Thought Leaders Commune on Email Marketing – Part 2

August 30th, 2005


Originally published in MarketingProfs

MarketingProfs recently convened a Thought Leaders Summit of global experts to discuss the issues facing email marketers today. On hand were Chris Baggot, founding partner of ExactTarget; Rok Hrastnik, owner of and author of Unleashing the Marketing and Publishing Power of RSS; Eric Kirby, senior vice-president and general manager for email solutions at DoubleClick; Chris Price, managing director of Permission; Neil Squillante, president of Landing Page Interactive; Jim Sterne, consultant, speaker and founding director of the Web Analytics Association; and Shar VanBoskirk, consulting analyst with Forester Research. (Here’s a complete list of the participants and their bios.)

In part one, we discussed the coming of age of email marketing. Here, in the second part, we discuss the block-and-tackle issues of getting past the spam filters so your message is heard.

Spam filters tend to be the bane of the email marketer’s existence. Getting past them is a serious challenge, and it is becoming increasingly harder. How can an email marketer consistently bypass those spam filters?

Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question here. If you are a marketer who is truly focused on the customer’s needs and on creating relevancy for that customer, you will already have a strategy that is focused on ensuring that your email conversations are relevant to your customers and are delivering value in relation to their needs.

Having said that, you can be doing everything right… and your mail might still end up in a junk folder — unless you go that extra step. In the B2B world, you are now at the mercy of every gatekeeper in every company you are trying to deliver into, and that becomes a much more important dynamic. Confirmed opt-in is obviously the best way to go.

Whether you are a B2C company or a B2B company, it is important to invest resources into staying on top of these issues. It’s a moving target: new authentication procedures, shifts in adoption of varying anti-spam technology, and knowing what is the current flavor-of-the-month with spam filters that evolve as each day passes.

Unless you have in-house resources to track these changes, you may need to consider working with an email service provider that has invested in this capability.

You also need to ensure that your strategies are actually working for you. A service provider can help you set up test accounts to track how your email is being rendered to your email clients. Make sure that the messages you think are relevant and appropriate for the ISP are actually rendering correctly when you get through. Take a global view, too, on the need for ISP relations.

Email tools will enable you to score your email before you send it out. Some of these are actually built right into the email software.

DoubleClick, for instance, has a tool that allows its clients to score the content of their messages against various spam blocking and filtering applications. It is just one of many tools available that will help marketers identify and correct some of those issues. For those who aren’t using a service with spam scoring capabilities built-in, there is a free spam scoring tool available from GravityMail.

A mailbox monitoring service can seed your email list with test accounts across all top ISPs — and measure not just whether the message was delivered but also where it got delivered. One thing you have to be sensitive to is whether your messages are ending up in bulk mail folders or junk mail folders. That’s important, because according to research, consumers and email recipients tend not to check those accounts.

Email marketers should also consider delivering content via RSS. It is a great supplemental channel; when combined with your database, it can be event-driven and can be tracked — illuminating subscriber behaviors such as opens and click-throughs. If you are already using an internal content management system for your email marketing, you can easily customize it to do the same. While RSS publishing and marketing technology is not as developed as it could be, there are opportunities for companies to bravely take RSS marketing to the next level.

Our experts could have devoted an entire day to this topic, but in short they agree that if you are not investing in managing email deliverability, either through your own in-house resources or through external resources, you are likely to face a lot of issues that you may not even realize today.

Anti-spam laws: What you’re probably missing

The passing of the CAN-SPAM Act into law spawned a host of marketing professionals dispensing advice, but very few lawyers who could effectively interpret the law. If you have a major email marketing program in your company or work in the email marketing industry, don’t rely on just articles for your information. It is worth talking to a lawyer to make sure that you are in compliance.

You would be amazed at the number of large companies that still don’t include a physical address in their email communications. The CAN-SPAM Act, with regard to civil liabilities, also applies to just one email message — in other words, one salesperson sending one message and not just newsletters or ads going to tens of thousands of people. It’s a good idea to periodically remind your people to include your company’s address in all email communications.

In addition, the CAN-SPAM Act has requirements with regard to header information. If you are sending out email from your own email server, make sure that your IP address has a reverse lookup. CAN-SPAM applies to all commercial email, including permission-based email. It requires an identifier in the email subject, and the best way to deal with this is to make sure you always use your company name or its abbreviation in your commercial email.

When it comes to Europe, the EU Directive is only a set of guidelines with no specific rules for email marketing. Every EU country may interpret these individually. While in some countries there is spam legislation, in others there is privacy legislation, and sometimes there can be a mix of up to five or six legislations dictating what you can or cannot do as an email marketer. The only rule of thumb is to seek legal counsel when email marketing in Europe, because there are risks.

It’s an evolving landscape, too, as evidenced by the FCC’s recently released guidelines (visit for more information) that wireless email domains be treated differently and have a higher threshold for whether you should be mailing commercial messages to them.

In a similar vein, the FTC has put out guidelines around the Primary Purpose Rule, which pertains to whether a message is considered commercial or transactional. Different standards pertain to each.

Hopefully, you have a strong legal skill set within your in-house privacy team, because you need to be tracking these issues. Otherwise, work with providers that can really help you stay on top of these issues… because it isn’t just one “gotcha” at any one point in time.

Multi-list suppression

Is there a way around multi-list suppression, which CAN-SPAM seems to require? This has become a very hot question.

It is the marketers’ responsibility to manage opt-outs and ensure that their efforts are CAN-SPAM compliant, regardless of where they are getting their lists. Companies like Unsubscribe Central and Smart Source have created tools that help marketers leverage lists from multiple sources. These software programs harvest information from secondary list sources as well as house lists.

If you are renting lists or working with shared lists or a list aggregator, make sure that you are working with people who comply with all CAN-SPAM practices. Before you decide to rent a list from a provider or share a list, do an audit. Ask for proof of how the provider has been managing opt-outs in the past. Ask for examples of client companies that you can speak with so you can talk to someone about what the provider has really done. Do due diligence up front and build a warranty into your contract, so that if something goes wrong (if the provider doesn’t uphold its end of the bargain, or the list it gives you is somehow inappropriate or not compliant), you are protected.

The CAN-SPAM Act applies to senders — not as you and I might define a sender, but as the statute defines a sender. When the Act first came into being, people argued that you needed to worry about multi-list suppression when you rented an email list from, say, a third-party vendor.

Interestingly, the FTC recently handed down an opinion that has been posted on the Direct Marketing Association Web site that says the following: If you run a third-party list and someone advertises on your list but the messages you send out contain only the design of your advertisers (full message ads, not short ads within newsletters) then you as the publisher (i.e., the list owner), as well as the advertiser, are going to have to remove opt-outs from your respective lists.

However, if you are a list owner and you send out ads wrapped in a branded template that looks like a newsletter you published and recipients know who is sending it time after time, CAN-SPAM is only going to apply to you, the list owner and not to the advertiser. The advertiser is almost like an author providing an article for your newsletter.

The key is what the recipient thinks. Life becomes a lot simpler by using a branded template that looks exactly the same in every mailing, because people then know exactly from whom they are getting that email; that’s what CAN-SPAM cares about. And, in that situation, only the list owner would have to deal with opt-outs, which makes a lot more sense from a logistical perspective, because, as an advertiser, it’s not your list. You are just advertising, and it’s not fair to expect you to deal with opt-outs from that list. That said, this is not an FTC rule at this point, merely an opinion.

What makes a remarkable campaign?

We all recognize an ordinary campaign. It says: “Hey, everybody, buy one and get one free. Sign up now!” It’s a big blast campaign that communicates the same messages to millions of people.

An extraordinary campaign is not a campaign at all — but an email relationship that delivers value and carefully monitors frequency. Somewhere in between your audience, your product and the value that you provide is a newsletter or a series of emails that people not only want to get but will forward to friends and bring you more subscribers.

An extraordinary email management system is one that knows who you are, knows what you like, knows how often you want to receive emails and sends email for you instead of the sender.

The spectrum of email sophistication consists of three segments. The first is very basic. These are folks who are fairly new and are taking the blast approach. They are sending the same message to all of their customers, maybe once a week, just because that seems like a good rule of thumb. But there’s no real analysis or customer information that’s being put into helping them decide how to vary the content or the frequency of the message.

Then there are the middle-of-the-road folks. These are people who are a little more experienced and are just starting to toy with some customer segmentation. So they maybe have two, three, four customer segments, and they are really trying to send different messages to those customer segments based on demographics, past purchase behavior, etc.

Then we have the much more sophisticated folks who are going about an email conversation approach. They are really thinking about what motivates the customer to respond and buy and “How should I be sequencing my messages to get them to further engage in a relationship with me?”

A great example in the sophisticated arena is ski resort company IntraWest. Its strategy has been to engage in an email conversation after the customer books but before he or she visits the resort. Within a period of about six weeks from the time you make your reservation to the time you visit the resort, IntraWest sends different messages that are focused on helping you secure your ski lessons, rent your equipment and upgrade your room.

From IntraWest’s perspective, the idea is to gain more revenue from customers. The value it is providing to customers is in helping them prepare for the trip, enjoy an even better vacation, and feel as if IntraWest has their best interests at heart.

Essential components to any email campaign are the quality of the list, the creative content of the email you are sending out, and the landing page you are directing your recipients to. An ordinary campaign usually focuses on just one or two of these, while an extraordinary one focuses on all three.

Think of email as telling a story — an ongoing story in which you develop a relationship with the recipient over the course of several messages. This allows you to focus on one idea per email message. One of the problems, particularly in B2B email, is that the products that the companies are trying to promote are very complex. They try to discuss all the features in just one email message. Focusing on one feature per email is much more effective.

Extraordinary campaigns incorporate testing and how that message is cued up. It is not uncommon to see a 20% lift in performance in an email campaign simply by just testing different subject lines. Companies need to be more disciplined in this regard.

Extraordinary campaigns also create a dialogue with trigger- or event-based messages based on recent customer activity, a milestone in their customer life cycle or a particular event, all of which are well-received by the recipient. Focusing on a strategic direction for the business involves more time and analysis of results, but a business lives and breathes based on one-to-one connections with its customers.

Today’s technology has paved a level playing field such that anyone can do good email if they want to. Take a little company like JamBase, an event ticketing business that takes time to understand the genres of music you like and the kinds of venues you are likely to see a concert in. It sends you emails that are timely and relevant based on those combinations: namely, the right band or the right event in the right venue. As a result, you get emails sporadically — perhaps three emails in a month, but then you may not hear from them for three months because they don’t have anything relevant to say to you.

The net result is you pay more attention, you respond more and you appreciate them because they are educating you with messages like: “Hey, if you like Guster, Chris, this band is very similar. They’ve got some new music. Click here to see a download, and they are going to be playing at this venue that I know you like.” That’s an example of an outstanding email communication, and it doesn’t take a lot of resources to do it right.

Most effective email marketing tactics

Turn off images in your emails. Make sure your campaigns look good without them. Really focus on your “From” line, “Subject” line, and preview pane view. Identify which one hyperlink out of all the hyperlinks in your email is the one golden hyperlink that should carry most of your traffic.

Statistics reveal the vast proportion of people who click on links generally click on only one link, even though you may have dozens in your campaign. Make your golden hyperlink easy to see, the obvious choice to direct people into the area you really want them to go.

Test. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do, and probably the least utilized. You can have the best looking creative in the world… and the worst one might perform better in an email. Unless you are testing these elements, you don’t know that. In fact, keep testing, and keep measuring. You will be amazed at what works and what doesn’t. Think about integrating Web analytics into your email so you’ve got a total picture of what is really happening.

How often should you email? Today’s technology means you should be able to email every subscriber at the right frequency for them. Give your customers the choice. When they subscribe, identify what frequency and what subject matters they want from you, and send them the content they want.

Practice serial storytelling. It is the complete opposite of the so-called email blast. It contains a rich contextual framework that, basically, applies on two levels. If you are placing an ad in the newsletter, how good is the surrounding content in which your ad is going to be placed? If you are sending out an entire email message, again, how good is that content and what other types of email messages are you sending out? The richer the context of your promotional messages, the more likely a quid pro quo develops between you and the recipient so that they pay more attention to what you are trying to say.

The big issues facing email marketing

Thanks to the magic of email, you can communicate with anyone at the right time with the right message in the right context. We are moving rapidly from the idea of email as a cheap mass-marketing tool to email as an unbelievably effective one-to-one communication tool. It will be full steam ahead throughout 2006.

Data integration also looks to be a big player in 2006, as marketers leverage email in conjunction with other marketing channels. For the last three or four years, email has been largely a standalone communication channel, albeit a great way to communicate with your customers.

An even better way is to create a multi-channel conversation with your customers. Soon we will see those sophisticated folks who are now doing email conversations move into cross-channel conversations, employing email in conjunction with phone calls, online ads, and postal mail as a seamless way to talk to their customers through whatever channel the customer prefers — and potentially through several different channels, depending on where they are in the conversation.

There is a lot of conversation going on right now in the US relating to data and privacy, and various problems being reported in the press about data breaches. There is likely to be a spillover effect on how legislators and others scrutinize the use of client data. Data will have to exist in an environment that involves more oversight from governments and possibly other organizations as well.

Companies will once again focus on email list growth. Over recent years, the notion of growing lists and bringing in new customers hasn’t been a focal point as it was in the early days of email. Realizing that those fresh new names on their customer files are the most responsive, a lot of companies will start dedicating attention, resources and investment dollars into growing that list once again — but it won’t be as easy, because people are now reluctant to provide email addresses to just anybody who asks for it. It has to be earned.

Deliverability will continue to be an issue. We are not going to stop spam in its tracks, which means marketers have got to be a lot smarter about what they are sending. Phishing may overtake spam in terms of the kind of email that marketers are really concerned about, due to its damage to brands and reputations.

2006 will be the year when marketers finally “get it”รข??that testing plus measurement equals return on investment. Not just “Did they open it? Did they read it? Did they click on it,” but “Let’s do some further measurements, let’s do the data integration to see whether or not they clicked through and got to the money page, whether that’s a purchase or a download or a registration.” They will look at the cost of sales on using email as a promotional tool and ask: “Are we getting the payoff we want, including measuring the impact it has on our brand?” They’ll be measuring attitudes, not just clicks. Marketers will finally click on to this for a competitive edge.

Consolidating technology platforms will begin to ease the retrieval of data, facilitating the increased use of segmentation and personalization. With RSS as one application and email another, the need to do centralized management of data collection, data mining and content delivery will become apparent.

Tackling spam issues and deliverability in-house is no fun, and we are likely to see the consolidation of smaller email service providers because of deliverability issues, with privacy and data security feeding that trend.

Five years from now, we are likely to see sophistication around the end user’s ability to control email, with more gatekeeper devices managing people’s inboxes. We will see tools that enable people to search the content of their email, categorize and save messages. Email marketing will evolve to keep pace with these gatekeeper features, and you will need a very good relationship with the customer to do so.

Rich media is likely to have a role within email. For a variety of reasons, including virus concerns around how it displays in a recipient’s inbox, rich media hasn’t really taken off. Overcoming some of those challenges will result in its taking center stage in email, as in the online advertising that we see today.

Inbox studies indicate consumers get a little over 300 emails a week, including personal emails, marketing messages and spam. By 2010, this number is projected to grow to around 500, after a leveling off around 2008 due to a couple of happenings expected around then.

The first is a tapering off in email for acquisition purposes, as marketers finally realize the amount of money they are spending on renting lists isn’t worth it for the response they are getting.

Second, spam will decline with the introduction of a postage stamp, or some form of currency or charge for email delivery. There are predictions, too, that people will opt in to about 17 marketing promotional emails each week.

RSS will increasingly integrate with email clients such as Outlook. It is already happening. Marketers, particularly RSS marketers, will compete against not only other email messages but also other RSS feeds which may have greater relevance than email messages because RSS is easier to unsubscribe from than email. If you no longer want an RSS feed in your newsreader or aggregator, it takes just two seconds to remove it.

Perhaps marketers may not get better, but email quality nonetheless will. Filters will simply allow you to see only the messages you want. Whether by postage stamp, artificial intelligence or just because email systems will be able to recognize what you like, you will be able to open up the box that says “this is work-related, this is from family, this is advertising for air travel, this is advertising for clothing,” and you go to the one you are interested in at the moment. And that’s what RSS does for consumers right now.

Having just finished reading a book called The Age of Spiritual Machines, written by Ray Kurzweil, one of the most famous artificial intelligence experts in the world, I am quite convinced that in five years we are going to see some fundamental changes due to artificial intelligence and computer processor speed improvements and so forth. All in all, it’s a pretty exciting time.