How to Avoid the Email Black Hole

By Al DiGuido

Successful direct response marketers in today’s ultracompetitive environment obsess over every little detail. Messaging. Creative. Copy. Tone. Offer. Timing. Every variable is critical to influencing the results of a campaign.

If you don’t pay enough attention to ensure your message is successfully delivered, then you can kiss any chance of success goodbye. It’s like trying to start a Formula One race car with a flashlight battery. It doesn’t matter how well the car can perform, you won’t get to the starting line.

When it comes to email marketing, catchy subject lines and award-winning creative will fail if your audience doesn’t receive the message or the message is automatically redirected to a bulk-mail folder. It’s akin to tossing your campaign into a black hole. It will never be seen or heard from again.

Why has proper delivery of email become such an important issue for marketers? The massive volume of email flowing back and forth across the Internet has made filters a necessity for the major email gatekeepers. The blocking and filtering of this unwanted email saps considerable resources and time from both email gatekeepers and individual recipients.

Email filters at ISPs, free Web mail providers such as Hotmail and Yahoo!, and even large corporate data centers sift interpersonal and solicited commercial email from the unwanted spam, fraudulent offers, and unsolicited marketing messages seen so often in inboxes. Filters operate in different manners and may: 1) instantly delete or block messages flagged as spam, 2) tag flagged messages with a color or score, allowing users to more easily handle messages manually, or 3) redirect flagged messages to bulk folders that are either rarely looked at or automatically emptied without review.

For the purposes of this column, let’s take a closer look at the last point. Open rates shrink drastically if your messages are redirected to a bulk-mail folder. For legitimate email marketers who follow permission-based practices, triggering a false positive that lands a campaign into a bulk folder can be fatal.

Two of the largest Web mail providers, Hotmail and Yahoo!, now respectively reach over 22 and 14 percent of the online audience (Nielsen//NetRatings, June 2002). Significant portions of marketers’ lists, especially business-to-consumer (B2C) lists, contain Hotmail and Yahoo! addresses. Both services offer popular bulk-email features. A great deal of the spam delivered to Hotmail and Yahoo! violates parameters set up by filters and then is thankfully redirected to the bulk folder instead of the inbox.

A quick peek into the bulk folder of a Hotmail or Yahoo! account reveals an often-colorful assortment of spam many users typically delete without opening. Both Hotmail and Yahoo! allow users to delete bulk folder items with one click, without even opening the folder to read subject lines. Consumers have enough messages in their inboxes. Expecting them to pay attention to the bulk mail black hole is unrealistic.

What are some triggers that set off bulk-email filters? Parameters at the various ISPs and email gateways are not standard across all providers, but here’s a list of some basics points to understand and follow:

  • Build relationships with all the major ISPs and email gatekeepers. If you don’t have the resources, staff, and time to build the relationships in-house, partner with a service provider who has these relationships to help ensure delivery success.
  • Constantly monitor mailings across ISPs and email providers. Keep a close eye on campaign reporting, specifically delivery, and open and click-through rates. A low delivery or open rate or even an extremely high delivery rate across a specific domain may alert you to a potential issue.
  • Properly identify your email servers. Major email gatekeepers do reverse DNS lookups to make sure email servers are properly identified. If not, a flag is raised.
  • Keep sender addresses as short as possible.
  • Avoid continuous sending of messages to full or invalid mailboxes.
  • Do not send bulk email using the BCC field. Do not send to “undisclosed recipients.”

In addition, minimize the use of these words and phrases in the subject line, message body, sender address, and reply-to address:

  • Free (although “free” tends to have more leeway than most other trigger words)
  • $$
  • !!!! (any excessive punctuation)
  • A question mark in the subject line
  • XXX, sex
  • Fake disclaimer text, such as, “This email is sent in compliance with Federal Law D56-42-27….” Opt-in emails that respect the customer relationship do not need to explain why they are legal.

Scrub your lists. Suppress suspicious “spamflag” addresses such as “abuse@” or “marketerspam@.” In addition to filters at ISPs and other large email gatekeepers, marketers must now contend with commercially available spam filtering software that’s configurable by individual users. Configuration parameters can vary in severity, very much like the software used by ISPs. For marketers who interact frequently with customers via email, alternative media should be used to remind users that if they do not receive email from the marketer, they should check their bulk folder, adjust their spam filter, or contact the ISP to enable receipt of email.

Marketers can utilize emerging technologies, such as the Trusted Sender program from ePrivacy Group and TRUSTe to certify permission-based messaging and help ensure campaigns reach their intended destination. Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM) members should also look into becoming active in the Council for Responsible E-Mail, which helps legitimate marketers better understand how messages are handled by large email gatekeepers.

One of the major free email providers recently told us, “Just don’t let us notice you.” Although it sounds simplistic, it reflects the importance of adhering to best practices for permission marketing. Gain permission, compose relevant content, and deliver messaging according to the customer’s needs, wants, and preferences. You’ll be 100 percent better off than the marketer who fails to respect the customer.

Al DiGuido is chief executive officer of Bigfoot Interactive, a provider of strategic, ROI-focused email marketing services and technology. Previously, he served as CEO of Expression Engines, executive vice president at Ziff-Davis, and publisher of Computer Shopper, where he launched, a groundbreaking direct-to-consumer e-commerce engine. Prior to Ziff-Davis, he was vice president/advertising director for Sports Inc.

Reprinted from

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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