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Case study: Innocent email marketer gets accused of spam, blacklisted

Recently, we had a long time user on MailChimp get blacklisted for spamming. As soon as we received notification from the blacklist organization, we investigated the account. Something was wrong...

We took a look at their account information, and things just didn't add up. They looked like the perfect email marketer:

  • For one, the customer has been with us since 2002, with no prior abuse complaints whatsoever.
  • They're a large, well-known University
  • They'd been sending email campaigns very regularly to their Alumni list
  • Their bounce rate was usually well below 10%
  • Their unsubscribe rate was always close to zero
  • Their open rate was usually between 40%-50%
  • They never had any abuse complaints before (not even from an accidental pressing of the "junk" button)
  • Their list growth over time was slow and steady. Totally organic growth.
  • Nothing was really different about their email design. For the most part, they followed the same format they always did.

So what gives?

To be safe, we suspended the user's account and left them a voicemail. They responded instantly (always a good sign that they care). They were confused about what was going on too. After much discussion with several people in their department, we figured out the cause.

Every semester, the university gets a new batch of graduating students. When they graduate, they can opt-in to receive the alumni email newsletter.

When the university adds each new batch to their email newsletter list, they actually send them a reminder message. Something like, "Just a reminder that when you graduated, you opted-in to receive the alumni newsletter. You should be receiving your first issue in about one month."

This is a very effective way to prevent false spam reports, by the way. Which confused us even more. How could someone so responsible get reported as a spammer?

Well, the person in charge of email marketing was away on maternity leave. So her  temporary replacement, not knowing about the "reminder" emails, just added the new batch of graduates to their master list and sent away (and technically and legally, there's nothing wrong with that, because these students opted in!).

A couple graduates forgot how they got on that email list, and reported it as spam.

All it took was a couple complaints (out of a list of 30,000+ recipients) to get blacklisted.

Some of you might be wondering: "Since they sent it via MailChimp, wouldn't that mean that MailChimp got blacklisted, and not the university?" Before you assume that using a 3rd party email service protects your company from getting blacklisted, you should know that spam filters have learned to scan for URLs inside of messages they've flagged as spam. If your URL gets on the list, they'll delete all future emails that just contain your URL (such as an innocent little link to your website!), no matter where it was sent from. Some of them referred to the blocked URLs as "spamvertisers." Scary, huh?

Luckily, the university responded super fast, and we were able to send an explanation to the blacklist admins about what happened. They were delisted within hours. The user did nothing wrong. If anything, they go above and beyond making sure their list is totally permission based. This just goes to show how quickly people forget opting in to lists, and how important it is to remind people how you got their emails.

See also: Preventing Spam Complaints

and: Sending your 1st campaign to an old list?

September 28, 2006 in Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Email Open Rates for Nonprofits Declining?

Summary of an email marketing study over at DEIdea Lounge. In a nutshell, they found:

M & R looked at data from 15 national nonprofit groups and found that the average open rate fell by 6% on average from 32% in 2003-2004 to 26% in 2004-2005.

Recommendations from the author:

  1. Focus a little more on clickthroughs and conversions.
  2. Look at open rates comparatively (from campaign to campaign).
  3. Dig into your data to find your most loyal users

One thing about the study: they say it's a flaw that some email marketing tools can't measure opens in plain-text emails (because tracking images can't be embedded), or in HTML emails (since images are turned off by default in email programs). They recommend tracking an "open" if someone clicks any link in the email. FYI, MailChimp already does that for you.

September 27, 2006 in Emarketing, Business | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Microsoft Unsubscribe Link (Beta)

Through our membership in the ESPC, we've been invited to participate in that new Microsoft Unsubscribe Link program that everyone's been talking about lately.

Basically, the idea is that a lot of members on your email list will click "this is junk" rather than your "unsubscribe from list" link. These "false abuse reports" cause all sorts of problems. So Microsoft is going to start asking users, "Are you sure you want to report this guy as a spammer, or did you actually mean to unsubscribe from their list?"

It's a really nice idea. Right now, it's still in beta, so it's slightly buggy, and only seems to work under certain situations. ESPC members have been submitting feedback and recommending changes to Microsoft during the beta phase. We'll keep you updated.

September 21, 2006 in MailChimp News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nearly One Third Of Opens Occur Within 1 Hour

Openvelocity_1 We analyzed open rates for just under 2,000 HTML email campaigns recently sent from MailChimp, and found that of the total number of people who would eventually open those emails:

  • Nearly 1/3 will open within the first hour of sending (we're all addicted to email, aren't we?)
  • The majority (53%) will open within 6 hours
  • 78% will have opened within 1 day
  • Within 1 week, 95% of openers will have opened
  • And people will still open your email a full 30 days after sending (so don't archive your hosted images too soon!)

Pretty interesting stuff, if you:

  • Send breaking email news alerts
  • Send email invitations to weekly events (give it a day or two for maximum effect, but it's nice to know that lots of people will open within hours)
  • Send followup campaigns to "those who did not open." Give people at least 1 week before you assume they didn't open.

Finally, you should note that the Y-axis is not a "percent of list" but a "percent of those on your list who will eventually open." For example, if 30% of your list opens your email (that's about average), this would show that 53% of that 30% will open within 6 hours.

September 21, 2006 in MailChimp News, Stats | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Ask MailChimp: How do you track email opens?

Q: How do you actually measure email opens? Also how are you able to individualise these opens? Also obviously if people don't open their images this won't be tracked.

A: Opens are measured in HTML email with a tracking .gif. It's tiny, transparent, and virtually invisible to the recipient. When the image file is downloaded from our server, we measure that as an open. MailChimp generates a unique URL for each recipient, and uses that in the .gif file's  <img> tag for every single recipient. If people don't turn on images, or if they only view the plain-text version, the .gif obviously won't work. However, MailChimp can still track opens (even in plain-text emails) if someone ever clicks a link in their email (so long as click-tracking is enabled by the MailChimp user).

More information on tracking and email campaign reports in this free PDF guide. You might also be interested in MailChimp's enhanced campaign reports here.

September 20, 2006 in Ask MailChimp | Permalink | TrackBack

Ask MailChimp: Email Questions Answered

We answer a ton of questions and chats (and give advice) every day here at MailChimp. It only just now occured to me that I could be posting some answers right here on the blog. Maybe they'll help some people out there who are just getting started with emails.

September 20, 2006 in MailChimp News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

2006 Pixel Awards Nominees

The Pixel Awards has announced the top 5 nominees from each category. Winners get 500 MailChimp credits, a kickass trophy, plus cool prizes from these other sponsors.

September 18, 2006 in Emarketing, Business | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

OutBlaze spam filter feedback loop

If you've never heard of Outblaze, you soon will. From their site:

"Outblaze operates over 35 million active email accounts for a variety of public and private clients from all over the globe."

If you send a campaign to a corporate client, chances are it'll have to get through an Outblaze filter. If you read through your bounced email headers for your MailChimp campaign, chances are you'll probably find one or two bouncebacks because Outblaze thought your campaign was spammy.

Thankfully, Outblaze has added MailChimp to their feedback loop, so we can automatically remove any of their users from your list if they report your campaign as spam.

So now, in your campaign stats, you should see abuse reports from:

As more ISPs and anti-spam organizations provide feedback loops, we'll be adding them to our system. Read more about feedback loops, and why they're important for marketers, in this excellent article from Clickz.

September 13, 2006 in MailChimp News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

4 Web Accessibility Myths

This one's for the web designers. TechSoup's Amit Asaravala explains why some really outdated accessibility rules from the W3C don't always apply. If you've ever felt guilty about not adding alt-text to every single little shim.gif on your website or email, read this article.

September 12, 2006 in Tips, Tricks, Best Practices | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Enhancements: New Member Profile Page and More...

We just wrapped up a number of improvements to MailChimp. Most of it was back end server stuff that's just too nerdy to mention, but here are some of the items that you might notice...

1. Membership Status
Memberprofile_1We recently added the ability to let you search for a member, and edit a member's profile (such as email format, email address, etc). This weekend, we added "Membership Status" to each profile page. So if a member calls you up on the phone, and asks, "Howcum I'm not getting my emails anymore???" you can search for their email address, and we'll tell you if the recipient hard bounced, reported you for abuse, or soft bounced too many times in a row (all of which would result in their email being unsubscribed from your list).

2. Improved abuse tracking IDs in headers
All email campaigns sent from MailChimp are embedded with a little string of code in the header. That code in your campaign's header helps tech-savvy recipients quickly identify that the email was sent from our server, and it lets them report abuse directly to our abuse desk staff. Previously, it only sent a message to our staff. Now, it's also wired directly into your account, so that the recipient is automatically unsubscribed from your list (just like our feedback loop system).  We still investigate all abuse reports, but this will help get recipients removed the instant they complain.


3. Changed soft bounce cleaning rules
A lot of us in the email service industry clean soft bounces after the "third strike." But that can be pretty harsh for people who send daily email alerts. You could have members of your list on vacation for 3 days, so their "I'm away" autoreplies would get them unsubscribed by mistake.

Our customers who send very frequent emails start to see their lists shrink, especially around this time in the summer. So we upped our soft bounce cleaner to 5 strikes, instead. We think that's a good balance to prevent unwanted unsubscribes, and to also keep inactive accounts off your list.

September 10, 2006 in MailChimp News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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