E-mail deliverability: Much sought after, much misunderstood

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Elsa Carrasquillo, manager-Web design and development with the American Management Association, had a problem with her direct marketing e-mail campaigns. She had the strong sense that too many of her blasts promoting AMA's series of seminars and webcasts were not being delivered to prospects' inboxes.

"We simply needed to improve our e-mail deliverability," Carrasquillo said. "We were getting blocked quite a bit by the personal ISPs, like Gmail and Yahoo, but it was much worse with corporate e-mail accounts. If a company is filtering your e-mail…that becomes a big issue."

To quantify the problem, Carrasquillo turned to e-mail solutions company Return Path, which ran a sample AMA e-mail through about 400 domains, and analyzed for deliverability with its Mailbox Monitor tool.

For the test, AMA's e-mail reached inboxes 70% of the time, meaning 30% were being blocked.

E-mail is the current darling of direct marketing. In a BtoB poll of 131 marketers, conducted last week during a webcast on multichannel marketing, 69.5% named e-mail as their favorite channel, besting online ads (43.5%), direct mail (37.4%), trade shows (32.1%), webinars (30.5%) and print ads (19.1%).

Nevertheless, a new Return Path study, "Deliverability Benchmark Report" which analyzed some 500,000 campaigns in the first half of the year, found that commercial, permission-based e-mails got to only 79.3% of all U.S. and Canadian inboxes during that period.

Worse is the deliverability to business e-mail addresses, which often are protected by additional layers of e-mail monitoring. On average, 27.6% of commercial, permissioned e-mails sent to business addresses don't reach the inbox, Return Path said.

Problem spots emerge starkly when examining deliverability by vertical markets. A recent study by Goodmail Systems and e-mail deliverability company Pivotal Veracity, "E-mail Deliverability Benchmarks: Q1 2009," revealed that e-mail to non-profits and member organizations get blocked about 47% of the time. Technology recipients have their e-mail blocked about 27% of the time, with virtually all of it unaccounted for.

"It's surprising to me the lack of awareness about this," said George Bilbrey, Return Path president. “In many cases, marketers are seeing 'delivered' metrics that repeatedly show a 95% to 98% delivery rate. Unfortunately, many e-mail service providers and marketers have developed the belief that whatever e-mails aren't bouncing have successfully reached the inbox. That's just not true."

Marketers can do a lot to improve e-mail delivery, according to Aberdeen Group. The information technology research company says paying careful attention to customer behavior and segmentation can result in an average e-mail delivery rate of 90.2%.

“E-mail deliverability rates move hand-in-hand with superior e-mail open rates, click-through rates and revenue growth,” says Ian Michiels, group director-customer management technology, with Aberdeen. "But there's a paradigm shift today in how we're thinking about delivering e-mail, especially with segmentation and personalization."

Michiels noted that some 70% of marketers today use salutation personalization, adding a recipient's name to a generic e-mail. The most effective marketers go much further, using dynamic e-mail content that notes the recipient's previous interaction with the company.

However, when such segmentation and personalization is done poorly, or from bad data, a recipient's finger may stray to the spam button, Michiels said.

"There is the potential of negatively impacting your brand if you send an e-mail to Mrs. Smith when he's really Mr. Smith," he said. "Database management is really where it's at."

Sending wrong content to the wrong people not only produces spam blocking, but also may automatically trigger ISP and corporate filters based on a company's reputation. So, if a company produces too many spam reports by recipients, its future e-mail campaigns will be blocked.

"It matters because the ISPs are watching," Michiels said.

Working with Return Path, the AMA's Carrasquillo discovered the connection between subject lines and deliverability when promoting an upcoming seminar.

"We planned to send out a test e-mail with the subject line, 'Save $200 plus receive a free flash drive,' " Carrasquillo said.

Noting that ISPs and corporate filters monitor subject lines for words that may signal spam, she said, "My manager told me, 'Are you creating subject words solely for the spam filters? It's a good thing you didn't put "sex" in there.' "

It was this subject line that produced a deliverability of only 70%.

Following the test, Carrasquillo took out the terms "save" and "free" from the subject line, and revised it to, "Register today: $200 off plus receive a flash drive."

Last week, she sent out 18,305 e-mails with the new subject line. Of those, 192 were hard bounces (invalid addresses), but perhaps more significantly only 42 were soft bounces (received by a server but undelivered), and just one was reported as spam.

"The Aberdeen study had two big takeaways for me," said Jeremy Saibil, director of deliverability with e-mail service provider Campaigner. "The first is that I'm not a voodoo witch doctor who alone can magically make our customers' e-mail land into an inbox. Marketers control a lot of what they need to do to have good deliverability.

"And my second takeaway was that people who do the right things have a 90.2% success rate," he said. "That personally delighted me."

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