Author Archives: Simon Hill

Simon Hill

About Simon Hill

Simon is the co-founder of Extravision, a privately owned ESP based in Manchester and have been involved in email marketing for over 10 yrs. His role has been to develop the technology and product from the ground up to provide a stable and secure infrastructure. Today his current focus is moving more towards looking at how we deliver the emails and our “delivery reputation” as well as growing the business and investigating new technologies.

Before Extravision, Simon was development manager at Productivity through Software, a software house specialising in reselling and developing tools for software developers. They started using email as a marketing tool in the late 1990’s and Simon headed up the development of their first email marketing tools. Simon joined the DMA Email Marketing Council Best Practice and Legal Hub in May 2010.

What happened last month in the email world ?

The big news last month was that Gmail added an unsubscribe link to its interface. What actually happened was that Google have made it easier for recipients to find the unsubscribe link and moved it next to the senders address in the header. It used to be slightly hidden in a drop down menu and as a result many people didn’t know it was there. The Gmail unsubscribe works by using the information in the senders List-Unsubscribe header  which should be implemented by your ESP. It can be either an email address or a web page that allows the recipient to unsubscribe.

Gmail unsubscribe

Gmail unsubscribe

Google’s head of anti-abuse was quoted as saying, “One of the biggest problems with the Gmail spam filter is identifying unwanted mail or soft spam. Users are signing up for emails but then use the Spam button when they no longer want to receive these emails, sending the wrong signal to Google about that message in particular, and about that sender in general.” This is a problem faced by all marketers.

I have always advocated making your unsubscribe as visible and clear as any of your other calls to action. If someone no longer wants to receive your emails it is better that they unsubscribe than mark you email as spam. I always recommend putting an unsubscribe link in the pre-header and this is effectively just what Google have done.

Last month Google also announced they were going to pilot a spam complaint feedback loop (FBL). A feedback loop let’s senders get information on which subscribers are classifying their email as spam and take appropriate action. Unlike other major ISPs Gmail has never previously provided an FBL. Unfortunately it’s not all good news. It looks like the Gmail feedback loop is going to be more of an overview report showing the number of complaints and not the actual subscriber details. It is still in the early pilot stages so hopefully this may change in the future.

Without the big fanfare that marked its launch, Facebook has quietly shutdown its email service that gave everyone their own @facebook.com email address. The Facebook help page doesn’t actually talk about the email service being shutdown but they are just “updating” the way “facebook.com” addresses are used.  Nice spin. Any emails sent to @facebook.com addresses are now forwarded to the Facebook users primary email address.

Facebook launched its email service back in November 2010 in hopes of providing one inbox where users could send and receive emails and messages. In 2012 they automatically changed everybody’s email address on Facebook to be their new @facebook.com address which people didn’t find amusing. I suspect that nobody was using the email service so they decided to try and force people into using it. Never a good idea.

In the war between Google and Facebook I think it is fair to say that Google has won the email battle without having to muster its troops. The social battle is still raging and Facebook are well entrenched and holding back the advancing Google but the eventual winner is anyone’s guess.

 

First rule of email marketing – simple, working unsubscribe

It is not a lot to ask and most ESP’s won’t allow you to send an email without an unsubscribe link. The problem is often how the unsubscribe is implemented and this can vary considerably. Its surprising how some big brands can still get their unsubscribe wrong.

I always say that unsubscribes aren’t a bad thing. At some point the recipient has opted in to receive your email and an unsubscribe is just them saying, thanks but I’m not interested in this anymore. Nobody wants to lose a customer but if they have no further interest then they won’t convert and its not worth sending them an email in the first place. Its good to remember that an unsubscribe is a whole lot better than a spam complaint.

First, try not to hide your unsubscribe. I dislike finding unsubscribe links hidden away in the terms and conditions at the bottom on an email. I believe brand trust plays a big part in email marketing and when I see an unsubscribe that is “hidden” in the footer of an email, it erodes away a little bit of that trust. I always suggest putting a clear unsubscribe in the pre-header as well as at the bottom of the email, not in the small print. If someone truly wants to unsubscribe they will do, either by clicking your unsubscribe link or complaining to their ISP.

I recently decided to clean my inbox of everything that I don’t read. This is not what I would class as spam but just emails I have opted in to receive but am no longer interested in reading. Here are two examples of how I believe an unsubscribe shouldn’t work.

The first was an online retailer and there was an unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email. All seems straight forward. However when you click on the unsubscribe link it takes you to a page on their website that says “if you know your account password you can unsubscribe by changing your preferences or enter your email address below and we will send you a link that you can use to unsubscribe”. Not exactly what I was expected. I don’t want them to send me another email so I can unsubscribe. I just want to unsubscribe. Anyway I enter my email address and click “Send Confirmation Email”. To my surprise it comes back with an error saying “we have no record of your email address. Please call our customer care team”.

I checked the address the emails are sent to and its correct. I even tried matching the case just in case but still no joy. So I had no way to unsubscribe. It took a call to the customer services team to get my account “reset” so I could then login and unsubscribe. Not a very satisfying customer journey and makes me think twice about using them again.

The second was a newsletter that I had been receiving for years but wasn’t actually reading so time to unsubscribe. The unsubscribe link was in small text near the footer and used the text  “not useful ? unsubscribe”. I clicked on the link and it takes me to their account login page and asks for my username and password. I can’t remember either but all is not lost as there is a “reset your password” link. However, this link now asks for my username and email address. I then have to search my email archive to try and find my login details to unsubscribe. Not the user experience you want to happen.

An unsubscribe link should be simple and do exactly what is says on the tin. Ideally it should pre-populate with the email address that the original email was sent to (for people who have many email aliases) but at least you should just enter an email address and unsubscribe. At some point in the future you want your unsubscribes to return so you should try and part as friends.

 

Hot topics in email for August

Although August is the holiday season for most, the DMA Email Marketing Council is tireless in its quest to champion email and its dedicated members still met to discuss everything email, albeit with a few members missing.

The first topic discussed was the release of Return Path’s H1 2013 placements benchmark report and the headline statistic that 22% of permission based email worldwide fails to reach the recipients inbox. As a headline this is attention grabbing but we all agreed it appeared to be a much higher figure than anyone would expect. The figures for Europe (20%) and the US(14%) are slightly better but surely if this was true all our clients would be jumping up and down with frustration? Hence the questions arose regarding how and what data was collected. Is the date for retention or acquisition campaigns? Are the senders following best practice? Are purchased lists included in the data?

Fortunately, Richard Gibson of Return Path sits on the council and he was able to answer some of our questions after the meeting. The report was generated using Return Path’s proprietary email intelligence data from their own customers and although their are no exact figures, the vast majority would be retention campaigns. This means that purchased data and non-opt in is unlikely to have a significant effect on the report results.

So if we assume that the data used is a good cross section of retention opt-in campaigns, then we can only conclude that most marketers don’t know that 20% of their email isn’t making it to the inbox? Or here’s a thought. One reason to become Return Path certified is to improve your inbox placement. So a large percentage of data used may have been clients that had inbox placement issues to begin with so hence the higher than expected stats?

The other scorching hot topic for email marketers at the moment are Gmails new tabs and how they are affecting everybody’s open rates?  Our own Philip Singh wrote a great blog post early this month explaining how the new tabs work. Most members of the council that use Gmail regularly said they really liked the new tab filtering. It helps with email triage and actually means you keep more promotional emails for future use because they are no longer cluttering up your inbox.

How has this change affected opens? Litmus recently released a report that shows that Gmail opens have dropped 18% since the release of the new tabs. Putting this figure in context and looking at the graphs in more detail, Gmail opens In July 2011 were 2.95% and this rose to nearly 5% in late 2012. After this they starting a steady descent to below 3.5% in May 2013 when tabs were released. So I’m not really sure this proves anything yet and more data is required.

Mailchimp did their own research and they compared Gmail open rates for the previous 18 mths (2.5 billion) with open rates around the 6 weeks that the tabs were released. They only saw a drop of 0.5% in open rates but this was consistent for a 3 week period. Return Path looked at read rates of engaged recipients before and after the tab release and noted a drop of 0.74% which is pretty consistent with the Mailchimp findings.

As ever we shouldn’t get hung up on open rates. Its engagement and conversions that matter. Only time will tell if the new tabs will have a long term negative effect. At the end of the day if the recipient is interested in what you are sending then they are likely to read it whichever tab it lands it.

 

Stop everything – we need to re-design for mobile devices

There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks among various groups about whether or not mobiles have become so important that we should all be designing new templates for mobiles either optimised or using responsive design. A recent study by Blue Hornet says that 80% of people will delete an email on a mobile device if it doesn’t look good so this suggests that we should.

Now, a survey is only as good as the questions it contains and how these are phrased so let us look at the question. “If you get a mobile email that doesn’t look good then what do you do”. So what constitutes “does not look good”

Lets go back a few years to the days when Blackberrys where the only smartphones we had to worry about. In these days the html renderer on a Blackberry was pretty terrible and only the simplest of html would be readable and older versions would only give you the text version of the message. If was pretty safe to say that any html you sent would not look good.

old-blackberry-219x300

Nowadays the html renderers on smart phones are excellent and they will pretty much render anything that a desktop email client will. Just because people are opening your email on a mobile device and you haven’t fully optimised your campaign for mobile it doesn’t mean these people aren’t engaging with your campaign.

So, everyone can relax a little. Without doing anything, you have a mobile strategy because people can read your emails on a smart phone and engage. It maybe harder to navigate around the email on a mobile device and the calls to action a little difficult to click but if your email looks good on a desktop then the odds are it will look ok on a mobile device.  If you want to improve the user experience on a mobile device then it is not about getting your campaign to render on a mobile device but about optimising it for mobile devices.

The question is will this improve your campaign results? Every campaign is different and just because Litmus say that 43% of emails are read on a mobile device it doesn’t necessarily translate to your target audience. Tim Watson from Zettasphere analysed the data and found there are still campaigns at both ends, some with almost no mobile activity and some with almost only mobile activity. If you have historical campaign data to your subscriber base then look at your open stats and see what your mobile open rate is across a variety of campaigns.

However, don’t be misled by your mobile open rate. Just because someone opens your email on a mobile device it doesn’t mean they don’t then open it on their desktop as well. If I receive an interesting email on my mobile device but find it difficult to read I just wait until I’m in the office and read it on my desktop.

One thing that does generally improve campaign performance is re-designing an old template whether it is related to mobile or not. If you put the time and effort in to look at your existing template and re-design it with the mobile user experience in mind then I would expect your results to improve. No matter whether this is related to mobile opens or not.  Its a win win. The new template should get more opens on the desktop and mobile devices.

Everyone should be thinking about mobile devices and how this affects their campaigns but you don’t necessarily have to drop everything and rethink what you are doing. Look at your recipients and stats. If it has been a long time since you changed your template then it may be time to think about creating a new simplified template with mobile devices in mind.

EU Data Protection Regulation – Subject Access Request

A lot has changed in the world since the EU Data Protection Directive was first introduced in 1995. The internet was just beginning and much less data was stored and transferred electronically than today. It is no surprise then that the legislation is being updated to meet the challenges of how global business is conducted in the 21st century.

The Data Protection Act of 1998 followed the EU Directive and one of the key rights for individuals was to give them access to their personal data on request. By making a “subject access request” any individual can request all personal data held about them to check the accuracy. The current Act states that the data controller can charge a fee of up to £10 when supplying individuals with a copy of their personal data. The £10 fee does not cover the cost of collating and supplying the information but does, at least, act as a small check to discourage frivolous or vexatious requests.

Under the new proposed EU Data Protection Regulation, organisations would have to supply this information free of charge.

In 2009, the Ministry of Justice estimated that UK businesses spend £50 million a year in fulfilling subject access requests through additional manpower costs alone. If the ability to charge for a request is removed then this figure could increase massively and put a huge financial burden on UK companies.

If we consider that the volume of data held by organisations now is significantly greater than when the original Directive was passed in 1995 and the fact that collating all the personal data relating to an individual is more difficult now than it ever has been, then removing the charge for a subject access request would seem to be the exact opposite of what is required.

Some organisations hold a vast amount of personal data in many different formats and in many locations. You have live data that might be online and backup archives in various formats. Much of this data in the past would normally have been in a structured format such as a database. This made searching the data simpler. Now data controllers have to deal with unstructured electronic data, such as emails, with no indexing and try to identify what data refers to the individual and therefore falls within the definition of personal data. Consider an organisations’ email records. One person might be referenced in these emails by many different names. Not only that but these emails also might refer to other records stored in other formats i.e. paper files.

On the positive side, the proposed Draft Regulation does allow the data controller to provide the personal information asked for in a subject access request to the data subject in electronic format, if the information is held electronically and the data subject agrees. This makes perfect sense and would save a lot of unnecessary printing of information which when received by the data subject may be then transferred back into electronic format.

One of the aims of the changes in the draft Regulation is to put all EU countries on a consistent footing, but removing the charge for a subject access request surely cannot be good for anyone.

Reporting and Metrics – the open rate debate

Everybody has heard of open rates and click through rates and all ESP’s report them but what do these figures really mean in relation to the success of your campaign? As mentioned in the DMA whitepaper on Email metrics and measurement, Einstein once said “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted”. This is very true when talking about email campaign metrics. Can you judge the success of your campaign based on the open rate ?

Tim Watson recently wrote that “open rates are as useful as your appendix“. I agree with everything he says in his article and that open rates need to be understood and in context to have any useful meaning.  Increasing your open rate doesn’t necessarily mean a more successful campaign.

What does the open rate tell us and is it reliable? Let’s start by looking at things from a slightly different perspective. What metrics do we want to know about our email campaign? In general we want to know if the intended recipient received the email and was it of interest to them. Did they read any of it or did they delete it without looking at the content? Did they follow any calls to action in the message? Armed with this information we could make a better estimate about the success of our campaign.

These are difficult metrics for an ESP to collect. There are companies such as Litmus that can help with this using CSS techniques and streaming images but really, in the B2C world, it is only the ISP’s who run the webmail applications that can get the accurate stats. ISP’s gather lots of statistics about how mailboxes are used to try and measure user engagement and whether or not you want the email you are receiving. Included in these statistics must be whether you actively open an email or send it straight to the trash as well as many others.

The read rate of a campaign is really the holy grail of email marketing. Even ISP’s would find it very difficult to give you a truly accurate measure. Consider your own inbox in whatever webmail or email client you use.  If you select a message and the content loads in the preview window, does counting how long you are previewing this message accurately say how interested you are in the content? Possibly not. For me, the last email selected in my inbox is the last message I read before I became distracted doing something else. Everybody has different inbox triage but there is no way of knowing if the user is still reading the message unless there is some interaction. Do they scroll the window, do they click on a link, do they mouse over content? However many stats the ISP’s collect it is very unlikely they will make them available to ESP’s so we have to try and “best guess” the stats.

The only metric that ultimately matters in an email campaign is the goal that you set for success before the campaign is sent. Whether this be form registrations, product purchases, website traffic, telephone calls etc. Many people have differing views on whether open rates are a useful statistic as the great open rate debate shows. However there is one thing that everyone agrees on. A campaign should never be judged on its open rate alone.

 

 

Disposable email addresses in your subscriber lists

Disposable email addresses, sometimes referred to as anti-spam addresses, are email addresses that people use for a period of time and then disappear causing emails sent to that address to either bounce or get automatically filtered to the trash. No email address lasts forever but these types of addresses can have very short life spans. They can be categorised into two types. Those that exist permanently until the recipient removes them, which we will call semi-disposable, and those that exist for a short pre-defined period of time or for a set number of messages before disappearing. A semi-disposable email address is in effect an email alias. For example I have the email address shill@ but also the alias sh@. At any time I can remove the alias sh@ and the emails will start to bounce without it affecting my main email address. Many disposable email addresses are unrelated in any way to your main email address as they use a third-party email service and forward replies to your main account until the address expires.

Disposable email address services

Most ISP’s will allow you to create semi-disposable email addresses. Yahoo! Mail call the service AddressGuard. Gmail and Hotmail allow you to set up alias addresses so the new address gets delivered as normal to your main account.

Some ISP’s including Gmail and Hotmail also allow you to append a tag to your email address to create a new address. For example, if your address is simon@example.com, then you could also use simon+newsletters@example.com or simon+friends@example.com and they would both get delivered to your inbox. You can have any text after the “+” symbol to create an infinite number of possible email addresses.

The downside of using a tag to create a disposable address is that there is no way to remove the address should it start to get spammed. It will always be valid and if you no longer want to receive anything from the address you will need to setup filters to send it to your trash.  The advantage of an alias is that they can easily be deleted and the address becomes invalid and will then bounce.

If you want to create true disposable email addresses then there are many free services available such as SpamGourmet, TrashMail or Guerrilamail. Some give you the option of setting the number of messages your temporary address will receive before consuming or bouncing messages, others allow you to set a life span for the address. Some give you the option to do both.

Why do disposable email addresses exist ?

Disposable email addresses have been around for a few years now. People are very protective about their email address and are very aware that the more they give out their email address the more likely they are to receive unwanted emails and spam.  The idea is that you only give your real email address to friends,colleagues and trusted sites. For everything else you use disposable or semi-disposable email addresses.  You can give a different email address to every website or company that requests an email address. If you start to receive spam you not only know who shared your details but you can also simple remove the address and the spam will get consumed by the disposable address service.

How does this affect your subscriber lists ?

Semi-disposable email addresses or aliases are a standard part of email and shouldn’t really cause a problem within your subscriber list. If you’re sending relevant content at a good frequency to these addresses then the recipients will be less likely to remove the alias. Basic list maintenance such as removing your hard bounces in a timely manner will ensure that any addresses that are no longer valid will be removed from your list and not affect your reputation.

Disposable email addresses can cause more of an issue if they exist in large numbers in your lists. They can cause damage to your IP reputation and waste resources.  ISP’s use engagement as a measure for deliverability. If you send to disposable email addresses that aren’t being used then the emails will likely get consumed (deleted) by the service and your level of engagement will be lower. Some disposable address services bounce emails when they are no longer used and these should be removed in the normal way.

The best solution is to stop people subscribing to your lists with disposable addresses. When requesting an email address if you tell people exactly what you need the email address for and what you are going to use if for then you are more likely to get the “real” address you are after. As a second line of defence there are services such as www.block-disposable-email.com that allow you to check for disposable addresses when the address is submitted and reject them.

It’s all about trust. If the user trusts that their email address won’t be abused then they are more likely to give you their real email address and not use a disposable address.