Avoiding One Bounce Too Many

In prior columns, I’ve discussed the importance of recognizing e-mail deliverability for what it is and mastering it with a smart bounce management system. Let’s now look at what you do with the data from such a system to improve your marketing effectiveness.

There are three principle applications, all of which are core to your success in leveraging the e-mail medium: performance evaluation, list management, and practice improvement. By effectively handling them, there’s a fourth application that can be derived – managing your customer relationships.

So how do you avoid the excessive bounces (i.e. one bounce too many) that jeopardize your use of e-mail to communicate with customers? Do you do it by just removing bounces from you list? No. As a skilled direct marketer, you take a more holistic approach in using the data to enhance your overall program.

Performance evaluation: The old axiom certainly applies to e-mail marketing – you can’t manage what you can’t measure – so the place to start is with your results. You’ll want to know the basics – sent, bounced, delivered, opened and clicked – but need to drill down further into the bounce categories and specific reasons to really understand what’s driving your results. Examining performance at your top domains based on the distribution of your list or results from your top segments (buyers) are also important. And don’t forget to keep a sharp eye on the negative indicators, such as unsubscribe and complaint rates, suggesting that customers may not be engaged with your brand or content.

List management: Assuming that you capture and correctly interpret the data, a good bounce management system will tell you which records should be removed from your list. But be careful about what you’re doing. Make sure you make the distinction between records that are truly undeliverable, such as “unknown user,” and those that simply shouldn’t be retried until you fix an underlying practice problem, such as a “spam block.”

Hard bounces, such as “unknown user,” should be removed immediately if you’re confident in the data from the ISP reporting it. But all bounces, including soft ones, should be subject to removal at some point if they continue to bounce for the same reason. And if you can’t correct the underlying cause of a bounce, such as a “spam block,” you should consider tagging the affected records and removing them from your active mailing too. There’s little point in re-mailing records that you know will bounce.

But the end-game is not just the removal of records from your list. The end-game is returning records to “working asset” status and restoring communication with your customers as rapidly as possible. So use the specific reasons from your bounce management system to drive your invalidation rules, but then tie those reasons and rules to your address recovery efforts. For example, with “bad address” reasons, try address hygiene to make programmatic fixes. For “unknown user” bounces, e-mail append or reverse append may work. You can even try postcard mailers or attempt recapture through other customer touch points, such as your call center. What you do and spend on recovery should be tied to the value you associate with the e-mail address and customer in the first place.

Practice improvement: By using the same data in a diagnostic fashion, you can proactively identify and correct deficiencies in your marketing practices that will enhance your future efforts. The key is in having accurate data that’s normalized and easily accessible so you can act on it. Assuming you do, your bounce data can afford valuable insights on ways to improve your marketing effectiveness. For example, a high incidence of “bad address” or “unknown user” bounces indicate a list quality problem related to your data capture, list source, or management processes. A quick review of the data will tell you which it is and enable you to take corrective action. Similarly, bounces due to a “spam block,” especially when coupled with high unsubscribe or complaint rates and low clicks, suggest the need to re-examine your targeting criteria and content relevancy.

At the end of the day, good e-mail marketing is all about measurement and being able to apply the lessons that flow from it to achieve continual improvement in your business results. You leverage what went right and fix what didn’t. There’s no big secret to avoiding one bounce too many. By managing your results, mailing lists and marketing practices, it will come naturally … as will brand-loyal customers and a better bottom line.

Dave Lewis an e-mail marketing consultant with more than 20 years direct marketing experience.