Less bounce, more hits

Email addresses are now one of the most valuable pieces of customer contact data. Yet their accuracy and deliverability is generally only discovered at the moment of use, by which time it is too late. David Reed finds out why email still suffers neglect.

Email makes money for marketers. According to a study of email marketing in Europe by Return Path, the channel contributes up to 50 per cent of marketing-derived revenues, according to 64 per cent of its respondents.

It has also become the hub of communications with customers and prospects. Yet the challenges of email deliverability have never been more high profile. Return Path discovered that 26 per cent of marketers did not even believe that their messages get blocked by ISPs. The DMA has just published a white paper calling for a change in the way marketers define deliverability.

All of these findings point to the same thing – that getting an accurate email address and using it appropriately has never been more important. It is not good enough to assume that individuals will provide a correct, deliverable email address or that when this data is used in a marketing campaign, it will get straight through to their inbox.

Steven Plimsoll, vice-president, multi-channel marketing services at Acxiom, believes there is a simple reason for this. “Email as a medium has been around for 14 years, we’ve been marketing to it for ten years as a mainstream channel, but what’s interesting is that nobody has changed their guidelines a decade on,” he says.

One of the basic rules that needs to be respected is the information exchange involved in capturing an email address. Outside of service communications, people expect that an organisation will make use of any data captured to deliver something relevant in an email. All too often this is not the case.

“A few years ago there was a telco that asked very detailed questions when you signed up for its newsletter, with 50 options to choose which products you wanted information on. When you submitted the form after about five minutes of filling in, you got an email back that didn’t mention any of the chosen products. There was no value exchange,” says Plimsoll.

That is a quick way to alienate site visitors and to put the deliverability of email at risk. Yet the technology to transform that experience is not hard to implement. Acxiom has a dynamic content engine which can pull the latest offers and product details from the existing website, personalise them to a target’s preferences and send them a highly relevant email, all in real time.

This system sits just in front of any existing content management or email broadcast platform, removing the need for any re-engineering. Clients such as HP, Sun and a luxury goods manufacturer have used it and seen an uplift in response rates of 50 per cent or more.

Before marketing campaigns get triggered, there is a lot that can – and should – be done to improve email data quality at point of capture. One of the most common procedures for validating an address during the course of an interaction is to send a confirmation email as soon as the address has been provided.

“In our case, when we want people to evaluate our software, they would have to wait for that email to arrive, which may take 30 seconds or five minutes. They could wander off or click on a competitor’s site and then all of a sudden, we have lost that window of opportunity,” says Steve Toothill, CEO of helpIT Systems.

To reduce that risk, his company’s software parses the email address being submitted together with other data on the form to run internal and logic checks. Top-level domains are easy to validate against look-up tables, but corporate addresses could be true or false.
“You often get simple transposition errors,” notes Toothill. If the form has also asked for the company name, comparing this with the email domain may reveal where a typing mistake has happened. “If it looks like a mistake, you can highlight that on a form and ask them to re-enter it,” he says.

The address elements before the @ are harder to validate, especially if a site visitor provides “info” or “sales” as the first part. These generic email addresses are more likely to be scored as spam by ISPs so they should be flagged in the database. “Part of the challenge is that people have different email addresses for receiving different types of information. Some never collect those messages, they just use the address when they are looking for information. There is nothing you can do about that,” says Toothill.

Without validation processes in place, email data quality will suffer. “Across all of the work we do on a wide variety of data sources, email addresses are typically 17 per cent inaccurate,” says Bill Mooney, sales director at GB Group DataSolutions. This is the most inaccurate data component, ahead of mobile phone number, which averages an error rate of 15 per cent.

For many organisations, these errors only become visible when they conduct an email marketing campaign and get bouncebacks. Mooney points out that, by then, money will already have been wasted. “The value of appending an email address is typically £1. On sizeable databases, that adds up to a chunk of money to fix,” he says. Conversely, the value of a customer record with a valid email address compared to one without “is a double digit uplift in lifetime value”.

The Challenge is that people have different email addresses for recieving information

His company’s point of collection email validation process carries out domain level checks and address element parsing to ensure the address is both valid and likely to be real. Pop-ups can prompt the visitor to check any perceived error. “Using our web services platform, we can tailor how that message reads to suit each client depending on their culture of service,” says Mooney.

Sending an email to an onboarding customer in realtime helps to prove the address is valid. But Mooney notes not all clients insist on getting it right at that point. “If you ask a second time and the address is still wrong, you can decide not to persist. If you have got their telephone number and address, you still have a validated contact point,” he says.

Culture is one of the interesting dimensions of email data quality. There have certainly been some changes in recent years. Early in the life of the channel, email addresses were seen as cheap and easy to obtain and were treated with little respect. As a result, a lot of legitimate marketing campaigns behaved exactly like the spammers by sending high-frequency bulk broadcasts to as many addresses as possible.

Consumer pushback has helped to change that. “Ninety per cent of marketers today are looking at behaviour-based metrics, especially complaints,” says Denis Dayman, chief privacy officer at Eloqua. The number of recipients who click the “Spam” button on their mail application will have a major impact on the deliverability of the next campaign, since this is a key metric for how ISPs filter messages.

Dayman says the next evolution goes beyond this view towards inbox placement. This combines point-of-collection validation, instant email confirmation, behavioural metrics and relevance. “If you are sending one million emails and half don’t get opened and clicked, then it is better just to email that half a million,” he says.

He quotes a term coined be Alchemy Worx’s Dela Quist – “emotionally unsubscribed” – to describe email
addresses that are on the database but never generate a response. One of the biggest risks for email marketers is that some of those names could even be spam traps – dormant addresses taken over by ISPs to track spam and poorly targeted bulk marketing.

Hit too many of those too often and your reputation score will plummet. At that point, all the personalisation and relevance you might introduce become irrelevant because the ISPs have stopped letting your messages get through to the targets’ inbox.

Fixing that problem – and avoiding it in the first place – is the core of Return Path’s business and it includes data quality as a central element. As its vice-president of global operations, Stephanie Miller, says: “Malformed email addresses will bounce or go to the wrong person. Inbox placement is aligned around three things and list hygiene is one of them.”

Combined with complaints and message contents, this is what creates the sender reputation score that ISPs apply. Yet many companies start with poor data collection processes. “I have seen retailers with yellow lined paper at the checkout that is hard to write on,” says Miller. “It is better if you have forms with boxes for each letter.”

Data sourced in that way may be only 20 per cent accurate, compared to a 95 per cent rate which can be achieved with a properly constructed online form and process. “That is a large gap,” says Miller and one which can only get bridged through scrubbing the data or even scrapping it and appending from a third party.

“That is important to reputation management because list hygiene is the second highest element in sender reputation,” she says. Crucially, ISPs do not even tell marketers if their messages are being filtered out. This is why there is a dramatic gap between the deliverability statistics generated by ESPs, which typically show 95 per cent of messages were passed across to the ISP, and the actual proportion placed into inboxes, which Return Path puts at around 80 per cent.

All of these pressures and challenges should be forcing email marketers towards adopting best practice. Whether that is automated data validation at point of entry or careful screening of addresses before they are used, it is all about ensuring a message gets to its intended recipient, without which there is no marketing performance possible.

Guy Hanson, business development director at Database Group Interactive, stresses that marketers should not do anything that betrays the permission an individual has given. “The key part of best practice comes down to that permission process itself,” he says.

With five recognised options for gaining permission, Hanson argues that pre-checked opt-in boxes are not enough. “We push as many clients as possible towards double opt-in – that is the blue ribband standard,” he says. The fact that most clients fail to adopt this practice is down to one simple fact – they do not gain as many permissions.

Many of them are probably still struggling with the basics of email data hygiene. “There are many different ways to spell Hotmail – we have got to three figures – but there is only one right way that gets an email delivered,” says Hanson. While his company offers point-of-contact validation, only one or two clients use it, underlining just how little focus there is on quality in this space.

With Postcode Anywhere and Experian QAS offering a new generation of email data hygiene services that not just validate the form of an address by confirm it exists at the given DNS, there is no lack of technology or process to apply to the problem. If anything, the issue is that a channel seen as cheap is still struggling to be valued.

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