Maintain your good name

Apr 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts may not care about having a bad reputation, but for e-mail marketers, reputation has a specific meaning crucial to the deliverability of their messages. And many merchants are not even aware of this.

Put simply, an e-mail marketer’s reputation is the main gauge Internet service providers and anti-spam firms use to determine whether to deliver e-mail messages, block them, or shunt them off into subscribers’ spam folders.

Marketers who think that as long as they’ve got permission, their messages will be delivered are deluded, say the experts.

“Don’t hold the illusion that just because you’ve got permission you’re going to have a good reputation and get delivered,” warns Jordan Cohen, senior director, corporate communications and industry relations for marketing services provider Epsilon.

An e-mail reputation consists of three main metrics: the sender’s spam-complaint rate, the “unknown-user” or bad-address rate, and the number of spam traps a mailer hits.


First, the daddy of all reputation metrics: the spam-complaint rate.

“At the largest ISPs, we’re seeing a trend where they continue to refine their anti-spam technology in a direction where, ultimately, the most important thing, and someday hopefully the only thing [they use to spot spam] is the user’s direct feedback,” says Cohen. “What that means is avoiding spam complaints at all costs.”

As a result, the spam complaint rate — the percentage of e-mail recipients who report a mailer’s messages to their inbox provider as spam — is arguably at least as important as the click-through and conversion rates most marketers wouldn’t dare ignore.

“The spam complaint rate is far and away the most important metric in e-mail deliverability,” says Deirdre Baird, president of e-mail deliverability consultancy Pivotal Veracity.

Conventional wisdom has it that a complaint rate of 0.5% or higher will result in major delivery issues. But according to Ben Chestnut, cofounder of e-mail service provider MailChimp, 0.5% isn’t necessarily a reliable statistic.

“I’ve seen less than that get blocked and I’ve seen a lot more than that get by. Either the formula’s constantly changing or there’s one guy out there changing the rules on a daily basis,” he says. “I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff get by and wondered: ‘Wow. How in God’s name did that not get blocked?’ ”

Chestnut recommends that marketers strive for a complaint rate of less than one per thousand, or less than 0.1%.

Fair enough, but most marketers don’t even know what their spam-complaint rates are, according to Baird.

For example, many who rely on their e-mail service providers to monitor complaints and process unsubscribes get reports from their ESPs showing the number of e-mail addresses that were removed from their file in a given period of time, but the various reasons for removal aren’t broken out.

“In most cases, the mailer isn’t seeing spam-complaint rates separated as a metric from their unsubscribe rate or other file removal,” says Baird. “If you’re working with an ESP, it’s not enough that the ESP has signed up for feedback loops and is removing spam complaints for you. You need to see the metrics associated with that and be able to track that over time.”

Speaking of feedback loops — reports showing the e-mails about which recipients complained — many major ISPs and anti-spam services make them available free.

“Feedback loops literally consist of copies of the e-mails people reported to their ISPs as spam,” says Baird. “If 20,000 people complain, you’re going to receive 20,000 e-mails. You need each one so you can remove it.”

But many marketers who use ESPs simply ignore their complaint rates until there’s a problem, says Chestnut, whose firm automatically removes complainers’ e-mail addresses from clients’ files.

“Some people totally ignore feedback loops, and then they’ll call us and say: ‘What happened? Our list has shrunk by 10%,’ ” he says.

More than a dozen major ISPs and spam filters have free feedback loop programs. They include AOL, Earthlink, Excite, United Online (Net Zero and Juno), USA. net, Hotmail/MSN, and Yahoo.

It’s also a good idea to get on ISPs’ internal whitelists, or programs where the mailer meets certain non-spamming criteria so their mail gets preferential treatment. More than 20 ISPs and spam filtering firms offer free whitelist programs, says Baird. They include AOL, Bell South, Road Runner, United Online, Verizon, and Yahoo.

Baird urges marketers to insist their ESPs separate their spam complaint rates from other e-mail address-removal metrics in their reports, and pay close attention to them. “And ideally, you want them broken out by ISP,” she says. “You need to be able to assess complaints by ISP, by campaign, by data source, and over time,” she says.

The reason: Besides being a crucial metric in relation to deliverability, the spam complaint rate can offer incredible insight into how a marketer’s e-mail efforts are performing overall.

“Spam complaints give marketers an immediate and constant direct flow of feedback about the quality, or lack thereof, of the communications you’re sending to your customers,” says Epsilon’s Cohen. “In no other channel do you have that. They give you invaluable knowledge you can use to refine your future efforts not just with an eye toward avoiding complaints, but with an eye on understanding what really resonates with customers.”

For example, a spike in complaint rates about messages sent to a permission-based list can indicate that the sender’s mail is surprising people, says Chestnut. Changing the name in the “from” line from one mailing to the next can result in higher spam complaints, he adds.

“One mistake people make is they set up a list, people sign up to it, and they create a sublist and give it a new title,” he says.

A marketer’s branding should be consistent from e-mail to e-mail and recipients should be able to look at it and instantly remember where they subscribed, notes Chestnut.

Spam complaints can also result from failing to set expectations correctly at signup, such as telling subscribers they’re signing up for useful news and then sending nothing but coupons and ads.

Spam-complaint rates can help marketers determine the ideal frequency of their mailings, says Baird.

“I might learn, for example, if I increase my mailings from once per week to three times per week, my spam complaint rates go up and I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns,” she says. “It’s kind of the converse of the click rate. It may mean people found my message annoying and, given the importance of relevance today, I now have an excellent red-flag indicator of the problem.”

Ironically, complaints can also be a problem for e-mailers who send too infrequently or sporadically so recipients forget about them.

Getting e-mail addresses from non-permission-based sources will also result in spikes in complaint rates.

“If you see a spike in spam complaints, you need to ask: ‘Was it a particular campaign? Was it a particular source of names? Did I suddenly increase the frequency with which I mailed during this particular time?’ ” says Baird. “But you can’t do that if you’re not measuring it, and right now, most people aren’t measuring it.”

Bottom line: The marketer who ignores spam complaints does so at his or her own peril.

“Time and time again when a mailer’s messages are getting blocked and it looks to be systemic, when we call the ISP, almost invariably they say it is because the mailer is getting too many spam complaints,” says Baird. “And it’s a waste of the ISP’s time because this is something the mailer should know.”


Meanwhile, the second metric that inbox providers use to determine a marketer’s e-mail reputation is the mailer’s “unknown user” rate, or the percentage of bad addresses the sender’s blast tries to reach. Spammers are notorious for having dirty lists.

A spike in unknown user rates can indicate a bad source of e-mail names, says Baird. Also, marketers who use unconfirmed opt-in e-mail address gathering — where no welcome message is sent to new subscribers — tend to have high unknown user rates, she adds.

“People put in fake addresses,” says Baird. “The benefit of confirmed opt-in is if you send a confirmation e-mail and it bounces, you know you’ve got a bad address and you shouldn’t move it into your regular house file deployment cycle.”

A certain percentage of any e-mail campaign will invariably bounce. The key is being able to distinguish messages that bounce as a result of trying to hit bad addresses from e-mail that bounced for other reasons. Cohen recommends a bounce rate of less than 10%.

How an ESP handles bounces is a crucial point of differentiation from ESP to ESP, says Baird. “Bounce codes supplied by the ISPs or receiving domains can sometimes be ambiguous. You don’t necessarily remove an address just because it bounces,” she says. For example, a bounce can be the result of a temporary condition on the receiving end or because a mailbox is full.

And how an ESP handles these ambiguities can affect the size of the marketer’s list. For example, a less-sophisticated ESP may remove names from a client’s file that are still good.

“If you have a good, sophisticated bounce methodology, you could end up with a greater pool of recipients to mail to,” says Cohen.


The third metric that affects e-mailers’ reputations is how many spam traps they hit. But this metric is the one over which mailers have the least control.

There are two types of spam traps. The first type is old, abandoned addresses that no one uses, but that ISPs monitor to see who is hitting them. Marketers who mail to these addresses are probably failing to clean old, inactive names off their lists and, as a result, risk having their mail blocked.

A second type of spam trap is called a honey pot address. These are addresses made up by the various anti-spam entities and placed all over the Internet as bait for people who harvest e-mail names. Honey pot addresses have, by definition, never been registered for anything. As a result, the marketer who attempts to mail to them has either been harvesting addresses or buying names from a source that is harvesting addresses.

While e-mail-address harvesting isn’t illegal, it is on a list of heinous activities detailed in Can Spam Act that will add on to the penalties of anyone convicted of violating it. And illegal on its own or not, evidence of harvesting will most assuredly get a mailer’s messages blocked.

“The big spam filtering companies have tens of thousands of these e-mail addresses all over the Internet just waiting for e-mail,” says Baird. “The moment they receive an e-mail at one of those addresses, they know you’re spamming.”

A marketer can’t easily measure spam trap rates, says Baird. But as part of their white-listing programs, AOL and Microsoft offer reports that will tell the mailer if they have spam traps on their lists.

But they won’t tell you which ones they are, “and you can’t really remove them because you can’t be certain which ones they are,” says Baird. “What you need to do [if spam traps appear on a file] is rigorously examine your data and acquisition practices.”