September 05, 2007
If your email is getting filtered, it might not be the content but your reputation that needs overhauling. We got the lowdown on steps you should implement to fix and maintain a good email reputation.
Includes an eight-point checklist so you can start a new program the right way and a list of useful resources, helpful tools, checklists and links.
If your firm’s email is being filtered, it may have more to do with your charted reputation with individual ISPs and email receivers than it does with your content. In the ever-evolving world of email marketing, reputation management remains a critical aspect to getting your commercial messages delivered to your intended audience.
If your deliverability rate is low (anything below 90%-95% seems unacceptable), don't panic. Reputation problems occur with almost every business, but email marketers can improve their reputation and, in some cases, quickly regarding:
#1. Maintaining a good reputation
#2. Fixing a bad reputation
#3. Starting a new program off cleanly (Reputation Management 101)
To provide answers for these scenarios, we gathered a panel of four industry leaders:
o George Bilbrey, VP & GM of Delivery Assurance, Return Path’s Sender Score Division
o Chip House, VP Marketing Services, ExactTarget
o Spencer Kollas, Director Delivery Services, StrongMail
o J.F. Sullivan, VP Marketing, Habeas Inc.
Monitoring Your Reputation - List of Resources
First, here is a list of resources to help you monitor your reputation. These apply to all three scenarios listed above and more. Make sure your IT people are familiar with these resources immediately.
- Feedback loops. ISPs can put together lists of subscribers who complained by hitting the “report spam” button. Among the ISPs offering feedback loops are Yahoo!, Hotmail, AOL, United Online, Road Runner and USA.net.
- Microsoft’s Smart Network Data Services. This service provides a summary of how each of your IP addresses looks to Hotmail.
- Filtering company reputation sites, such as Ironport’s Senderbase and Ciphertrust’s Trusted Source service.
- Companies like Return Path, Pivotal Veracity and others offer services that rate reputation with a score or a number indicating how “spammy” the email stream looks to receivers.
7 Tips to Maintain a Good Reputation
George Bilbrey, VP & GM, Return Path’s Sender Score Division, shares these seven tips to maintain a good email reputation:
Tip #1. Avoid changing your IP address. Brand-new IP addresses with no volume history are subject to limits, or throttling, and more stringent reputation thresholds.
Tip #2. Regularly review your reputation data across a broad set of sources. Here are the types of data you should keep an eye on:
o Complaint rates (how often recipients identify your email as spam)
o Unknown user rates (how many bad email addresses you attempt to send to)
o Spam trap hits (how often your email is sent to an address set up to catch unrequested mail)
o Infrastructure issues (how your system is configured to send email)
Tip #3. Before making any significant changes to your program -- particularly to the type of content sent or the frequency of sending -- test the changes with a small portion of the list and measure your complaint rate. If the new emails draw more complaints than usual for your program, rethink your strategy. Something as simple as changing a “From” address can cause a spike in complaints.
Tip #4. Quarantine data. You can isolate email sent to newly acquired addresses from a separate server until you can determine its quality. If the data shows higher than average hard bounces, draws a lot of spam complaints or generates spam-trap hits, get rid of it or, at the very least, don’t move it over to your “good” server.
Tip #5. Be vigilant about your unsubscribe process. Getting opt-outs off the list as quickly as possible is key to minimizing complaints. Test your process on a regular basis (ideally, before each send) to ensure that it works. Also, be sure to process feedback loop complaints and remove them from your list before every send.
Tip #6. Once you’ve signed up for the feedback loops, pull complainers -- those who hit the “report spam button” -- off your list right away.
Tip #7. It’s important to manage unknown users. Take regular looks at the percentage of messages sent that could not be delivered at receiving mail servers because the user doesn’t exist.
If there’s a problem, you can address it in two ways.
- Make sure you are removing unknown users from your list (note: the rules for when you should pull these users off your list vary some by ISP).
- Give users as many chances as possible to provide an up-to-date address. For users with “bad” addresses, you can include Web site messaging, such as “Hey, give us your new email address!”
9 Strategies to Fix a Bad Reputation
Strategy #1. Consider running a third-party assessment that analyzes your infrastructure, your practices, ESP/affiliate relationships and external sources of information. Numerous third-party tools exist that can give you tasks to act on.
Strategy #2. If the data shows an unknown-user problem, clean your list. Make sure that your bounce classification rules can find unknown users and pull them.
Strategy #3. If the data shows you’re getting caught up in spam traps (see hotlink below for definition), here are three solutions:
I. The quick, easy fix: Immediately stop mailing “inactives”
“Our experience is that a quick fix for spam traps that frequently works is to find ‘inactive’ parts of your list that have little economic value,” Bilbrey says. “Stop mailing those parts of the database and check [your] data sources to see if you are still hitting spam traps. If not, you will know where the spam traps reside.”
II. The prudent fix: Localize spam traps
This takes more time and IT work, but localizing spam traps is altogether necessary for some emailers. Segment your list by several dimensions (data source, click/open activity level and vintage are the dimensions that seem to work best).
Send each combination of these dimensions -- starting with inactive addresses first -- through a unique IP address to see which ones hit spam traps (by reviewing some of the data sources above). “In many cases, the segment of addresses identified is small enough to suppress those addresses from future mailing with little or no economic impact,” Bilbrey says.
III. The painful fix: Re-permission your list
We know. Ugh. But, Bilbrey says that one thing that always works in eliminating spam traps is to re-permission your list -- send a message that says: “If you want to keep receiving these messages, click this link.” Then, mail only those subscribers who click. While this fool-proof method eliminates spam traps, it also will most likely result in a loss of subscribers, so it's best used as a last resort.
Strategy #4. Look at your program from the subscriber point of view. Bilbrey explains that the likeliest cause of a bad reputation is a high complaint rate, so inspect your email program, end to end, to see where you might be setting poor expectations. For one thing, make your offers clear.
As an example, subscribers sometimes don’t understand what they are signing up for. Or they think they are signing up for one type of email (say, a newsletter) but get something different (like weekly sales announcements). Then they tend to complain.
Chip House, VP Marketing Services, ExactTarget, says cross-promotions are a complaint driver to be wary of. “It is similar to relevance, but specific to marketers who believe that their subscribers won’t notice that they continually promote other companies’ products. They will, and they will complain.”
Strategy #5. Make the unsubscribe process as quick and easy as possible. For example, don’t make subscribers sign in to unsubscribe. In fact, Bilbrey explains, give them multiple options to opt out: through email, on site and even by phone. The easier you make the process, the less likely you are to generate complaints related to subscribers feeling like they have no other choice but to get off your list.
Strategy #6. Allow recipients to opt out -- quickly! The CAN-SPAM Act might permit you 10 days to take addresses off your list, but subscribers will be far less understanding.
Strategy #7. If you are getting blacklisted (or “blocklisted”), it can also be due to *identity* issues that you can repair. Here are some things than can cause your identity to go bad:
o Incorrect records
o Sender authentication configuration issues
o Basic DNS setup problems
“Many blocklists will list you because the original problem is stemming from a miscommunication about your identity,” says J.F. Sullivan, VP Marketing, Habeas. “This is actually good news if you are a good sender. The more widely used and popular the blocklist, the more automated, supported and accountable the blocklist is in maintaining their service.”
Strategy #8. Keep an updated action plan. For instance, make sure your automated repairs are at the top of the list; IT problems can be addressed quickly in comparison to changes in people’s perceptions. This plan will also help manage your cross-organization functions that may be contributing to and/or suffering from the reputation problem.
Strategy #9. Remember to set up your instrumentation properly so you can see exactly what’s going on. Few things are more frustrating than finding out you have a reputation problem, working long hours to fix it and then wondering if it is resolved. You should establish your baselines and measurement criteria before you do anything.
Reputation Management 101: 8-Step Checklist for Newbies
Do you think that everybody and their dog have been email marketing for 10 years? The truth is that you may be one of an incredible number of manufacturing and wholesale marketers still getting their feet wet.
So, here is some Reputation Management 101 intelligence for the newbie set from Spencer Kollas, Director Delivery Services, StrongMail Systems:
Step #1. Set up your system with all the current authentication methods, including SPF, Sender ID, Domain Keys and DKIM (see hotlinks below for definitions).
Step #2. Sign up for all available whitelists.
Step #3. Sign up for all available feedback loops.
Step #4. Use a seed-listing tool to regularly monitor where your mail is delivered.
Step #5. Start slowly. Some ISPs put throttles on the amount of mail a new IP can send as a way to help fight spam. With the ISP not knowing anything about a new IP, they are initially more cautious with the amount of mail they let through.
Step #6. Review your reports to see if there are any major issues before you launch your next email campaign.
Step #7. Test templates. Make sure your templates are still appearing the way you expect them to, and that they aren't affected by a new IP address.
Step #8. If you are changing your “From” address, make sure to send out a notification to your customers before the change. This way, they can add the new address to their address book, and you are more likely to get into their inbox.
Useful links related to this article
More Sherpa articles on deliverability --
- Top 13 Takeaways from the Authentication & Online Trust Alliance summit:
- Three Steps Tested by a Real-Life Marketer: https://www.marketingsherpa.com/article.html?ident=29852
Learning tools --
Email deliverability blogs:
Definition of a spam trap:
Definition of Sender ID:
Learn about DKIM:
SPF information site:
AOL Postmaster site:
Reputation management sources (in alpha order) --
Ciphertrust’s Trusted Source service:
Return Path’s Sender Score:
Sender Score reputation network:
United Online’s reputation management page:
Windows Live/Hotmail postmaster site:
Windows Live Postmaster SNDS page:
Homepages of sources --