How Authentication Helps Your Deliverability
If you send a lot of email marketing, you should start thinking about authentication.
Authenticating your email is basically like having a license plate on a car. If you do something wrong, or just act suspicious while driving, the police can look up the license plate number, and see if you're really the owner.
Some ISPs are already checking for these "license plates" on incoming email.
If you do something spammy (like suddenly send waaaaaay too many emails at one time from a fresh new IP address) they'll check for authentication to see if you're legit.
There are basically two major types of authentication. Microsoft has their SenderID framework, which is fairly easy to implement. This is very similar to the license plate analogy. Yahoo came up with DKIM authentication, which is kind of like checking a car's license plate, plus the driver's fingerprints. It's more thorough, but also a lot harder to implement for some people.
From time to time, we like to highlight our cool customers, and some of the offbeat stuff they sell...
Giant Robot uses MailChimp. I found this LEGO jewelry page on their website. Yes, you can snap real pieces to that ring. I love LEGOS. Speaking of LEGOS, Brickworkz uses MailChimp too. Check out some of their insane LEGO mosaics.
Showcase: Crickskipper Email Newsletter
I can't stop staring at these illustrations. They're spooky, but cool.
Aaron Nather, aka Crickskipper, uses MailChimp to update subscribers on his latest artwork. He's customized our 2-column built-in template to match his very unique style.
From Aaron: "You guys have a great product that's far exceeded my expectations. I'm blown away by the fact that I can manage all of this myself with about two hours of prep time per email."
Can Spammy Keywords HELP Your Spam Score?
GourmetStation.com recently used our Inbox Inspector add-on to check how their campaigns render in all the major email programs, and to test their work in spam filters.
Running their campaign through real, live spam filters gave us some valuable insight into how they work, and how sometimes, slashing those "spammy" keywords that we've all learned to avoid from your copy can actually hurt your spam score!
When we launched our Inbox Inspector Add-on, GourmetStation had already sent their Easter Campaign. Still, they wanted to go back and look at how that campaign looked in the major email programs, so they ran some reports on it.
(click to zoom in)
If we click on the thumbnail for Microsoft Outlook 2003, which would be used by a lot of their "at work" recipients, we can see exactly where the email scrolls on a 1024x768 resolution screen (look for the red dotted line):
Not too bad! They even got their call to action button above the scroll.
But they wanted better. Gourmet Station went back and modified their design for their upcoming Mothers Day campaign, and here's what it looks like in Outlook 2003:
You'll notice their logo and "view this in your browser" stuff at the top of the email take up less room, so now their call to action button is way above the scroll, and even allows their "$79.99 Plus Free Shipping -- Click for details" text to peek out above the scroll. It's nice that they made this text (instead of images), too. Just in case people have their images turned off.
Here's a close up of their new, space-saving header graphic:
Some of you might be thinking, "Wouldn't the "$79.99 Plus Free Shipping" and "Click for details" text in their content set off all the spam filters?" That's what we've all been taught, right?
Not necessarily. In general, it's true that you should avoid too many spammy keywords like "FREE" in your campaign, but spam filters are a lot more sophisticated than that. That's why you've got to check your campaigns in real, live spam filters if you want to know the truth.
When we check the Spam Filter report (screenshot below), the campaign actually passes all the spam filters. Spam Assassin gave it a score of "1.7" (the default threshold for Spam Assassin is 5, so there's plenty of breathing room here).
But the email didn't get past the Postini firewall (check out the red "failed" icon):
Clicking the "Reasons" link reveals that Postini thinks it's some kind of "special offer" and that's apparently spammy to them (nevermind the fact that our recipients have opted-in specifically to receive "special offers").
At this point, we can try to tweak our copy until we get a 100% perfect score, but then again, that could hurt our conversion rates. I mean, getting past Postini would be nice, but "Free shipping" is an extremely powerful offer for retailers. I'm not sure I'd sacrifice that phrase just for a perfect score here.
Just out of curiosity, I removed the words "Free" and "Click" from the message. For example, instead of "Free Shipping" I used "Shipping's on us." That resulted in a lower Spam Assassin score (it plummeted from 1.7 to 0.2!) but it still wouldn't get past Postini.
Hmm. I then removed any remotely spammy keywords from the message: Free, Click, Shipping, $, Gift, etc. Heck, I even took out the word "brunch."
Not only did it still fail Postini, but my Spam Assassin score shot back up to 1.1!
The reason they gave me? "BODY: HTML has a low ratio of text to image area (0.9 pts)" In plain English, that means I have too many pretty pictures, and not enough text to balance things out. All fluff, no substance.
Those "spammy" words that I removed actually would have helped my spam score!
By the way, this "low ratio of text to image area" is why you should never send an "image only" html email campaign.
As you can see, simply removing spammy keywords doesn't always help. In rare cases, it can actually hurt! The only way to tell is to actually test your campaign in real, live spam filters.
A big thanks to Donna and Jon at GourmetStation for letting us see these reports.
National Retail Federation's Mothers Day Spending Survey
Time to get those Mother's Day email campaigns scheduled (oh yeah, and time to go get a gift for mom!).
According to the National Retail Federation's 2007 Mother's Day Consumer Actions and Intentions survey, consumers plan to spend $15.73 billion This Mother's Day, spending an average of $139.14 on the holiday compared to last year's $122.16.
The study found 84.5% of consumers plan to celebrate this year by spending:
- $1.6 billion on clothes and accessories (37.0%)
- $2.1 billion on jewelry (32.8%)
- $2.3 billion on flowers (72.4%)
- $3.1 billion on a special dinner or brunch at their favorite restaurant (61.0%)
- $1.3 billion on a trip to the spa or beauty salon (19.7%)
If want all kinds of crazy research stats like this every single morning, sign up at MediaPost for their "Center for Media Research" list.
Reclaim Old Customer Emails (example)
Q: "I have a list of 9,000 customer email addresses. I haven't emailed them in a while, and now I'm ready to start sending them email newsletters. How can I do this without getting blacklisted, or angering my customers?"
A: Very carefully. If these recipients haven't heard from you in a long time, chances are they already forgot opting in. Or, your emails just aren't relevant to them anymore. And just because they bought something from you 5 years ago, it doesn't mean they want to get email newsletters from you today. The chances are very high that they'll click that nasty "this is spam" button in their email program. If only a handful of recipients click that button, some ISPs will start blocking all future emails from your company.
So you've got to be extremely careful. Here's some advice we gave someone yesterday, who asked us this very question:
- Send a "Re-introduction" campaign. The tone of the email is the most important factor here. Think more "Letter from the president" than "Boy, have we got an offer for you!!!!"
- In that email, try to remind them how you got their contact information. If they've purchased something from your site, or if they've opted in, put that in your message. Got an order ID? Name of the product they bought? Mail-merge it in.
- Give an incentive to stay opted-in. If I did business with you years ago, why would i want to do business with you again?
- Send the re-introduction campaign to very small chunks of your list. Don't just blast one message to 9,000 people. Break it into smaller lists of 1,000 or 2,000. And why not spread it out over several days? That way, you can watch for abuse complaints, and tweak content for maximum effectiveness.
So check this out.
This morning, I received an email (out of the blue) from Modern Postcard. I haven't heard from them in years. How'd they do it?
Waaaaaay back when we started MailChimp in 2001, I made postcards (the paper kind), and mailed them out (the snail-mail kind, not email) to a list of creative directors and ad agencies that I purchased from D&B Online. I did it all through ModernPostcard's website. I think I sent 250 pieces or so, and got about 3 customers out of it. One of those customers has been with us for years, and has more than paid for that campaign, so I was pleased.
Overall, it was pretty nice using Modern Postcard. Well worth it.
But I haven't printed anymore postcards, or heard anything else from them since then.
I think their "Re-introduction" email does a perfect job (click to zoom in):
Keep in mind it's early morning, I've got my giant coffee mug in my left hand, and I'm using my right hand to click on emails in my inbox and mark them as spam. It's like this every morning: spam, spam, spam, spam, save for later. spam, spam, spam, spam, save for later.
This is literally what my inbox looked like:
Here's what convinced me to open Modern Postcard's email:
The From ("Sender") field: They put their company name in it. I remember using them, so I know it's not a stranger.
The Subject line: It's not overly spammy, and it also has their company name in it.
Here's what convinced me to sign up, and not just delete it forever:
It's not bright and jazzy and slick (overly sales-y). And coming from a postcard printing company, you know it must have been hard for them to hold back on that. They knew that this should be more "letter from the president" than anything else. I have no idea if Blake Miller is actually their president, but this email sure looks like it. This is more polite, and it makes me feel like they know what they're doing, and they're not just going to send me tons of crap every other day (I hope).
Incentive to stay: I'll get a free PDF if I sign up. Hey, I'm a sucker for PDFs.
Would love to hear from Modern Postcard on how much of their list they actually retained after this campaign. When we've done this for clients in the past, we've seen their lists get reduced by about 50%.
Just in case you're curious, here's a screenshot of the landing page (if you click the "sign up" link):
I think the checkboxes are a nice touch.
First of all, they're not pre-checked. If they were, I would have left the page immediately out of disgust (or at least rolled my eyes in disdain). Second of all, checkboxes make people stop and read. And when I read what they were offering, I liked what I saw.
Yahoo!Mail To Start Blocking Images
According to Ken Magill, Yahoo might start blocking images in HTML email by default, requiring your recipients to click a "show images" button if they want to see all your pretty graphics.
But if you're Goodmail certified, they'll keep your images on by default.
It's unconfirmed, but I'm inclined to believe it. I think Yahoo is basically testing the waters and seeing what kind of push back they get from all this. You may recall that AOL got quite a lot of complaints about this when they first announced their partnership w/Goodmail. I doubt anybody will complain this time around.
For those of you who don't know, blocking images is a common safety measure that more and more email programs are implementing in order to protect their users' privacy. If your email designers aren't factoring this in, your recipients probably don't see what you want them to see:
Email marketers can get around this safety measure if they are Goodmail Certified. If you pay for certification, your images will always be on (for some ISPs). For more information about email certification, check out this article in the MailChimp Resource Center.
Notes from Authentication and Online Trust Summit
Mark, our resident uber-nerd, is at the Authentication and Online Trust Summit in Boston right now, representing the 'chimp. He's there to learn what measures ISPs are putting in place to block spam and email threats (and what good email marketers need to know).
Is Mark sending me up-to-the-minute updates on breaking anti-spam news via his Blackberry, so that I can post them here on the blog? Nope. He won't even touch a Blackberry. He'll probably just come back next week, sit down at his desk, and quietly tweak MailChimp. Where's the fun in that? Sigh.
Luckily, Tamara Gielen's found someone who is posting updates here.
Spam Filters Need Spam Filters Now
By now, most email marketers know you should avoid using "spammy" phrases like "FREE! CLICK NOW!" or the spam filters will trash your message.
But did you know that before your email even gets to a spam filter, it has to get through a gatekeeper? Yep, spam is so bad, that spam filters now need spam filters to help them.
These gatekeepers kinda look like this:
Looks vicious, doesn't it? They're all over the place. ISPs use them. Large corporations use them. Small businesses are starting to use them.
What's really scary is they all talk to each other. It's how they learn what "spam" is, and who should be blocked (Gulp - are they talking about you right now?).
That's a picture of IronPort's Email Security Appliance. If it thinks your email is spam, it'll gobble it up and fart its remains into cyberspace before your recipient's puny little spam filter even gets a chance to look for the word "V1AGRA". It won't even waste the energy to tell anybody about it (like in a bounce report).
Ever send to your email list and wonder where 5-10% of the emails
seem to disappear off to? Ever wonder why the numbers don't seem to add
up in your deliverability reports? It was probably one of these big,
mean appliances (ReturnPath says its closer to 20% in this PDF Report).
If IronPort thinks your email is "not spam" then it lets your email through (but it'll still get analyzed by a content-based spam filter). And that's when your "avoid spammy content" tactics finally come into play.
To learn more about how IronPort works, they've got an eyebrow-raising demo you should watch. Click the tab at the bottom of the movie, to skip to the "anti-spam" section. Watch the demo
How the heck does this server know what spam is? Your own recipients teach it. When you send an email to your list, and someone on your list thinks it's spam, or doesn't remember opting-in to your list, or if you purchased a list from someone, that person can report you to SpamCop (which was purchased by IronPort in 2003, and is now called "SenderBase"). Get enough SpamCop complaints, and they'll propogate your data to all the IronPort servers around the world, letting everyone know you're a spammer:
Incidentally, your email service provider should be registered at SenderBase, so they can properly investigate every single complaint generated in response to their users' campaigns. At MailChimp, everyone on our staff personally receives copies of any complaints that come in, so we can go suspend the sender's account and investigate immediately.
IronPort is only one of many, many email firewalls, gateways, and security appliances you, as an email marketer, should learn about. Also see:
All of those big, mean, ruthless "gatekeepers" rely on "reputation" scores to block emails before they even get to the content-based spam filters.
So you really want to make sure your reputation is good. How can you do this?
- Never send spam.
- Don't buy lists. Don't use lists that other people gave you.
- Only send to lists of people who know you, and requested emails from you. Otherwise, if you want to get the word out about your company, pick up the phone and call your prospects, or pick up a pen and write them. Or, email them one at a time (see "Definition of spam" and specifically the word "bulk"), from your own email program.
Assuming you're not sending spam, your email design is a huge factor in getting you blocked by one of these gatekeepers:
- When you send emails, always include a "How we got your email" reminder. MailChimp's built-in templates include that information for you, with our *|LIST:DESCRIPTION|* tag. This tag is automatically replaced with the survey information that you provide each time you setup a list in MailChimp.
- Your email designs have to be reputable looking. Get sloppy, and people won't trust your opt-out link, and report you instead. See how one designer got blacklisted from his design.
- Always include a one-click unsubscribe link in every campaign you send (MailChimp adds this for you when you use our built-in templates. If you use your own designs, we'll give you a code snippet).
- Haven't contacted your list in a while? Or is this your first campaign? Send an introduction email. Remind them of who you are, or you'll get a big surge in complaints, and wind up on all those ugly blacklists out there.
- Sometimes, you're not the one who got you blacklisted. It was someone else on the server that you used. If you used a shared email marketing service like MailChimp, where thousands of people are sending emails from the same IP, you're at risk. That's why MailChimp has lots of IPs that we send from, but more importantly, we have a human staff of reviewers who pre-screen all new users before they're allowed to use our system. If a user still manages to generate spam complaints, our abuse desk can shut the user down immediately, and re-route email to our other IPs, while we deal with the blacklist service. This is how we manage to send millions of emails every day from our system. If that still sounds too risky, or if you hate sharing, get your own dedicated IP address from MailChimp.
- But if you think you can send junk, get reported, then switch to a new email server, you are sadly mistaken. Once you get reported, your company's name and domain name are on the lists. They'll know to block ALL emails with your name in it from now on, no matter who sends it, or where it came from. This is why affiliate marketing programs can be so risky. Imagine thousands of sloppy email senders (your affiliates) buying lists and sending emails with your company's domain name in them.
- Still want to make absolutely sure your campaigns won't get blocked? Consider our new Inbox Inspector feature. It checks the most common spam filters, plus MessageLabs, Postini, and IronPort.
- Want to continually monitor your reputation? There are services for that (ReturnPath has their SenderScore Reputation Monitor).
Want to find out what your (or your client's) reputation is? Here's one way:
They'll tell you if it's on any of the blacklists that they search. If it is, then follow instructions on how to get off their lists (tip: you are guilty until proven innocent, every email you send them will probably be posted on a public forum, and you will be asked for proof of opt-in for each complaining recipient).
Thanks to these big email appliances, it doesn't matter what email service provider or email server you send from, or whether or not your content has spammy words in it. If your name is on these lists, your email won't even get delivered.
Nowadays, it's your email reputation that precedes you.
How To Define Spam
As an email marketing service, we have to post clear definitions on what spam is. For us, it's pretty black and white. We use Spamhaus' definition of spam. To paraphrase:
"Spam is Unsolicited Bulk Email ("UBE"). Unsolicited email is not spam. Bulk email is not spam. Combine the two, and you have spam."
If you think you have an exception to that rule, kindly send the email from your own server, thank you. Did you get some 3rd party "opt-in" prospect list? Then send to them one at a time, not in bulk (and send it from your own server, thank you).
However, we do recognize there are shades of gray when it comes to email marketing. LOTS of gray.
Mark Brownlow has written this very long, detailed article that I think covers all those shades of gray.
It's a very good read if you're new to email marketing. But keep in mind that when it's all said and done, your email service provider is probably going to be forced into some more black and white definition of spam.