April 08, 2005
Case Study

Clever Tactics to Update Bad Addresses on Your Email List More Easily (Slashes Your Bounce Rate)

SUMMARY: Does every single name in your email database really matter? Perhaps you're in a tight niche marketplace, or you run a paid subscription newsletter. Whatever the reason, here's an idea you should steal from Duke's Alumni Affairs department. Instead of simply wiping bad email addresses from their files, Duke invented a three-step automated process to turn bad names back into a good ones. Yes, includes creative samples.
"I'm always nervous about sending out 72,000 emails. We go through many iterations of testing each newsletter issue to ensure nothing fails," says Jeff Garner, Director of Technology for Duke University Alumni Affairs.

Between the Duke name and the great content the editorial team puts together, Duke's alumni newsletter gets an average 49% unique open rate (59% if including multiple opens).

Instead of being ecstatic, Garner was downcast. Why? The newsletter, which is only sent every two months (calendared between issues of a sibling print magazine), was getting an average 19% hard bounce rate.

With job changes, household moves, and other factors, Duke's alumni changed email addresses so frequently that the list itself was in dire danger. Unlike most marketers, Garner couldn't solicit new names from outside sources. He had to make this one list work.

Garner created a three-step process to update bad email addresses, and then he automated it as much a possible to take the burden off limited staff resources.

Step #1. Sort through bounces

Garner asked his email services provider for detailed bounce reports that included each bad address, along with specifics on the bounce reason. Although there are literally dozens of bounce reasons, most can be sorted with experience into categories to determine which are soft (address presently unavailable) and which are hard (truly bad addresses).

Naturally Garner immediately purged the hard bouncers from the list to keep it as clean as possible (which makes a big difference in the way ISPs' spam filters view you as a mailer).

However, he carefully kept the purged names on a separate not-to-be-mailed list to continue working on.

Step #2. Contact a secondary address

Like many large organizations, Duke University has a lot of databases and lists in which information about an alumni might be kept. Garner brought data from the siloed lists together into one main database as much as possible and created one record per individual.

Often that record had two or more email addresses recorded per person (which makes sense given how many addresses the average person has). When this was the case, Garner's system would automatically send out a special message to secondary email addresses.

"It says we tried to send you something recently but your other email address [insert email here] failed. Please take a minute and go to the Duke Alumni Directory online and update your address."

(It's worth noting that Garner didn't simply start sending mail to the alternate address. He waited until he had proactive permission to do so. That's definitely a permission best practice.)

Because Duke alumni have a wide variety of computer comfort, Garner's team gave Online Alumni Directory visitors their choice of two distinct paths:

-> For computer newbies: step-by-step instructions including screenshots of what the sign-up process looked like

-> For advanced users: a cut-to-the-chase version

Both versions prominently featured a direct phone number to Garner's department for help. (This is something we almost never see in online registration forms.) "We have to be as customer friendly as possible," Garner explains, "We're in the business of developing relationships. It's our responsibility to make this as easy to use as possible."

Step #3. Send a printed postcard

If the owner of the bad email address doesn't check in to confirm a new address after a few days, Garner's system then automatically prints a street address label. He created a basic postcard to be sent in this case and prints 10,000 at a time to keep on hand. (Link to sample below.)

The Duke Alumni Affairs email newsletter hard bounce rate has plummeted from 19% to 1.4%-4%. Plus, the number of registered alumni has grown overall by 6,000 names over the past year.

"It's a closed loop process and it works really, really well," says Garner. "I've told other schools on campus about this and the medical center and law center adopted this same process. It's become a standardized University process."

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples of Duke's postcard, newsletter, and sign-up forms: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/duke/study.html

Bronto -- Duke Alumni Affairs' email services provider: http://bronto.com

Duke Alumni Affairs: http://www.dukealumni.com

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