April 25, 2012, 11:51 AM

Getting rid of the red “x” box in e-mail

The little red “x” no longer marks the spot in most e-mail sent by Ice.com.

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Ice.com Inc., a web-only jewelry retailer, relies on sparkling images of diamonds, gemstones, gold and silver to engage its customers. But getting such images delivered into the inboxes of e-mail recipients has never been easy because inbox providers like Yahoo, Hotmail and Comcast often treat images as spam. “If people aren’t viewing e-mails, it doesn’t matter what the e-mail sells,” says Evan Frank, the e-retailer’s director of customer relationship management.

Since joining an e-mail certification program last November, however, Ice, No. 242 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, has seen a noticeable increase in both the deliverability rate of marketing e-mail and the number of e-mails delivered with full product images instead of the little red-x boxes that commonly indicate missing images, Frank says. He declines to offer specific metrics.

But just as important, he adds, is not having to worry as much about whether marketing e-mails—product images and all—are hitting their targets. That has freed Ice to spend more time developing and testing the most effective e-mail campaigns to boost e-commerce sales. “Deliverability sounds basic, but it has more implications,” he says.

The certification program, from Return Path Inc., a provider of e-mail certification and reputation monitoring services,  has enabled Ice to ensure that more than half of its marketing e-mails are “whitelisted” by e-mail inbox providers and put on a special track designed to avoid junk or spam folders. Such e-mail is also approved to arrive in inboxes with full images because the certification identifies the e-mail as coming from a trusted sender.

The surge in the growth of e-mail over the past decade, Frank notes, created a dual problem for the companies that provide e-mail services to consumers. First, they ran the risk of forwarding annoying e-mail, often with objectionable images, that cluttered subscribers’ inboxes. Second, they wound up covering the cost of extensive infrastructure to handle and transport such heavy data content.

Certifying e-mail senders has enabled the service-mail providers to deal with that dual problem by ensuring they’re forwarding e-mail least likely to be objectionable, including e-mail with images, while still saving on e-mail transmission costs by x-ing out the images of other senders. Gmail.com and AOL don’t participate in Return Path’s certification program, using other measures instead.

Return Path uses information gathered through the e-mail providers and other sources, covering more than 60 million e-mail inboxes, to determine a “Sender Score” for each of its clients, indicating their level of compliance with e-mail sending rules. Return Path also provides Ice and other marketers a Mailbox Monitor service that highlights any deliverability issues a marketer may be having, such as whether their subject lines lead to their e-mail being treated as spam.

Marketers use such information to sharpen their e-mail tactics and maintain the standards of getting certified. To maintain a certification, an e-mail sender must constantly undergo reviews and meet certain thresholds, such as minimizing the number of spam complaints lodged by consumers, Frank says. 

Ice stays within such thresholds, he adds, by routinely giving e-mail recipients the option to request less frequent e-mails—an option selected for at least the past three years by about 10% of the retailer’s active e-mail recipients.

Taking such steps also makes it far less likely that e-mail recipients overwhelmed with too much e-mail will hit the “spam” button to block future e-mail from a retailer instead of taking the time to find and click an e-mail’s opt-out button. A high percentage of e-mail marked as spam brings down a marketer’s reputation with the e-mail services and makes it more difficult to get certified, Frank says.

E-mail marketing strategies will be discussed at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2012, where Loren McDonald, vice president, industry relations, at e-mail services provider Silverpop, will present the session “Bonus: Following the leaders: What the Internet Retailer Top 500 do well in e-mail marketing.

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