October 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

The new obstacles to e-mail delivery

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For that reason it makes sense to look at other data before deciding to strike someone from an e-mail list for not opening e-mail. Pet supplies retailer Petco Animal Supplies Inc. checks to see if a customer has made a purchase or visited the site-registered users would be identified by cookies-before concluding the individual has lost interest, says John Lazarchic, vice president of e-commerce.

Eventually, he says, Petco will cut back unresponsive customers from two or three e-mails a month to one a month and eventually one a quarter, but does not purge them from its list.

Watch your volume

Complaints also go up when consumers receive more mail than they expect from a retailer. ShopAtHome.com saw that this fall when it tested sending out more than its usual three e-mails per week maximum-complaints went up 12%, Muniz says.

Consumers have gotten more savvy about e-mail, she says. “They know how to hit the spam button and unsubscribe, and if we overmail they will do that,” she says.

The ISPs also monitor the volume of e-mail coming from a particular sender and the number of connections each mailer is making to the ISP at any one time. Each ISP has its own limits, which can change-and which the ISPs rarely publicize because they don’t want spammers to know the rules. ShopAtHome.com, for instance, found its e-mail blocked by MSN earlier this year; after reducing the number of simultaneous connections to MSN from 200 to 50 the mail flow resumed, Muniz says.

She says her company now sets its e-mail servers to send out e-mail blasts in spurts to MSN-sending 1,000 then taking a break for a minute and sending out another thousand. “If we have not set it up properly they’ll go out of the e-mail servers as fast as they can,” she says. “That’s when we get in trouble with MSN.”

Don’t surprise the ISPs

Besides tracking a sender’s reputation, ISPs also track volume, and are most likely to allow in e-mail that’s in line with previous volumes. “Sending from the same IP address with consistent volumes and frequencies month after month is ideal,” Microsoft advises.

ISPs are getting more aggressive in monitoring e-mail from new IP addresses, says Bilbrey of Return Path, because they know spammers often hopscotch from one IP address to another to keep their mail coming through. That means legitimate mailers have to be careful when they move an e-mail server or switch e-mail service providers, because that will change their IP address and result in closer scrutiny from the ISPs.

A retailer planning to change its IP address should “warm up” the new address by sending smaller volumes of mail, Bilbrey says, then gradually move more mail to the new IP address as that address becomes known by the ISPs.

The warm-up process also comes into play when retailers outsource their e-mail delivery to a third party. Increasingly, mailers are demanding their own IP address that is not shared with any other mailers whose practices could damage the reputation of that address, says Russell McDonald, CEO of iPost, an e-mail service provider.

But, because “a new IP address is guilty until proven innocent,” delivery rates may go down initially from the new address, McDonald says. To avoid that, iPost sends small volumes of e-mail initially from the new address and shifts the bulk of the mail to the new IP address over three to six months.

Determine the right number of IP addresses

Some marketers send all e-mail from a single IP address, others from several. There are advantages to each approach.

Petco has used for years the same IP address for all its newsletter and marketing e-mails, Lazarchic says. That way a consumer need add only one address to an address book to receive all e-mails from the retailer, he says.

Another advantage of using a single IP address is that consumers are less likely to report an e-mail as spam when they recognize the “from” address. In a study last December by Ipsos for the Email Sender and Provider Coalition, 73% of consumers said they base the decision on whether to hit the spam button in part on who sent the e-mail.

But a third of major online retailers send e-mail from two or more addresses, according to a survey of 95 e-retailers by the Email Experience Council, part of the Direct Marketing Association. In some cases, the addresses were tied to sub-brands, for instance Lillian Vernon and Lilly’s Kids e-mails coming from different addresses.

Another reason for using more than one IP address is to make sure that transactional e-mail, such as order and shipping confirmations, are not blocked because the reputation of an IP address has been damaged by marketing e-mail, says Barry Abel, vice president of field operations at e-mail software vendor Message Systems.

“Transactional e-mail is of extremely high value, and there is a high risk to a company’s reputation and opportunity for repeat business if those mails are not going through,” he says.

Dividing e-mail among several IP addresses, also reduces the volume on each, reducing the likelihood any will be blocked by ISPs, he says.

Be careful when collecting e-mail addresses

Marketers are sometimes so anxious to add to their e-mail list that they offer incentives so appealing that consumers will sign up even if they don’t really want to receive e-mails from that retailer. Those individuals are likely to eventually hit the spam button, damaging the mailer’s reputation.

“In general you want to avoid sweepstakes where the prize will attract freebie-seekers who don’t really want your newsletter but are signing up for a shot at the prize,” wrote Chad White, director of retail insights and editor-at-large of the Email Experience Council in a recent report. White notes that only 9% of online retailers studied this year offered incentives to consumers who sign up for e-mail versus 27% last year.

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