Create an Email Management Strategy to Avoid the Spam Folder
Last year, Google announced that they implemented TensorFlow, an AI-driven system that immediately helped the Gmail system block 100 million more spam emails every single day. Gmail and other ISP systems have become so good at filtering out true spam, that the emails that actually do make it to the inbox are now evaluated on entirely different criteria than what many publishers realize. As email volume spikes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies must be more diligent than ever to ensure their message is reaching the inbox.
The work begins early. Publishers like Morning Brew take a very active approach to churning subscribers to make ISPs happy, but also to maintain positive subscriber relationships from the start. Right away, Morning Brew asks new subscribers to take a few steps to keep their emails out of the spam folder, asking that people actively set the newsletter as primary or VIP. If someone is inactive for more than 60 days, Morning Brew triggers a re-engagement message and waits a mere 48 hours to see if they get a response. If not, they remove the subscriber from their list.
That might seem like a lot, but Morning Brew is an email success story because of how responsive they are to all subscriber behaviors, even negative ones. According to the 2018 Response Rate Report from the Association of National Advertisers and the Data & Marketing Association, email averages a 145% ROI, far higher than social media, display ads, paid search, and direct mail. With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that Morning Brew takes an aggressive approach, but it begs the question, why aren’t more publishers doing the same?
Publisher brands adhere to CAN-SPAM, but today it’s not nearly enough to avoid the spam folder, or avoid subscriber frustration. Every ISP has their own guidelines, such as this one from Google, which prioritizes active “engaged users.” Publishers need to take a more proactive approach to email management in order to make the grade.
The New Spam Filters
Gmail and other ISPs have updated their algorithms to scrutinize senders on their email hygiene practices and reader engagement. Most emails that get to the inbox today are perfectly good emails from reputable brands and publishers. Often, brands and publishers count the total number of email sends as a positive KPI, but this can be a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’, and can get them in trouble because it encourages them to hold on to unengaged subscribers. That long tail of unengaged readers are not only worth very little in terms of active revenue, they carry a heavy risk price tag, and brands often fail to take that risk into consideration.
For years, Gmail and other ISPs would focus their filters on email senders who would send emails that would bounce, have spammy words like “Viagra,” or get a lot of spam complaints. Those days are long past. Now companies use AI and machine learning to monitor legitimate senders that have simply let their list lapse.
ISPs now care much more about active email readership, so they want to see that a recipient is opening, saving, and clicking on emails, rather than ignoring them. In fact, if a high percentage of a sender’s list is not actively reading emails, even legitimate subscribers who have simply stopped opening them, that sender is at risk of being blocked. One poor campaign might negatively impact performance for a week, but poor list quality over time can take months to recover from.
These “negative engagement signals” drive the ISP to start sending a percentage of a sender’s list to the spam folder to warn them to improve their ways. Brands today need to be aware of a very dynamic “reputation score,” which is a rating of many different reputation metrics and sending patterns over a long period of time.
Upping the Engagement Factor
Rather than hold on to every legitimate email address as long as possible, brands need to embrace a more active brand hygiene strategy that follows the ISP’s new guidelines. Lapsed readers don’t need to be immediately unsubscribed, but it’s important to start segmenting and testing re-engagement strategies to create a healthy email business.
For example, brands can segment readers by how recently they have engaged and lower the send frequency to lapsed users. This reduces the percent of emails going to unengaged readers, which not only bothers them less, but also improves their overall engagement profile to the ISPs. A segment of unengaged or lapsed readers can also be sent promotions to get them back.
Birchbox sends a re-engagement email to subscribers that gives a 20% discount code called “COMEBACK20OFF” with an expiration date to encourage action. Urban Outfitters sends a “breaking up” email that looks like a funny text string as a way to kindly ask readers to come back, or unsubscribe. Publisher Axios starts re-engagement emails as soon as one week after signup, and if they see no engagement with their newsletter in two weeks, they ask the subscriber if they’re still interested and unsubscribe them automatically if they don’t get an answer..
Even Healthy Programs Can Get Trapped
Spam filters take into account if any of their trap addresses receive an email, since a spam trap address should never be sent marketing and has never opted in to any list. The sole purpose of a spam trap is to “trap” poor collection and hygiene practices. For example, a “pristine spam trap” will only appear on a send list if a brand purchased or obtained a list of emails that didn’t opt-in. A “recycle trap” will appear if, for example, a subscriber was once active on a list but closed an account, switched email addresses, or changed jobs and is no longer at the previous email address. After a long period of time the email account is turned back on to see who is still mailing to the abandoned addresses. That risk should be enough to convince brands to focus on email engagement and not just true spam.
Most major ISPs look at over 1,000 criteria when evaluating an email sender, and they’re updating that score in real time. For a healthy email program, brands need to also commit to auditing themselves frequently and ensuring that they prioritize healthy email engagement and transparent subscriptions. This not only makes the ISPs happy, it makes subscribers happy, too.
Publishers have started to think “less is more” across their content business. The Guardian UK and French news site Le Monde both audited their sites and noticed that they were producing content that few people read. After culling content by up to 30%, they actually saw an increase in readership. For a publisher’s email program, less can also be more. By trimming a subscriber list down and having a clear email management strategy, publishers not only make ISPs happy, they show their subscribers that they’re paying attention and reacting to their needs. That’s a win-win.
Allison Mezzafonte is a Sailthru advisor and a strategic consultant advising businesses and brands on organic growth strategies. As a former media executive, Allison specializes in leveraging organic media channels for brand amplification, helping brands get their message in front of the right people.