Permission Is a Good Start…

Almost There...…but there’s more to good email deliverability than permission alone.

Much goes into getting email delivered, and fortunately your email service provider (such as *ahem* AWeber ;)) takes care of a lot.

However, you hold some of the keys to good deliverability in your hands, too. But if you don’t use them, you’ll have to confront declining delivery and response rates.

Relevancy Matters Too! (Just ask AOL and Yahoo)

The recently completed FTC Spam Summit underscores how relevancy affects your deliverability. Comments from a couple of major ISPs indicate that (as Mark Brownlow says) it’s about unwanted email, not just what we normally think of as “spam.”

Check out what AOL Postmaster Charles Stiles had to say:

“It is really about what the consumer wants. Even if they asked to receive the e-mail, if they do not find value in it, then it is not a good e-mail. We want to make sure that our customers are happy.”

Notice how he suggests that permission isn’t enough?

Follow that up with comments from Yahoo’s Miles Libbey:

“Operationally, we define spam as whatever consumers don’t want in their inbox.”

…and you’ll see we’re not talking just about unsolicited bulk email, are we? The ISP perspective takes “spam” further than that.

If You’re Not Relevant, You’re Irrelevant

Relevancy affects your reputation, which affects your deliverability.

If you’re not providing value to subscribers, their actions with your messages will reflect that. ISPs track what’s done with your messages, and can choose to filter you out if they find you’re not “what the consumer wants.”

How Do I Stay Relevant?

Relevancy has to do with whether what someone wants and expects to receive from you is actually what they do get from you.

Start off by setting subscriber expectations. You have a number of opportunities to do this, but none more important than when someone first signs up. Here, you must answer two key questions:

Once you do that, reinforce those expectations (and stay relevant) by meeting them — by emailing them as often as you told them you would, and by consistently providing value in your messages.

Don’t Forget Permission

It’d be easy to read this post and come to the conclusion that permission doesn’t matter at all as long as you’re relevant.

Permission + Relevancy = Deliverability. Miss either, and you may miss the inbox.

The problem with that is, how could you consistently provide relevant, valuable content to people who hadn’t told you what they consider to be relevant and given you permission to send it to them?

Top-notch email deliverability comes from the combination of permission and relevancy (plus email authentication and a whole lot of other technical stuff that we handle for you). You can’t substitute relevancy for permission, or vice versa.

Remember, permission is specific — people ask for a specific set of information, at a specific time, from a specific party (you). Relevancy complements that permission as you consistently provide value to subscribers.

Further Reading:

Email Marketing Reports: The ISPs Speak


UPDATE: Google just put their $.02 in as well… very similar comments to those made by AOL and Yahoo!

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Justin Premick is the former Director of Educational Products at AWeber.

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16 Comments

  1. Right on! This is such great advice.

    I just started doing my newsletter last month – and my open rates have been at 90-97%!

    I do the double opt-in, and really work hard for the content of these newsletters to be not only relevant to my clients, but useful. Apparently, it’s working!

    What fun! :)

    7/23/2007 10:00 am
  2. Jennifer,

    That’s great! With open rates like that, you’re clearly providing relevant, valuable content to your readers.

    7/23/2007 10:27 am | Follow me on Twitter
  3. Thanks for letting us know what ISPs think.

    Assuming that subscribers might be lazy and press the SPAM button instead of unsubscribing, I think ISPs are handling this issue not correctly. They make it too easy for themselves by blurring the definition of SPAM into something that is not defined precisely anymore. They even seem to ignore users whitelists in some instances.

    As consumer/recipient I should always have the last word in deciding what SPAM is and what not. I should always have the option of bypassing all SPAM filters. I remember that I have been subscribed to a very valuable newsletter by Jakob Nielsen (useit.com) and stopped receiving it for month, then it worked again, suddenly. This only because some ISP blocked it somewhere down the line. J.Nielsen is not with Aweber, unfortunately. I tried to email to his list provider and to his company, but neither would even attempt to address the deliverability problem.

    My point is:

    Besides having a recognizable, valuable newsletter a publisher needs to persuade its subscsriber to unsubscribe instead of click SPAM, in the vent the newsletter becomes irrelevant for them. E.g. they received real estate offers, but have purchased a house and don’t need them anymore.

    Some internet marketers suggest that one simply might block AOL, YAHOO, HOTMAIL, … from subscribing to the list, because those networks have a much higher likelyhood of false SPAM reports.

    7/30/2007 8:16 am
  4. Erich Wise

    I agree with John Furst, but I have some additional comments. filtering and irrelevant is getting confused with spam. the ease of ‘junk’ button on their email client impacts someone’s reputation. There are specific laws regarding SPAM in the US. when a person with integrity has a product to offer and complies with the laws, there should be a different relationship with the ISP and quite frankly aweber. Its NOT SPAM to send a person what they asked for, with permission…especially when its a double opt in with a webform sending contact info to aweber and then another confirmation required. When the consumer changed their mind. FINE, The consumer has a choice. I believe in the right to choose…but that shouldnt make the sender a criminal or even imply that the sender has done something wrong and needs to be punished or blocked from other recipients who may find the offer valid and wanted.
    AOL is making their own problems and it wouldnt surprise me if more and more people stop using their service and/or stopped emailing their members. Have you ever seen the webforms that won’t allow AOL or HOTMAIL email addresses. Its because of policies that conform the many to the wants of a few and once you have been filtered or blocked, there
    is little you can do to repair your deliverability in that ISP domain.
    I think that ISPs should recognize legitamite autoresponder services like aweber, see that we are complying with the US laws and stop acting so superior and controlling. I agree that its not worth my reputation to email ISPs that punish those of us that comply with the law. I have a valuable message and my product is excellent. Some enjoy it, some do not…and that is the way it should be. I respect people’s ability to make a decision. The real spammers use creative *’s between letters of words and change their username and domain names constantly to get through the blocks and filters. I refuse to get sneaky or change my words to make a few sales.

    I’m glad I joined aweber so that I can see the success with a reputable email service and its easy to comply with some reasonable guidelines through this service. Cheers to success!

    8/1/2007 9:24 am
  5. John and Erich,

    I think your comments mirror many marketers’ sentiments, and John definitely had a frustrating experience trying to get that useit newsletter.

    One thing we don’t typically consider is the enormity of the task that ISPs face in delivering their users’ wanted email while preventing unwanted mail.

    What I mean is, let’s say someone "gets" (in the sense of being able to read in their email program) 100 spam messages a day and 50 legitimate messages. That doesn’t mean that person was only sent 150 messages that day. The person could easily have been sent 250, 500 or even 1000 messages that day, meaning that the proportion of legitimate email sent to that person in this example could be as low as 20, 10 or even 5 percent of the overall incoming mail.

    How many people are willing/able to take the time necessary to filter through 95% spam to get to 5% legitimate mail? I can’t see many people being willing to do that (I’m certainly not).

    So, we rely on ISPs to get as much unwanted mail out while getting the wanted stuff to us. Part of this is getting rid of a lot of messages before they even put them into the email clients we use to read messages. ISPs in turn rely on us to tell them what we want, and what we don’t, so they can continually improve.

    I agree that email marketers should take steps to reduce our complaint rates (some get at this by placing permission reminders in their message), but don’t forget that ISPs know that their users often click "Spam" to unsubscribe, too. The occasional spam complaint isn’t going to ruin your deliverability. Provide relevant, wanted information to subscribers and you’ll continue to get delivered.

    8/1/2007 10:02 am | Follow me on Twitter
  6. Thanks Justin for your answer!
    Thanks Erich for your comment!

    A permission reminder, together with the ability to change or delete a particular subscription or even all subscriptions from one vendor is definitely a helpful thing.

    Since my email provider does an excellent job with spam filtering, I am personally not aware of the size of the SPAM problem before my Inbox at all. On the other hand I am pretty sure that no ‘real’ email for me got dropped during the last year. I have to admit that ‘even ISPs’ are improving.

    What all people want is simple:

    "All email delivered to their inbox they want to read.
    No more, no less."

    From a usability standpoint of view it’s not even too wrong to say, "Hey, you have one button to press for all unwanted email. It’s called SPAM-Button! Never get those annoying emails, again."

    A spam prevention system could recognize all emails that are from legitimate email newsletter providers. And actually perform the UNSUBSCRIBE for the user that just pressed the SPAM button. There are many black- and white-lists, based on IP, on domain, mail-addresses…, bayesian rules, SPF, and more. That kind of email parsing should be possible. I don’t know, if this or something similar is done. It just comes to my mind that it could be done that way.

    From a usability standpoint of view it kind of makes sense to have one button for ‘unwanted mail’ no matter where it comes from. The technology shall deal with the details.

    BUT the implementation of any spam prevention method must have two important features.

    1.) A users whitelist for distinct email addresses or even domains must be obeyed in any circumstance.

    2.) A ‘smart’ SPAM button shall unsubscribe the user from legitimate (whitelisted or at least not black-listed) newsletter, autoresponder providers instead of classifying the sender as spammer.

    That’s my wishlist as consumer, publisher, and consltant.

    Adios from ‘burning’ Tenerife.
    35,000 hectares of forest burned
    during the last couple of days. God sake
    my family is safe.

    8/1/2007 4:14 pm
  7. Aside from permission and relevance, there’s something else that needs to be considered. Not taking NO or ‘no response’ for an answer. Often I receive emails from publishers 3 or 4 times in a row. It’s apparent they interpret a non-response so that they continually send the same email. Regardless of how good that publisher is with all other mailings, they offend me greatly by doing that.

    I am by no means an English major, but I expect anybody who publishes anything associated with their business to proofread what they are sending out to Xnumber of people. To either duplicate someone elses email or to sloppily throw together one of your own without double-checking it, represents to me a serious flaw in their business attitude. It then makes me wonder what other flaws may exist.

    Who knows, maybe it’s just me. But the above 2 items will cause me to drop you.

    8/8/2007 9:53 pm
  8. Dale,

    That would get annoying fast. Personally, I don’t mind receiving the same offer (or a variation of the same offer) twice within a reasonable period of time but I wouldn’t likely put up with more than that.

    Bottom line: it’s important for us to recognize as email marketers when our subscribers are saying no, because that means they want something else from us (whether that’s more content, different products/services or something else entirely).

    With that in mind, I’m surprised to not see more publishers driving subscribers to surveys, especially in the wake of a promotion that maybe didn’t do quite as well as they’d hoped/anticipated. Instead of just rewording and resending, try asking people directly why they didn’t take you up on that offer. You may find that there’s something else you can provide them.

    8/9/2007 9:21 am | Follow me on Twitter
  9. Justin

    I agree. I am personally not a fan of any on-line survey because they usually lack the ability for a short narrative from the survey taker. The typical survey multiple choice answers don’t suffice for the answer I want to give. I think surveys could be quite useful if constructed properly.

    Hey, off the subject, but, my virus checker just picked up a Trojan Horse Downloader from this location. Interesting, ha!!

    8/9/2007 7:46 pm
  10. Hi Dale,

    Agreed – you need specific feedback. Allow subscribers to direct the conversation, don’t steer them toward particular answers.

    Re: your second point – that’s definitely odd. There aren’t any security issues with the blog… perhaps a false positive by your software or maybe triggered by another window/tab you had open… hopefully it doesn’t recur for you!

    8/10/2007 10:27 am | Follow me on Twitter

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