Email Deliverability – Getting To First Base

photo credit: ttarasiuk

Email is still the killer online marketing tactic, however, making sure your carefully crafted email gets through to the intended recipient, let alone read, is a real obstacle course.

Undelivered and bounced emails are the bane of most online marketers, and the reasons emails bounce can be endless and labyrinthine.

Given that email is still one of the most effective online marketing tools, it is well worth fine-tuning everything about your email campaigns to get the maximum return you can. (See Email is Still King of Online Marketing.)

Recently a fellow Goouze and Linkedin contact, Kathryn Millette, Internet Manager at R. G. Barry Corporation, asked why her latest email was triggering high spam scores and being bounced.

A quick look at Kathy’s email immediately revealed some obvious, but all too common problems. The following analysis of Kathy’s email has lessons for us all.

The Problems of Images

email newsletter

The very first thing that leaps out at me is that it contains large images and almost no text. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Spam filters usually assess an emails spam score by the amount of content/information/text it has relative to images, code and links. The high number of links under the main image and almost no text/content further compounds the problem.

The lower the ratio of text to the other items, the higher the spam score. The rationale goes something like this: Text or content is what’s relevant and useful to the recipient, the other stuff may not be.

There’s no set rule about what this ratio should be, but I would suggest you make sure you have more content than images, links and code.

Also using large images, lots of links and code tends to be symptomatic of the tactics used by spammers, and spam filters take this into account.

Having said that, the attraction of using large images, or many images, can’t be denied. Done well a picture is worth a thousand words and it’s effectiveness in instantly communicating a message is well established.

So as marketers we have to way up the response or conversion we get from using an image versus what we may lose through bounced emails.

Other issues with relying solely on large images:

email preview pane
  • i) Many people either have images deliberately turned off in their email client, or read their emails offline. Therefore, if the email relies solely on its image to communicate the message (as in Kathy’s case) then they simply aren’t going to see the message. This is a case for using proper alt tags or sending simple text versions of the email.
  • ii) A lot of email will be seen or read via the email preview pane. This means the image must communicate the offer and call to action within roughly a 600x 300-pixel space. Again, large images aren’t going to work within this type of restriction. This is where carefully constructing your email image and its message is vitally important.
  • iii) And of course, a growing number of people are viewing email via their mobile phones (cells) or PDA’s which completely destroys the layout.
  • iv) Different email clients treat images and html code differently, and usually pretty badly. (More on this below.)

HTML and Email Nightmares

The next thing I noticed about Kathy’s email is that it arrived with much of the html code stripped out, especially the header code. This is a highly common situation and one that all email marketers must pay particular attention to.

Basically, an email client is not an HTML web browser, and it won’t behave like one. Different email clients will do different things to your html from ripping out the headers to stripping out the css.

You just can’t assume your email is going to arrive and display the way you intended it.

There are however, a number of things you can do to reduce the likelihood of this happening.

Spam With Bacon
photo credit: srqpix

Make sure the html code of your email complies with W3C Standards and Accessibility Guidelines. I’ve written previously why this is important for websites on my blog, but it is 10 times more important for emails.

Most email clients don’t handle html that well, so anything that doesn’t comply with basic standards is going to cause problems.

Spammers use sloppy code, and spam filters use this to assess an email’s spam potential.

As mentioned previously, the ratio of code to text will also affect your spam score.

Finally, keep your code and css simple. If the email clients have a hard time dealing with basic html, don’t try and use fancy formatting and styling, it will only work against you.

If you are going to use css, then keep it simple and use an inline stylesheet. Kathy’s email does this to a point, but it also uses tables. By their nature, tables are inherently code heavy, and in this case also contain some style information. Careful use of div tags would have been better, and preferably no use of tables at all.

Test your emails in different email clients. Some service providers offer an option to do this for you, for a small fee.

Tips to Improve Email Deliverability

There are a few other tactics you can use to overcome some of the above problems.

  1. i) Link to an online version. I’m sure we’ve all seen those little links at the top of emails that say: “If you’re having trouble reading this email, view it online at http:….” So don’t forget to put one in.
  2. ii) Use the MIME option (text only). Most email campaign solutions offer a MIME option that will use some inbuilt “smarts” to allow the sending/reading of a text only version of the email for those email programs that have problems with html. (Especially if they view it on their mobile phones.)
  3. iii) When your customers sign up, give them the option of receiving a text only version of your newsletter. (This used to be common practice, but it seems to have died out recently.)

Other Email Delivery Problems and Solutions

List Churn

Around 30% of your list will be churned every year. People change jobs, hosting providers etc and correspondingly change their email addresses. Still others use disposable email accounts at Hotmail and Google deliberately to filter out any unwanted marketing emails. Still others will give you dummy email addresses.

What this means is you have to be ruthless in cleaning out your list. If you get known as a company that continually has a high bounce rate, then you are likely to be blacklisted. If you use a hosted service provider, they will most likely be on your case before this happens, as it’s their reputation that’s at stake as well.

So put in place procedures to monitor and clean your list after every campaign.

Also, make it easy for people to update their email addresses. Most people won’t bother updating all their details with you if they change emails. In fact, many list management and campaign services make it pretty hard, if not impossible to do this. So make it easy for your customers to update their details. Put an attractive link (invitation) in every email that allows them to update/change their details.

Some organisations have been known to scrap their entire lists and start again. They’ll usually send out a prior email saying: “We are updating our valued customer list. If you would like to continue to receive our great offers and valuable information, please click here.”

It might be considered a drastic step, but at least you end up with a clean list of customers who actually want to do some sort of business with you.

White Lists

Get yourself white listed (accredited). This can be somewhat involved, time consuming and costly, but basically you are flagged as an organisation of integrity that abides by best practice rules. And, presumably, more of your emails will get through.

Of course, you will have to consider the time and cost involved against the amount of extra business you are likely to get from having more of your emails get through.

Understand Corporate IT Managers

Understand that corporate IT managers are paranoid (no offence guys.). It’s their job to protect the company from any external threats, hacks, viruses, theft of information etc. They will be the ones held accountable if something bad happens, so they tend to take a zero tolerance approach to anything that sniffs of spam.

They really aren’t going to care if some flaky marketers email doesn’t get through. Respect their job and make it easy for them by employing the options already listed in this article.

Always Be Testing

Always monitor and test your campaigns constantly. Regardless of what I say here, or what any online marketing expert may tell you, always do your own testing and draw your own conclusions. Look at what’s working and what’s not. Then take action accordingly to see if you can improve the results. Use your analytics and campaign tracking solutions to give you a clear picture of what is happening.

If you do your email marketing on a regular basis, say at least once a month, then after a year you will have a very substantial amount of data. If you put this into your analytics program or a spreadsheet, you will be able to get some very clear pictures of what’s been going on with your email marketing.

Conclusion, Although Not Quite

There’s a lot more that I can say about how to maximise the effectiveness of your online email marketing campaigns. Too much for one article here, but I will produce an ebook on the subject in the near future. Hopefully, I can get this done sometime within the next month or so. Stay tuned.

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