Doran Robinson previously worked for healthcare information technology vendor athenahealth.
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Regardless of how creative retailers are with subject lines or e-mail content, it means little if their message does not get delivered to the inbox or ends up categorized as bulk or unimportant e-mail. The guardians of consumers' e-mail inboxes, such as Yahoo, MSN, Google and AOL, which are often called by e-mail marketing experts Internet service providers from the days when e-mail and Internet access services were linked, are continually changing the ways they rate the reputations of bulk e-mail senders, including retailers. Engagement with e-mail—opens, clicks, replies and so forth—is starting to play a bigger part in terms of inbox placement, which means that retailers must get more timely, targeted and relevant for success.
"Before, if a retailer sent messages over a clean IP and had a low rate of complaints, they pretty much landed in the inbox, but now the ISPs are trying to reduce inbox clutter and make it easier for consumers to digest their messages," says Bronto's Gregory. "Retailers need to start focusing on building out lifecycle marketing in order to successfully speak to consumers at the right time in the right way."
Other ways retailers can improve delivery rates is avoiding sudden changes in e-mailing patterns. A retailer that regularly sends 100,000 messages per e-mail campaign will most likely receive a red flag from ISPs if the merchant suddenly starts sending to 1 million e-mail addresses. The inbox providers may block the campaign as a result.
"Communication is a part of maintaining a good relationship with ISPs, and letting them know in advance of sudden increases in campaign volume or frequency is a best practice," says BlueHornet's Ju. "Retailers should also make sure their e-mail service provider does not reuse an IP address that is also used by highly aggressive marketers, as that can raise a red flag."
It's also advisable to put an e-mail campaign through an automatic spam checker that flags keywords in the subject line and main body that may be blocked by an ISP's spam filter. "Using an e-mail marketing system that stays up to date with the latest spam definitions is vital, because avoiding the latest spam definitions ensures a higher delivery rate," says Buzzeo of Ability Commerce. "The same goes for size limits because some spam filters will block e-mails over a certain size."
Steps should also be taken to scrub e-mail lists, especially when retailers are collecting consumer e-mail addresses in-store at the checkout or customer service counter. All too often e-mails collected under these circumstances are incorrectly entered into the e-mail database, leading to bounced e-mails that damage the retailer's reputation with the ISPs.
"Verify the address before the customer walks away and have keyboard tabs that auto-fill ISP addresses such as @aol to help reduce data entry errors," says Experian CheetahMail's Bergman.
Once these best practices are mastered, retailers can focus on how to integrate their e-mail campaigns with their other marketing efforts, particularly those in the increasingly vital areas of social media and mobile commerce.
"Syncing e-mail campaigns with marketing campaigns in other channels is the next step for e-mail," says Berg-man. "E-mail remains a powerful tool, and using it to build on marketing messages in other channels will make it even more powerful."