Host: Lauren Meyer, VP of Industry Relations & Compliance at Kickbox
Guest: Skyler Holobach, Senior Manager, Email Reputation at Pardot & Salesforce Marketing Cloud
Meet Skyler Holobach
Skyler Holobach is the Senior Manager, Email Reputation for Pardot & Salesforce Marketing Cloud. She is a leading expert on email policy, compliance and anti-abuse with more than 8 years of experience. Skyler was recently named Anti-Harassment Board Sponsor for the industry group Women of Email and will be overseeing the re-launch of their Mentor Program in 2021. Some of you may recongnize her from our Email Deliverability Unfiltered expert blog series, where she is a regular contributor.
What is “permission” & why should we care?
Permission is a foundational part of email deliverability. That is, a recipient has given explicit and informed consent to receive email from you. Gaining permission can be achieved in several ways, including:
- Completing a form to sign up for your company’s newsletter
- Checking an opt-in box to receive additional promotions via email on a sign-up form
- Signing up to receive offers from you during partner marketing activities like events and joint webinars
As mailbox providers (MBPs) develop more sophisticated filtering technology and regulatory requirements for marketers expand, it is more important than ever to build and maintain lists of recipients who have expressly opted in to our email lists and are still interested in hearing from us. If we do, we’ll be rewarded with a strong sender reputation, consistent inbox placement, and higher email ROI. If we don’t, we can run into costly issues from both a legal and technical perspective.
In fact, a vast majority of email deliverability issues stem from problematic list collection practices. These issues with list collection go well beyond what can be solved using a tool like email verification, which can tell you if an email address is valid or not. But it cannot magically create an opt-in or prevent recipients from reporting your email as spam.
So let’s spend some time exploring what lack of permission looks like and how you can avoid it to improve your list collection and maintenance practices — in small but very meaningful ways — to vastly improve your likelihood of hitting the inbox with consistency.
Problematic list collection practices
Driven by pressure to help drive leads and sales for a business, email marketers sometimes resort to list collection practices that hurt their results in the long-term.
One of the most obvious ways to build a mailing list without permission is to scrape publicly available email addresses found on websites and social / networking sites across the internet using bots (or interns).
This technique is also used by 3rd parties who sell mailing lists, so you’ll want to cross purchased lists off your email to-do list as well. Even if the seller claims the list is “opt-in,” if you’re purchasing the data, realize the recipient didn’t opt-in to hear from you, so they will not be expecting to receive emails from you. In fact, they may have never even heard of your brand! You only get one chance to make a first impression, and unsolicited email is rarely the way you want to go.
In addition, there are some permission-based list collection practices that can be harmful to your inbox placement. If your list has been built through affiliate marketing, co-registrations, sweepstakes, or even an event you sponsored, it’s possible that the recipient has not realized what they actually opted in for.
Sure, they gave their email address, and technically also their permission to send marketing emails. But they were likely so focused on their real purpose for signing up (i.e., attending an industry event, winning the grand prize or receiving their discount code) that they didn’t stop to read the fine print or consider what emails they may receive later.
What happens when you don’t get permission first?
Any mailing list which hasn’t been properly built through an explicit opt-in process leaves your email program (and your ROI) vulnerable to a myriad of issues that can prevent your messages from making it to the inboxes of your intended recipients. Some of the potential outcomes include:
- User complaints
- High invalid (aka hard bounce) rate
- Spam trap hits
- Unsubscribe requests
- Low engagement from recipients who haven’t unsubscribed
- Spam folder placement and/or MSP blocks
- Legal issues ($$$)
Understanding user complaints
Of all these negative effects, user complaints (i.e., ‘marked as spam’ rates) can be the most damaging, and therefore important to understand. They are brought about by subscribers in two main ways:
- Via Feedback Loop – When an email recipient marks a message as ‘spam’ within their email client or web browser, that report doesn’t just end up in a dusty corner on the internet. It’s actually part of a process called a Feedback Loop (or FBL), whereby a mailbox provider (MBP) forwards the complaints originating from their users on to the sender’s organization where they can be reported on and addressed if complaint rates become problematic.
- Manual abuse complaints – A direct spam complaint means someone has taken the time to find the abuse@ address, and email the ESP’s abuse team directly in order to complain about unsolicited email. This type of spam complaint will not show up in your ESP stats, as the investigation is being created based on a direct email to the abuse desk.
When a user marks an email as spam, it’s important to understand how it came about and understand its potential impacts. If not, your deliverability can seriously suffer!
The ‘shadow costs’ of non-permission marketing
In addition to these types of impacts that can be measured from non-permission marketing, You may also face some unforeseen and harder-to-predict headaches. Your email service provider (ESP) may rate limit or suspend your account due to violating their acceptable use policy (AUP). Most reputable ESPs will publish and enforce a permission requirement, even if local laws don’t require it because there is an expectation within the industry to not allow spam email to come from their infrastructure.
This may mean you need to restrict your sending volume while you work towards remediation, which can take days, weeks or even longer, depending on the severity of your bad actions. It may also mean you’ll be looking for a new ESP if it’s not your first time dealing with the compliance team. All of this can be very stressful and time-consuming to deal with and has the potential to severely impact ROI from email.
Not to mention, all of the negative impacts to your brand that can come from customers (and potential customers) having a poor experience with your email program. Much more to come on that in our next episode.
But the law says it’s fine!
Though many marketers believe that the written law drives ESPs and MBPs to determine what makes it into the inbox, this could not be further from the truth! The goal of both is to only deliver messages to recipients when they are requested or expected. And in all cases, the email should aim to provide some kind of value to the recipient.
So say it with me now, folks: legality does not = inbox placement!
Particularly in the case of CAN-SPAM in the United States, permission is not actually required. This law quite literally says you “can spam” people with unsolicited emails, as long as you provide email recipients with a way to opt-out after the fact. So as you can imagine, being compliant with this one will not equate to inbox placement on its own.
There are a few other key forms of legislation that you should be aware of when sending emails. The shared goal of each is to provide consumers with greater protection, knowledge and control over how their personal data is being used by companies.
Each law has its own set of nuances, but for now, know that the common thread you’ll find in all of these regulations is that, unlike CAN-SPAM, they require prior consent from recipients before sending commercial messages:
- GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) – applies to all organizations operating in the EU and those processing “personal identifiable data” of EU residents.
- CASL (Canadian Anti-Spam Law) – while this is Canadian law, it actually applies to all senders that send email to recipients based in Canada.
- CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) – applies only to citizens living in the state of California and is mainly relevant to data brokers.
There are a lot of other regional laws that we haven’t touched upon, so if you send to other regions of the world (such as APAC or LATAM), make sure to check with your ESP or local deliverability expert for guidance on what additional measures you need to be taking to ensure you’re fully compliant.
Ultimately, if you’re aiming for consistent inbox placement, you’ll need to set your standards higher than what’s legally required. In order to do that, you’ll need to excel at multiple aspects of email deliverability.
We’ve already covered a few of those in our previous episode on sender reputation, so now let’s focus on ways to optimize your list collection practices.
Setting your email program up for success
One of the best ways to build a strong foundation for email ROI is to focus on the quality of your database. Recipient engagement is a main driver for deliverability, so it’s important to incorporate best practices on both the list collection and list management sides.
Ways to improve list collection
Before you even begin building your sign-up forms and collecting email addresses, spend some time considering what your real goals with email are. It’s surely not just to drive a lot of opens, right? You’re actually hoping those opens and click-throughs will lead to a conversion at some point… a purchase on your website, someone converting from a free to a paid account, or booking a meeting with your sales team.
Whatever that ultimate goal may be, use it to identify your ideal customer profile, and then build a sign-up process that will draw the right kind of email recipients to join your list. It’s great to have high open rates, but if none of those openers are ever converting to a customer, then they’re not helping you fully optimize your ROI from email.
When it comes to deliverability, recipient engagement (both positive and negative) matters. Setting expectations about what kinds of emails people will receive after signing up is the best way to set yourself up for success.
You’d want to know if the line for a roller coaster was 3 hours long before you paid for your ticket, right? Well, your new signups would want to know what they’re signing up for as well.
A few things to make very clear right at the point of sign-up:
- What kind(s) of content will they receive? From educational content to sales offers and everything in between, make it clear what kind of value subscribers can expect. Will you teach them something, save them money, or make them laugh? Will you send multiple types of emails? Make it clear so their expectations are properly set right from the very first email.
- How often will they receive emails? If you’re unsure how many emails they may end up receiving because multiple brands share the leads, consider if this is the ideal way to grow your mailing list. You may just be setting yourself (and your recipients) up for a full inbox and a very poor email experience.
When those initial emails start flowing, there are a few other tactics you can use to reduce negative reactions from your recipients:
- Reminding them how, where and when they signed up. This is particularly helpful when your list collection process includes sources such as co-registrations or sweepstakes you’re running along with other brands.
- Allowing them to unsubscribe easily, or offering the opportunity to snooze or reduce the frequency of emails from you during high-volume periods such as during a big sale or holiday season.
Choose Quality Over Quantity
There are three main types of list collection you might want to consider:
- Single Opt-In (SOI) – a subscription process where a new email address is added to your mailing list without first requiring the owner of the address to confirm that they knowingly and willingly opted in. While using an SOI process might allow you to grow your list more quickly because the barrier to sign-up is very low, it comes with a risk of pulling in low-quality email addresses that can negatively impact deliverability.
- Confirmed Opt-In (COI) – also sometimes referred to as a double opt-in (DOI), this is a process where a new email address is only added to your mailing list after the address owner confirms the sign-up was legit by clicking a confirmation link that is sent to them via email. Requiring this extra step can give marketers greater confidence in the quality of their database and the interest of recipients.
- Confirmed Opt-In Lite (COIL) – as Skyler describes it, this is a bit of a middle ground for folks who aren’t ready to implement a full COI process but do want to protect their sender reputation by “quarantining” new sign-ups from the rest of your mailing list for a certain period of time (i.e., 14 or 30 days). The idea here is that subscribers should be the most engaged with your emails shortly after sign-up. Any recipients who show normal signs of interest, such as opens and clicks, are moved to your master mailing list, whereas those who do not engage or show patterns of risky behavior are removed and never have the chance to damage the quality of your master list.
Deciding which process is right for your program will require a close review of your goals with email. If, for example, you’re a publisher who wants to get as many eyeballs on your content as possible, a SOI process might be preferred. However, if you’re aiming to build a loyal email audience who regularly engages with your emails, driving more consistent inbox placement, a COI process may be more in line with your objectives.
Protect Your Subscription Forms
It’s only a matter of time before an unsecured online form is targeted by a spambot. The invalid or non-permission based addresses added to a marketer’s list will affect their sender reputation and have an ongoing impact on their deliverability.
One of the best and easiest ways to protect online subscriber forms is to use a Captcha form. Many marketers are reluctant to use a Captcha form as they believe it is a hurdle in the sign-up process or unaesthetic and will impact list growth. A solution is to use either Google Invisible Captcha or hCaptcha.
A couple of our guest experts gave some great intel on this in our Email Deliverability Unfiltered blog post on Best Practices, so check that out for more information.
Use Real-Time Email Verification at the Point-of-Capture
When it comes to new sign-ups, there are certain types of list maintenance tactics that you can do right within your ESP, such as filter out profanity and the word ‘spam’, or suppress potentially risky addresses such as those including “abuse@”. But at some point, you might feel the need to improve the level of vetting you do on new addresses.
By implementing a real-time email verification tool like Kickbox on all subscription forms, marketers can verify email addresses at the point-of-capture. They can even prevent the user from hitting ‘Submit’ until they have entered a valid email address.
This allows companies to not only reduce their hard bounce rates but also to avoid missed connections with potential new leads and build a larger and more qualified email list.
In addition to separating valid from invalid addresses, real-time verification can identify and even prevent other types of email addresses that are risky for deliverability from being submitted, including Role accounts, Accept-all and Disposable email addresses.
In the case of a disposable address, consider you won’t be able to contact that recipient again after the initial interaction. And for role addresses, you’re dealing with an email address that’s associated with a team or job function instead of an individual. Since mail sent to these addresses is typically delivered to multiple recipients, the likelihood of a spam report is much higher than other categories of addresses.
Ways to improve list maintenance
Even with the best collection practices in place, a database is still susceptible to decay at a faster rate without the right maintenance practices.
Send quality, valuable content
Just like nobody wants to be friends with the person who asks for a favor after a long hiatus, subscribers don’t want to hear from you only when it’s convenient for your sales calendar. Sending quality content that aligns with the expectations you set at collection keeps your list happy and looking forward to hearing from you.
Make it easy to unsubscribe
Making it easy for those who want to leave your mailing list to do so may increase your unsubscribe rate, but it is also a way to prevent complaints. MBPs like Gmail are now intervening to prompt an unsubscribe when subscribers have not engaged with a sender for 30 days. Reducing friction by including unsubscribe links within the footer of email (vs. right at the top) and allowing 1-click unsubscribes can help to keep your list healthy and engaged.
As a back-up, to ensure recipients always have a way to opt-out, it can be helpful to include an abuse contact address within the headers of all the emails you send. This way, if your unsubscribe link is broken, recipients can report that issue to your ESP’s Abuse Team, who will help you get it fixed, instead of reporting your message as spam within their email client.
Offer a preference center — but again, keep it simple
Preference centers give your email recipients the ability to opt-out, just like an unsub link would, but they can also provide recipients with an opportunity to “opt-down” instead. This can be a helpful middle ground for brands sending multiple types of emails to recipients because it allows recipients to customize the frequency and select the types of emails they wish to continue receiving while still opting out for the emails they don’t find value in.
The key to any preference center is to keep it very simple, so users are able to easily understand what they are agreeing to and also make their selections quickly. Generally speaking, any opt-down or opt-out process should be as easy as the opt-in process (if not easier). In some cases, this may actually be legally required.
Monitor your stats closely
We talked about this pretty extensively in our episode dedicated to email metrics, so check that out if you’re not sure what you should be monitoring. To summarize, our recommendation is to adopt a holistic view to monitoring your email metrics. It’s critical to focus on ALL of your metrics instead of just 1 or 2… and to look for anything that stands out as problematic.
Layering in other relevant data points such as website traffic & conversion data, blocklistings and spam trap feeds — as well as a lack of engagement by recipients — can help you have a better understanding of the health of your email list and overall deliverability.
When it comes to improving email deliverability and ROI, sending the right messages to subscribers who are delighted to hear from you is paramount. With a solid foundation of permission set, you’ll be set for improvements to not only your individual campaigns but your overall brand.
Stay tuned for the next episode
We’ll be digging into how the customer experience can impact deliverability — either by boosting positive engagement with your emails and driving consistent inbox placement for your brand — or by triggering lots of negative engagement — which is the quickest way to damage your sender reputation.
We’ll be joined by Kath Pay from Holistic Email Marketing, so you don’t want to miss it!
Not caught up on the series? Check out our last episode all about email authentication, why it’s important and how it impacts deliverability.
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