You’ve probably all heard about Microsoft’s plans to upgrade Hotmail in order to “address inbox clutter”. With important repercussions for online marketers I thought I’d take this opportunity to clear up a few details about why the system has been introduced, how the plans will affect email marketing campaigns and suggest what email marketers can do to avoid the spam trap. But before I start I want to make one thing clear; marketers need not be afraid. ISPs are not the enemy.
How it all began: If you act like spam and look like spam…
Being labelled as spam has always been a cause for concern for email marketers. Back in the day spam was defined as UBE (unsolicited bulk email). The cry that rang out when the stamp of spam was put on a marketing email was “but this person has opted in/not opted out so how can it be spam!” The truth was, to an ISP, if your email was continually unopened, unread and basically unwanted, it was spam.
To even the score ISP’s provided a “mark this as spam” button, giving the recipient the power to decide. And all of a sudden the rules changed; spam became any unwanted email. For email marketers the answer to avoiding the spam trap was to not email disengaged recipients. The message was clear; just because someone had signed up in the past, didn’t mean they wanted your emails now! If a user was not engaging over a set period of time, remove them from the list or risk being labelled as spam.
To improve sender reputation many marketers started to focus on quality of data and recency of response. The terms inactive, dead or toxic data, began to be heard when defining segments within a list.
As ISP’s began to distinguish between real spam (UBE) and solicited marketing messages options became available to allow recipients to unsubscribe, rather than mark as spam.
The next step: Clearing the clutter
According to Microsoft, despite these anti spam techniques, for the recipient, things still weren’t all peachy in the inbox. Apparently only 50% of all inbox mail contains information a recipient is interested in. The rest is just clutter, resulting in people missing important info because it’s hidden amongst all the rubbish.
Microsoft’s new version of Hotmail helps recipients define unwanted emails. It helps recipients manage their emails, keep junk out the inbox and delete rubbish en-mass prompting unsubscription from emails continually unread by a certain sender.
Initially this may sounds scary to an email marketer. The thought of additional barriers coming in to stop your emails reaching the customer sets off a surge of panic. (I can here the sound of email marketers everywhere starting to hyperventilate.) Well take a deep breath, calm down and focus on the advantages.
Remember, ISP’s are not the enemy. Their job is to protect their clients, the users who hold an email mail account. If you’re sending decent, wanted, useful emails to your users, you won’t have a problem. The only people who are really going to suffer from this are the ‘bad senders’, the senders still relying on mass mailings to send irrelevant, unwanted emails in the hope that someone, somewhere may find it useful.
If you adhere to best practice email marketing and do send, relevant, targeted communication that already engages your users, you’re on the right path for success and Microsoft’s new filing system will only be a benefit. It will filter out all the unwanted rubbish other mailers are sending that are possibly causing your customers to miss the valuable communication you send.
When it comes to best practice, we’re all fighting on the same side. Or at least we should be. Recipients will open emails they want to receive, ISPs want recipients to receive emails that are of interest to them, and as senders we want to provide useful information so that recipients will open the emails and click through. We’re all in this together.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em
The truth is if you want your email marketing to continue to be successful you will have to play by the rules. To protect the future value of an email list, you will need to ensure you are sending relevant, useful and wanted email to people you know are interested in your company, because if you don’t, Hotmail (and other ISP’s) will be asking the customer to unsubscribe!
This will certainly change the dynamics of email list management and make the unsubscribe button more important than it has ever been before. As pointed out in this recent post from Return Path, if you don’t use the unsubscribe header, or decide to ignore it, the implication could be blocks on your IP.
Undoubtedly the new process makes the use of engagement measurement, monitoring and management vital in protecting the future value of your email list as I have mentioned before. The difference now is that the direction of the webmail providers is becoming more clearly defined and they are making it clearer with every move they make recipient experience is king and in sending marketers back the information they are getting (spam complaints and unsubscribes), they are asking us to do the same.
The customer knows best
My advice to all email marketers is to ensure your email marketing strategy involves sending relevant communication to every user. We all know the phrase ‘the customer knows best’ and it’s never been more relevant to email marketers than now. Customers are in control. They decide what they read, what they delete, whether they unsubscribe and whether your emails are spam. The only way to get round this is to react to their behaviour and give them what they want. Here’s a few basic tips to keep your customers engaged and your email reputation intact.
- If you don’t already segment you email list – start now! Different customers have different needs and different incentives to buy. Segmentation is the best way to send targeted email marketing.
- Target emails based on online user behaviour. If you want your emails to be read, send your customers information you know they will be interested in receiving. It sounds like a no brainer, but surprisingly most companies don’t do this. The only way to really understand what your users want to receive information on is to look at what they buy, what they browse and what they are interested in.
- Transaction programmes (eg. purchase notification) are a great way to communicate with a customer. These emails will be treated as wanted communication by Hotmail’s clutter control, so are an easy way to engage the customer.
- Make it easy for customers to unsubscribe. Yes, I know it sounds scary. But there is no point mailing users who don’t want your emails. It is better you provide recipients with a clear option to unsubscribe than risk your emails being flagged by Hotmail.
- Talk to your ESP provider about implementing a working unsubscribe and a list unsubscribe header. If Hotmail is prompting users to unsubscribe to your emails, and you don’t know about it, you could find yourself blocked. Keep on top of who is not engaging with your emails, and who is unsubscribing through the Hotmail prompt; remove these users from your mailing list.
The truth is, everything that is being implemented by Microsoft and other ISPs is to help and protect email recipients from unwanted, irrelevant email. And, as these recipients are our customers too, why wouldn’t we also want to help?
Director of Deliverability, RedEye