June 01, 2011
How To

Email Marketing: How Publishers Clearing House uses \"blacklisted\" words yet achieves a 99.2% delivery rate

SUMMARY: Sweepstakes with big prizes can capture a lot of attention, but are they the right way to grow your email list? If you use them improperly, they can add a lot of irrelevant and inactive subscribers to your database or threaten your deliverability with emails and subject lines packed with \"blacklisted\" words.

See how Publishers Clearing House is able to maintain a large and active email database, even while building its lists through sweepstakes. Check out the five tactics that drive their success and the higher clickthrough rate they achieve from very long emails.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

Publishers Clearing House is a known authority in sweepstakes and direct mail marketing. But, times have changed. The company still focuses on sweepstakes, but digital marketing channels have risen to prominence.

"We're very dependent on email to be successful," says Sal Tripi, Senior Director, Operations and Compliance, Publishers Clearing House. "Protecting that channel, to us, is something we invest very heavily in."

Publishers Clearing House (PCH) has millions of subscribers to its six email programs. Each program has a different theme related to winning sweepstakes and prizes. A typical email the company sends achieves:

o 99.2% inbox delivery, as audited by a third-party
o 30% to 40% of recipients clicking through

"We use our iconic sweepstakes to get consumers into our email program," says Josh Glantz, VP and General Manager, PCH Online. "There are a lot of marketers who would probably ask how we retain those customers if all they are interested in are sweepstakes."

Indeed, misusing sweepstakes to build an email database can result in a high number of irrelevant subscribers and poor performance. PCH's high-volume and high-performance email strategy, however, is based entirely on sweepstakes -- proving that giveaways can have a part in an effective program.

We sat down with Tripi and Glantz to better understand how an email program focused entirely on sweepstakes could be so effective. Here are the five tactics that drives their success.

Tactic #1. Take control of acquisition

PCH works with partners to help build its email database, but the company does not buy lists. Instead, partners are required to drive visitors to a PCH registration page.

"We do not acquire names other than by having them register on our acquisition pages," Tripi says. "We get a full name and address from all."

Visitors typically arrive on a PCH registration page to sign up for a sweepstakes. The page offers visitors the option to opt-in to receive information about additional sweepstakes from PCH and its partners.

- Choose partners wisely

PCH thoroughly vets potential partners. Companies are required to fill out a brief survey to list their business practices, IP addresses, domain names, and other information. PCH uses this information to research the company's email reputation among webmail providers and ISPs.

"We probably turn away more publishers than we accept when it comes down to it, because to us, the protection of our brand is more important than any quantity of new members," Tripi says.

Tactic #2. Focus on relevant content and value

People who sign up to receive emails from a company have various motivations. Some want to receive more information from a company they support. Others want to enter a sweepstakes the company is running.

The problem with sweepstakes is that they are not always relevant to a company's brand or email program. People who are trying to win a prize are not necessarily interested in an email newsletter. Such subscribers can drag down overall performance in a database.

"If you're running a sweepstakes or other promotion and you want to really drive success, the success does not just come from getting people to register and sign up," Glantz says. "The success is getting a relevant audience to sign up and opt into your email program and then be responsive."

PCH bypasses this issue by basing its emails entirely on sweepstakes. People who sign up for PCH's emails are doing so to enter a sweepstakes, and they can opt-in to receive information about more sweepstakes. PCH does not offer a typical "newsletter," Tripi says, just information about new opportunities to win.

- Highlight relevant value

A person filling out one of PCH's sweepstakes forms is obviously interested in winning prizes -- that's why they're on the page. PCH tailors its messages to this motivation when encouraging visitors to opt-in. Here's sample copy from one of its opt-in checkboxes:

"YES! I'd like to be informed about chances to win prizes instantly from PCH Search&Win. I know I can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the unsub link or the 'EZ Unsubscribe' seal in any email. Privacy Policy"

Tactic #3. Invest in testing and optimization

PCH has a long history of marketing optimization carried over from its decades as a high-volume direct mailer. The company has incorporated this testing culture into its email marketing. PCH has at least six people throughout the organization who are "totally isolated from any other regular duties just to execute tests and report," Tripi says.

"We spend an enormous amount of time, money and effort in testing and retesting We execute about 30 to 50 test emails or test segments every month just so we can really get our arms around what our consumers are saying."

When it comes to email, "nothing is assumed," Tripi says. The company tests emails' subject lines, timing, content, audience, and many other factors. They sometime uncover surprises.

"Most marketers say to keep emails nice and short with a big call to action. You know what? We found that absolutely is not the case with us. Our best performing emails probably contain 3,000 to 4,000 words and require the user to scroll down three fold," Tripi says.

Tactic #4. Ensure email delivery

Email marketers have been warned for years against sending emails about "prizes," "sweepstakes" and many of PCH's other key phrases. However, PCH maintains an average 99.2% inbox delivery rate despite using these terms.

Tripi highlighted several ways his team maintains this average:

- Multiple seed lists

Before sending a campaign, PCH's marketers send it to two seed lists to ensure the email renders correctly and is not blocked by popular spam filters. The marketers maintain a list of 40 accounts to receive test emails. They also use a third-party provider to maintain a list of about 400 seed accounts and monitor delivery.

- Clean the list

List hygiene is "critical" to PCH's deliverability, Tripi says. The company has screening systems for all incoming addresses to check them for typos and syntax errors. Also, inactive subscribers are routinely removed from the database. The period of inactivity varies across PCH's six email programs.

"No member will remain on our list beyond at the furthermost 90 days, at the shortest two weeks, without some sort of onsite engagement," Tripi says.

- Short- and medium-term analysis

PCH has signed up for complaint feedback loops from major ISPs and webmail providers, which report to PCH when a subscriber marks an email as spam.

PCH monitors these metrics and others for every campaign. It also aggregates subscriber engagement and complaint data over a four- to six-month period to look for any aberrations or slow-growing trends.

- Tactics mentioned above

The previous tactics mentioned in this article also contribute to PCH's high delivery rate. First, the marketers ensure only valid and relevant subscribers opt-in to the program. Second, they only deliver subscribers the information they were promised. Third, they constantly test emails and monitor metrics to ensure a high level of engagement.

Last, as you can see on this PCH registration form, the company makes it very clear in the check-box description that subscribers can opt-out at any time. This message is emphasized with two
"EZ Unsubscribe" badges. All of these tactics help ensure PCH's emails are delivered.

Tactic #5. Display relevant advertising

PCH does not buy third-party information about its subscribers, but the company is constantly learning about its audience. The information is gathered on a "first-party" basis, Tripi says, through registration forms, subscriber activity and surveys.

The marketers primarily use this information to segment their audience and offer relevant third-party advertising in emails. PCH is able to identify subscribers' interests (such as cooking, saving money, etc.), match them with relevant advertising partners, and deliver the most relevant ads.

The content in each of PCH's six email programs is not typically customized for subscribers' preference. However, the advertising in each email is always customized. This has the double benefit of sending subscribers more relevant offers, as well as connecting PCH's advertisers to more relevant subscribers.

Useful links related to this article


1. Registration page
2. Sample email

Members Library -- Monthly Contest Doubles Email List Size: 4 Steps to Attract Names that Convert

Members Library --
Webinar Replay: Improve Email Deliverability: Tactics for handling complaints and boosting reputation

Sherpa Chart: Top tactics organizations use to improve email relevancy

Email Marketing Tests: What to do when a radical change produces negligible results

Email Deliverability: Riddles answered on spam complaints, feedback loops, and dedicated IPs

Publishers Clearing House

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