Lists and Prospecting: Help with E-Mail List Hygiene

Mar 01, 2004 10:30 PM  By

Even if you avoid renting e-mail names and send messages only to customers who have requested them, you need to practice spotless e-mail list hygiene. Mailing to a poorly maintained e-mail list can be costly, especially with the recent enactment of the Can-Spam law. Not only can inadvertently mailing to a wrong address cost you a potential sale, but you could also end up having to pay a hefty fine for sending unsolicited e-mail to an unwilling recipient.

To help you avoid making any expensive mistakes, e-mail experts offer several suggestions:

  • Beware the ever-changing address.

    Don’t assume that the e-mail addresses your customers gave you are still correct. According to an October 2003 survey by New York-based strategic solutions firm Bigfoot Interactive and NOP World Research, more than 11% of consumers had switched their Internet service providers (ISPs) or e-mail providers within the previous six months. More than 14% were considering switching ISPs within the following six months.

    Indeed, Eric Kirby, vice president of strategic services for New York-based online ad agency DoubleClick, estimates that more than 25% of e-mail addresses will become undeliverable over the course of a year.

    A simple way to maintain correct addresses for current customers is to have phone reps ask for or confirm the data on file each time they take an order. As for not-so-recent buyers, list hygiene is a basic offering for most e-mail services providers, says Reggie Brady, president of Norwalk, CT-based consultancy Reggie Brady Marketing Solutions,. For clients who use the providers’ other services, “there generally wouldn’t be an additional charge for this service,” she says, “and if there was it would be a modest fee.”

    Matt Blumberg, CEO of New York-based e-mail list maintenance provider Return Path, says that catalogers who have their e-mail files checked for change of address will typically pay $0.50-$0.90 per address change. He suggests that catalogers looking to outsource e-mail list hygiene should make sure that up-to-date algorithms are used and that results are tested before being mailed. For instance, if an address is corrected from to, “you’ll want to mail the recommended fix requesting verification of the correct address,” Blumberg explains. “This way, you won’t mail a commercial message to someone who has not requested your e-mails.”

  • Keep an eye out for typos.

    Customers often incorrectly type their e-mail addresses when signing up for e-newsletters. Al DiGuido, CEO of Bigfoot Interactive, notes that input errors can contribute to high bounce rates (e-mails being returned to sender) “and may cause blocking issues at some ISPs if they’re not carefully monitored.”

    To avoid typos, Brady suggests requiring customers to input their e-mail addresses twice. If the two addresses don’t match, the Website software typically sends the customer an error message asking him to reenter the addresses.

    And just as they offer services to update or eliminate obsolete addresses, e-mail list processing vendors have programs that analyze files to find addresses with errors. “Most vendors have applications to run and correct these problems, and it’s not uncommon for them to correct 5% or more of a file,” says DoubleClick’s Kirby.

    Some catalogers run e-mail address correction in conjunction with appending the addresses onto customers’ postal records. Typically, says Brady, they’ll send their e-mail bounces on a quarterly basis with the pertinent postal records to their services provider to see if an alternative e-mail address can be found that matches the postal address.

    As with address changes, most e-address corrections are priced so that clients pay only for deliverable new addresses. Costs vary by provider, but Return Path’s Blumberg says they average $0.30 a fix.

  • Define “permission” correctly.

    While Can-Spam doesn’t specify a proper form of permission, if your phone reps obtain customers’ e-mail addresses during a transaction, you should retain some sort of proof that the customers gave you permission to send them e-mails.

Brady advises having a script in place for your phone reps that explains why they are collecting the e-mail address, such as: “We would like to be able to e-mail you a link so that you can track the delivery of your order. We’d also like to be able to send you our weekly e-mail that keeps you informed on our special offers, sales, and new products. Would that be all right?”

Permission — or lack thereof — can get tricky for multititle catalogers. Because Can-Spam can penalize e-mail marketers that don’t remove within 10 days customers who opt out from their lists, if a customer from one catalog opts out, the multititle mailer should remove that customer from any other catalog lists it maintains.

For instance, Delray Beach, FL-based office products superstore Office Depot owns its namesake and its Viking Office Products catalogs and Websites. If a customer opts out from one property, “we have to make sure that they get removed from all of our channels,” says Office Depot executive vice president, e-commerce Monica Luechtefeld. Even if they want to continue receiving e-mails from one of the titles, it’s safer to remove them from the e-mail list altogether, she says.

The payoff to practicing exemplary e-mail list hygiene goes beyond avoiding Can-Spam fines. “Maintaining a quality e-mail list improves your understanding of metrics — such as what percentage of e-mail is sent, delivered, opened, and responded to,” BigFoot’s DiGuido says.

DiGuido notes that some of his accounts have saved 25%-35% of their initial e-mail costs by maintaining good list hygiene. “This is more than an issue of saving money, however,” he says. “In the electronic space, failure to maintain quality lists virtually assures catalogers that their messages will be blocked by ISPs.”

Can-Spam Compliancy: So Far, So-So

For permission-based e-mail marketers, complying with the recently enacted Can-Spam law is fairly simple: Include an opt-out message and a postal address, and be sure to delete customers who opt out within 10 days of their request.

But of 104 e-mail messages from major retailers sampled by EmailLabs between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15, 44% didn’t include the sender’s postal mailing address. On the flip side, less than 5% failed to include an unsubscribe message, and none of the e-mails reviewed by the Redwood City, CA-based e-mail technology services provider “appeared to contain misleading subject lines or other fraudulent practices employed by spammers,” according to a statement.

EmailLabs vice president of marketing Loren McDonald concludes that though most permission-based e-mail marketers already adhere to acceptable practices, such as making sure they’re e-mailing only those customers who specifically request their e-mails, “many are clearly confused by the nuances and gray areas of the law.”

Looking beyond retailers, catalogers, and other permission-based e-mailers, compliance with Can-Spam is even more spotty. Denver-based e-mail security firm MX Logic found that among a random sample of more than 1,000 unsolicited commercial e-mails received during the first week of this year, just three complied with the Can-Spam law. And Boxborough, MA-based antispam filtering tools vendor Audiotrieve found in its recent analysis of 1,000 unsolicited commercial e-mails that only 102 met all the Can-Spam requirements.

To make sure you are fully Can-Spam compliant, Bigfoot Interactive CEO Al DiGuido suggests establishing on your Website a “preference center,” where you can ask customers a range of questions to get a better profile of their needs. “I see this as a huge opportunity for catalogers to become much more effective in establishing a one-to-one dialogue with customers,” DiGuido says, “and it allows them to have customers indicate the type of e-mail they want to receive.” You can then push more relevant — and more effective — messages to customers.