April 12, 2011
How To

Email Deliverability: 6 tactics achieve near-perfect delivery rate for local deals site

SUMMARY: Deliverability is an especially large concern for marketers who rely on email for a majority of sales. If emails stop arriving, then the business stops earning. Delivery rates must be maintained and monitored.

This local deals website maintains near-perfect delivery rates by testing emails before they're sent, monitoring metrics and jumping on problems quickly. See how it sets subscribers' expectations from the outset and why this is critical.
(As seen in the MarketingSherpa Email Marketing newsletter. Click to subscribe)

by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

Email marketing is an important channel for Zozi. The deals website offers discounts on local activities such as kayaking and wine tasting. Well over half of its transactions are generated through email, says Ryan Morris, Director of Content, Zozi.

With so much riding on this channel, Morris and his team vigilantly monitor email delivery rates. After all, an email cannot generate a sale if it does not reach a subscriber. Furthermore, Zozi wants to ensure that subscribers receive the messages they were promised.

"We take this so seriously that if I see anything that's not exactly 100 percent deliverability then I am going to take action," Morris says. "We will research whether it was something we did or something that was different about that particular email."

Below, we explain the tactics Zozi uses to ensure near-perfect deliverability for its emails. Take a look to how you can improve and safeguard your own deliverability.

Tactic #1. Establish a proactive attitude

Rather than checking metrics as an afterthought, Morris' team analyzes emails before they are sent. Two tactics the team uses to test an email's deliverability:

- Send test emails to a seed list

A seed list contains email addresses maintained by your company. The list should have several addresses for each major email service (such as Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail) represented in your database.

You can send test emails to this list to check whether each internet service provider (ISP) places the email in the inbox or spam folder. You can also include this list in your regular email campaigns to monitor their placement after the fact.

Even though Morris' team recently started using a paid tool to monitor delivery rates and placement rates, it still maintains a seed list out of vigilance.

- Scan email with spam filter

Morris' team also uses a spam filter to scan its emails before sending them. The filter scores an email's likelihood of being marked as spam by an email service and points out factors that might contribute to the message landing in a junk folder.

"As the saying goes, one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Morris says.

Tactic #2. Set expectations and follow-through

When subscribers sign up for a newsletter, they are expecting to receive a certain type of information. If they start receiving a different type of information, they will be less likely to interact, more likely to click "junk," and the newsletters' performance will suffer.

This is why you must set very clear expectations when offering your newsletter. You must tell subscribers exactly what they'll receive by signing up. Then, you must follow-through on your promise by delivering the promised content at consistent times.

"Stepping outside the bounds of what your audience signed up for is an easy way to get a lot of unsubscribes and spam complaints," Morris says.

- Starts at the homepage

Zozi's emails strictly feature information on deals for activities in the subscriber's region. This expectation is set at the homepage, where above the fold, in bold text, it clearly states: "Zozi: deals on unique activities." A current deal and its image are also included.

Two other ways Morris' team sets subscribers’ expectations:

- Sign-up form

Zozi's registration form emphasizes that visitors are signing up to receive discounts on activities in their area. How it does this:

o Headline: "Incredible Activities. Amazing Discounts."

o Sub-headline: "Get up to 90% off the most unique experiences and activities near you!"

o Images featuring earlier deals

o Note next to email address form field: "We never spam"

- Welcome email

Subscribers receive a welcome email immediately after signing up for the newsletter. The message further sets expectations by:

o Listing common activities
o Featuring images of activities
o Linking to Zozi's site to see current offers

Tactic #3. Work with a proven template

Zozi has used a similar template for all its emails for many months, Morris says. The template has been consistently tweaked to ensure performance and deliverability.

"When you use a standardized template for a long time and it's had a lot of sends, then you know that 90 percent of the battle has been won," Morris says. "Very little can negatively impact us because we know that particular template is time tested. It draws very few spam complaints and unsubscribes."

Morris' team typically only sees drops in deliverability or performance when trying something new, he says. This makes problems easy to identify. For example, the team once tried linking to an image on a third-party site, which caused deliverability to plummet. But the problem was easy to identify and fix (see useful links below).

Tactic #4. Monitor metrics: diagnose problems immediately

Morris' team always monitors campaign performance. This includes tracking traditional metrics such as open rates and clickthrough rates, as well as metrics tied to deliverability, such as:

o Spam complaints
o Bounced emails
o Missing emails
o Spam filter scores

"In our business, our metrics are pretty rock steady," Morris says. "So when there is an outlier, we look into what may have caused that ... Seeing numbers shift up makes us just as attentive as seeing them shift down."

When the team sees a shift in the metrics, it looks to correlate the performance data with other metrics to try to identify the problem. For example, a large increase in bounced emails might be correlated with a small increase in a spam filter score. In such a case, the team would investigate why the spam filter score increased and if it could be the root cause of the issue.

- Monitor placement rates

As mentioned, Zozi uses a paid tool to monitor whether emails arrived in the inbox or junk folder, as well as other deliverability metrics. When problems with deliverability or performance arise, the team is able to cross reference metrics from this tool and Zozi's email service provider to help uncover the causes.

Tactic #5. Remove complainers and bounces

Repeatedly emailing subscribers who mark your email as spam will harm your reputation and deliverability rates, as will regularly emailing addresses that bounce.

It is important to establish a system for dealing with both responses. Here's how Zozi handles them:

- Immediately remove spam complainers

Subscribers can make "spam complaints" by clicking buttons in their email browsers to mark your messages as spam or junk. Marketers can typically track these complaints through their email marketing dashboards.

Zozi immediately removes from its database subscribers who mark its emails as spam or junk.

"We didn't implement that simply because it's best for us," Morris says. "We don't want to annoy them. If they are marking us as spam, it means they are not happy with what they are receiving, so let's go our separate ways."

- Five tries for bounces

A bounced email refers to a message that is rejected by a subscriber's server. There are two types of bounces:

o Hard bounces -- These messages have permanently failed to deliver. A common cause for a hard bounce is an invalid email address.

o Soft bounces -- These message have temporarily failed to deliver and the server may attempt to deliver them later. Common causes are that a subscriber's inbox is full or the mail server is temporarily down.

An email address that bounces a Zozi email five times will be removed from the company's database, whether they are hard bounces or soft bounces.

"Systems can sometimes have trouble distinguishing a vacation reply email," Morris says. "Sometimes that can be categorized as a bounce, but we don't want to lose that recipient. But if it bounces five times in a row, it's probably worthwhile to remove them."

Tactic #6. Plan to add more safeguards

Maintaining excellent deliverability will be an ongoing challenge for Zozi. Two steps Morris' team plans to take to further ensure that subscribers receive their emails:

- Reengagement campaigns

Recent developments, such as Gmail's Priority Inbox (see useful links below), have signaled that email services may be moving toward using engagement metrics to help determine senders' reputations. This would make it harder for marketers with many inactive subscribers to reach the inbox.

Zozi plans to design email campaigns to reach out to poor-performing subscribers to reengage them, in hopes of making them more active. This could help improve deliverability to some email services. In any case, it should help overall performance. A list with active subscribers is obviously more productive than a list that lacks them.

- Establish dedicated IP address

Email services typically use IP addresses for reference points when monitoring senders' reputations. If you share an IP address with other senders, then you share your reputation with them as well. You can ask your email service provider to find out whether your emails are sent from a dedicated or shared IP.

Morris' team is working to soon send from a dedicated IP address, and will be rigorously monitoring Zozi's sender reputation afterward. This will give the company more control over its reputation and avoid having its deliverability harmed by the actions of fellow senders.

Useful links related to this article

MarketingSherpa Webinar (Free to attend): Improve Email Deliverability: Tactics for Handling Complaints and Boosting Reputation -- (Thursday, April 21, 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. EDT)

Email Deliverability: Always test links that link to third-party sites

Members Library -- Webinar Replay: Top Tactics to Improve Relevancy and Deliverability

Members Library -- Email Marketing: FedEx increases deliverability and clickthrough rate with preference centers

Members Library -- Third-Party Links and Email Deliverability: 4 Tips to protect your reputation

Email Deliverability: Getting into Gmail's 'Priority Inbox'

Email Marketing: Improve deliverability by deleting subscribers?

Email Marketing: Your deliverability questions answered

Mail Monitor: Tool Zozi uses to test and track email deliverability


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