August 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: E-mail marketers raise the performance bar

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“Marketing partners need to follow best practices when it comes to opt-in mailings, because their mailing strategies can impact the retailer,” says Deutsche. “If partner mailings hit spam traps or get their URL blocked by the ISP then separate mailings from the retailer that use the same URL that appeared in a blocked message as a link can also get blocked.”

Beware the spam trap

Detecting spam traps requires testing of an e-mail list. E-mail marketing experts recommend creating seed mailing lists for each ISP used to deliver messages. The addresses in the list can be monitored to see how the message appears to the ISP and to the customer when finally opened. The seed list can be addresses of employees or consumers that have agreed to be part of the trial.

The practice provides insights into the characteristics that earn an e-mail the classification of spam from ISPs and consumers. “It can be a specific keyword, a broken link or image that does not appear that gets the message tagged as spam,” says Message Systems’ Abel.

Knowing why a message bounced or was blocked makes it possible to categorize the reason it was not delivered, such as the customer’s inbox is full, the address was invalid or the message was marked by the ISP as spam. Message Systems has 20 categories for undelivered messages.

“Once the retailer knows the reason the message was not delivered, they can take action to correct delivery issues based on the value or projected value of the customer, such as contacting them through another channel to verify the e-mail address or getting another address,” adds Abel. “It is important for retailers to know how ISPs view their e-mail marketing, because it makes it easier to develop a good reputation with the ISP so mail can get through.”

Testing can also reveal the format in which e-mail marketing messages appear. About 60% of all e-mail applications will automatically disable images embedded in an e-mail when opened as a security precaution, according to EmailLabs’ Pollard. This is true of Microsoft Outlook, one of the most popular e-mail applications. The culprit is cascading style sheets, which are commonly used for displaying images on web sites, but when detected by an e-mail application get blocked due to lack of recognition.

Checking formats

To compensate, retailers can include a message that appears directly below the subject line that states some images may have been blocked and to click on this message line to view the images. Even better is to include a few words about what the images are to further encourage the customer to take the extra step needed to view them.

“Letting the customer know they can’t see images in the e-mail when it is opened positively impacts the brand and prevents the message from being deleted or routed directly to the spam box,” says Pollard. “If a message looks like spam, it will be treated like spam.”

EmailLabs interfaces with 40 ISPs so retailers can see the formatting of their messages to improve recognition rates and determine which e-mails are being delivered into the inbox and which are being inappropriately blocked or filtered to a bulk folder

EmailAdvisor, a recently added feature, audits message appearance, content, inbox delivery, blacklisting, and real-time ISP delivery problems to minimize undeliverable or improperly formatted messages. Retailers can view how their message will appear and where it will end up in the 35 most popular e-mail applications prior to sending.

Retailers can even check messages against common spam filters and run them against more than 150 blacklists to determine potential spam triggers and which ISPs are filtering e-mail, as well as identify when an ISP is experiencing delays in distributing mail to ensure timely delivery.

Know all the restrictions

“With all the restrictions ISPs have in place that impact deliverability and how a message is viewed, retailers need to know them all,” says Pollard, who adds that it is best for retailers to focus on the three or four ISPs with the largest subscriber bases for distribution. Doing so makes it easier to manage best practices for each ISP.

At the very least, testing is an inexpensive way for retailers to find out what works and what doesn’t, according to ExactTarget’s House. “The low cost of testing e-mail campaigns makes it easier to hit customers with a message to which they are likely to respond at a time when they are likely to respond to it and improves the retailer’s credibility with the customer,” House says.

To help retailers design effective e-mails, ExactTarget’s design and deployment team works with retailers to create e-mail templates and campaign management plans.

Still, no matter how responsive most customers are to e-mail marketing, there will come a time when they want to opt out. Since retailers cannot predict when that will occur, best practices dictate that e-mail messages contain a method for opting out of the list at any time and provide options for other ways to receive information from the retailer.

“Eventually, customers will desire to opt out of the mailing list, so it is best to let them know they have choices for other communications channels through which to receive information, such as RSS feeds,” says Pollard. “It is just as important to be professional in the opt-out process as it is in the opt-in process.”

Learning mobile

One emerging communications channel that few retailers leverage in their e-mail marketing strategies is sending to mobile phones. The barrier is formatting the data to the smaller screen size. The smaller screen is less conducive to multiple images and large blocks of text, yet many retailers attempt to use the same web-designed HTML pages for sending to mobile devices, even though the format of the message may not be supported by the mobile device, according to Exact Target’s House.

To compensate, some retailers send simple text messages with no graphics. The downside to that strategy is consumers will mark a promotional message spotted on their phone to be opened later on their PC, only to find no graphics when viewed on the PC.

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