E-mail audits clean lists, improve response rates

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It’s not easy to reach Ian Oxman by e-mail. The founder of e-mail marketing company ChooseYourMail Inc. and now VP for e-mail consulting at Rapp Digital Inc., a Chicago-based division of Rapp Collins Worldwide, doesn’t see everything that hits his server.

If you’re not one of his regular correspondents, there’s a two-step process. Before your e-mail hits his in-box, his server automatically sends you an e-mail that includes a link in its text. You must click on the link and connect to a Web page whose only purpose is to tell you your message will now be delivered. The point is that a machine wouldn’t be able to respond to that link, Oxman said.

ChooseYourMail, which Oxman sold to Rapp Collins in 2001, is selling this two-step anti-spam filter to Internet service providers.

Rapp Digital also has begun doing "permission audits" for its large clients. For about $2,500, Rapp’s auditors review a marketer’s e-mail database, previous campaign results and current registration pages. Its experts look for obviously phony e-mail addresses created by Web site visitors who want access to the site but do not want their real e-mail address added to the marketer’s e-mail list. Phony addresses cause problems in the following way: If the marketer collects addresses —some of them phony—from its Web site, and then later sends marketing e-mails to those addresses, the e-mails will ‘bounce’ back from the phony addresses and clog the marketer’s server.

"If we see a lot of them, that’s a red flag," Oxman said.

Then Rapp does a small test mailing. "Spam complaints increase exponentially," he said. "If you have five [complaints] on 10,000 [e-mails sent], then you do 10 million, you don’t get 5,000 complaints, you get many more."

Depending on the results of the test, Rapp may recommend that clients re-verify their permissions. If the list is in decent shape and not that many complaints come back, Oxman might suggest the client use an opt-out approach on the list, sending a message telling recipients that they’re on the list and including a link that will let them opt-out of future mailings. If many recipients of the test complain because they consider the e-mail to be spam, Rapp may recommend that the client rebuild the list and include only recipients who indicate that they want to receive future e-mails.

Most b-to-b lists require less work than consumer lists, Oxman said. "In general, you have a more rational view from recipients concerning commercial e-mail. People who’ve been online a long time know how the game must be played and have little patience for people who cut corners."

The result of an audit is a "clean list" that can get a decent response rate, close to the 2% rate of direct mail, Oxman said.

He said TRUSTe, a non-profit e-business privacy initiative, is beta-testing a "Trusted Sender" e-mail program that the next version of Microsoft Outlook Express, due out in 2003, will support.

Under this program, e-mail would have a stamp of approval that looks like a postmark, Oxman said. E-mail recipients would be able to click on the stamp to learn more about the company’s privacy policy and opt-out procedures.

Getting past a spam filter isn’t enough for e-mail marketers, Oxman said. To succeed as a marketing message, an e-mail, just like any other communication, must be read, understood and acted upon. Auditing permission is the first step toward making e-mail marketing work.

Dana Blankenhorn is a free-lance journalist who specializes in Internet issues. He is publisher of the Web site

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