Slammed by Spam Blockers

Spam filters are supposed to keep consumers’ e-mail accounts free of unwanted messages touting porn and gray-market Viagra. But while their success on that front is questionable, many catalogers say that the filters are making it tougher for them to reach customers via e-mail.

According to some in the industry, e-mail click-through rates have continued to rise. For instance, New York-based e-mail services provider DoubleClick found that click-through rates among its retail and catalog clients increased slightly from 7.1% during the fourth quarter of 2002 to 7.6% for the first quarter of this year.

“But it really isn’t useful to look at industry averages,” says Nate Elliott, associate analyst at New York-based Jupiter Research, “because so much depends on your particular catalog and the market you’re in. The key is to understand what your historic click-through rates have been and to look for ways to improve them.” That said, Elliott notes that “anecdotally, click-through rates seem to be leveling off.”

If not declining. For instance, Ed Weiss, general manager of Philadelphia-based video and DVD cataloger Movies Unlimited, estimates that far fewer promotional e-mails are getting through to customers this year than last year. Whereas a typical e-mail from Movies Unlimited last year was opened by more than 60% of recipients, an e-mail the company sent out in early this summer was opened only by 34%.

E-mailbox glut and increasing anti-spam sentiment are no doubt part of the reason for declining click-through rates. But many marketers blame the spam-blocking filters used by Internet service providers (ISPs). These filters bounce back or simply delete e-mail that meet certain criteria.

South Deerfield, MA-based Yankee Candle Co. is talking to some of the ISPs “just trying to get an understanding of what is getting filtered, see what their rules are, and what we need to do to comply,” says director of development Bob Stetzel. The cataloger/retailer has seen its e-mail click-through rates fall considerably during the first half of the year.

Given the multitude of filters, that’s no small task. ISPs use differing filters, and the IT departments of corporations often add additional filters to keep their e-mail systems from overloading. Each filter uses different criteria for determining which e-mail messages are spam. Add to the filters the more than 200 blacklists maintained by a variety of groups and individuals, and determining what will and won’t be deemed acceptable becomes a gargantuan task.

Getting through the filters

“There are filters galore but no consistency,” Reggie Brady, president of consultancy Reggie Brady Marketing Solutions, said during a session at the MeritDirect Business Mailer’s Co-op and E-mail Marketing Conference last month. Brady suggested running e-mail messages through content filters before sending them. These filters, which are available through e-mail service providers as well as for free online, will flag questionable wording or offers that could get a message bounced.

Then too, “spam filters are evolving as we speak,” says Jeff Govoni, director of e-commerce of Burlington, VT-based Gardener’s Supply Co. For instance, in the update of its Outlook e-mail software, scheduled to be released later this year, Microsoft will be unveiling additional anti-spam mechanisms, one of which requires users to reset their defaults if they wish to receive HTML e-mails.

Gardener’s Supply, which sends weekly e-mail messages for its Dutch Gardens title as well as for its core brand, has recently suffered a 5% decline in click-though rates. Govoni expects the rate to decline even more significantly during the next 12-18 months as the anti-spam movement gains momentum.

While the various filters define spam differently, legitimate e-mail marketers should avoid certain universal “trigger” words, such as “free,” “no cost,” and “win.” Messages with subject lines declaring “order now” or “sale” often get filtered out as well. The same holds true for messages with an abundance of exclamation points and question marks and those that use multiple font types.

Marketers should also make sure that the content of the e-mail matches the heading given in the subject line, says Jake Jacoby, CEO of San Diego-based Singlefin, a corporate spam filtering service. “Spammers typically manipulate headings so that the e-mail looks like it’s coming from someone it’s not,” he explains.

To get more of his e-mails past spam filters, Weiss of Movies Unlimited makes sure that the subject line includes several words that also appear in the message body copy. Movies Unlimited also avoids using such words as “sale” and all capital letters in its e-mails’ headlines.

According to Rob Sanchez, senior vice president of list management services at MeritDirect, ideally your service bureaus should have relationships with the ISPs, filter suppliers, and blacklists so that they can advise you on crafting acceptable e-mail messages. The service bureaus should also be identifying the domains that return e-mails as “undeliverable” and the volume of e-mail that is rejected.

Even so, it’s “near impossible for most marketers to determine if their e-mail is getting to the intended recipients,” says Jay Schwedelson, corporate vice president of Boca Raton, FL-based list firm Worldata. He recommends that when sending an e-mail message you register at least 10 seed names with each ISP so that you can get a somewhat accurate indication of what is and isn’t getting through. If you find that your e-mails are not getting through with certain seed names, “you can then contact the ISP and find out what the deal is,” he says.

By following its seed names, Yankee Candle has been able to “see how our content is portrayed through those free portals,” says Stetzel. “We are now in contact with the major [ISPs] to see how they’ve filtered us and what they can do to let us through.” Yankee Candle sends out e-mails once or twice a month to “hundreds of thousands” of customers who have registered on its Website, Stetzel says.

Getting — and keeping — in touch

Schwedelson also suggests encouraging customers to develop “white lists.” As opposed to blacklists of companies whose messages recipients want filtered out, white lists consist of companies from which recipients want e-mail messages. A customer of a b-to-b cataloger, for instance, could have his company’s IT department place the catalog on the white list, ensuring that its e-mail messages pass through the proprietary filter. “Anything that comes from a cataloger white-listed as a good sender would show up in the customer’s inbox,” Schwedelson says.

Adopting a double opt-in policy may also increase the likelihood of your e-mail messages getting through, says Singelfin’s Jacoby. After customers sign up to receive e-mail from you, send them an e-mail asking them to confirm that they want to be placed on your e-mail house file and, most important, that you have the correct e-mail address. Single opt-in e-mail often gets filtered out as spam simply because it is sent to the wrong recipient, Jacoby says.

Fewer than 1% of e-mails from Milwaukee-based Associated Bag Co. get blocked, says Scott Pietila, director of sales, marketing, and purchasing for the cataloger of packaging and shipping supplies. Some of that may be due to its stringent e-mail qualification process. After customers register on Associated Bag’s Website, they must fill out a separate online form if they want to receive e-mails.

Keep in mind, though, that Associated Bag sends a low volume of e-mail. “We’d absolutely like to expand our quantity of e-mails,” Pietila says. “But it’s become a more moderate-level priority for us what with all the negativity currently associated with e-mail marketing.”

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