The banes of deliverability

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Josh Aberant
Josh Aberant

One of the most frustrating realities for e-mail marketers is that, even after they've done the hard work to get people to agree to receive their e-mails by crafting appealing offers, providing relevant content and targeting those most likely to benefit, some of those e-mail messages still won't get through.  

Despite the advent of sophisticated tools designed to optimize e-mail delivery, there still are many ways even invited communications can get blocked. Three such hurdles come up so often I like to call them the banes of deliverability – complaints, bounces and spam traps.

Here are some insights into what ISPs are looking for and what marketers can do to improve delivery rates.  

Avoiding complaints begins with the opt-in process

A complaint occurs when someone hits the “report spam” button or moves the message to the junk folder.

If enough customers report your e-mail as spam — half a percent is a common threshold —ISPs will take action to block your messages or deliver them to the junk folder. In fact, a sender's rate of being reported as spam is the main criterion that many ISPs use to determine where or whether to deliver a sender's messages. The result can be called lowest common denominator: besides the particular recipients that reported you, all other subscribers don't get the benefit of your message – which they invited in the first place — and future delivery rates will be affected because the ISPs have you flagged as a spammer.

The challenge for marketers is that consumers often don't make the connection between messages they receive and the opt-in permission they gave on a Web site. Consumers don't always know what they are agreeing to when they opt in. Combine this with a consumer's tendency to use the spam button to unsubscribe from e-mail lists — a full 26% of consumers do this, JupiterResearch reported in December 2007 – and you've got delivery trouble.   

Preventing complaints begins during the opt-in process. It's the official start of the relationship, and it's your best opportunity to set expectations and tell recipients exactly what they'll see in the inbox, and how often those messages will arrive. The goal here is to create what we call a moment of recognition — which will help prepare subscribers for what is to come and make them less likely to report, delete or block the messages.

To manage the opt-in process effectively, be clear. Tell potential subscribers exactly what they're signing up for. For example: “Every Thursday we'll send you a list of our theater's productions for the coming weekend, along with a coupon redeemable if you click through and buy your tickets on our Web site.” Also, offer a way to preview an actual message right from the opt-in page, so they can see an example before signing up.

You've likely put a lot of time and effort into crafting your messages and targeting your distribution lists. In your fight for delivery, setting and meeting expectations will help you become a recognizable — and welcome — presence in your recipients' inboxes.

Josh Aberant is privacy and standards manager at Lyris Inc. Reach him at


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