A Good 'Rep' Can Ensure Delivery

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As spam proliferates and corporate filters get more difficult to clear, e-mail deliverability continues to challenge legitimate marketers looking to connect with customers and prospects.

In the past, spam filters looked at information such as the sender's domain or the e-mail's content to sift out spam. Today, delivery also depends on a sender's reputation.

"Reputation is No. 1—making sure that you're sending to addresses that exist," said Stefan Pollard, director of consulting services at EmailLabs, a provider of e-mail marketing services and software, "and that you're sending to people who requested it, and that those people are not objecting to your message and identifying it as spam."

Making e-mail content relevant to various audience segments can make a big difference in reputation and, consequently, deliverability, said Ajay Goel, president of JangoMail, a Web-based e-mail marketing system. "The more you segment, and the more relevant the content you send, the more value they'll get out of your e-mails and the higher reputation you'll maintain, which will affect your overall deliverability," he said.

It's also key that the recipient recognizes you as the sender, Pollard said. "If you use a bad subject line or a 'from' address that's a salesperson they don't know, they're much more likely to miscategorize your message by marking it as spam, even if they requested it," he said.

Deliverability and reputation are especially tricky for b-to-b marketers because they send to corporate gateways, which rely heavily on content filters from any of a number of anti-spam providers—such as Cloudmark, Message Labs, Postini and Symantec/Brightmail—as well as block lists and complaints, to determine reputation, said JF Sullivan, VP-marketing at Habeas, a reputation services provider.

B-to-c marketers, on the other hand, send primarily to the major ISPs, which determine spam by using feedback loops (when the recipient labels an e-mail as spam), block-listing information and to some extent content filtering.

That's an important distinction, Sullivan said. "It's not like you have to worry just about appeasing one particular ISP like AOL and figuring out what their standards and practices are," he said. "If you're sending b-to-b mail, you've got someone who's got a Brightmail filter, you've got someone who's using Postini, you've got someone that has a homegrown solution."

In the past year, b-to-b marketers have become aware of just how important this distinction is, said Jeanniey Mullen, executive director-senior partner, worldwide e-mail marketing at interactive agency OgilvyOne. "We've seen a large increase in awareness of the importance of good deliverability and just a focus on deliverability and rendering overall," she said. "When the industry started talking about deliverability and the impact of reputation issues, they always spoke about it as 'Hotmail won't deliver your e-mails' or 'AOL won't deliver your e-mails,' and b-to-b companies didn't seem to make the connection that it's important to them."

Content filters are increasingly relying on the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) authentication method to determine whether an e-mail is legitimate, according to the most recent EmailAdvisor ISP Deliverability Report Card from Lyris Technologies, a sibling company of EmailLabs. The Report Card is a quarterly research study that monitors deliverability rates for permission-based e-mail marketing messages.

Authentication records are like a driver's license, Pollard said, in that they identify the sender as well as which IP addresses are allowed to send e-mail on behalf of that sender.

In the Lyris research, "One of the top 10 things that was checked by a content filter was the presence of an SPF record," he said. "It didn't mean that every sender was checked or every e-mail was checked, but of the top 10 checks that were performed, SPF record checks were one of them."

Sullivan said sender identity will become even more important for b-to-b e-mail marketers. "As spam filters become more sophisticated and incorporate that requirement, it's going to provide great deferential treatment for the b-to-b mailers who actually use sender authentication."

Other actions b-to-b marketers should take to maintain their reputation, Sullivan said, are: making sure their sending infrastructure is up-to-date; checking public block lists to see what others are saying about them; checking list accuracy and other marketing practices, such as the opt-in process; and "looking downstream" to make sure any affiliates also have good sending practices.

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