Mailing Inactive E-mail Addresses Can Be Big Trouble

Jan 03, 2007 9:27 PM  By

(Magilla Marketing) With Internet service providers using consumer spam complaints to decide which incoming e-mail to block, house file hygiene is taking on a new meaning, according to one expert.

“I’m not sure many mailers really understand what ‘best practices’ means,” says Michelle Eichner, chief operating officer/vice president of client services for e-mail deliverability consultancy Pivotal Veracity. “They probably assume it’s putting in an unsub [unsubscribe mechanism] and that it’s acquiring names responsibly, but it really goes beyond that.”

Typically an e-mail marketer’s list-hygiene practices will involve removing hard bounces, or e-mails that are returned because the addresses are invalid. Marketers also typically have internal rules for dealing with soft bounces, or delivery-status messages stating that the e-mail could not be delivered for some temporary reason, such as the recipient’s inbox is full or the mail server is too busy.

But an effective bounce-handling strategy is not enough to keep inbox providers from blocking a marketer’s e-mail, Eichner says. The reason: Just because a list is permission based and clean from a bounce-oriented perspective doesn’t mean people on the list won’t complain about the e-mail they receive.

Moreover, people will hit the “this is spam” button simply to unsubscribe. As a result, according to Eichner, it is important to know when to remove inactive addresses to avoid the inevitable spam complaints that will come from people who hold them.

“If an e-mail address has been inactive for a year, you’re probably hurting yourself more than helping yourself by continuing to mail that name,” she says. She adds that many marketers take a traditional direct marketing approach to inactive addresses and try to figure out gimmicks to reactivate the names similar to “last chance” catalog covers.

But whereas the recipients of those “last chance” catalogs are likely to see the front cover, “last chance” e-mail recipients are likely to see little more than the “from” line, Eichner says. “I’m not saying don’t do it. Just make sure you test.”

In any case, the trick is not to ignore inactive addresses. “If mailers did an analysis of those who unsubscribe or those who report them as spammers, they would find that a very large percentage of them are coming from that inactive file,” Eichner says. “A couple of our clients did that analysis, and they found that at the 31-month inactive mark, 43% of their spam complaints came from them. [Mailing to inactive names] eventually will lead to spam complaints.”

Also, it is getting easier to determine who is hitting the complaint button. Feedback loops telling marketers which e-mail address holders report their messages as spam are available from AOL and Microsoft, are soon to be available from Yahoo!, and are increasingly becoming available from smaller service providers such as NetZero Earthlink and Road Runner.

Using the information these ISPs provide, “at some point you’re going to be able to look at your file and it’s going to tell you something like ‘here is the point where my subscribers unsub’ or ‘here is the point where they report me as a spammer,’” Eichner says. “Once you know that, you can try to mitigate it by doing a couple things. A: You can stop mailing them prior to those points. B: You can look at the sources of that data because maybe addresses from a particular source result in a high rate of spam reports. It all comes down to ‘When has your e-mail become irrelevant to them?’”