October 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

The new obstacles to e-mail delivery

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The same principle applies when a retailer collects e-mail addresses in a store, offering a gift as a lure to sign up. If the gift is given on the spot, the consumer might give a phony e-mail address-which will then cause the sender’s e-mail to bounce and hurt the retailer’s e-mail reputation.

A better way to get a valid e-mail address is to offer to e-mail the consumer a coupon, says Austin Bliss, president of FreshAddress.

“Some retailers have done promotions saying, ‘Give me your e-mail address and I’ll give you a free tube of lipstick,’” Bliss says. “That’s not nearly as good as saying, ‘I’ll send you a coupon for a tube via e-mail,’ because then they’ll be more careful about the e-mail address they give because they want to receive that offer.”

Warn customers before changing ‘from’ addresses

E-mail is almost certain to go through if a consumer has added a company’s e-mail address to her address book, and ISPs typically enable images on such whitelisted e-mail as well. That’s why it’s important for retailers changing the address from which they send e-mail to notify customers and ask them to update their address books.

Blair Corp., which sells apparel and home furnishings online and through catalogs, recently sent three e-mails to customers advising them of the impending change and asking them to update their address lists so that they can “keep receiving our e-mail specials.” When the change was made, Blair highlighted it at the top of the first e-mail and again included an update reminder.

Blair changed its e-mail address because its old address, blair@blair.messages2.com, had been provided by a previous e-mail service provider. When it switched to Yesmail the company needed a new address and chose one, blair@e.blair.com, that is a sub-domain of Blair.com. That way it will be able to continue to use the same e-mail address if it changes e-mail service providers in the future, says Darren Schott, senior director of e-commerce.

This kind of advance warning of a changing e-mail address is a new and welcome development, says White of the Email Experience Council. “That’s something a year ago we didn’t see at all,” he says. He notes that cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma also recently sent out e-mails to customers with a note about a new e-mail address and a request that it be added to the customer’s contact list.

“Whitelisting is extremely powerful because it means those permissioned e-mails are going to automatically go to your inbox and have images turned on in most cases,” he says. Many ISPs and e-mail software clients automatically turn off images unless the sender is in the recipient’s address book.

This kind of communication is easy and essentially free, White says. “You just need to communicate with your subscribers,” he says. “It doesn’t involve going to the ISPs or anything complicated.”

White says more online retailers are using the welcome e-mails they send to consumers who sign up for more information to encourage whitelisting. In a recent survey of 122 online retailers, 62% asked that their e-mail addresses be added to the recipient’s address book versus 49% last year.

Take advantage of the e-mail consumers do open

The e-mail consumers open most often from retailers are the messages that confirm orders or shipments. A good way to get marketing messages through is to include them-in a limited way-in those transactional e-mails.

“Your delete rates are almost nonexistent and your open rates are through the roof, so why not take a portion of it and include marketing?” says Tricia Robinson-Pridemore, vice president of market and product strategy at e-mail service provider StrongMail Systems Inc. 75% of consumers open and read transactional e-mails frequently or very often versus 45% viewing other commercial e-mails they have requested.

As long as no more than a third of the e-mail contains promotional material it still qualifies as transactional e-mail under the U.S. Can-Spam act of 2003 that governs commercial e-mail, Robinson-Pridemore says. Unlike promotional e-mail, transactional e-mail need not be identified as advertising or include an unsubscribe link.

Petco is planning to add marketing messages to its order confirmation e-mails early next year as it moves to a service provider that can add HTML code, including images, to those transactional e-mails, which now are plain text. “It’s a great opportunity to reach out one more time or promote other products,” Lazarchic says. “In text it’s hard to get across; by moving to HTML it becomes a better marketing channel.”

Consider certification services

Companies like Return Path and Habeas Inc. work with marketers to ensure reputable e-mailing practices and grant them certification that some ISPs rely on in assessing a mailer’s reputation. A new certification service, CertifiedEMail from Goodmail Systems Inc., went live late last year and now is recognized by seven of the top 10 U.S. ISPs, the company says.

Petco went live with CertifiedEMail in September, in part encouraged by a test last fall in which click-through rates went up 38% on the e-mails that carry a blue CertifiedEMail ribbon icon across the top.

Lazarchic hopes the icon will convey that Petco’s e-mails are safe, whereas “e-mails from another pet supply retailer without that icon may or may not be.” He plans to use Petco’s newsletter to educate customers about the significance of the blue ribbon icon.

To be approved for Goodmail, a marketer’s complaint rate must stay below 22 complaints per 1,000 messages. Mailers are charged a quarter cent per message sent, says David Atlas, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Goodmail.

Some skeptics wonder if a mailer that has such a low complaint rate needs a certification service. Atlas points out that not only are Goodmail-certified e-mails guaranteed delivery, images are enabled and they also are not subjected to ISPs’ spam filters. That means marketers are free to use words like “free” and “discount” that might raise warning flags otherwise.

Authenticate yourself

In the last few years ISPs have nearly all adopted technologies that let companies authenticate their e-mail servers, so that the ISPs know that messages are not coming from spammers spoofing legitimate domains. While none of these technologies is expensive to deploy, retailers must keep track of which of the four competing authentication systems is used by each mailbox service.

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