Category Archives: Deliverability

Using Fonts in Email

Fonts in EmailA well-designed typeface is a thing of beauty. It can convey emotion, improve sales, and help define a corporate identity. For years, designers have been trying to figure how to use their favorite fonts in email, sometimes these attempts fail miserably, and other times they lead to other problems that you wouldn’t expect. Using fonts in email takes you into treacherous territory. Is it better to use inline font-family styles or convert everything to images? And what about web fonts? Can you use them in email marketing?

In this overview, we look at all the methods for using fonts in email that are available to marketers and designers. Some of these techniques qualify as best practices, while others should be avoided at all costs. A couple might even qualify as worst practices.

Before we get too deep into the subject, we’d like to point out that we’ll be using font and typeface interchangeably. In the past, “font” referred a specific size of a typeface, so Helvetica 12pt was one font and Helvetica 24pt was another. With the advent of digital publishing, these designations lost their meaning.

Types of Fonts

Fonts come in six basic types:

Types of fonts

Serif

serif fontsSerifs are those little feet that protrude from the edges of a character. Examples of this style of typeface include Century Schoolbook, Garamond, and Palatino. The most famous serif typeface is Times New Roman, which was created for the London Times by Stanley Morison. Serif typefaces are still the preferred choice for blocks of printed text. On the computer screen, they are little harder to read due to the effects of screen resolution of the serifs.

Sans Serif

Sans SerifIf a typeface does not have those little feet, it is referred to as “sans serif.” Examples of sans serif typefaces include Franklin Gothic, Gill Sans, and Univers. The most well-known sans serif font is Helvetica, which is even the star of its own movie. The most common variation on Helvetica is Arial, which was specifically designed to match the font metrics of Helvetica. This was Microsoft’s way of getting around the license fees for Helvetica. San serif typefaces are preferred over serif typefaces for text on the computer screen. Some fonts, such as Verdana, were specifically designed for better readability on computer monitors.

Handwriting

HandwritingA Handwriting font, as the name suggests, is one that resembles handwritten text. These fonts are also referred to as “Cursive” or “Script” fonts. Sometimes these are fancy, such as Park Avenue and Edwardian Script, and sometimes they are more casual, such as Comic Sans and Freestyle Script. Caution should be used with these fonts. As you’ll see when we get to the Web Fonts, cursive fonts usually default to Comic Sans, which is often a poor substitution.

Decorative

DecorativeDecorative fonts are the ones that favor novelty over readability. They come in both serif and sans serif variations, and are usually restricted to logos and headlines. As a rule, they should never be used for blocks of text. Popular decorative fonts include Ad Lib, Jim Crow, Mesquite, Stencil, and Old English. They are sometimes used for logos, but, even here, are best used sparingly if at all. Because of the high level of variations between them, they should never be used in email.

Monospaced

MonospacedMonospaced fonts are the ones that assign the same amount of space for each character. In a monospaced font, the ‘m’ takes the same amount of space as an ‘i’. This type of font is often used to display code, or to mimic an old typewriter. The most popular example of this is Courier. Monospaced fonts come in both serif versions, such as Courier, and sans serif versions, such as Consolas.

Dingbats

DingbatsDingbats are not fonts in the usual sense of the word, but, instead, have replaced the standard alphanumeric characters with little pictographs. In Webdings, for instance, a capital J renders a picture of an island with a palm tree, while in Wingdings it renders a smiley face. Dingbat fonts should never be used in email. You may like the idea of creating rebuses using Webdings, and it may look right on your PC; but if someone opens it on a Mac or some other system that doesn’t come with Webdings, they’ll only see gibberish.

Several pictographs are built into other typefaces as part of the Unicode (UTF-8). These are safer to use and sometimes are even used in subject lines (with ✈ and ❤ being particular favorites). Just make sure that you’ve encoded your mailing as UTF-8 and not 7-bit ASCII. Otherwise, you may end up with little squares or questions marks where the pictographs should be. It’s also important to remember that although there is some overlap in appearance between dingbat font characters and the pictographs that are available as part of the standard Unicode font set, they are not interchangeable. For example, the picture of the airplane in the middle on the left in the picture above is a capital Q in Wingdings. This one will not work in email. You need to use the airplane character as it is indicated in Unicode (you can find a handy chart of the Unicode dingbats and other special characters here).

Using a font directly

You can assign any typeface you want to your email content. Here, is an example of an inline style assigned to display in Helvetica:

Hello World

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your recipients are going to see the same thing on their computers that you see on yours. If the recipient does not have Helvetica installed in their system, they are going to see another font. As a rule, this will be Arial, but don’t count of the substitution to be automatic. By only listing one typeface in font-family style, you leave it up to the ISP, email client, or particular software to choose the alternative. This could end up being anything from Myriad Pro to Courier.

For this reason, it is always a good idea to provide a list of acceptable alternatives to the font-family style, starting with the preferred font, with the rest of the fonts following in order of preference:

Hello World

We’ve ended the list with the generic “sans-serif” as a safety measure to ensure that if none of the fonts listed are available, the text will still appear as a sans-serif font.

But what if your type absolutely has to be in a specific typeface? If it is part of your logo or associated with a specific branding campaign, you might not want the type replaced with anything else. In that case, your best bet is to convert the type to an image, but be careful—this is an overused technique that comes with some definite downsides.

Using Images for Type

At first, it seems like converting all your text to an image seems like a way to go. If you wanted to use Ad Lib for your headlines with Broadway for your text, an image would make sure that this (admittedly terrible) combination would look the same to everybody, regardless of their operating system, email client, or computer. But before you go converting all your mailings to images, there are a few important caveats to take into account.

No Text, No Inbox

First and foremost, you shouldn’t do it because it can affect deliverability. Shady email senders sometimes try and outsmart the spam filters by converting their text to an image in an attempt to elude the spam filters that check for certain words. As a consequence, many ISPs deduct points from a reputation score when they find only images in a message. This can be just enough of a negative to redirect your mailing from the Inbox to the Spam folder.

Not Text, No See

The second downside to using only images is that not all mailbox providers display images as a default. The Mail app on the iPhone does and Gmail does, but most others still default to image display off. If all your text has been converted into an image, you run the risk of missing potential sales for no better reason than that the recipient never saw your actual message.

Remember the Alt Tag

If you do plan to use an image to display text, the safest thing to do is to include the text in the image as an alt tag. That way if the recipient has image display turned off, he can still get an idea of what the picture contains. In the case of logos, you can also add styles to the alt tag to improve the email’s appearance. For more on this subject, see our white paper, Using Text and Images.

What About Web Fonts?

From time to time, people ask about using Google Web Fonts in email. If you are new to Google Web Fonts, these are fonts that you can use without having to have them installed either on your computer, or the computers of your recipients. There are other sources for web fonts, such as Adobe and Font Squirrel, but these usually require scripts, which do not work in email. Web fonts require you to add two pieces of information to your mailings—a tag with the URL for the font you want to use, and a font-family style attribute.

Web Fonts will only work when the email client recognizes the tag and can use it to download remote content (in this case, the fonts). Here’s an example of an email that was set using two Google Web Fonts—Luckiest Guy for the headline and Josefin Slab for the text. In this first example we’ve taken the HTML code provided by Google and stuck it in the mailing without further modification. Here is how the HTML it appears in a browser (in this case, Chrome) before it is sent as an email:

Google Web FontsNow here’s the same email as it appears in various email clients and platforms:

web font chart using defaultsAs you can see, only the iPhone and Thunderbird rendered it correctly. Even here the fonts are only displayed when “Load Remote Images” is turned on (the default setting for the iPhone, but not for Thunderbird). Because Web Fonts require a link to work, these fonts are treated the same as images. If an email client defaults to “Images Off,” it’s not going to display Web Fonts either, even if it can. No images, no fonts.

The fact that cursive is listed as the font category for Luckiest Guy doesn’t help. It means that on PCs the headline defaults to various weights of Comic Sans, a font so detested that Weird Al Yankovic uses it as a gag in his song, “Tacky”. On Macs and iPhones, cursive defaults to Snell Roundhand which is better than Comic Sans, but is still a far cry the intended result. In the case of Live Mail, the fact that “serif” was listed as the fallback didn’t seem to matter. It still converted the text to Arial.

Of course, there’s nothing that says you have to use the HTML exactly as Google provides it. In the case of the Luckiest Guy font (and, I suspect, many others), you’d be better off ignoring their recommended category and choose one of your own. You’ll also want to add a few logical alternatives to the list. Here are the inline style settings for the headline after we’ve modified it:

style=”font-family: ‘Luckiest Guy’, Impact, Haettenschweiler, ‘Franklin Gothic Bold’, ‘Arial Black’, sans-serif; font-size: 3em; color: #63499B”

There’s really nothing like Luckiest Guy that is common on computers, so I’ve chosen an assortment of bold display faces that you’ll find on many devices and platforms. Likewise, Josefin Slab is a hard one to match since slab-serifs (i.e., serifs that are squared off instead of pointed) are not that popular either. Here are the inline style settings for the body copy:

style=”font-family: ‘Josefin Slab’, Memphis, Lubalin, Rockwell, Clarendon, Georgia, serif; font-size: 1em;”

Rockwell and Clarendon are popular fonts, and although Georgia is not a slab-serif font, it is a common font and shares many characteristics with Clarendon. Here are the results:

Web Font chart with better style choicesAs you can see, the results are still far from perfect, but they are better. If this level of discrepancy between fonts is acceptable to you, then you might find web fonts worth experimenting with. If your audience is made up primarily of iPhone and Mac users, it might be worthwhile. If your audience is primarily on PCs and Android phones, then it probably isn’t worth the effort.

Text Still Wins

When all is said and done, the advice we gave in Using Text to Deliver Your Message still stands: You’ll get the best results if you remain flexible on the font choices. Converting text to images where the font is important (such as logos and other branding) is acceptable, but even then, limit it as much as possible and make sure you’ve provided alt tags that are either informative or will make people want to display the images.

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Deliverability and Volume Shifting

Deliverability chart 1
Sometimes you might come up against a situation where the perfectly innocuous email you are sending has trouble getting delivered to certain addresses. You may have had no problems sending to that ISP in the past, and the mailing might even be based on a previous design that got through without problems, but suddenly you’re finding your mailings held up and greylisted. When this happens, you’ll want to check your mailing patterns for sharp increases in volume. If you see a spike like the one shown in the picture above, there’s a good chance you’ve uncovered the problem. It is easy enough to avoid, but it might require you to retool your approach to campaign marketing.

The Volume Factor

Besides using keywords, text-to-image ratios, bit.ly link redirects and a myriad of other ways to assess if an email is possible spam, ISPs and other mailbox providers also use your mailing patterns to identify when something’s wrong. If you suddenly decide to send out 100,000 emails, where you have previously been restricting your mailing output to a few thousand, you might find your mailing suddenly throttled way back on its delivery. Sudden spikes like this can cause even well-established companies to experience delivery problems. Email marketing programs that otherwise do not have deliverability issues will see their mailings blocked or greylisted when the volume of delivery jumps suddenly at irregular intervals.

On one level this makes perfect sense. If one day you suddenly saw a fifty-fold increase in traffic to your site, you’d immediately suspect something was wrong. The mailbox service providers react the same way, erring on the side of caution. Of course, if you regularly send 100,000 emails a day, the email provider won’t see anything unusual and will (unless there are other issues) allow your mailing to land in the Inbox.

This isn’t to say you have to send the same number of emails every day, but it does suggest that a little planning goes a long ways. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Don’t be Sporadic

It’s okay to have spikes in your mailings as long as the occur at fairly regular intervals. You may have some problems the first time it happens, but if you do it regularly, most email service providers will adjust and allow more of your email through in the future. The chart shown at the top of this article shows what happens when a once time high-volume mailing arrives at a mailbox provider—alarm bells go off, even if you’ve had no deliverability problems in the past. If the same sender has a pattern of sending large quantities once a week, the odds are better that the mailing will get through.

Deliverability chart 2

Watch Out For Greylists

Provided there are no obvious spam triggering elements in your mailings, then, in all likelihood, emails stopped because the mailing’s been greylisted. In one sense, this is a good thing because it means the email will eventually reach the recipients, but it can also be a very bad thing if that particular mailing is time sensitive. A one-day only, Fourth of July sales announcement won’t do anyone much good if it doesn’t reach the Inbox until July fifth. Be especially careful if you’re planning on time-zone specific emails to arrive exactly when desired. You may want all the email delivered at 10:00, but it’s unlikely to happen.

Caution is always the best approach. Either send it out a little early, or make sure you have a policy in place if the mailing gets delayed. Even this might not help, though. While most ISPs throttle back the delivery of sudden, unexpected sending spikes, some ISPs will block a mailing completely if they feel the sudden spike is suspicious.

No Sudden Moves

Spreading the mailings out over a few days can also help avoid problems associated with a sudden spike in mailings. Then over time, if you keep your mailings on a regular schedule, you can consolidate these mailings into once mass mailing without difficulty. The window for most ISPs is about a month, but even monthly volume spikes will cause problems. A weekly spike has a better chance of getting through. Likewise, a regular pattern, such as every Tuesday, will work better than mailing spikes at random intervals.

You Don’t Have the Last Word

You can get as angry at the mailbox providers as you like, but if they decide to throttle back your time-sensitive emails, there’s not a lot you can do about it. Yelling at your email marketing software provider (ESP) and insisting that they must deliver your mailing when you want them delivered is placing the blame in the wrong place. The mailbox providers hold all the cards, so if they decide to greylist your mailing, there’s not much your ESP can do about it beyond verifying the reasons for the delivery problems. Any changes in tactics will have to come from your side of the equation.

The realities of deliverability cannot be overlooked, they require you to plan your promotional marketing scheduling carefully. If you are not the one in charge of the mailing schedule, you’ll want to make sure that the person who is in charge fully understands the factors involved in deliverability and how to best use the email marketing channel. Would there be a loss if a monthly newsletter was delivered over several days, or split into 25% a week? If not, then you might want to consider parsing the mailings out over a longer period of time, or, if you’ve decided to send more email on a regular basis, ramp up the sending over time.

Large volume mailing without encountering deliverability problems is easily achieved, but it might require you and the management to change your mindset on how you send email. Email clients aren’t going to change the way they do things just for you. You have to change to keep in sync with the way they do things. Make sure you’re consistent above all. If that’s not possible, try spreading out a large send over several hours. This gives the ISPs a chance to verify that your mailing is legit and will help ensure the mailing won’t run into major stoppages.

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Keeping Your Email List Clean

Keeping your list cleanRecently, while reading a newsletter from another Email Software Provider (ESP), we came across the following advice in a column titled “Ask the Experts.” A reader asked how can they keep their subscriber list clean. We were shocked by the advice they gave. They recommended the following:

  1. Remove improperly formatted email addresses, duplicates, and syntax errors. Doing so will increase your deliverability rate.
  2. An email address that hasn’t seen any engagement in opens or clicks within a predetermined time frame, (rule of thumb is around six months), should be removed from your list or targeted for a re-engagement campaign.
  3. Use an online email validation tool to validate each email address to confirm it’s [sic] deliverable.

While we are fine with the second recommendation on the list, the first and last recommendations have us shaking our heads. The “expert” here seems to be suggesting that these are things you are going to have to handle on your own. Wouldn’t it make more sense for your ESP to handle these things for you? Let’s look at them one at a time.

Improperly Formatted Email Addresses

If you already have an established email program you shouldn’t have any “improperly formatted email addresses, duplicates, and syntax errors.” These should have been filtered out when the data was first imported into your ESP. Why would any ESP leave an obviously bad address, like bob@bob@aol.com, in your database? Perhaps if you have to pay by the address there’s some incentive for the ESP to keep these obvious mistakes in the database, but that’s a terrible way to make money. You are going to want an email marketing solution that is able to recognize these obviously bad addresses and remove them as soon as they are entered into your subscriber list.

Imaginary ISPs

While bob@bob@aol.com is a bad email address because it contains one too many @ symbols, its domain, aol.com, is legitimate. But what happens if the syntax is correct, but the domain is wrong. There’s nothing wrong with bob@zygodrillbits.com as an email address, except that there is no such domain zygodrillbits.com. Good email marketing software will also check the domains and remove the bad ones from the send list, so if one doesn’t exist, you won’t have to wait until you’ve started sending to find this out, and you shouldn’t have to run your list through third-party software to do so. Whether it’s syntactical errors that are the problem or bad domains, there is no reason your ESP shouldn’t automatically remove these improperly formatted and non-existent domains from your list. If your ESP isn’t already handling this, you should find another ESP immediately.

Hurting Delivery

As if that’s not enough, the “expert” goes on to say that leaving these addresses in your list will hurt your deliverability. How exactly would that happen? If the email address or domain is invalid the DNS system will tell you. No ISP could be contacted to deliver this email, so this bad address couldn’t possibly affect your deliverability. It could never get that far. Enter an address to gmail.moc instead of gmail.com, and Google will never here about it. The mailing will get stopped at the starting gate.

Invalid Domains

But improperly formatted email addresses are only half the story. Those are pretty obvious and are usually easy to spot. More difficult to recognize are the ones that appear to be legitimate addresses in every way but will return an invalid user response. Timfeldman@gmx.com may look like a perfectly acceptable email address, but it returns an invalid mailbox error. The quickest way to find out if an email address like this one is valid is to send to it, but you’re only going to want to do that once. Some email marketing software will send to an invalid address three or four times before giving up on it. This is asking for trouble. It’s a bit like someone knocking at your door looking for someone else, and then doing it again a few minutes later, and then again. You wouldn’t like it, and neither do the ISPs, which is why each time you retry, your reputation score takes a hit. Not a big one, but they add up, and the more it happens the worse it is for your reputation score.

So why do some ESPs allow more than one attempt to send to a bad email address? Mostly it’s out of laziness. Since every email client uses its own nomenclature to describe when an email isn’t valid, you can’t simply say, stop sending if you receive an “invalid user” message because the email client might decide to identify it as “invalid recipient,” “mailbox not found,” or some other variation on the message. There’s no end to the creativity of IT professionals when it comes to coming up with different ways to say exactly the same thing. To confound things more, some of these return messages are actually benign, notifying you that the mailbox is full or that the email has been temporarily rejected but is still valid.

Email sortingGood, enterprise-level email marketing software, such as Goolara Symphonie, can distinguish between these different messages and stop sending to invalid addresses immediately while offering other courses of action for mailings that are detained for other reasons. Less robust systems often take the shortcut and simply try three times (in case it’s just a temporary problem) and then stop (in case it’s a bad address). This solution offers the worst of both worlds. With this method, every bad address hit you receive is automatically tripled. If you have 50 bad addresses, you’ll get 150 hits against your reputation score. Likewise, if the problem is temporary (mailbox full, for example), and the resends hit the mailbox full message three times, the ESP end up quarantining a perfectly good email address that might have been okay for a later mailing.

Online Email Validation

The advice column expert’s recommendation for how to handle these invalid email addresses is the last suggestion on their list, and it is as astounding as the first one: “Use an online email validation tool to validate each email address to confirm it’s [sic] deliverable.” In other words, they want you to send your list to a third-party to validate the addresses.

To understand what’s wrong with this approach, let’s look at two likely scenarios. In the first scenario, you are just starting a new email sending program. At this point, you shouldn’t have many email addresses unless you bought them or engaged in some other questionable practice. As we’ve already discussed, your ESP should eliminate any addresses with obvious syntax errors and duplicates automatically, and it should check all the domains as well to make sure they are valid. At this point you can try sending to these email addresses to find out which ones are not valid. If you have a high percentage of invalid addresses you may get blocked by some ISPs, or even by your Email Software Provider, but you shouldn’t have that many addresses when you are starting your email program, so this really shouldn’t come up. If you do get blocked it is probably worth looking at your list again because now you’ve got a bigger problem than a few invalid email addresses (and, honestly, the only likely way for this to happen is if you’ve purchased a list).

When Bad Addresses Happen to Good Senders

In the second scenario you are an established sender with a regular list of recipients. If the ESP is worth a hill of beans, every address you’ve sent to should be valid at this point, so the only questionable ones are the new addresses. Any previous bad addresses were purged when they were imported or when they were first sent to, so the only bad addresses will be those that have either gone bad since your last sending, or are new addresses on the list.

People sometimes provide bad addresses. They may be mistyped, or they may be intentionally incorrect. This is inevitable. As we’ve already pointed out, the obviously bad ones should never even make it into the system, but that leaves the ones that look fine, but are still invalid. These could hurt your deliverability, but only if you have an unusually high number of them. The percentage should be very small if you are using a good ESP and sending to your recipients on a regular basis.
The ISPs know that bad addresses can happen to good senders, so there is very little penalty for a small percentage of bad addresses. If you have less than one percentage of unknown users, it’s unlikely you’ll experience any deliverability problems.

So why would you take the subscriber list from your established email marketing program and send them to an outside firm to have them verified? The only reason would be that your ESP has no method of cleaning your list of bad addresses. If that’s the case, it’s time to start shopping for a better Email Software Provider. This is one of the fundamental things one should expect from an ESP.

The Real Secret to Good Deliverability

Going though your email addresses one at a time in search of bad email addresses is neither the best use of your time, nor the best way to improve your deliverability. Honestly, the best things you can do for it are make sure you send at least once a month, don’t buy lists, and make sure your email marketing software knows what to do with bad email addresses.

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The Holiday Season is upon us, so we thought it might be fun to offer an infographic in the form a simple game of chance. Of course, your email marketing efforts should be anything but a game of chance. Careful planning, design, and testing will go a long ways toward improving your open rates. Keeping aware of your metrics and avoiding quick fixes, such as list purchasing, will keep your deliverability out of the red zone.

emailgame

You can find more on information on the topics listed in the Email Game in the following blog posts and in the guides and white papers in the Resources section of the main website:
The Complete Preheaders and Snippets Tutorial
Personalizing Your Email Marketing
Using Content Blocks and Dynamic Content
Deliverability Enhanced (downloadable white paper)
Oops! – Handling and resolving email marketing mistakes (downloadable white paper)
Using Text & Images (downloadable guide)
Best Practices Enhanced – Vol. 1: Content, List Management, and Testing (downloadable guide)
Best Practices Enhanced – Vol. 2: Design and Image Management (downloadable guide)
Responsive Email Design (downloadable guide)

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Yahoo Recycles Dead Email Addresses

Yahoo recycles email addresses

In a move that has many people in both the email marketing industry and the Internet security field shaking their heads, Yahoo has announced that any Yahoo email addresses that haven’t been logged onto in over twelve months will be made available to other users. In a post on their blog, Jay Rossiter, Yahoo’s senior vice president of platforms, wrote that the reason for doing this was to allow Yahoo users who weren’t online during the initial email address land grab to get the Yahoo addresses they wanted. “If you’re like me,” Rossiter explained, “you want a Yahoo ID that’s short, sweet, and memorable like albert@Yahoo.com instead of albert9330399@Yahoo.com”

Security experts are especially skeptical of this move, saying that the possibilities for identity theft abound. The recently deceased, or long-term hospitalized people could be prime targets, they argue. Elderly people whose kids set up their account and helped them buy a few things on Amazon two years ago are also possible targets. But the Email Marketing community has its own set of potential problem areas that must be dealt with if Yahoo goes through with this program.

30 Day Turnover

According to a Yahoo spokesperson once an old email address is requested, Yahoo will send bounce back emails alerting senders that the deactivated accounts no longer exist, and they will also unsubscribe these accounts from commercial emails such as newsletters, email alerts, etc. But Yahoo’s plan is to allow only thirty days for this process. This quick turnover only adds to the possible problems email marketers are liable to encounter.

Suppose you have a customer who purchased something from your company a year-and-a-half ago. You’ve been sending email offers, but as the person hasn’t been that engaged, you’ve tapered off on the mailings. You send something at the end of June, and then something again at the beginning of September. In between, that address has gone to someone else. How will that new recipient react? As far as they’re concerned, your email unsolicited, which makes it a good candidate for the Spam folder. This is, admittedly, worst case scenario, but a man named Murphy already proved that if something can go wrong, it will.

For an individual, sending to a bad address is no big deal. They will receive some kind of bounce message, but other mail they send will go through. That is not the same for mass marketers who send thousands of emails per day. When a marketer sends a large volume of email, the ISPs keep track of how many bad addresses are attempted and use that as a factor in determining the Reputation Score of the sender. This is explained in greater detail in our guides, but, suffice it to say, you can’t send to bad addresses regularly and maintain good inbox penetration. Good email marketing software looks at failure messages and immediately removes bad addresses from any future distributions to keep the failure rate as low as possible.

Beware of Spam Traps!

If you have removed inactive recipients from your list, you may have already removed some of the accounts that will be reactivated by Yahoo. One idea might be to reactivate all Yahoo users who were previously marked as bad addresses, in case some of them are now valid addresses. However, this would be a bad idea for many reasons. One is that some of those bad addresses have been turned into “spam traps.” This is an anti-spam technique used by all ISPs that takes old, inactive or closed accounts and reactivates them. Before the account is closed, the ISPs return an error message that the user is inactive to anyone trying to send to that address. After a period of time, the ISP will stop returning these message and turn the account into a spam trap. The idea is that good marketers send email to their recipients on a regular basis, so they will know that the account is no longer valid. Those that don’t follow best practices, or buy a list from questionable sources, may get email addresses that have not been sent to in many months. When an ISP receives an attempt to send to an address they have turned into a spam trap it results in an immediate and significant drop in the Reputation Score.

Even if there are no spam traps on your list, if most of those bad addresses remain bad, reactivating them will cause a large spike of unknown user rejections from Yahoo, which will also hurt your Reputation Score.

Re-subscription Issues

The problem isn’t simply limited to old addresses either. If you have a user who gets marked as invalid within the short window Yahoo provides, and, coincidentally, the new owner of that account wants to join your distribution, the new user may or may not get added, depending on how the request comes in. Many marketers re-import their list on a regular basis to add new recipients or change their demographics, so good email marketing software has to look at the import and see if the recipient is already in an unsubscribed or on-hold status. It would be a mistake to re-enable all recipients who are re-imported, as you would be causing another Unknown User request against the mail server, or re-activating a user who had unsubscribed. Therefore, if the new user’s request to be added comes into your website and is added to a bulk import, the request may be ignored.

If the request to add the email address is sent to the email marketing software in a non-batch mode, such as via an API call, it will depend on the implementation of the software as to whether the request is processed or not. Check with your ESP on how this would be handled.

Best Practices

Sending to a person who inherits an email address is probably a bad thing, and if that person marks your email as spam, it will be more difficult for you to get future mail delivered to Yahoo. Therefore, if you do not already have a program in place to remove inactive users, start one, or make sure that you send an email to all your users at least once a month. Above all, you’ll need to be especially vigilant when it comes to any clients using a Yahoo address.

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List Segmentation Landmines

But I've already unsubscribed!

Everything in email marketing starts with your list of recipients. How your particular ESP handles lists varies from provider to provider. Here’s a quick rundown of things to watch out for when you are working with list segments. A good understanding of the various models used to create lists will go a long way toward helping you avoid problems.

But I unsubscribed already!

A question frequently asked by email recipients is, “Why does a company keep sending me email after I’ve unsubscribed from their list?” It’s a good question, and the less tolerant respondents in the audience are apt to answer, “They are violating CAN-SPAM! Report and/or mark their email as spam!” While it is easy to understand the anger anyone feels upon getting more email months after unsubscribing, this time the marketer is not entirely to blame. They may be using an email marketing solution that creates separate lists for each segment. If you are faced with this problem, here’s a brief primer on how this happens and how to avoid it.

Here a list, there a list…

Let’s say you start with List A. This list has everyone who has opted in to receive your mailings on it. When a person unsubscribes from this list, they are immediately removed from all subsequent lists.

Start with a list...

So far, no problem. Now you create a second list (List B) as a segment of List A, and two more people unsubscribe from it. Everything seems to be in order, but because you are no longer working from your List A, the unsubscribes are only reflected in List B. We have two more unsubscribes, and as long as you are working from List B, everything is fine.

Create a new segment...

But if you go back to List A to create a new segment (List C), the two people who unsubscribed after the mailings from List B (outlined in red) are unpleasantly surprised to find they are back on your list. This time, they mark your email as Spam and all future email from you goes directly to the Junk Folder. In the meantime, another person has unsubscribed. Now you have three lists all with different unsubscribe information.

Create a third segment...

Pulling information in from other lists can further compound these problems. “I’ve got a great list in Excel on my computer,” someone might say. “Let’s use that too.” Unfortunately, this list has people who have previously unsubscribed from the other lists. Unless someone is riding herd over all of this, things can get pretty messy. Every time you create a new list and the changing from the various other lists are reflected in it, you run the risk of more and more people marking you email as spam. At a certain point, the ISPs start to notice this and move your email directly to the Junk folder for everyone.

Combining lists

Some ESPs solve this by treating every unsubscribe as a global action. In this way, the segments won’t matter. The problem with this approach is that sometimes you really do want to give people the opportunity to unsubscribe from a specific subset or topic. For instance, if you send out an email about an upcoming trade show, you may only want to target the people who have expressed a specific interest in trade shows. Any unsubscribes from a list like this shouldn’t be treated as global unsubscribes. They may still be interested in your products, just not in attending trade shows.

By the same token, the person doing the unsubscribing may, in fact, want to stop receiving email from you and their unsubscribe really is intended as a global action. Ideally your email marketing system should be able to offer a topic-level unsubscribe, a global-level unsubscribe, or both, all within the email, so recipients can make the choice that is best for them.

Unsubscribe Strategies

How your ESP handles segments, then, must be the determining factor on who you need to approach this issue. Ideally all segments pull their information directly from the master list, in which case, topically and globally unsubscribed recipients should automatically be removed from future distributions. However, if your ESP uses separate and distinct lists of recipients for segments, you’ll need to stay on top of those segment unsubscribes. Check with your ESP to see if they’ve provided tools for consolidating these lists, otherwise, you’ll need to handle it manually. Set up a schedule for checking and consolidating your lists. This isn’t even a best practice—CAN-SPAM requires you to honor your unsubscribes. If you don’t, technically, you are breaking the law.

Our solution

In case you’re wondering, yes, Goolara Symphonie does solve this problem. Our email marketing solution does not require you to generate separate lists. All recipient information is stored in a master database and the information is accessed as needed according to segment or “topic.” You can create as many different topics as you need, and these will all support both global and topical unsubscribes. You can create unlimited segments that target any recipient in the system based on any available criteria. Recipients who unsubscribe are automatically removed from any posting sent to that unsubscribe topic. To learn more about this process, or to see Goolara Symphonie in action, click here, or contact us at 1-888-362-4575

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Here Comes Santa Claus

Santa and List

I noticed this morning that Starbucks is already using their holiday cups (this was written in 2012, well before the current cup controversy). Everywhere, retailers are ramping up their Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales pitches in preparation for this holiday season. While some people are grousing about stores jumping the gun on Christmas music, others can hardly wait. There’s a certain optimism in the air this year. People are ready to shop again. Last year, Cyber Monday surpassed Black Friday in sales, so expect more email competition than ever this year.

This is, for many retailers, the most important time of the year for their email to get through to their clients. For some retailers, the holiday season represents up to 40% of their annual sales. On average, it represents close to 20% of annual sales. Email sending increases during the final weeks in October and really gets going in the weeks before popular sales events, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Retailers increase their send volumes by 47% on average. As a consequence, email services such as Gmail and Hotmail also ramp up their efforts to eliminate spam by tightening up their restrictions and by requiring higher reputation scores for received mail.

So what does that mean to you? For most people, probably nothing. If your clients have been engaged in the past and you’ve never had any trouble getting your email into the inboxes, then the holiday anti-spam measures of the folks at Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo won’t matter much. But if your reputation score is already close to the edge of acceptability, you might suddenly find your email winding up in junk folders more often than it had a month ago. This also means it is very bad time of year to be experimenting with list purchases and appends. Now would be a good time to pull up your reports and look at your metrics. Do you have any problem areas? In the example below, everything sent to comcast.net is ending up in the spam folder. Since the other domains are showing good results, the next question becomes, how many of my recipients are using this service? If for instance, you are sending out 750,000 email and three are getting block by Comcast, then this isn’t much of an issue. If, on the other hand, Comcast received 500,000 of that mailing, then you better take actions to correct this ASAP.

Problem with Comcast

The sad truth is that if you haven’t been paying close attention to these metrics all along, by the time November rolls around you are probably much too late to do much to help turn things in time to help your Christmas sales campaign. Nonetheless, there are still things you can do to improve your email marketing efforts during this holiday season. Here are the main ones.

Making a list and checking it twice

This is an area where many businesses fall down every year. If a recipient opts to stop receiving email from you, sending that person your holiday specials will not be looked on kindly. In some cases, this isn’t the fault of the business, but of their ESP. Many email marketing systems require you to create separate lists for each segment you create. You create a segment of men over forty and that’s a list; you create another segment of women under thirty and there’s another list. If you are using email marketing software that requires you to create separate lists for segmentation and topic categories, your chances of resending to people who have opted out of your list are increased geometrically. You’ll need to go through those lists carefully and make sure you haven’t made this mistake. If you are using Symphonie, this isn’t an issue as unsubscribes are always respected, even across segments.

Too much of good thing

While it is unquestionably important to strike while the iron is hot, don’t overdo it. Even at a time year when people expect more sales-related emails, they don’t want to feel overwhelmed. People expect more email at this time of year, but how much you send needs to stay in proportion to your normal engagement. If you been sending notices a couple of times a week, then daily emails might be acceptable, but if you’ve only ever send a recipient one email every two months, the sudden appearance of daily emails might cause the recipient to react negatively. It is far better to send a few emails with compelling sales pitches than tons of mediocre ones. By keeping close track of your metrics, you can correct these potential problems before they occur. If your opens and clickthroughs are showing dips when they are sent too close together, pull back on the sending a bit and see if that helps.

Subject lines are more important than ever

Since everyone is getting more email now than at any other time during the year, more email is being deleted before it is ever opened. People decide in an instant whether they want to read your email or not, and that decision is based almost exclusively on the subject line. If you fail here, it won’t matter how good your content is. Like the first sentence in a story, the subject line should intrigue the recipient enough to keep reading. If you aren’t doing so already, this is good time to use A/B splits to test various subject lines for their response rates.

Make it mobile friendly

These chilly winter evenings, people won’t be home in front of their computers, they will be out shopping and visiting friends. Many of these people will forgo reading their email on their desktops in favor of reading it on their smart phones. Products like the Apple iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy phones are changing the way people connect. Everyday, more and more email is read on smart phones instead of desktop computers. If you are designing your email to be read on nothing less than 17” monitor, you are in danger of losing sales from people who find your email too small to read on their Droids. One popular solution is responsive design, which adjusts the email’s format to match the size of the screen, but many ISPs still do not support this. Even if you do plan to use responsive design, make sure that your email is legible on a phone without it. [Note: For more on this topic, see our four-part series on responsive design.]

Last minute is often too late

You may have an idea of the exact time that you want people to receive your mailings, but keep in mind that most ISPs will begin to greylist more email as the volume of email increases over the holiday mad rush. They do this to manage their loads and slow down those senders without stellar reputation scores. But if the delay is long enough, it can mean that your email won’t land in the inbox until it’s too late. Your ESP should offer a feature to stop delivery attempts if the email isn’t delivered by a specific time.  There have been cases of one-day-only sales appearing in mailboxes the day after the event. Give your recipients a few days head start.

Get personal

People are far more likely to read your email if they feel like you are talking to them personally. Don’t neglect to use your merge and dynamic content features to make each email seem like it was hand written expressly for that recipient. For more on this topic, see Personalizing Your Email Marketing.

In summary, here our checklist of things to keep in mind as you send out your holiday emails:

  • Is your reputation score satisfactory? If not, contact any ISPs that presents problems to resolve this issue.
  • If you have multiple lists, make sure all the global unsubscribes have been removed from those lists.
  • Sending more email is okay, but don’t overdo it.
  • The subject line is more important than ever.
  • A/B test whenever possible.
  • Always allow enough time between a mailing and a specific date to allow for possible ISP greylisting.
  • Personalize the email with dynamic content when applicable.

Do these things and your email should arrive on time in the inbox and ready for the season.

Happy Holidays!

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I Want You, Not Facebook!

This is the second in series of articles about the use and abuse of social media in digital marketing. Today we will look at the practice of Facebook bait-and-switch, and why you should avoid it.

Facebook complaints

A trend we’ve seen recently is to use email to push for social site interactions. An email goes out offering customers a discount coupon, but when the recipients click on the link, they are taken to a Facebook page where they have to login or click “Like” to receive the coupon. Many people use social channels every day and are big fans, but a small percentage resist sharing their lives on social channels and do not want to be associated with a social site. Still others don’t mind using the social channels for personal communications, but refuse to connect to businesses. Sending these people to Facebook, Google+, or other sites will cause many to just ignore your offer and be frustrated that everything must be social.

Recipients expect active links in their email; it comes with the territory. What they don’t expect—and don’t like—is to be forced, without warning, to log into Facebook from a link for more information on your products or services. We’ve seen examples where a customer sent out invitations to a party event via email, but made the links go to a Facebook page. In some ways this is great marketing – as people confirmed they would be attending other people could see the growing list of attendees, and those that wanted to could comment. The problem was that not everyone wants to be sharing everything on Facebook, so many of the comments were angry customers asking why they had to use Facebook. Who knows how many non-Facebook users never even got that far. The company quickly backpedaled and provided a web page on their company site for people to go to (the link destination was changed on the fly, so recipients who were slower to click never saw the Facebook page).

A Facebook “Like” button in your email is still the best way to draw people to your Facebook page (ditto for Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+). If customers like what they read in the email, they can prove it by adding you to their Facebook list. From there it’s fine to reiterate the offer in the email and give them the opportunity to share it across their networks. Just remember that you’re still going to want them to get back to your website at some point. This eliminates the privacy concerns (both founded and unfounded), and, more importantly, it puts the analytic information back in your bailiwick instead of sharing it with Mark Zuckerberg. This also holds true for any ads that you’ve placed on Facebook. Link them back your site. Never forget that, regardless of Facebook’s marketing potential, people first and foremost consider it a place to contact friends, and not a place to listen to sales pitches.

Part One: Successful Social Media Tactics

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Successful Social Media Tactics

This is the first of a two-part series on social media and digital marketing. In this series, we’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages of using social media, and how to ensure your social media efforts don’t interfere with your email marketing efforts.

Facebook and email

Every day, it seems, a new channel pops up for marketers to use to get their messages out to the public. Many now use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (when video is applicable) to promote their products and services. Other sites such as Pinterest, Google+, and Foursquare are also gaining traction. Too often, though, marketers treat these various channels like baseball cards, trying convince the public to “collect ’em all.” To achieve this, marketers will use a teaser process to get people to connect to them on every channel. An email with a link to a coupon takes the recipient to the company’s Facebook page, where the person has to click the “Like” button to receive the coupon, and on the Facebook page, there is an announcement that you’ll have to follow them on Twitter to get special daily discounts.

There are, no doubt, a few people who enjoy this sort of scavenger hunt, but most people find it annoying. “Why can’t you just give me the coupon?” They wonder. The end result is frustration for the recipient and the potential to lose a customer you have worked hard to get. If they get a communication that says they should now sign up for a different channel to get what was offered in the first email, many people will feel frustrated, wondering why their chosen channel isn’t good enough. In our experience, emails sent to customers telling them to sign up on Facebook can lead to poor deliverability. They have higher complaint and unsubscribe rates, which leads the ISPs to direct more of your email to the junk folder. We’ve seen such a significant hit on deliverability that it can take several more engaging emails before the deliverability rates recover.

The customer that does sign up for all your social channels can also turn out to be more of a burden than a boon. If you are sending the same message in several channels, recipients may read the message in one channel, and not bother to look at it in the other channels. In the case of email, this means an email may get deleted without being opened, which the ISPs take as a sign that the recipient is not interested in receiving that email. If this continues long enough, the ISPs will take notice and start sending any new email from you directly to the junk folder. Additionally, many people will feel exhausted if the same message is delivered multiple times. Research indicates that most recipients don’t want frequent emails with the same basic content, but what if that message is magnified multiple times when the persons gets the email, but also one or more social sites, plus Twitter or other direct SMS? Clearly this will lead people to start tuning out on your message.

Different users like to be communicated with in different ways. Some people love social sites and don’t use email as much anymore. Others resist social sites and prefer the one-to-one communications of email. Whenever possible it is better to let the customers decide which channels works best for them. Communicate with people in the way they request, and don’t coerce them into changing channels or signing up for multiple channels.

Part Two: I Want You, Not Facebook!

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Of Senders and Subject Lines

Good email practices start with the sender and subject lines. If you don’t have these in order, nothing else matters. Here are some ideas for improving your deliverability.

dynamic content in subject line

Try this little experiment: Go to your email software, be it Gmail, Outlook, or whatever, and open it. Quick, what do you see? The first thing you’ll notice is the sender. It is usually the first item on the left, or appears above the subject line, often in bolder type than the subject line. Given this fact, it is safe to say that nothing is more important than a good-looking sender address, especially when one looks at the statistics: 64 percent of small businesses executives said they decide whether or not to open an email newsletter based on the sender,1 and over 50 percent of respondents cited knowing and trusting the sender as the primary reason for opening an email in the first place.2 Even more disturbing, 73 percent of people decide to click on the “report spam” or “junk” button based on the sender’s email address alone!3 Ideally, your sender information should be personalized enough so that they see either a name or company, or some other title that has meaning to them (“Advanced Widgets Weekly Newsletter”). Ideally, your Sender name should make sense to the recipient. If the mail is a newsletter, a sender name that contains the company name and the word “news,” or “newsletter” is helpful. If your company is large enough to have different branches with different branding, then it’s a good idea make sure the domain matches the sender information.

The second thing they notice, obviously enough, is the subject line. If the sender’s address has done its job, the subject line won’t have to work quite as hard to catch the reader’s attention, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet. 35 percent of email users open messages because of the subject line. A relevant subject line is going to have a better open rate than a generic one, naturally, but what does “relevant” mean exactly? In one sense, it means a subject line that is personalized for the recipient, but when most people think of a personalized subject, the first thing that comes to mind is the dreaded “[First_Name], have we got a deal for you.” The ability to insert merge tags into subject lines has been so thoroughly overused by spammers that doing it at all is a risky proposition. It might be okay for a triggered email, such as a birthday greeting or anniversary, but even here, we caution against making a first name merge tag the first element in the subject line. Several studies report that people react more favorably to this tactic when the name is inserted at the end of the message (e.g., “Here’s a birthday coupon for you, Jim”). Others studies suggest that using the first name in a subject line at all is the kiss of death.

Dynamic Subject Line

A far better approach to subject line personalization is to use dynamic content instead of merge tags. So what’s the difference? A merge tag is simply a piece of information stored in a recipient’s demographics. First and last name, address, city, state, membership level, most recent purchase, age, gender, etc. are all examples of merge tags. Even the most basic email marketing application can insert one of these at any point in the email and the subject line. Dynamic content, on the other hand, is not a fixed piece of information, but is a form of request based on one or several variables. It is often represented in an “If/Then” format (if x is true, then do this). It can take the information in the demographics and break it down further (into age groups for instance), or combine two or more demographics to yield different results (women in California, for example).

Dynamic content requires a bit more advanced planning, but it pays off in the end. For example, if you want to offer people different discount rates based on their membership levels, you could create a logic condition that says if the customer’s membership level is gold, the subject line should read, “Here’s your 20% Gold Member only discount coupon,” while for everyone else it should read, “Here’s your 10% discount coupon for our store.” It is also possible to use more than one block of dynamic content in a subject line, so that, if you wanted to steer people to certain departments based on past purchasing patterns, or other demographics, such as age or gender, you can add these conditionals to the subject line as well. Clever combinations of dynamic content can make a subject line appear hand-typed specifically for a recipient.

Dynamic Sender

An even more powerful feature for email marketing is the ability to change the sender dynamically. As previously mentioned, the sender is the first thing anyone sees. With dynamic content, you could, for example, change the sender based on where a recipient lives. In that case, the mail could come from your West Coast representative for anyone residing in California, Oregon, or Washington; or a department store may want to assign reply duties to whichever department a recipient shops in the most.

Not all email marketing software offers the ability to add dynamic content to the sender and subject lines, but it is a feature you shouldn’t overlook. Marketers are moving away from simple email blasting, and beyond social media connectivity, with a trend toward using data to provide a unique experience for each email recipient. The business that is already doing this is ahead of the game.

To learn more about the dynamic content capabilities available in Goolara Symphonie, click here to visit the Features section of our website.

1Bredin Business Information
2ReturnPath
3Email Sender and Provider Coalition

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