and Cost Center
Part 2 of 5: Avoid Collateral Damage
Part 3 of 5: Use the Available (Legitimate) Tools and Tactics (M2M)
Part 4 of 5: Build Strong Relationships (H2H)
Part 5 of 5: Continuously Evaluate
Part 5 of 5
Continuously Evaluate Your Strategy
Messages - Lists - Recipient Populations - Recipient Domains
One of the most destructive mistakes in email sending management is to ignore a key distinction between email and traditional broadcast media (such as direct mail, television, and radio). In traditional media you send the message you want, in the style you like, risking only that recipients ignore it (throw it away or change the channel). The difference with email is that your recipients can hit back at you for messages they don't like, often with serious results. Attention to the quality, targeting, and relevancy of your lists and messages can pay off in avoiding the damage that a small group of unhappy recipients can do to your overall sending program.
Email recipients have power:
If recipients don’t like your message or its style, or they don’t think it is relevant to their sign up criteria, they can easily complain. Complaint levels of even a fraction of one percent for any given mailing can create a firestorm of negative activity at your own ISP or NSP, perhaps even causing a service shutdown. Likewise, complaints to the recipient ISP can cause that end of your channel to be turned off. Unfortunately, this is a risk that is now widespread within the email space. Programs to remove complainers, to increase relevancy, and to control content are now critical, because recipients now actively determine whether your email channels stay open.
Tyranny of the minority:
At any given recipient ISP the bottom few percent of your list will typically determine whether any of your recipients at that ISP get your message. It seems strange and irresponsible, yet it is true that the actions of a very small group of complainers can control whether hundreds or thousands of your recipients receive the information they requested. There is probably no email management activity more important than the immediate removal of these problem addresses from your list.
Caution: There are subpopulations online that (for various reasons) consistently complain about commercial email, newsletter, ezines, etc. Some may confuse “complain” with “unsubscribe”, some may be anti-Spam activists, some may be your competitors using the system to their advantage, and some may be multiple user accounts (where one person subscribes and another user complains). Whatever the cause, you should maintain an aggressive “kill list”, and any user that complains should be removed immediately and barred from either signing up again or being re-entered through a new list acquisition. With this policy in place you begin to control exposure to the primary factor that can cause your email channels to be closed.
Targeted is better in every respect:
List and recipient segmentation by interest, and message content that matches that interest, creates the highest response rates and the lowest blow-back over time. Many online publications are, in effect, self-targeting, as long as the authors and publishers remember to stay on topic. Targeting and segmentation should be your goal from sign-up strategy onward. It is far easier to keep targeted recipients interested in your messages and reminded of the fact that they signed up for the information you are sending.
Lists can be built either internally or acquired:
Despite a wide range of strongly held views within the industry, lists in fact can be very successfully built both from internal and external resources. The key is the care used in producing a list, whichever source.
External list acquisition:
Generally, when you acquire any list from the outside, you are relying on the quality of that provider’s collection process, and this should always be carefully reviewed. You must at least confirm that the right to use the addresses with third-parties was contained in the disclosures made at signup, and you must be sure to get access to all relevant unsubscribe and suppression lists.
The greatest risk with acquired lists is the potential for increased complaints. You have no way of knowing whether the recipient “really” understood that they would be getting email from third-parties, or knowing whether they will in fact be receptive to that email. Be prepared to rapidly “clean” the list of unsubscribes and complainers the first few times you use it. And let your ISP/NSP and your ISP relations targets know that you may have a temporarily elevated complaint level the first few times you use that list.
Another major risk with outside lists is the possibility of acquiring Spam trap or honey pot addresses. If you are going to spend money on a list, the best way to minimize this problem is to require that an active response (whether confirmation or recipient action) be recorded for each address prior to purchase or rental. This will tend to weed out the Spam traps. Unfortunately, this option is often not available, or may cause the list to be prohibitively expensive.
Because Spam traps are subject to malicious abuse, and are largely undetectable by the sender, you can expect that there will be some of them in any list you develop – whether from internal or external sources.
Internal list building:
Internal list building is both a source of opportunity and of risk. Simply because someone has purchased or downloaded one of your products, or has filled out a signup form to gain access to some information, does not mean they are going to be cooperative or willing to receive your email. For example, a list built through a giveaway or free offer can have members that sign up, take the gift, and then immediately complain to their ISP or an anti-Spam organization. Every list is subject to false addresses, complaints after signing up, or submission of Spam trap addresses.
Your best defense is to invest in quality when you are collecting your own lists. The smarter your data collection system (the better it recognizes made up addresses [email@example.com] or typographical errors [firstname.lastname@example.org]) and the better integrated it is into the tracking process (recipients only get the offer after a confirming email has been accepted) the cleaner your original list quality will be.
Bigger is not always better with lists:
Good list production is an art form that takes time and attention. List “cleaning” has become a critical function, where unsubscribes, complaints, and bad addresses are immediately and permanently removed. In the final analysis, you only want people on your list who actually want to be there too. A smaller list that is better maintained causes far less trouble, and can be more productive over the long term, than a larger list that causes problems every time it is used.
Some lists are just not worth keeping:
Low producers, very old lists, or lists collected under an expired aegis may simply not be worth keeping. One major determinant is whether adequate records exist to demonstrate that the list is permission-based. Another is whether the list generates enough blow-back to potentially interfere with your other email activities. Finally, the rising cost of sustainable email sending, whether internal or through an ESP, can drive some lists below their target ROI threshold.
Instead of just sending habitually to an old list, develop a program that assesses whether your lists are working well, and whether their outcomes justify the direct and indirect costs involved. For more information see the "List Management" section at Email PhD.
Message style and format is key:
Beyond the obvious impact on filter activation and URL blocking, message content has a deeper and more pervasive influence. Put bluntly, if your messages look like junk, or if they have a "huckster" tone, then in many recipient’s minds those messages are Spam. The same core message treated in two different ways can generate amazingly different results – in fact different enough to get you shut down in one case, and a great response in another.
You know your recipient audience, and what they respond to. Aim high, and be careful not to push past the "perceived as Spam" limit for your target population. This is one part of the email process that you can effectively and directly control, and you should.
Today it is sometimes hard to even tell what mechanically constitutes a good message. At one point in the recent past the answer was to go heavy on the images in an HTML format. The image blocking programs increasingly in place have turned those expensive “high touch” pages into a series of blank squares for many recipients. Hybrid messages with some text and some HTML content are now necessary, with overall page design generally overriding individual images as the response driver.
Each message should be tested for response and intact delivery in a variety of recipient agents to assure that your newsletter or ezine is surviving the journey. For more information see the Email PhD "Content Control" section.
Evaluate Recipient Domains:
In a world where every address is hard to get, and every publisher wants to produce more results, there are nonetheless good reasons for an email sender to "reverse the lens" and cast a critical eye on the domains of addresses he chooses to accept through the sign-up process.
Many recipient ISPs have long forgotten that they are only conduits for interactions between sender and recipient. In some cases the barriers to sending are so arbitrary or inept that neither the recipient expecting the communication, nor the sender trying to get through are properly served (regardless of the excuses provided by the intermediary).
This situation has gotten so bad that some publishers have concluded that it is time to simply abandon email. Rather than shifting out of the medium altogether, it may make more sense to direct email channels to ISPs upon whom both the sender and recipient can rely.
A number of subscription newsletters, e-commerce sites, and news alert services (representing both profit and not-for-profit organizations) have adopted policies that exclude address at certain domains because of consistent or intractable delivery problems. These senders judge that user dissatisfaction costs from non-delivery are higher than the
loss of opportunity at these domains.
Perhaps these senders have also realized that many email users now have accounts at several different domains. Restricting domain usage may just cause someone to pick one of their other email boxes, rather than turn away from the offer or communication. In cases where the message is transactional or has an offer that carries a substantial benefit to the recipient (such as access to information or true savings on desired products) the requirement of avoiding a disfavored domain may not be burdensome to the recipient.
Consider what you are offering to recipients, and what you might be able to ask them to do on your behalf. Where it makes sense, consider setting up reliable communications channels to domains that will actually deliver your permission-based email.
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Tim Starzl is the chief editor of Email Ph.D., an informational Web site dedicated to improving email delivery for all permission-based senders. With years of experience in email sending system design, high volume sending, and high precision tracking systems Mr. Starzl provides practical working advice for a difficult and rapidly changing environment.
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