Holiday Email Best Practices: Avoiding the Spam Filter

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The holidays represent huge opportunities for retailers; some of them depend on the few precious days to generate a disproportionately large amount of their total year's revenue. The season is not only laden with opportunity, it's also fraught with peril when it comes to competing for eyeballs and clicks in the inbox.

According to ReturnPath's 2015 Email Deliverability Benchmark Report, 21% percent of email either lands in the spam folder or simply gets dropped by an ISP. When you consider that SendGrid alone delivered 30.4 billion marketing emails between Black Friday and Cyber Monday last year, the potential cost to marketers during the holidays is staggering.

As reported in SendGrid's recent Global Engagement Report, email related to eCommerce is the highest in terms of volume, but the lowest in terms of engagement. This alone should give marketers pause. ISPs typically don't change their systems during the holidays, so all the filtering a sender experiences this time of year is just the result of bad practices, not a changed environment. By following a few basic rules during the upcoming holiday season marketers can improve the chances they'll hit both their revenue and engagement targets.

1. Keep volume consistent. Inconsistent volume can set off alarms. If you send a million emails every Tuesday and Thursday and suddenly start sending 6 million the day after Thanksgiving, chances are the increase in volume may reflect poorly in your inbox placement. Volumes need to be ramped up slowly in the weeks leading up to the holidays. Consider spreading the volume across more days vs. more volume on a single day. Consistency in volume generally results in more favorable inbox placement.

2. Keep complaint rates low. Even a tiny increase in complaints (subscribers tagging messages as "junk" or "spam") can cause email to be blocked by ISPs. Keeping the complaint rate very low (less than 1%) is very important. Re-engaging very old segments during the holidays is a sure fire way to drive up complaint rates and hamper your ability to reach more engaged recipients. Re-engagement should be slow and steady in the months leading up to the holidays and paused for the duration of the season to improve success.

3. Avoid email fatigue. Sending multiple emails per day can lead to fatigued and annoyed recipients resulting in users blocking, unsubscribing and sending messages to spam folders. Sending 2-3 emails per day results in upwards of 42 emails after a couple of weeks. That's too much even for the most loyal customers. When preparing for the holidays, keep recipient lists as clean as possible by removing addresses that haven't been engaged in a long time and segment each list by engagement.

4. Give consumers control. Marketers should offer a preference center that allows recipients to down-subscribe or up-subscribe for the holiday season (some recipients actually want more email). Just remember that unsubscribe volume goes up proportionally with send volume. Consider making email subscription options more prominent during the holidays. If a consumer has to look for the unsubscribe button, they may find it easier to use the spam button instead -- and complaints have the potential to do lasting harm.

5. Rethink subject lines. Offering a discount in the subject line is popular. But according to our research earlier this year on SendGrid emails delivered during Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2015, it's not correlated with stronger engagement. In fact, the opposite is true: emails without a discount in the subject line are the ones with higher engagement rates. Overly promotional email subject lines may come across to consumers as spammy. Test subject lines and don't assume that the same subject, or call to action, will work for every recipient.

Email is reassuring in that it has a long history; most marketers can compare and benchmark themselves against results from previous years. Monitor delivery throughout the holidays and compare against previous results to gauge successes and failures. Remember, every percent of non-inbox placement represents money left on the table. Take the necessary precautions to improve the likelihood that recipients will receive, open and click email by following best practices before, during and after the holiday season.

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