eBay wins e-mail bid

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E-mail delivery is intrinsic for online auction site eBay. The site is one of the top five sends of e-mail globally. Users communicate their buying and selling listings with eBay, as well as with other users. If a user places a bid on an item and does not receive an e-mail when they have been outbid, they may lose the bidding war. That is why e-mail delivery strategy is job one at eBay.

“We're very focused on e-mail deliverability primarily because, why send a message if it doesn't get into the inbox,” says Nicole Birdsall, group product manager, communications at eBay. “We want to make sure that we are a good citizen and sending relevant e-mails and getting important messages through to our customers who are expecting them.”

eBay sends about 25 billion e-mails per year and has a 98 to 99% deliverability rate. “We make sure that all of the expected information is put into the header and our SPF records are good,” says Birdsall. “We also make sure that our IP addresses are certified with white lists.”

E-mail deliverability has evolved since ISPs and brands began tracking it in the late nineties, which then led to e-mail delivery service providers springing up around 2003. “Marketers have begun thinking about deliverability in terms of inbox versus bounce or not bounce,” says Chad Malchow, VP of sales and client service, North America at Return Path. Now when e-mail deliverability is being tabulated, it is based on all e-mails sent, not just the ones that made it into the inbox versus the spam box.

Today, the most important thing for marketers to pay attention to in e-mail delivery is their e-mail authentication and reputation, according to experts. Senders can authenticate e-mail using tools such as Microsoft's Sender Framework ID and Yahoo's Domain Keys. The sender's reputation is determined by the ISPs who monitor the e-mailing habits of senders and rate their reputation based on their sending tactics, feedback loops and complaints. “Reputation has become much more known and marketers are beginning to understand how ISPs look at them as a sender,” said Malchow. “The ISPs are giving more information about complaint feedback loops and that information exchange is helping marketers become better senders.”

eBay has evolved its e-mail deliverability strategy since it began tracking it almost a decade ago. Today, eBay works directly with the ISPs, as well as with e-mail deliverability firm Return Path, to monitor its sending. One of eBay's approaches is to separate transactional e-mails and marketing e-mails and then send them from different IP pools. “ISPs hold marketing e-mails under different rules and regulations than transactional e-mails, so we separate them,” says Birdsall.

eBay sends e-mails to test accounts in the top ISPs including Yahoo, AOL, Gmail and Hotmail and scrutinizes the rendering in each. “Part of our strategy is to look at it before we actually put it into a production mode, by sending it to several different inboxes before sending it to the user,” says Birdsall. “We look at making sure that it got into the inbox versus the spam folder, how it renders and what it looks like to the user.”

For the past four years, the focus has been on relevancy to make e-mails more meaningful to consumers and in turn to earn a good reputation. One such effort to increase relevancy began in April when eBay launched a complaint feedback loop. When a user complains about an e-mail by marking it as spam in their inbox, the next time that user logs into their eBay account online, they are automatically served an interstitial page, which directs the user to a preference page. On the preference page, the user is asked if they would like to unsubscribe or if they would like to cut down on the frequency of the e-mails that they receive. For example, some users may not want to receive bid confirmation e-mails, but they do want to receive an e-mail if they are outbid. These preferences can be designated on this page.

“We realize that users might not know how to unsubscribe because maybe they are not opening the e-mails. And we'd like to make it easier for them,” says Birdsall. Since the program launched Birdsall says complaint rates have dropped. “They are trying to understand the customer and why they complained, so that they can do predictive modeling and avoid future complaints,” adds Malchow.

While eBay is proactive about e-mail delivery, not all e-mail marketers are. According to Return Path's Deliverability Benchmark Report that was released in July 2009, in the United States and Canada more than 20% of e-mail doesn't reach the inboxes of intended subscribers. The study also found that only 79.3% of commercial e-mails in which consumers have opted in, actually reached the inboxes they were intended to reach, during the first half of 2009.

As e-mail delivery gains marketer attention, the industry is continuing to push for more relevant content and standardization in reputation building. “I expect to see more standardization between ISPs around reputation and reputation metrics, and much more adoption or alliances being created around certification programs, to help build trust,” remarks Malchow. “Feedback loops are just one piece of that.”

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