May 21, 2013
Case Study

Email Deliverability: Publisher moves beyond double opt-in to avoid 1,000 hard bounces per day

SUMMARY: A healthy sender reputation with ISPs is essential for email marketers. Remaining vigilant against hard bounces and spam filters is the only way to maintain a solid reputation.

It is becoming more difficult for emails to arrive unscathed to subscribers' inboxes due to new spam traps and other filters. Traditional permissions and other best practices may not be enough to pass through the scrutiny of ISPs. Learn how ArcaMax Publishing fought to keep a stellar reputation and preserve its ROI with subscribers.

by Courtney Eckerle, Reporter


"In our business, deliverability has become the mission critical function," said Scott Wolf, President and CEO, ArcaMax Publishing.

Primarily driven by email, ArcaMax Publishing is the premier publisher of consumer syndicated content online.

"Anything you can imagine reading the newspaper, you can get from us," Wolf said. "We go to the same sources that the newspapers do and license content that readers typically are very familiar with, having grown up reading them in the newspapers."

Wolf lists comic strips, columns, news, sports and entertainment content as some of the features they license and send out. All of the content is free to readers, and ArcaMax collects revenue by selling advertising — which can make them a target for some spam filters.

He categorizes ArcaMax as "old timers in the space," as they began publishing content online in 1999. "Pretty darn old when it comes to the Internet," Wolf said.

Its model has remained "pretty consistent" over the years, he said, because it has always added subscribers to its list using double opt-in.

"If there was a bad address that was submitted to us, it didn't confirm. So, we really didn't have that issue of having bad data on our subscription files," he said.

Wolf said he felt pretty secure relying on that practice — after all, according to the MarketingSherpa 2013 Email Marketing Benchmark Report, only 39% of marketers even maintain an opt-in only subscriber list.

The stringent double opt-in practice has enabled the company to "survive like we have, and be able to grow, because we've been able to build a very solid reader base of people who want to get [emails] from us."

But, as ISP's have evolved in its approach to spam filtering, ArcaMax has become more diligent.

"Deliverability has not been the challenge for us along the way that it has been for many, but as time has gone on, we've had to be more and more scrupulous in our practices," Wolf said.

The "spam issue," he added, has become "an important part of our business … it's a constant challenge to always stay abreast of what’s happening in the deliverability world."

Sending advertising is an integral part of ArcaMax's business model, so the issue for Wolf has been in reconciling the business model with a solid sender reputation.

"People don't want spam, and spam is always advertising," Wolf said, "[so] how do you identify yourself as a legitimate sender?"

The challenge that must be met, he said, is to "continue growing our business, get our mail delivered and generate revenue."


The precipitating question that pushed Wolf to re-evaluate its sole reliance on the double opt-in system and begin this campaign was, "so how many confirmation emails are you mailing that aren't really good addresses, and to what extent is that a problem?"

"The truth was, I couldn't answer that question," he said. "Because we didn't track it — these were people who didn't confirm, we were filtering them out and focusing on those who did, and growing our business that way."

The natural process they had always relied on "was causing difficulty," he said, because of the amount of confirmation emails they were sending.

"Depending on how aggressive we are at any given time, we're sending a lot of confirmation emails. We are averaging anywhere in the 8,000 to 10,000 subscriber-per-day range," he said.

Starting in January, Wolf decided to integrate into the system a platform to cut down on the amount of confirmation emails ArcaMax was sending by discovering which external sources were sending them bad names.

Up until they began this campaign, the team's only clue about bad addresses was: "Do they confirm or not, and what percentage of them confirm … but at that point, we’ve already emailed these people," he said.

From there, the team analyzes those sources to cut off bad names before the confirmation emails go out, and see if there are changes they can make to increase the number of legitimate names coming in.

Because running bad names through the team's usual process might injure ArcaMax's carefully built sender reputation, to stave off hard bounces "it is advantageous to us to validate these names before we even send them an email," said Wolf.

"Deliverability is a fundamental part of our business, [so] it has real value to us," he added.

Step #1. Validate sources of new subscribers

Wolf said the team began the process by validating all of their sources. Not only did this apply to current sources that were providing them with names, but any new ones that come in as well.

"Any new source that comes on board, we validate from the beginning. Our ability to acquire new subscribers well, efficiently and profitably is a big determinant in our company's success," Wolf said.

External sources ArcaMax works with are usually co-registration placements, or banners that drive people to forms to sign up for a specific newsletter.

Wolf gives the example that "someone might be registering on … a religious site, and we'd say, 'by the way, get daily Bible verses from ArcaMax.' Or a cooking site, and we'd offer our recipes newsletter when they sign up on that site."

The process of investigating all of its sources serves as an initial screen in terms of the overall quality. If the name is bad, ArcaMax saves its sender reputation a potential hit by not following through on the subscription request.

"We're not losing people who would have confirmed if their name hadn't popped up. These are addresses we shouldn't be mailing in the first place," Wolf said.

Within the first month of this campaign, Wolf said the team discovered almost 5% of the total confirmation emails going out they "did not want to be sending," and that group came from external subscription offer placements.

Step #2. Investigate sources with a high percentage of bad names

"If we have a source that has an inordinately high percentage of bad names, we know we have to investigate that source," Wolf said.

This has become an important step in the process, because it allows the team to potentially correct the problem, instead of constantly having to fix it.

"If we're getting a lot of bad traffic from a source, something's wrong there. We probably don't want to be doing business there," he said.

In other instances, when looking into sources providing ArcaMax a majority of good names, the team discovered what practices in outside sources work best — for instance, some sites were already doing validation themselves.

In some cases, Wolf said, its network passes a sub ID allowing the team to look individually at a source and filter out the placements within it they don't want to receive subscribers from.

"We're able to say 'sources A, B and C are good, but D, E, and F are not good and we don't want any of their traffic, but we want more of the good traffic' — helping us optimize our ad buy with them," he said.

Generally, Wolf said, if they find more than 1% of the requests are not good, "we look at it more carefully. There are typos, there are things that happen, but we just found that you could stratify the results."

Wolf listed one source had close to 10% of the traffic was being flagged by the system, "and we ended up cancelling that campaign because we realized, OK, something is wrong here."

Step #3. Manage expectations

A big part of the process of reviewing the sources is about managing expectations, and tracing a subscriber's path to an ArcaMax subscription.

"Successful email is all, ultimately, about permissions. It's setting proper expectations with the reader and then fulfilling those expectations," Wolf said.

In some cases, he said, the newsletter doesn't match up with the site it is being offered on.

"There are going to be some placements where the recipient is clear, the permission is strong, they really want our newsletter, it's relevant to what they're doing on that website, and we fulfill their expectations … those are going to be great subscribers," he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, he added, if "the conditions aren't ideal … we're going to get a lower confirmation."

There are many factors to investigate for a mismatched experience, and in evaluating a partnership source.

"Sometimes, it's a function of how are people getting to that site. Maybe the people on that site aren't having a good experience, or there's fraudulent traffic. There’s so many things … it's still the Wild West out there in many regards," Wolf said.

There has to be a natural flow of events, he said. A problem can be that "the funnel, the thought sequence, doesn't really take place on one landing page. It takes place in all these disparate pieces."

There are "a lot of different pieces, and a lot of them are out of our control," Wolf said. In some cases, ArcaMax may be working with a network where they initially don't know the ultimate website where it is being placed.

Flagging and investigating these sources has been a way to take back some control and optimize the system, he said.


The biggest impact from this campaign, Wolf said, is "it changed my thinking about the role that our confirmation traffic has on our overall deliverability."

He amended his thinking that it was enough for ArcaMax to just send confirmation emails.

"That made us the good guys already … I think we've saved ourselves some trouble over the years. I didn't realize how much of an issue it really was that we were … sending 20,000 to 40,000 bad emails a month."

The expectation for ArcaMax's future is that, "30,000 emails that you shouldn't be sending is too many, and you need to do what you can to fix that," he said.
  • Validated 700,000 address, and flagged 30,000 per month.

  • Stopped an average of 1,000 invalid emails per day.

  • Identified between 2-5% of new subscription requests every month from certain sources contained invalid or undeliverable addresses.
"How much better off are we because four percent of our confirmation traffic isn't going out the door anymore? I can't tell you," Wolf said. "We don't have a golden ticket into the inbox with every email we send … but just intuitively if we can avoid sending thousands of bad emails every month into the world … it can only be a good thing," he said.

ArcaMax still has to stick to the rest of its practices meant to protect against hard bounces and preserve its sender reputation to ensure its emails are delivered to its 1.5 million subscribers.

"From a business standpoint, it's just a level of responsibility. I don't want our name out there on email people don't want to be receiving," he concluded.


ArcaMax Publishing

LeadSpend — ArcaMax's email validation vendor

Related Resources

Email Deliverability: Only 39% of marketers maintain an opt-in only subscriber list

Email Marketing How-to: What to do once they've subscribed

Email Marketing: How to sprinkle subscribers with a well-timed welcome in 5 steps

Marketing Research Chart: Improving email deliverability

Marketing Research Chart: Capture subscribers with top list building tactics

Webinar Replay — How-To: Best Serve Email Subscribers Through the Entire Customer Lifecycle

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