Author Archives: Guy Hanson

About Guy Hanson

Guy has spent more than 20 years working in various aspects of marketing and data management. His current employment with Return Path’s professional services team represents a natural fit - providing response consulting solutions to a broad range of international clients to optimise the performance of their email marketing programmes. Guy is a regular contributor to the EM press and a frequent speaker at major industry events. He has also led the delivery of numerous whitepapers, including the DMA’s Email Marketing Best Practice Guidelines.

Take The Right Line

Email subscriber engagement is increasingly important as a determinant of inbox placement and positioning. For email marketers, the challenge is to identify drivers of positive engagement, and applying that knowledge to create campaigns that their subscribers consider informational, educational, or amusing. Success is being measured by important new metrics such as “retrieved from spam”, “deleted after reading”, and “marked as not spam” as these metrics increase, so will program performance.

Subject line testing has always been a simple yet highly effective way of identifying positive behavioural drivers. The principle is easy – prior to the main broadcast, create two or more test cells, create different subject lines for a common email creative, identify which one performs best (opens, clicks, conversions), then apply the winning subject line to the remaining subscribers. I’ve regularly seen this approach driving positive uplifts in campaign responsiveness of 33% or more, when benchmarked against the worst-performing alternative.

However, even subject line testing requires a degree of organization that isn’t always available to email marketers, who are notoriously time poor. I’ve often found myself wishing for a tool that would answer those magical questions (“What’s the best subject line length?”, “Which words can’t I use?”, “Are special characters a bad idea?”) without running a load of tests first. Now, to my unalloyed glee, I have such a tool at my fingertips, and I spent a few happy hours last week using it to test (and deconstruct!) some conventional email wisdom.

To provide some context – I have recently worked with email marketing programs in the “Restaurants” sector, so I pulled a 30 day snapshot from our reporting network, comprising 826 discrete campaigns, from a range of casual dining vendors. The key metrics that I evaluated against were “Read Rates” (a highly positive subscriber engagement metric) and “Spam Complaint Rates” (highly negative).

The first test focused on campaign size. I categorized each broadcast as small, medium, or large, with a hypothesis that “smaller” equated with more targeted audiences while “larger” corresponded with more generic audiences. This was spot-on – read rates for smaller campaigns were higher than the sector average, but declined as campaign size increased. Spam complaints for smaller campaigns were below the sector average, but increased as campaign size increased.

I then used the subject lines to categorise emails by message type. A well-understood element of email best practice is to avoid bombarding subscribers with a steady stream of offers, and identifying other touch points to create a more varied subscriber experience. Again, the numbers backed up the rationale – on average, welcome emails generated read rates that were almost 3 times higher than the benchmark, with thank you emails, birthday emails, and anniversary emails all generally twice as effective. Birthday emails also carry an important lesson about relevance – complaint rates for this message type are twice the benchmark, suggesting that for emails where date of send is crucial to success, getting it wrong will be punished.

Using ostensibly “spam trigger” words (“Special”, “Offer”, “Free”) all delivered read rates 25% to 50% higher than the sector average. However, there was also a corresponding trend of increased spam complaint rates. Clearly, the use of these words generates something of a love-hate response from subscribers, and marketers need to evaluate whether the upside outweighs the downside for their programs.

Subject line length also demonstrated some clear variations in subscriber responsiveness. I categorised them as: short< = 25 characters; medium <= 50 characters; long > 50 characters. Short subject lines performed best, with a 10% uplift in read rates against the benchmark, while medium subject lines under-performed by a similar measure. Interestingly, responsiveness then started swinging back toward long subject lines. While a short, punchy subject line that doesn’t get truncated would seem the preferred approach, longer subject lines that carry more detail about the email’s contents are also effective.

Lastly, I evaluated the effect of commonly-used special characters on subscriber responsiveness. Top-level results were that using financial amounts is good (read rates up 10%), as is exclamation marks (read rates up 30%), but subscribers clearly don’t like being too challenged – read rates went down by 20% when the subject line posed a question!

All of these findings are a bit of fun, and I wouldn’t want readers to start quoting these numbers as the new industry gold standard. However, there is a serious point to be made – email subject lines represent the point of departure for any journey that leads toward improved subscriber engagement. Email marketing is highly competitive, and smart practitioners are investing time and resource to identify the approaches to which their subscribers will respond most positively. And, as with all competitions, to the victor go the spoils – in the form of improved deliverability, greater subscriber responsiveness, and increased campaign ROI.

2011 roundup of best practice white papers – Chairman’s summary

The Email Marketing Council’s Legal Data & Best Practice (LD&BP) hub has been reviewing the current email marketing best practices document over the past few months, and the publication of a revised version is imminent.

One of the things that the review process has identified is a need for more detailed guidance in certain key areas of the email marketing customer life cycle. For this reason, a number of supporting white papers have been produced, which can be found in the “Toolkit” section of the DMA’s website (www.dma.org.uk/toolkit), where they are available for download free to Members.

Here’s a quick summary of what has been produced to date:

Deliverability: Aimed at email program owners who have realised that their broadcasts are experiencing delivery problems, and are trying to identify why this may be the case. Looking at key factors such as sender reputation, spam filtering, blacklist operators, the document provides common-sense guidance on how to deal with them, including 10 easy-to-follow steps to improve your email deliverability.

Creative: Good creative is still an important determinant of a successful email campaign, and is sometimes the only connection a subscriber has with your brand. This document demonstrates that email creative is not a dark art requiring witchcraft and technical know-how! Rather, in non-technical language, it provides some easy-to-implement recommendations that will quickly optimise the performance of your email campaigns.

Data Analysis & Segmentation: Sets out a simple process to help email marketers start segmenting their data, and analysing their results. It defines five key areas to focus on, including: setting objectives; finding the right data; choosing the right segments; different segmentation models, and; effective use of segmentation. It also examines the best methods and approaches to implementing segmentation, as well as how best to interpret the results.

Split Testing: Provides email marketers with the basic capabilities that they will need to run split-testing activity. It looks firstly at the fundamentals that need to be in place to run a split testing program, and then examines ten prime opportunities where split testing can be introduced into any email marketing program to identify the optimal approach to maximise campaign response rates.

Triggered Campaigns: Delivering timely and relevant email messages, using trigger-based email marketing, plays an important part of email best practice. By analysing subscriber behaviour and identifying meaningful changes and/or events, organisations can communicate with their customers at a point when they are most likely to be receptive. This strengthens customer relationships by making them feel valued, and it is not unusual for trigger-based emails to attract high open rates as a result.

In addition to the documents that have been described above, there are also three new white papers whose publication is imminent:

  • Using 3rd Party Data For List Rental & Lead Generation
  • A Layman’s Guide to Email Marketing Law
  •  Email Lifecycle Marketing

And there are a further two which are scheduled for arrival during Q1 of the New Year:

  • Organic List Growth
  • Measurement & Reporting

The production of these documents is a collaborative process and the Email Marketing Council, as the representative body of the much larger interest group, is constantly feeding in new ideas about key issues which email marketers would like to have expert guidelines for. Hopefully, the documents described in this article are servicing this need, but it would be great to have direct feedback on whether they are useful, and what the email marketing community would like to see produced next. If you have any feedback for us, then drop a line to email@dma.org.uk , or online via LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

 

Guy Hanson Chairs the The Email Marketing Council’s Legal Data & Best Practice (LD&BP) hub. He is Director, Response Consulting for Return Path.

Why Your Email Marketing Program Is Like A Dead Badger?

Driving home last night, I saw a dead badger on the roadside, and I started ruminating on similarities between dead badgers and email marketing programs ! Not so much from the perspective of being a bit flat, somewhat run down, or showing the first signs of decay ( although all of those are potentially applicable ). Rather, that badgers are notoriously shy, so to be able to estimate their population size, a simple rule of thumb is to take the number of dead badgers on the roadside, and multiply that number by 10 to arrive at a rough estimate of the number of living badgers in that area. The key point is that an apparently small cause can provide a pointer to a much larger effect, hence my unlikely association between badgers and email marketing.

Consider spam complaints. Provided that they are being monitored ( that’s another point ! ) they will form around 0.1% of a good sender’s broadcast . Such a small number is easy to ignore, but it can point to bigger issues:

  • According to Return Path’s recent Sender Reputation report, 0.1% equates broadly with a sender reputation score of 90+, with the program achieving ISP accepted rates in the high 90% as a result. By comparison, a complaint rate of 0.4% maps roughly onto a score somewhere between 50 and 80. The corresponding accepted rates decline markedly – anywhere between 27% to 88% – as a result.
  • There is also churn to be considered. Let’s say you have an email list of 1M addresses, sending on a weekly basis. That 0.4% complaint rate equates with losing 1/5 of your subscribers over the course of a year, and every single one of them is leaving because they are unhappy with your program.

Unsubscribe requests are a similar case in point. The most recent edition of the DMA’s Email Benchmarking Report shows average opt-out rates for retention campaigns at 1%. As above, that small percentage actually provides the frame for a bigger picture. There are also some additional points to consider :

  • Leading on from my comments about spam complaints – if you aren’t reporting on this metric, and are only using unsubscribes to measure levels of disaffection with your program, then you are under-reporting the true state of affairs by a probable factor of two, and possibly more.
  • Disengagement should also be regarded as a form of opt-out. Your recipients may not physically request their removal, but if they stop responding then they have become “emotionally unsubscribed”. A re-activation program is your first step, but all the non-responders should then be opted out.

Another small number that can conceal bigger issues is bounce rates. The same DMA report shows average bounce rates for retention campaigns as 2%. Using the same example as above, you would lose your entire database in slightly under a year at this rate !

But there is another alarming dimension to this metric – bounce rates for new subscribers are nearly always substantially higher than the average bounce rate for your entire list. For example, if new subscribers form 2.5% of the total broadcast, then an average bounce rate of 2% might easily mask a new subscriber bounce rate of 20%. To counter this, email marketers need to be doing the following :

  • Report separately on the first-broadcast performance of new email addresses.
  • Ensure new registrants have a strong imperative to supply a good address.
  • Validate new addresses using a process such as double entry, or confirmed opt-in.

So – at the risk of mixing my metaphors, my advice is to look between the trees ( the small numbers ) and see all the badgers that are frolicking in the woods ( the larger considerations ). Learn to interpret these metrics, and act quickly on what may at face value appear to be small variances. In this way, you can remain confident that the first whiff of putrefaction really is coming from that poor badger alongside the A5, and not from your slowly decaying email program instead !

Hotnail and I !

Previously, I wrote an article about the number of different ways that common domain names get mis-spelt. In the case of “Hotmail”, I stopped counting once we got into three figures ! It was a tongue in cheek article, although it did have a serious point to make about the importance of list hygiene.

More recently a new dimension to this topic has been emerging. All email marketers should be familiar with the principle of spam traps – ISPs co-opt dormant email addresses, and monitor the e-marketing traffic that is sent to these addresses. The rationale is that good email programs know who their dormant records are, and will suppress them from their broadcast activities. Those programs that continue to use these addresses are regarded as being more lax in the list hygiene standards that they apply. In turn, this informs spam filter and / or mail blocking decisions that are applied against these programs. Ultimately, that’s bad news for your email program’s sender reputation metrics.

However, a close scrutiny of even “clean” lists will identify email addresses that – in theory – ought not to work. Let’s take guy.hanson@homail.com as an example. The initial assumption is that this should have been guy.hanson@hotmail.com, but that it was mis-typed at point of data entry. However, despite multiple uses, this address has never generated a bounce notification, which is what one might have reasonably expected. In addition to the sender reputation implications, this is bad news for your campaign response metrics, which are being diluted as a result of because you are broadcasting to addresses that will never generate positive response behaviour.

So the next assumption is that maybe “www.homail.com” is actually a valid domain. That’s an easy one to prove – put it into your web browser, and don’t be surprised when it re-routes to www.live.com ! That’s right – Microsoft has registered a lot of the most common mis-spellings as valid domains, and it is not a big leap of faith to believe that at least part of the reason for this to get a handle of the email traffic that is being sent to these invalid domains. Not convinced ? Try “hotamil.com”, “hortmail,com”, “otmail.com”, “hotamail.com” – same result. Behold – a new spam trap is born !

Hotmail is also not the only ISP to be doing this. AOL does something similar, and you will see the same effect with the likes of “a0l,com” ( with a zero ) and “aool.com”, both of which re-route to “aol.com”.

Of course, some of these mis-spellings are not necessarily mis-spellings at all. It’s the same principle as the smarter SEO programs which, in addition to leveraging their most popular search keywords, will also extend their reach to include incorrect variations of the same. So if you got to “hotnail.com”, you won’t be able to access your inbox, but you will find some great deals on manicures ! It strikes one as being an almost parasitic relationship, and Hotnail must benefit from shedloads of inadvertent web traffic – especially with “n” being right next to “m” on a standard QWERTY keyboard. “Hotmale.com” is another good case in point, although I wouldn’t recommend this website to those of a less broad minded disposition !

So what should e-marketers be doing about these mis-spellings, especially as they could be generating negative sender reputation consequences for your email programs ? A good starting point is to extract a list of all your “never bounced / never opened / never clicked” addresses. Sort them by most common domain first, identify all the obvious mis-spellings, and suppress them. There are also third party tools available on the web that can do this for you.

Then make sure that you are fixing the problem at source. Making double opt-in your preferred permissioning mechanism is the gold standard solution. Failing this, validated opt-in, double entry of the email address ( to mitigate against finger fumbles ) or real time domain validation would all represent effective solutions to the problem.

Ultimately, it’s all about recognising that good data hygiene practices are fundamental to a healthy set of sender reputation metrics. Good email marketers will already know this, but even for them the science of email deliverability is not as black and white as was once the case. Increasingly, it is a case of learning to read between the lines, and list hygiene practices such as the ones described in this post can certainly be expected to become more commonplace as a result.

How Do I Love Thee? With a Stick of Biltong!

When Elizabeth Browning penned the immortal lines “How do I love thee ? Let me count the ways” in the mid-1800s, she had some fairly traditional answers in mind : “freely”, “purely”, and “with the breath, smiles and tears of all my life” provides you with the gist of what she was thinking. However, she would have arched her eyebrows if she had lived to see the advent of email marketing ! Post Valentine’s Day, I had a quick run through my inbox to see which brands had jumped onto the love wagon and attempted to shoe-horn their products and services into a Valentine’s message to greatest effect ? The results were intriguing !

For starters, there were the usual suspects. M&S was offering flowers, lingerie and the opportunity to dine in for £20 – a fine example of cross selling, if I ever saw one ! Interestingly, one of my colleagues received a version of this email where the gift card in the image had been personalised with his name – a really nice touch. Thorntons also tapped into the Valentine’s zeitgeist with last minute chocolate offers, which is always a God send for the average bloke who has left things too late ! And Kettners champagne bar came up with an intriguing proposition ( excuse the pun ) for a “Romantic Rendezvous . . . perfect for wooing, seducing, and even proposing !”

Then there were some slightly more left field examples. Chelsea Megastore got in on the act, offering their “New Torres Collection” – an interesting Valentine’s pitch given the heartbreak that is currently being experienced at The Bridge ! Dixon’s was encouraging us to “Treat someone this Valentine’s Day” by buying them a camera, a camcorder, or a satnav – presumably so that one’s wife could plot the quickest route to the dog box when she received it ! And Silverstone race track also got in on the act, encouraging those looking for Valentine’s inspiration to “Treat your someone special to a Nissan GT-R Thrill, plus two Silverstone Supercar race day tickets”. I reckon that you might expect a turbo-charged response to that one – wonder if a few relationships saw the chequered flag as a result !

But my personal favourite came from a small company called Cruga. Those of you who know me will also know that I have a South African background. Every now and then, I have a particular craving for a traditional South African treat – most often biltong, which is basically raw meat that has been spiced and dried until it’s really chewy ( admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea ). Cruga is a Milton Keynes-based outlet for SA goods, and as a regular customer I am on their mailing list.

Their pre-Valentine’s email dropped into my inbox with the truly memorable subject line of “Save 30% on Biltong this Valentine’s Day” ! Having whetted my appetite, it then proceeded to really give me something to chew on with the following unforgettable copy :

“Valentine’s is traditionally a day on which lovers express their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards. At Cruga Biltong we don’t sell any of these typical Valentine Day gifts, but we do offer you the choice to be unique and buy one of our South African food gift packs or make-up your own from our vast range of beef and game biltong packs and other much loved South African food items.”

It then sealed the deal with a voucher that I could bring in to redeem against my “Valentine’s Day Offer” !

Job done – I was 100% engaged. In fact, engagement on Valentine’s Day seems to be a recurring theme in my life, but that was 15 years ago and another story altogether ! But there was a potential kink in the boerewors ( Afrikaans for “farmers sausage” ) – would my wife be as enthused as I was ? There was only one way to find out – I canvassed her, as well as my youngster, and remarkably my focus group of sample size 2 returned a unanimously positive verdict !

So this year there were no flowers, no jewellery, and no perfume. Instead, there was a gift pack comprising biltong, boerewors, plus a few other items from Cruga’s menu of SA-sourced treats. And they say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach !

So – more proof, if any were needed, that the love affair with email marketing is going strong !

Do Spam Filters Experience Christmas Goodwill?

Given that we are now well into the festive period, I thought that I’d put a seasonal spin on this blog, and have a look at how email marketers tap into the Christmas spirit. I took a look at the thousand-odd marketing emails that I’ve received since the beginning of October, and run some distinctly non-scientific analysis against them to see who’s doing what.

So who was quickest out of the blocks ? I heard a stat earlier today that the first Christmas TV advertisement was spotted on the 17th of October ( although some will argue that the BBC was punting the Doctor Who Christmas special in early July ! ). Email was definitely champing at the festive bit – by my reckoning, first mover was Cheapflights Travel, encouraging us as early as the 5th of October to book “Xmas market flights from £10”. That’s probably fair – planning a holiday requires a bit of lead time, and the likes of DFDS Seaways, Expedia, Center Parcs, Telegraph Travel and Flybe all saw Christmas action in early October.

They were quickly followed by some of the big names in retail ( M&S and Debenhams ), the restaurant chains ( Real Greek was looking for Christmas bookings by the 13th October ), and the chocolate companies ( Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat ) were both quickly in action. Most of those are just about understandable ( although I was still mowing the lawn in my shorts when they came out ! ) but there was a slight element of Bah Humbug from Martin’s Money Tips who – also on the 13th October – gloomily informed us : “Warning! Christmas will be on 25 Dec this year. That may sound flippant, but many blame January skintness on the festive season”.

I was also interested to see what keywords e-marketers use to flag up the festive season. In my informal sample, over 20% of all the emails that I looked at took the traditional approach, referring specifically to “Christmas”. This was followed, in declining order of popularity by “winter holidays”, “festive season”, and “Xmas”. Personally, I’ve always found that last one a bit vulgar, and it was interesting to see that the first email containing “Xmas” came out a full month before the first one containing “Christmas”. Anecdotally, I think that it is a better type of brand that leans towards the use of the latter . . . !

There were also references to “presents”, “crackers”, and even one to “crimbo” ! However, what I started to look for next were indicators that some e-marketers might actually remember the true purpose of Christmas, so I scanned for references to the likes of “peace”, “Jesus” and “Christ”. Sadly, there were distressingly few references to any of these, although I did get excited to see a whole tranche of Barclaycard emails flagging up that they contained references to “church”. Until I had a closer look, and realised that they were false positives – it was actually their registered address of 1 Churchill Place that was actually registering !

The last thing that I found myself wondering about was whether any of these expressions have the potential to inadvertently become spam triggers. At this time of year, e-marketing volumes go through the roof, so it stands to reason that there is a possibility that even “Christmas” might inadvertently become a spam trigger, as higher complaint rates cause spam trigger knowledge bases to be populated with these text strings.

I looked at our own spam filter solutions first, and the good news was that there didn’t seem to be any obvious trending there. Next, I compared my inbox with my junk folder to see whether there was any variance between the two in terms of emails containing festive season content. There was, but possibly not in the direction that I had been expecting – slightly over 60% of recent emails in my inbox made reference to the festive season using one or more of the expressions that I have already highlighted in this article. However, in the case of my junk folder ( which runs on its default settings ) this figure was only 30%, so perhaps all that festive season content is a big positive when it comes to getting your marketing emails into the inbox, where all of your customers will see them. Just not in July, please . . . !

Charity Begins in the Inbox

I received an email appeal from Blue Cross, the animal welfare charity this week. They were launching their 2010 Xmas catalogue, and it was the usual combination of fluffy kittens, beseeching brown eyes, and the un-missable opportunity to send “Merry Meerkats” Christmas cards to all of my friends and family this year!

However, my professional interest also meant that I subjected the email to a quick critique, and the first thing that struck me was the lack of an unsubscribe link. Let’s ignore the fact that industry legislation dictates that all marketing emails should have one, and focus for the time being on simply wondering if Blue Cross realises how badly this simple omission might be affecting their fund raising efforts ? While their intentions are unquestionably worthy, sometimes consumers have a change of heart about wanting to receive marketing emails. And when they do, if they can’t find an unsubscribe link, they are going to hit the junk button instead.

From there, it’s a vicious circle. Spam complaints degrade the sender’s reputation metrics. Or even worse – they get blocked. Either way, that’s less emails in the inbox. Which in turn means less emails opened, less clicks generated, and less conversions to sale. And ultimately meaning less funds in the coffers to try and find homes for all of those poor animals who are currently in their care, and for whom finding a loving new home would be the best Christmas present ever.

Blue Cross is missing some other tricks as well:

• When you sign up to receive their emails, they ask for your forename. So why does the resulting email then address me as “Dear Supporter” ? Especially for a charity, a strong relationship with its members is vital, and good personalisation is an easy win in this regard.

• The large single image that forms the top third of the email is roughly the same size as your average preview pane. So guess what the average recipient is going to see when they receive one of these emails, and images have yet to be enabled ( there is no request to be added to trusted senders list, by the way ). That’s right – nothing ! Not good when you are trying to steal a march in the recognition stakes.

• They should also think about trying to get their email program certified ( it isn’t at present ). Some of the large certification vendors such as Return Path offer free certification to charities, and this confers big benefits in terms of getting onside with the likes of Hotmail and Yahoo!, and automatic image enablement is a major driver in obtaining improved response rates.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking Blue Cross. They are an extremely worthy organisation, and deserve every penny of support that they generate. But as an e-marketer, my experience of charities is that they will spend the bare minimum possible when it comes to their email campaigns. Unfortunately, as with so many aspects of life, penny wise can equate with pound foolish, and this would seem to be the case here. As I’ve explained above, the application of just a smidgen of email best practice would go a long way to improving the performance of these campaigns, and ultimately that is going to mean more funds in the coffers to help them achieve the exceptionally noble cause that they represent.