Author Archives: Margaret Farmakis

Margaret Farmakis

About Margaret Farmakis

As the senior director for Return Path’s Response Consulting group, Margaret helps clients improve the response, revenue and ROI of their email marketing programs. She uses her knowledge of content, design, segmentation and email campaign strategy and branding to help her clients build their files with active and engaged subscribers, increase the lifetime value of their subscriber base, improve program relevancy and generate sales.
Before Return Path, she spent 10 years producing and managing multi-channel integrated direct marketing programs for Fortune 100 companies, focusing on the financial services and technology sectors.
She most recently held a senior-level marketing position with Strategic Communications, Inc., a marketing/communications agency in Boston, where she spent five years. Previous experience also includes project management and editorial roles at SchoolSports, Inc., publisher of RISE Magazine, the nation’s leading sports and active lifestyle magazine for teens (formerly SchoolSports Magazine), and SchoolSports.com.

Margaret is currently based out of Return Path’s London office.

A One-Way Ticket, 5,371 Miles and Three Emails That Made a Difference

As an email marketing consultant working with clients to improve the performance of their email programs, I have spent a lot of time helping brands change the practices that negatively impact their inbox placement and response rates. While this is both challenging and interesting work, it’s also refreshing to shift focus and appreciate some great practices that marketers are using to stand out from the “grey mail” and marketing clutter, target their subscribers using accurate data and provide relevant messaging that drives engagement.

I recently had the opportunity to experience these practices first-hand as an email subscriber when I made the move from London to San Francisco. My first week in my new city was spent running around taking care of the numerous tasks that come with a move, including the essential (buying a couch) and the mundane (learning how to program my new DVR to record my favourite shows). As I simultaneously added and crossed-off items to my to-do list, I found myself appreciating any effort made on the part of the brands I was interacting with to help me stay organized, sane and appreciated as a customer.

Here are three companies that did just that:

  • Crate & Barrel – After purchasing furniture online (and visiting my local store to debate the finer points of curtain accessories with a few very patient sales people – single rods, double rods, hooks, clips, rings, anyone?) and receiving my delivery, an email arrived in my inbox a few days later asking me to rate my recent purchases and write a review of my shopping experience. The message included images of each of the items I’d purchased and a customized landing page with related items for my consideration. A few days later I received a phone call from a Crate & Barrel customer service representative asking me if I was satisfied with my recent order. I appreciated the multi-channel outreach, which came across as sincere rather than pushy, and the related product suggestions listed on the landing page enticed me to buy a discounted item that I had forgotten to order previously.
  • Verizon Wireless – When I moved to the U.K. from New York City roughly four years ago, I decided to keep my U.S. cell phone and number active for the trips I knew I’d be making back to the U.S. Lots of friends and family members didn’t have international calling plans so it made it easier for them to call me. In addition, I’d had my cell phone number since college and it was one of the few things I stubbornly refused to give up as part of my transatlantic move. When I made the move back to the US in March, I wound up using my U.S. number again constantly. As a result, I racked up some serious overages on a plan that was originally downgraded for less usage. After the increased bill was generated, I received a message from Verizon letting me know that selecting a different plan could save me money. The message listed the overage charges (divided into voice, text and data categories) with a call-to-action to view various plan options and do an account analysis to determine the best one based on my ongoing usage.  The subject line, “See how much you could have saved last month,” certainly got my attention as moving isn’t particularly bank-balance friendly. The process was simple and easy and the new plan was put into place immediately.
  • Zipcar – One of the conveniences of living in a big city is not having to rely on a car to get around. However, something inevitably comes up where one is necessary. Zipcar offers the perfect solution. It’s similar to the “Boris Bike” scheme in London, except with cars. Members pay a small annual fee and then an hourly rate to pick up one of hundreds of cars available at their nearest location, which in my case is across the street. Gas and insurance are included and members can choose from multiple models, whether it’s a hybrid, convertible, hatchback or SUV. After retaking my written driver’s test (as required by the state of California), I applied for a Zipcar membership and received a very helpful welcome message. It was personalized with my name, updated me on the status of my application, told me about the next steps in the process, and provided me with information about my local Zipcar office if I wanted to pick up my membership card in person. Once my membership was approved, I received another email letting me know I was officially a member and alerting me to the fact that my card was in the mail. The message also included instructions for activating my card and a link to view frequently asked questions about the process for reserving a car. There were also calls-to-action for a mobile app and information to contact Customer Service and follow Zipcar on Facebook and Twitter.

A large part of my job is helping brands achieve their marketing and business goals through email, while simultaneously providing value for subscribers. It was great to experience first-hand how smart marketers are using the channel to improve their customers’ lives, one relevant message at a time.

5 New Year’s Resolutions for an Email Marketer

Every year we make them, but only occasionally do we keep them. New Year’s resolutions often represent our best intentions, which somehow get sidetracked as “real” life takes over and our time becomes filled with ticking items off “to do” lists and trying to keep our heads above water.

If you’re an email marketer, the same often holds true for the more strategic items on your list, which can be overlooked in an effort to get the next email out the door. However, as one of Return Path’s executives is known for saying, hope is not a strategy. Just wanting something to change doesn’t make it so. When thinking about the New Year’s resolutions you’d make for your email program in 2012, I recommend creating a realistic plan for sticking to these:

  1. I will make time to test. This is a fundamental and essential best practice for any email marketer to follow. Without a testing plan, you simply won’t know the levers to pull to positively impact your email program’s performance. Instead, you’re just guessing as to what works, what doesn’t, what resonates and what misses the mark. Start by regularly testing the most basic email program elements with an A/B split test, like subject lines, and work your way up to multivariate testing of creative elements, like images, calls-to-action and landing pages.
  2. I will define (and track) metrics to measure performance. What metrics are most important for measuring email program success? For most marketers this includes some combination of deliverability, open, click-through and conversion rates, but depending on your business model, your subscriber base and the desired responses you’re looking to generate from the email channel (i.e., purchases, leads, downloads, web traffic, etc.), creating a customized list of KPIs is essential for measuring trends over time. I continue to be amazed by the number of companies I come in contact with that are blindly sending email without any capabilities for tracking response rates.
  3. I will be more focused on engagement. An email’s primary purpose is to drive an action. This can be anything from getting a subscriber to read what’s in an email, take a survey or walk them through a multi-step purchase process. But what about inactivity? Chances are you have a reasonably high percentage of subscribers who were once engaged and interacting with your messages, but have lost interest over time. These subscribers are likely deleting your messages without reading them or have set up rules to automatically route your messages to an “unimportant” folder, like in Gmail’s priority inbox. So what changed, when did it happen and, most importantly, why? Understanding what keeps your subscribers engaged over the long-term will be increasingly important for getting delivered to the inbox, staying there and maintaining high levels of activity.
  4. I will reengage with my inactives. This is the next logical step. Stop focusing on list quantity and concern yourself with its quality. The health of your email program depends on it. Inactives can represent everything from true spam traps, recycled email addresses and unknown users to subscribers who once found your emails relevant and no longer do. Take action and remove the less than clean segments of your list that represent bad data or old data and create a strategy for reengaging with existing subscribers who are still valuable to your business.
  5. I will monitor the competition. Standing out from the inbox clutter will continue to be a challenge as the volume of email increases, and this includes differentiating your brand and value proposition from your competitors. If your competition is incorporating features like geo-targeting, real-time inventory updates, offer count-downs in real-time, customized content and personalization elements into their email messages, what effect will that have on revenue and engagement, and how can you stay one step ahead? These insights are key as brands compete for subscriber mind-share in a crowded and increasingly mobile inbox.

As the saying goes, “even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” However, committing to at least some of these New Year’s resolutions will ensure your email program is set up for success in 2012 and beyond. So, let’s toast to that!

ISPs Are Not the Grinch: Don’t Let Poor Sender Reputation Steal Your Christmas

I grew up reading Dr. Seuss books and my favourite story happens to be “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I’m not a huge fan of the Christmas season, and I suppose that part of me secretly sympathizes with the Grinch’s refusal to make merry. There’s something about the irreverence of his all-consuming glee as he snaps up presents, stockings and Christmas trees from each house in Whoville that I can’t help but enjoy. Horrible, I know, but that’s the truth of it.

Even though the Grinch’s antics never fail to amuse me, I’ve come to realize that some in the email marketing industry find a little too much similarity between the Grinch’s attempts to prevent every “Who in Whoville” from having a happy Christmas and the ISPs filtering of their legitimate, permission-based Christmas emails to their consumers and prospects. The fourth quarter of the year is often the most crucial for businesses, especially retailers, and the pain of being bulked and blocked is never felt more strongly than at this time of year.

Having your messages sent to the junk folder or blocked all together can certainly be enough to dampen anyone’s Christmas spirit, but the reasons behind these filtering decisions are actually related to marketers’ sending practices. While the Grinch’s issues with Christmas may be fairly complex (“It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. But I think that the most likely reason of all may have been that his heart was two sizes too small”), filtering at the ISP level all comes down to one primary factor: your sender reputation.

A high reputation ensures high inbox placement, while a low reputation means bulking and blocking. According to Return Path’s latest Sender Reputation Report, 77% of deliverability issues are caused by a poor sender reputation. So instead of blaming the ISPs, who are tasked with protecting their users from the massive amount of spam being sent year-round (95% of all email sent is spam), it’s time to focus on how your practices may be negatively affecting your sender reputation.

How can you ensure that ISPs view your emails as “nice” rather than “naughty?” By paying attention to the following six factors that impact sender reputation:

  1. Complaints: the result of subscribers clicking the “This is spam button” in their email client, which registers their complaint to the ISP.
  2. List Hygiene: related to how you are managing your data, and how clean it is. If it isn’t, you’ll see a higher percentage of spam traps and unknown users.
  3. Infrastructure: related to how your mail server is configured and whether or not your messages are authenticated with various protocols like SMTP, SenderID and DKIM.
  4. IP Permanence: whether or not you maintain consistent mailing volume over the same IP addresses. Spammers tend to “pop up” on an IP, blast their messages and then disappear.
  5. Message Quality: the content of your emails and whether or not you have links, images, text or code that triggers spam filters.
  6. Engagement: whether or not your subscribers are interacting with your messages, or just ignoring and deleting them.

Of these six factors, complaints and list hygiene weigh the most heavily on your sender reputation. For more information about keeping complaints to a minimum and ensuring your list is squeaky clean, check out my presentation from last week’s JUMP Conference.

So don’t blame the Grinch – or the ISPs – when you find your Christmas emails are being kept out of the inbox. All of the factors contributing to your sender reputation are within your control. However, you can’t fix what you don’t measure. Get started by finding out your sender reputation at this free resource: www.senderscore.org.

The Beauty of a Best-In-Class Email Program

As a consultant on the vendor side of the email marketing industry, I spend a considerable amount of time working with clients to create strategies for solving their email challenges. Whether those challenges are related to attribution, creative templates, acquisition, deliverability or any of the other numerous practices and processes the client is looking to optimise, they almost always impact the client where it hurts the most: revenue and return on investment.

More often than not, the solution for solving the client’s pain – barring any serious sender reputation issues – involves creating a strategy for relevancy. In other words: how to send the right message to the right subscriber at the right time. This includes demonstrating value through the email channel and sending messages that subscribers anticipate and appreciate. Sound like a big ask? It certainly can be, and that’s why it’s especially pleasing to see marketers getting it right. Sephora, the international cosmetics and beauty retailer, does just that with their email program.

Here are some of the best practices they have implemented:

  • Showing value with a loyalty program. Sephora offers subscribers access to their “Beauty Insider” program. The incentive to sign-up is to collect points through the purchase process and redeem them for perks, including free samples and a free birthday gift. Their best customers are considered “V.I.B.s” or “Very Important Beauty Insiders.” The email program helps to promote and support the rewards of being a Beauty Insider by using special creative to recognize V.I.B. email subscribers and offering access to exclusive online content, free gifts, invitations to special events and the ability to preview new products before they are launched.
  • Sending triggered messages. Sephora sends one of the best post-purchase triggered messages I’ve seen. Two weeks after I visited one of their New York City stores I received an email asking me to rate my purchases. It included images of the actual products I bought and a call-to-action to write a review or rank the product with a star rating. The customised landing page also allows subscribers to enter their comments and upload a photo or a video of themselves using the product. A form at the bottom of the page collects additional data points about the subscriber, including eye colour and skin tone.
  • Incorporating useful content. While Sephora’s email program is primarily promotional in nature, their messages still include a lot of useful and relevant content for subscribers. Emails often feature products that are grouped into relevant categories, like beauty problem areas (dry skin, bad hair days, etc.), or include content about new beauty trends, makeover advice or how-to videos for perfecting various looks or techniques. Even small snippets of content help to ensure the messages are relevant for subscribers who aren’t in market to make a purchase at that time, but are still looking for beauty advice and information. In addition, every message includes a link to their “Beauty Talk Community” page where subscribers can submit questions, get expert advice and share comments.
  • Collecting preferences and use them. Sephora has a detailed preference center that collects information about everything from a subscriber’s skin type, eye colour, and hair colour and type, to beauty concerns and favourite types of perfume. This information is regularly used to target offers and content. To encourage subscribers to submit their preferences, a triggered message is sent asking for information and explaining why taking the time to enter it will benefit the subscriber’s experience with the brand.

As an email subscriber, I genuinely value the messages I receive from Sephora. I’ve even marked them as “important” in my Gmail Priority Inbox, an action many marketers are increasingly looking for their subscribers to take. As a consultant, I’m impressed with their strategic approach to email marketing. While I don’t know the exact amount of revenue that the email channel generates for Sephora, I would assume it’s pretty substantial. Their subscriber-centric and data-focused approach to email marketing clearly illustrates the value of implementing best-in-class practices, and I consider that to be a beautiful thing.

How to Take Your Email Conversion Rates to New Heights

On Tuesday I attended the DMA’s latest Email Customer Lifecycle Series event focused on helping email marketers drive conversions, one of the most important metrics and the primary goal for many marketers using the email channel. Sponsored by Silverpop, the theme for the event was clearly one of encouraging marketers to take their email programs to new heights by optimizing various conversion tactics and best practices. This was reinforced by Silverpop’s featured prize draw: an opportunity for attendees to win a helicopter ride for two over London!

Chair of the Email Marketing Council Richard Gibson got things started and introduced the audience to the great speakers on offer. They included Riaz Kanani from AlchemyWorx; Tim Watson from Emailvision; Larah Van Niekerk from eCircle; and Simone Vincent from MyVoucherCodes.

  • Riaz’s key note presentation reviewed some upcoming conversion trends for 2011, including a focus on attribution and email’s ability to keep a marketer’s brand top-of-mind far beyond the initial send date. He stressed how important it is for marketers to be able to tie their email campaigns to conversions and sales in other channels, and to harness the power of triggered messages to help drive purchases. He also touched on the growth of mobile email and its potential to affect conversion rates. Riaz recommended various optimization tactics, including analyzing your list to track mobile email usage; designing with both the mobile and desktop experience in mind; and ensuring that landing pages are optimized for mobile environments.
  • Next, Tim shared some tips and tricks for optimizing testing strategies to boost conversion rates. He provided the audience with a five-step process for creating a testing plan, including how to define your objectives and optimization metrics; create a test hypotheses; develop and define test cells; execute results; and analyze reports. He stressed the importance of testing against your marketing objectives and shared some great examples of split-tested subject lines and creative templates. He encouraged the audience to take a holistic approach to testing to ensure that increased performance metrics don’t negatively impact unsubscribe rates or complaints.

The audience then broke into two groups for presentations of case studies:

  • Simone gave a fantastic overview of the strategy she put into place at MyVoucherCodes to increase conversions by boosting the subscriber activation rate, improving user engagement and decreasing list churn. She shared some impressive data points, including the use of a reminder series to encourage subscribers to complete their account activation as part of sign-up that resulted in 85% of subscribers now completing the MyVoucherCodes activation process. She also described the discounted alerts program that was put into place to target subscribers with relevant and timely offers based on their brand, product and key word preferences. These triggered messages, while complicated to implement, produced a 200% increase in click-through rates when compared to generic promotional mailings, and deliver consistently high open rates of 47% and click-through rates of 26%.
  • Larah shared some great results that Center Parcs has recently had with their email program, including the introduction of a three-message “welcome home” series that increased rebooking rates by 10% and generates over £1M in revenue. The series includes an offer for rebooking sent when the subscriber returns from their Center Parcs holiday; a survey with a prize draw incentive; and a follow-up reminder email to respond. Other tactics for increasing conversions include village-specific email templates that are personalized based on where the subscriber is staying and the unique village experience they will have on their holiday.

The morning’s agenda wrapped up with a panel session featuring all of the speakers and an open request to take audience questions. The panellists tackled various challenges including:

  • How to message to an eight-year-old list of email subscribers who had never been mailed to before (check the law; send in small batches; monitor spam trap hits; and consider focusing only on current/active customers);
  • The most important tactics for email marketers to act on immediately (map out your customer lifecycle; implement testing; audit your entire program to identify strategies that will have a big impact, but will also be easy to execute on; and focus on creating relevancy)
  • Email marketing trends with longevity (social media and email integration; the importance of subscriber-level and behavioural data; and mobile email optimization).

Would you like to attend one of these free breakfast briefings? The next event in the series will focus on optimizing your engagement and retention efforts. The DMA regularly updates their Email Marketing event listings here, so watch this space.

What Your Sender Score Says About Your Reputation and Your Ability to Reach the Inbox

Benjamin Franklin certainly wasn’t talking about email deliverability when he said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it,” however this quote could easily apply to the factors impacting ISPs’ email filtering decisions.

A recent Return Path study confirms that a marketer’s sender reputation is the key to achieving high inbox placement rates and avoiding the spam folder. Return Path’s Analytics Team reviewed data on more than 18 million IP addresses, collected from 30 of the world’s top ISPs and other large-volume mail receivers. These ISPs represent mailboxes in North America, South America, Europe and Asia.

In total, there are three major categories of filtering decisions:

  1. Reputation: A quantitative measurement of the desirability of email based on the reputation of the sending server’s IP address. This is affected by a variety of weighted factors, however complaints and list hygiene (i.e., unknown users, spam traps) have the greatest impact.
  2. Infrastructure: How your mail server is configured, including the use of authentication protocols like reverse DNS, SPF, SenderID and DKIM. Having a good infrastructure lets the ISPs know you are making an effort to follow their protocols, while failing to have these basics in place makes you look unsophisticated at best and possibly malicious at worst.
  3. Content: Filtering based on content has gone way beyond the days when words like “free,” “discount” and “save” triggered spam filters. Today, ISPs apply these filters later on in the process and only on messages coming from IPs where the reputation or infrastructure signals are unclear. In addition, they now search out features of the message that correlate with complaints, spam trap hits and other “negative” signals.

Having good sending practices is the key to building and maintaining a reputable sender reputation score. The higher your score, the more likely it is that your email will reach the inbox.

As the chart below shows, IPs with low Sender Scores (below 60) are rejected at the gateway at an extraordinarily high rate. In the mid-range (60-79), the amount of rejected email goes down slightly, but the amount of email filtered goes up. It is only at the very highest levels (80-100) that email is routinely “accepted” into the ISP system. In fact, IPs with a Sender Score of 100 are 38% more likely to get into the inbox than those with a Sender Score of 50.

Establishing a good Sender Score, maintaining it and monitoring any fluctuations to it are integral to the health of your email program. After all, messages that don’t reach the inbox won’t drive activity, engagement or purchases – essential actions for realizing email ROI.

Your reputation and your Sender Score are well within your control. If Ben Franklin’s quote about reputation were applied to email deliverability, the “good deeds” he refers to are all related to your sending practices. The better your practices, the higher your Sender Score and the more email will reach the inbox. Don’t know your Sender Score? Visit Return Path’s free reputation portal: www.senderscore.org.

Email: It’s Alive!

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked about the death of email marketing, I’d be “on the cover of Forbes Magazine, smiling next to Oprah and the Queen” (to steal lyrics from the Travie McCoy/Bruno Mars song). Basically, I’d be a billionaire.

Instead, I’m constantly coming up with new ways to answer this question and am always on the look-out for research, statistics, trends and other evidence that will finally convince the world at large that email is here to stay. Rather than cite some of the quantitative evidence I’ve compiled (and there’s a lot), here is something a bit more qualitative, but no less meaningful.

If you were ever in doubt that email is even more relevant now that is was 15 years ago and isn’t going anywhere any time soon, perhaps this will change your mind:

  • Email is worth preserving: A recent article in the Independent described an acquisition by the British Library of poet Wendy Cope’s archive, including a collection of approximately 40,000 emails, which it paid over $32,000 for, representing the largest electronic acquisition in its history. Despite Cope’s admission that some of the emails are “not interesting at all,” their combined value is in their ability to show Cope’s more informal thoughts and feelings that may have been omitted from other forms of communication, like letters. As the article’s author so rightly points out, “Letters show us in our best frock; emails will show our underbelly—our peeves, our crushes our irritations.” Email is clearly engrained in the way we communicate and manage our personal relationships.
  • There’s an app for that. This phrase no longer just applies to mobile. Major webmail providers are allowing developers to create applications specifically for the inbox to create a richer email experience for users. My colleague, Tom Sather, does a great job of highlighting some of the more innovative apps in his regular “Weekly Roundup” blog postings. Some of the cooler apps out there include:
  1. Other Inbox: This tool allows you to automatically organize your inboxes (primarily at Yahoo and AOL) based on priority and category. You also get a daily digest of everything you’ve received by category with the most important messages highlighted for you. It’s basically like having a personal assistant file everything into customized folders (created by you) so that your inbox is less cluttered.
  2. Sane Box: This tool provides a similar benefit. It uses your existing contacts, email interactions and your social networks to determine what messages are a priority. It also aims to prevent false positives by monitoring your spam folders for messages that you actively signed up for. 
  3. AwayFind: This tool lets you automate your inbox by having an alert sent when you receive an important email.  You have the option of receiving a mobile text message or having your inbox call you and read the messages you’ve received. 
  4. ToneCheck. This tool actually reviews the tone of your email messages to help you send email that is less offensive or “emotionally charged.” Designed as a plug-in for Outlook, you’ll see a “Tone Alert” indicator at the bottom of your message that will alert you when the message falls outside of your predetermined tolerance level.
  • Email is art. The Aubin Gallery in Shoreditch is currently exhibiting a show called “Authorized.” The artist, James Howard, uses email to create posters and screenings of digital collages from imagery in his huge personal archive of JPEGs, animated GIFs and other screen shots culled from spam messages and junk mail.

So, do you still think email is dead or have I put this topic to bed once and for all?