A new year is a great time to hit the ‘Reset’ button and focus on a better version of yourself. For individuals, this can mean setting resolutions related to fitness, meditation or engaging in a healthier lifestyle. For businesses, it can be a chance to assess their past year’s performance and set goals for improving their email program moving forward.
As we’re finishing up one of the busiest times of the year, it is a great time to re-focus on our email goals. Let’s explore some of the resolutions email senders should consider for 2021.
Email deliverability experts from Netcore, Zeta Global, Pardot & Salesforce Marketing Cloud, iContact, Hubspot, ActiveCampaign, ConvertKit, and yours truly have compiled a list of recommended deliverability resolutions to adopt (and not break!) in the coming year.
So let’s begin…
Optimize Your Sign Up Process
This year, the #1 thing on my email deliverability wish list is for marketers to review and identify possible ways to optimize their sign up process.
Data quality is one of the most important aspects of a successful email program, and a lot of senders overlook the influence that a problematic (or misdirected) email list can have on their deliverability.
I’m not just talking about valid or invalid addresses here. In order to truly succeed at email marketing, you need to build an audience of email recipients who actually want to engage with the emails you send and drive the types of conversions you want.
So, first and foremost, start 2021 by reviewing your email goals. What are they? Have they changed? Do the KPIs you’re using to track your success align with your business objectives?
Once you’ve spent some time answering those questions, a few steps to help you optimize your sign up process:
Test your onboarding experience. Does it work as expected? Does it make sense? Run through it yourself, but also consider asking a friend to test it out so they can experience your welcome program with fresh eyes and share candid feedback on the overall experience.
Review your stats. Now that you’ve re-introduced yourself to the journey your new subscribers are taking, dig into your email metrics to identify what’s working well and what’s not.
- Factor in positive engagement (such as opens and clicks) in addition to negative engagement (such as spam complaints and unsubscribes), as you might notice that the email in your welcome series that generates the highest opens is also leading to a lot of list churn.
- Include performance metrics like website traffic and conversions in your review, to help determine if your sign up process is pulling in the right types of subscribers to drive conversions.
- Also, check out your bounce rates, as they can indicate you need to strengthen your list collection process at the point of signup. This brings me to my next suggestion…
Implement Real-Time Email Verification. I assure you: this is not a sales pitch. Having worked at Kickbox for almost a year now, it shocks me to see how many companies only consider email verification when they want to do a re-engagement campaign or have a particularly troublesome part of their database that needs some extra attention.
They’re missing out on the real power of email verification: the opportunity to collect a valid email address from all potential customers right at the point-of-capture. “Hello, additional subscribers! I’m glad we didn’t miss connecting with you due to a mistyped address.”
Lockdown your forms. This includes signup forms and contact forms and any other place someone can trigger an email to be sent by your company. You don’t want to wait until your form has been bombed by bots! Such a mess to clean up. CAPTCHA, Google’s Invisible reCAPTCHA or hCaptcha are all options available to you.
Do not buckle under the pressure! If you’re being asked to implement changes to your list collection (or anything else about your email program) that doesn’t sit well with you, speak up! Let your concerns be heard and back them up with data as often as possible.
While speaking up doesn’t mean management will take your recommendation every time, remember that they hired you for a reason, so it doesn’t serve them (or you) to sit quietly by while someone runs your sender reputation into the ground.
We had some industry experts share advice on communicating with stakeholders earlier this year, so check it out if you’re facing push-back.
We’re all hoping 2021 will be a vast improvement over 2020. Follow these tips, and you’ll give your email marketing program a better chance to be its best self in 2021 as well.
3 Resolutions to Give Your Email Program New Life
Resolutions are often tiny promises we make to ourselves – lose weight, get out of debt, try something new – that we end up breaking long before the end of January. Don’t let these broken promises be the downfall of your email program this year. Give your email program a new life in 2021.
Here are a few resolutions for you to consider:
Lose weight – Why hold one to all that old data that you’re not using? Remove, purge, clean the attic and get rid of all the extra weight. Data breaches continued to plague businesses in 2020, and by deleting old data, you protect yourself from possible losses and liabilities resulting from inappropriate data loss.
As 2021 progresses, we will continue to see privacy legislation and regulations around the world, so cleaning house of old data you no longer need will make complying with these laws that much easier.
Get out of Debt – Technical debt is likely holding your email program back from the next evolution.
This could be those old, outdated authentication records that are unknowingly causing you heartache and delivery woes. Consider implementing DMARC to identify Authentication issues and focus on domain segmentation to separate your Marketing, transactional, support and other key email services from one another.
This also sets you up to implement BIMI in 2021 as the first steps are fixing your authentication. Check out Grade My Email to see your current configuration and plan your next or first steps.
Try Something New – Email innovation is happening everywhere, and your current ESP may no longer be the right fit for your organization. Either you’re using a platform that does not fit your business’s growing needs or overpaying for a platform where you’re not using all of the features.
“We’ve often seen that enterprise brands use less than 50% of the features and functionality in their existing vendor’s platforms.” says Chris Marriott, President, Email Connect, “I like to say they shop for a Maserati and then drive it like a Yugo.”
Use 2021 to take a new vendor out for a test drive, re-energize your email program with a fresh start and a new home. Worst case scenario, you look around and realize you’re already in the right place.
Start 2021 with a renewed outlook towards your email program, it’s been bruised and battered in 2020 and needs a little TLC to get back on the right track in the year ahead.
Take A Cue From Fly Fishing
If you’ve been reading this series, you’re practically a pro by now, or at least you have the tools to be an expert amateur.
If you haven’t, and this is to be our only conversation, your one marketing resolution for the new year to keep your deliverability top-notch should be to go fly fishing.
Essentially my entire recommendation is going to be a big analogy because it’s nearing the end of the year, and I’m feeling a little excited to put 2020 in the “been there, done that” bucket and move on. That or cabin fever is setting in hard.
Ok, so why fly fishing? Well, because when you go fly fishing, you customize what you put out there so the fish will notice you, be lured into your seductive fly, and bite. That’s what we are here for, right? To get them to bite. I’m sure some just like to watch the fish swim, but then you aren’t really fishing, are you?
So when you approach the new year, look back at 2020. CRINGE, I know who wants to spend any more time reflecting on 2020 than they have to? You could skip it and focus on 2019, but 2020 has shifted how a lot of people are approaching their consumer relationships and buying behaviors, so there is actually a lot to learn from this year.
Review what you cast and determine if you are getting the bites you want. If not…
- Move to another spot where the fish are (it isn’t always email)
- Try a different fly because not all fish eat or are attracted to the same food (make offers and content appealing with personalization)
- Be recognizable because fish may not explore the fly if they don’t recognize it (branding, branding, branding)
- Present the fly, don’t hurl it into the water because startled fish will swim away (make sure your content is expected)
- Don’t overfish the stream (going too hard will cause fatigue or abandonment)
- Be thoughtful. Fish are more than just creatures in the water; they are a part of a larger ecosystem that is impacted by so many more factors (this could address something as sensitive as personal circumstances or as simple as being respectful of your customer’s inbox)
At the end of the day, focus on your customer and let your relationship guide how you market to them. If you aren’t focused on the customer, the end result will not be as rich or bountiful.
Customers drive deliverability and delivery. Customers are why we have businesses. It’s the same reason why we fish, for the fish. Creating fishing ties may be fun, but if they don’t work, you’ll end up with great memories about your craft hobby instead of memories about the motherload of fish you caught on your trip.
STOP Stressing Out Your Subscribers
No more trickery!
All you do is stress me out
You’ll see more complaints.
If I had to pick one thing I’d want all email marketers to change, it would be to stop using tricks to get opens or unsubscribes.
Fake RE: or FWD
If you need to resort to using a fake RE: or fake FWD: in your emails, you need to go back to the drawing board on your email sending strategy.
There may be a brief increase in open rates, but that will not sustain. It’s more likely to wind up getting more unsubscribes and spam complaints from your subscriber base.
People are opening these emails because it is stressful to look at a RE: and try to figure out when and why you responded to that email.
“When did I write that subject line? Who am I talking to? Did my email get hacked? Oh snap, did it email my contacts? Am I going to have to explain this to my grandfather??”.
I’m going to open that email to figure out what is going on so I can do damage control. Opening it to find it’s another sales email is deeply frustrating, and it’s going to result in both email reputation damage and brand reputation damage.
Fake shipping notifications
No. No. No. No. No.No. No. No. No. No. No. No.No. No. No. No. No.
If RE: causes me a lot of stress, a fake shipping notification is even worse.
I do a ton of online shopping, but I know exactly what I’ve ordered and from where at any given time. If I have a surprise shipping notification pop up in my inbox, my first thought is that my finances have been compromised.
That’s not only going to cause me a lot of stress; it’s also going to reflect extremely negatively back on your brand.
I’m also not a lawyer, and therefore cannot dispense legal advice, but you may want to have your lawyer read the requirements of CAN-SPAM. They may or may not be particularly interested in how point 2 relates to these types of subject lines.
Sneaky unsubscribe tactics:
- Hiding it
If I have to play “Where’s Waldo” to find your unsubscribe link, I’m significantly more likely to report your email as spam and move on.
You may not like people unsubscribing, but an unsubscribe is far better for the overall health of your platform than a spam complaint.
It may seem controversial, but you WANT people to unsubscribe if they don’t want your mail anymore. They’re telling you they don’t plan on being engaged anymore, which helps keep your list sparkling clean and lets you focus on people who are going to be actively engaged and interested in your mail.
If I click “unsubscribe,” I am not saying, “I know how your backend list management looks, and I just want to be off this one list. Feel free to leave me on your other 500 lists”. If I click “unsubscribe,” I am saying, “Stop sending me mail, end of discussion.” Tricking me into staying on your other lists is a fast ticket to “Skyler’s going to complain to your ESP” town. I’d also highly recommend talking to your lawyers about it.
If you click to unsubscribe and a login pops up, what’s easier?
Hoping Lastpass has it, oh, wait, nope, lastpass doesn’t have it, time for the password reset process, now wait for the reset email, now reset the password, now go back to the email to find the unsubscribe link….
Clicking “This is spam”, getting that out of your inbox, and calling it a day.
The more difficult and cumbersome you make your unsubscribe process, the exponentially more likely you are to have your subscribers use “This is spam” as their unsubscribe button. You may also want to talk to your lawyer about that being legally compliant.
You do not need tricks
Don’t base your sending on lies
Make unsubs easy
Implement a Steady Regimen of the 3 “Rs”: Rest, Re-Engage & Remove
If you’re like me, you probably set a goal of getting into better shape and dropping some extra weight in the New Year. This should be a goal for your email marketing program as well in the form of list maintenance. The good news is that it’s a lot easier to get your list in shape than it is for me to go from dad-bod to beach-bod.
That extra weight I’m talking about comes in the form of inactive subscribers. Engagement-based filtering is the norm at most inbox providers, so those subscribers that haven’t shown any engagement with your messaging in the last year or two realistically are not receiving your messages in the inbox or are not actively using their inbox.
If your lists have a high percentage of contacts in this bucket, it demonstrates to providers that your messaging isn’t very relevant to most of your subscribers. Hence, messages begin to inbox at a lower rate. New subscribers may also have your first message hit their spam folder.
If left unchecked for too long—like my physical fitness—it’s a lot harder to get back to where you previously were. People receive so much spam that subscribers, old and new, don’t often go to their spam folder to look for legitimate messages leading to fewer positive indicators (like moving messages to the inbox or marking “not spam”). Spam filters look at positive indicators when allowing your messages to the inbox.
Combine that with normal list attrition (unsubscribes, deactivated addresses, etc.), and you’re looking at an ever-dwindling list of subscribers that will inbox and truly convert.
So what’s the best way to get your list back in shape? A steady regimen of the three “R’s” – Rest, Re-Engage, Remove.
“Rest” non-engaged contacts by excluding them from several consecutive sends. This will help improve your sending reputation short-term by showing providers you’re paying attention and sending content relevant to a high percentage of their users.
A boost in your sending reputation increases the chances you’ll inbox with those inactives. Now attempt to re-engage and win some of them back. Remember, normal subject lines and offers led to them losing interest over time, so “normal” won’t cut it if you truly want to win them back.
I also recommend you measure a contact’s re-engagement by fully converting rather than just an open or click as Non-Human Interactions and cached tracking pixels could generate “false engagement” stats.
Also, a re-engagement campaign isn’t always a requirement; use best judgment factoring in your typical audience and available offers. The last thing you want is to generate negative data points like increased spam complaints when you’ve just done work to improve your sending reputation.
Once your non-engaged contacts have been rested, and a re-engagement series (if necessary) has been attempted, it’s time to say goodbye to the bad weight that still isn’t responding by removing these contacts from your sending entirely.
Doing so ensures you’re working with lists of subscribers who are receiving and actively engaging with your messaging. I’ve worked with many senders that actually see an increase in total opens and clicks after incorporating this process – not just improved percentages from sending to a smaller audience.
Like any real resolution, this requires dedication – don’t expect permanent results if you don’t make it a regular routine. How often this needs to happen depends on the individual sender, but starting in 2021 it should be a regular part of a healthy email marketing program.
Tighten Up Authentication
Don’t let email authentication, or the lack thereof, be what ruins your hard-earned reputation and email deliverability in 2021. One email deliverability “resolution” that all marketers should adopt (and keep) in 2021 is tightening up SPF authentication on all email sending domains.
Bounces, blocks, spoofing and other deliverability issues stemming from loose or lacking authentication are a habit to leave behind in the new year.
SPF (Sender Policy Framework) is an authentication protocol that authorizes a set of IP addresses to send emails on behalf of your domain. Several mailbox providers and ISPs directly call out publishing SPF records as a best practice for sending bulk email. Many will use SPF to reject messages which can cause deliverability problems for you as an email marketer.
Highly technical changes that involve editing DNS records can be off-putting or difficult to achieve, especially when you don’t have access to IT resources. However, if it is any consolation, SPF does not often need to be altered if done properly the first time around. Here are a few relatively quick fixes email marketers can make to tighten up email authentication going forward.
- Make a list of your brand’s email sending domains, and check it twice.
Does your company have several domains or subdomains? Which domains are used for email sending?
Having an accurate account of the domains your company has control over and is actively using to send mail is the foundation of authentication.
Keeping an up-to-date list of email sending domains enables email marketers to decide which authentication measures are absolutely necessary to protect their company’s domains, reputation, and email deliverability. Not to mention, it can help to prevent spoofing, which erodes trust with email recipients.
- Take stock of all of the IP addresses and/or email providers that are sending email on behalf of your domains.
Plenty of organizations send email from multiple IP addresses, whether managed in-house or provided by a third-party. Make a list of all of the providers used to send emails on behalf of your brand domains.
Be sure to include corporate email service providers (i.e., Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc.) and third-party marketing-email service providers. Then do some investigating to determine whether each of these services are actively used for email sending.
If you are looking for a place to start, check out the SPF policy for each of your email sending domains. More often than not, you’ll find a list of present (and past) providers that were authorized to send emails on behalf of your domain(s) at some point.
If you find old, outdated IP addresses and providers, add them to the list to be cut from your SPF policy.
- Create your SPF record. If you have already published an SPF record, make sure you are within the 10 DNS lookup limit.
- Once you’ve published your SPF to DNS, test, test, test!
There are several free and trusted SPF validation tools email marketers can use to quickly identify which IP addresses or providers are authorized to send mail on behalf of their brand domain(s). Here are a few worth adding to your email deliverability toolkit:
SPF limits the number of DNS lookups you can include in the policy to 10. This limit helps preserve mailbox providers and ISPs’ resources in checking which IP addresses are authorized to send email on behalf of your domain through DNS.
The more lookups providers need to make to find authorized providers, the slower their processing times and ability to verify authorized IPs. Rather than spend those additional resources to complete DNS lookups, email servers and mailbox providers will simply stop checking and will not be able to authenticate your email campaigns.
Quit Waiting Until You Have Problems To Think About Deliverability
The most popular topic in 2020 was by far “my open rates have suddenly tanked. Help!” I think the one email deliverability resolution I would recommend for marketers in 2021 would be not to wait until there’s a problem to start thinking about deliverability. Deliverability is NOT out of sight, out of mind.
I totally relate to putting off thinking about deliverability. Our rational minds say, what could possibly have changed from yesterday’s to today’s email marketing strategy that would cause a dip in opens? I haven’t “changed anything” so it must be something related to my ESP, right? Maybe, but maybe not. Let’s explore.
I’d like to take you back to a fond memory I’m sure many of us share, which is tuning in to The Price Is Right at 10am to watch Bob Barker (or if you are younger than me, cough cough, Drew Carey).
My favorite game on the show was called Cliffhangers, where a little yodeling man climbed up and up the mountain towards the summit with each price guess. Sometimes a contestant overshot the price of an item, and then the yodeler would “suddenly” plummet off the mountain yodeling as he fell.
You can think of your domain reputation as a life-long running total of positive and negative engagements. Think of it as your mountain. If your domain reputation ever gets spam complaints, deleted emails without opens, and increased email traffic to unengaged contacts, you are essentially “climbing” that mountain of negative engagements. As you near the top, nothing has changed on your end. Opens are stable, ROI is consistent, everyone is happy.
Until one unsuspecting day, your domain reputation reaches the top of the mountain, the seemingly arbitrary summit determined by the mailbox providers; and yodelayheehoo! Your yodeling man, or in this case your opens, “fall” off the top of the mountain. Gasp. What suddenly changed?
Oftentimes a sudden drop in metrics is not the cause of a single incident that happened the day before (disclaimer: I’m not saying it never is; certainly blocklistings and other events can cause sudden performance shifts).
Usually, it’s the final straw of a history of many negative engagements that causes mailbox providers to begin filtering your emails. Or treating your emails differently to see if the end recipients will react differently, for example, by rescuing emails from the spam folder, adding you as a safe sender, etc.
And no, this isn’t something that only impacts unengaged contacts. Your running total of negative engagements will eventually begin to impact your engaged audience, too. This is why that drop is felt so significantly across your entire contact file.
I hope this tale of woe and the visual of a little yodeling man inspires all reading this to consider implementing a strategy in early 2021, to continually monitor deliverability year round. You’ll be happy that you invested the time and resources for long term success!
Dive Deep Into Your Data For Useful Insights About Your Audience
As we enter into a new (and hopefully better) year, my biggest hope for marketers is that they would adopt a more holistic approach to measuring success in their email marketing efforts.
Too often, marketers become laser-focused on one thing: open rates. While open rates are certainly an important metric, they are also flawed and can’t tell the full story on their own.
Email marketers should start 2021 off with some deep diving into data from 2020. Here are the data points that would be helpful to analyze:
- Open rate trends
- Click rate trends
- Complaint rate trends
- Google Postmaster Tools data trends: Domain reputation, IP reputation, Spam complaint rate
- Bounce rate trends
- Unsubscribe trends
- Spam trap hit trends, if you have this data
- Conversion trends
Compile all of the data you can to analyze the trends you saw in 2020, and consider what the data can teach you.
For example, look for times when open rates, click rates, and conversion rates peaked. What caused that to happen? What kind of content did you send that day, and how did it look? How can you replicate this more in 2021 and what do these peaks tell you about what your audience wants from you?
Similarly, look for times when complaint rates and unsubscribe rates rose. Try to determine the cause and what this tells you about what your audience doesn’t want. Look for any spike in bounces or spam trap hits. Was a new list collection source introduced at that time? If so, it might have been a low-quality list that you should reconsider.
In summary, reaching subscribers’ inboxes and having your email opened isn’t guaranteed. As the inbox gets more crowded, marketers need to put in the work to know what their audience wants and doesn’t want.
The more marketers can make data-driven decisions to serve their audience, the more success they will have in their email marketing efforts.
Chasing down slight changes in open rates each time they drop isn’t going to be effective enough to see the full picture of what your audience wants and responds to.
Start 2021 off by diving into 2020’s data and use the insights to inform your 2021 strategy. Your subscribers will thank you!
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