It's getting more difficult to get into inboxes, as the battle between spammers and Internet service providers rages on. Nearly one in four commercial emails doesn't make it to the inbox and is either shunted to spam folders or blocked altogether, according to a March report by Return Path, a New York email deliverability monitoring firm. Six months earlier, that figure was one in five.
Small companies often run afoul of spam filters, even if they have opt-in email lists of supposedly willing recipients. Many who are new to email marketing start off on the wrong foot, says Dennis Dayman, chief security and privacy officer at Eloqua, a Vienna, Va., marketing software and services company. "They 'spray and pray' and hope that someone will click and buy," but are hit with angry complaints and find their emails blocked as spam, he says. Ironically, many companies send too few messages to have their way smoothed by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as known commercial email senders.
But you can significantly improve your odds of reaching customers and prospects by taking the right steps. Here are some essentials to keep in mind:
Polish your reputation.
Spam filters used to look closely at email content and punish spammy messages (i.e. Viagra! FREE!!). But experts say sender reputation is by far more important now.
In the same way a bad credit score can freeze you out of the lending market, a bad sender score for your domain name or IP addresses can keep your emails out of inboxes. ISPs, including Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo Mail, use a number of tools to determine sender reputation. Key among them is the number of user complaints, which are made by clicking a report spam button. If more than one in a thousand email recipients complain, your messages will be blocked altogether, says Tom Sather, senior director of email research at Return Path. Messages that fail to engage recipients can also hurt you.
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Once you start being relegated to the spam folder, it can be difficult to get out. "People have to report that you're not spam," Sather says.
Your first task is to find out just how liked or disliked you are. Return Path offers a free online service, senderscore.org, where you can plug in your IP address, see your score and find out the underlying causes of a bad one so you know what to fix.
Use clean lists.
ISPs punish senders with shoddy email lists. Avoid buying lists as they typically include spam traps, which are fake addresses used only to catch spam, and addresses of people who haven't given permission to receive marketing messages, Dayman says. These people are more likely to complain and less likely to buy anything.
It can be time consuming, but you're probably better off building a list of real customers and prospects who have agreed to receive email from you. When you ask customers for email addresses, have them specify the types of email they want to receive. If they agree to a newsletter but not marketing messages, honor the request -- or risk dinging your reputation. Also consider segmenting your list by type of customer to make it easier to send relevant messages.
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Also, maintain good list hygiene by regularly removing addresses that bounce or opt-out. If necessary, thoroughly cull your list by sending a message asking for permission to continue sending email and keeping only the addresses that respond.
"It's not about having the biggest email list," Dayman says. "Move yourself over to a quality-over-quantity mentality."
Hone your content.
Spammy content triggers spam filters only 17 percent of the time, Sather says. But if you are new to email marketing or too small to have built a reputation, that rate could be higher.
London-based fundraising website Go Get Funding had problems with email delivery when it was launched in December. "Our welcome email mentioned the words 'raise money.' We changed that to 'raise funds.' We removed exclamation marks when they probably weren't needed, and overall, toned down emails," says founder Sandip Singh. The delivery rate improved significantly.
Moreover, annoying and irrelevant messages can lead some recipients to click the "report spam" button. Avoid trouble by targeting messages, clearly identifying yourself in the "from" address, crafting an engaging subject line and making sure messages appear correctly on PCs and mobile devices.
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When it comes to sending commercial email, there's strength in numbers. Consistent volumes of 30,000 emails a month or more enable ISPs to recognize legitimate senders, Dayman says. If you don't send that much email, consider teaming up with other small and responsible senders by sharing servers or using a recognized emailing service such as Constant Contact, iContact, Mailchimp or VerticalResponse. Using marketing tools can boost your sender score and firms such as these can help you manage your lists and otherwise stay on the straight and narrow.
Plans are often free to start but can grow to hundreds of dollars a month, depending on email list size and volume.
Riva Richmond is a freelance journalist who has covered technology for more than a decade. She focuses on computer security, privacy, social networking and online business and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other national publications. Previously, Riva was a technology reporter at Dow Jones Newswires and regular contributor to The Journal's "Enterprise" small business column.