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By Reggie Brady

RISMEDIA, Jan. 23, 2008-(eM+C Weekly)-E-mail is evolving. As you lay the groundwork for your 2008 plans, here are questions that will challenge and affect your planning.

Q. How do I know if my list growth is on pace with my competitors?
List growth is defined as all new additions to your housefile minus bounces, opt-outs and any spam complaints received from ISPs. Your bounces are the largest negative factor. Remove all hard bounces immediately and retire soft bounces after three or four separate campaigns (or move them to a separate file for periodic recontact).

Research firm MarketingSherpa recently conducted a survey of several thousand marketers on net list growth. It reported consumer marketers enjoy 37% net list growth per year, while business-to-business marketers see 22% annual file growth. Use those figures as a benchmark for your program.

Q. My list growth is on target. Is it simply a numbers game?
Absolutely not. A good list is built on quality and not quantity. Quality starts with good permission practices, a plan to build a relationship with sign-ups and an execution strategy that delivers on the intention. Examine the list sources that contribute to the makeup of your list. You’ll see the best quality from e-mail sign-ups on your Web site, opt-ins collected during online checkout and those solicited by your inbound customer representatives. The majority of your list should come from these sources. Addresses collected from e-mail appending, co-registration offers, and from contests and sweepstakes will not be as productive.

Don’t forget to make use of all channels available to you. If you have retail stores, be sure to capture e-mail addresses at these locations. Your print and direct mail order forms should ask for e-mail addresses. In the past, marketers worried that e-mail address capture on these forms would depress response. Today, many marketers find no response difference; although a few marketers still report lower results.

Another factor that improves list quality is to collect additional information about the recipient. While you do want to keep the registration process as short and easy as possible, you need to balance that with the ability to learn more about your sign-ups. At a minimum, be sure to collect first name, last name, ZIP and/or postal code. You can use this information for personalization and to match against your customer records. You’ll also benefit if you can ask one question about their interests and preferences.

Q. What’s e-mail authentication and why do organizations like the DMA require members to use this technology?
Today, the prevalence of spam and phishing makes it important that recipients trust that the e-mail they receive is legitimate. Authentication technology was developed as one method to fight the deluge of unsolicited commercial e-mail and has been accepted as an industry standard. As one example, the Direct Marketing Association requires all members to authenticate. E-mail authentication is an automated method to verify the identity of the sender. If your list contains ISP e-mail addresses, you’ll want to be sure to authenticate. There are three different systems in place today: Sender Policy Framework, Microsoft’s Sender ID and DomainKeys Identified Mail. Don’t let the technical jargon put you off. SPF and Sender ID are relatively easy to set up and free. You register at the respective services sites and list those servers (IP addresses) that send your e-mail. Be sure to include your standard e-mail programs, customer service e-mails and any other major classes of e-mails your company sends. You also can register IP addresses that will never send your company’s e-mail. When an ISP receives an e-mail from your company, it does a look-up to see whether the sending IP address matches the address that was registered for the company. If it does, your e-mail passes the first test and you have a better chance of having your e-mails accepted by the ISP. If it doesn’t, your e-mail either might not be accepted or it might be delivered to a bulk folder. Some ISPs include a warning at the top of an e-mail from an unrecognized sender. DomainKeys Identified Mail requires additional e-mail customization. Most of the ESPs (vendors that send e-mails on behalf of clients) have adopted this standard. If you want to improve the likelihood that your e-mails will be delivered, authenticate. For more information and help, search e-mail authentication on the DMA’s Web site.

Q. Content filters or reputation – which is most important?
Most marketers do run their e-mail campaigns through a content filter to make sure the subject line and the body of the e-mail won’t be designated as spam. Many of the ESP systems have built-in content filters, and there also are free online checkers offered by sites such as Lyris and SiteSell. A year ago, consumer and business marketers mainly relied on content filters to improve the odds their e-mails would be delivered. You have a reputation, whether you actively focus on it or not. Your reputation essentially is a rating you receive from ISPs and businesses based on your e-mail practices. They look at areas such as your e-mail infrastructure (including authentication), bounces (and the types of bounces), spam complaint rates, and whether you are on blacklists or whitelists. This helps them determine whether to accept your mail and whether it should be delivered to the primary inbox or to a bulk folder. A Return Path study on non-delivery of e-mails showed 77% of issues related to the sender’s reputation, and content played a role in only 23% of delivery issues. You can manage your reputation on your own by embracing best practices, gaining clear permission and developing a good e-mail infrastructure. Or you can elect to work with reputation-management systems such as Goodmail Systems’ CertifiedE-mail , Return Path’s Sender Score and Habeas . For a fee, they vet your practices and, if you qualify, you are designated as a trusted sender and put on a super whitelist. This will improve your delivery.

Q. I’ve got limited time and resources. What should I test?
It’s relatively easy to test with e-mail. But every test takes time to set up and analyze. Here are four areas you absolutely should plan to test. They will enhance your success and your profitability.

Subject lines.
You know subject lines impact open rates, and you want your campaigns to be opened and read. Stand out in a cluttered inbox. This is very easy to test.”

I had a big surprise when I conducted an informal audit of my inbox. About 18% of programs I receive send two or three e-mail messages a week. This strategy is risky, particularly with the potential for higher opt-outs and spam complaints. I don’t advocate high frequency, but if you’re thinking about stepping up the timing of your e-mails, isolate a portion of your list and send on a less frequent schedule. Monitor performance of the two groups over several months to understand the full impact.

Relevant communications keep your recipients interested and engaged. When you customize and tailor your program to target specific groups, you’ll be more successful. Too many marketers use a “one size fits all” approach to e-mail. Don’t be overwhelmed, knowing a full segmentation strategy can be complex to set up and manage. Start with a simple approach. Key in on one demographic, geographic or behavioral variable, and develop messaging and offers to support what you know about that group. Every campaign doesn’t need to include this targeting, but you should systematically focus on the variable over time. Then look at performance after three or four months for this group. You should see a difference, and it could lay the groundwork for a more robust approach. It’s not too late to make some changes to your e-mail program. Take these ideas, put plans in place, and have a successful and profitable 2008.

Source: eM+C Weekly