Best Practices for Managing Email Sender Reputation

When it comes to email-marketing best practices, resources and recommendations abound. These run the gamut from technical best practices, such as sender policy framework (SPF) and domain keys identified mail (DKIM), creative best practices (like client specific rendering issues), and list-management best practices (frequency, time-of-day, and so on).

These are all important to managing sender reputation and deliverability. But they are also short-term focused and invariably reactive — e.g., removing the block, contacting the ISP. Scrambling — rather than managing — sender reputation here is a better description.

More important, these functions also distract from and cloud what is the most common and important sender reputation and deliverability factor — express consent. A focus on express consent is proactive, happens before the recipient subscribes to your list, and before the first message goes out.

It establishes clearly and simply to subscribers what they are signing up for, how their information will be used, and what they should expect. It has to be win-win.

Sender reputation and deliverability problems arise, however, when it is not win-win — that is, when the subscribers weren’t really informed on how their personal information could be used.

If a subscriber thinks that he is signing up for a newsletter on sports cars, yet gets bombarded with unrelated and unexpected offers — can you as the sender really be surprised to experience sender reputation and deliverability issues?

Law or not, it’s nothing personal. The Internet service provider or anti-spam system simply enforces the filtering results consistent with the wishes of the user base a whole. If you send messages that, overall, receive poor feedback or complaints, your message stream will be deprioritized or outright blocked by these systems.

When the marketer does well at informing, getting the express consent of subscribers, and following through on that promise, the results speak for themselves. ISPs want you to send good message streams — that reflects well on and enhances the value of their service and generates revenue.

The more time consumers are within the ISP’s webmail client, the more time they spend with ads. And as technology improves, the better targeting and conversion can be applied. For example, Yahoo and Google have recently started to target advertisements based on content/key words of received messages.

Anti-spam and ISP technology advancements have compensated well in this area to filter out what would be an intolerable and unsupportable number of messages. If this plethora of messages were allowed to get through to recipients, they certainly would overwhelm and render useless the value of email.

No morality here. Priority inbox, trusted sender, sweep, anti-spam algorithms and so on are good business. No ISP wants to lose consumers — and potential revenue streams — to competitor mailbox providers.

Consumers have more say

Technology is constantly improving and becoming better and more accurate at predicting valuable message streams and consumer preferences. Earlier versions of this approach were largely sender-centric, attaching reputation to such metrics as hard bounces, complaints, spamtrap hits, sending to spamtrap hits, etc.

Present, evolving and future versions of this are becoming much more recipient-focused and discriminating at a finer level to meet the preferences of specific users rather than the user base as a whole. One person’s spam is another’s ham.

Technology, however, can go only so far to balance the needs of consumers and marketers. New laws, similar to Canada’s C-28 anti-spam bill (see sidebar on page 17), are sure to crop up in other countries soon. The European Union privacy cookie directive (requiring consent to install a cookie) and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s call for comments to update its Dot Com Disclosures document, are just two other recent examples.

Organizational privacy policies are only one part of the equation. Even the most consumer-friendly policies, written from a legal perspective, are often incomprehensible for the average consumer.

Despite the direction of more legal and regulatory insight, good marketing communicators — not lawyers — will become much more in demand and important. The critical goal will be to develop privacy policies that meet consumers expectations and that they can reasonably understand.

Marketers should embrace this direction, because it will foster and force progress for an improved digital economy. Consumers want good value, and smart marketers should be rewarded for providing value.

A focus on express consent forces the marketer, in essence, to become better at meeting the needs and wants of the consumer. It changes the focus from quantity to quality, and from campaign to relationship.

It also calls for better integration and management of all marketing-communication programs — from value proposition definition, lead generation, conversion and monetization. Express consent forces the successful marketer to think through all these parts of the consumer experience.

Consent principles

Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Privacy Act (PIPEDA) provides guidance to evaluate:

  • Are reasonable efforts made to inform consumers how their personal information will be used?
  • Is this information presented in a way that a reasonable consumer can understand?
  • Is additional personal information really required to process the explicit request? (Do not force the consumer to give more information than is required to actually fulfill the request.)
  • Is there a process in place to seek the express consent of the consumer if there is a new way in which the personal information will be used?
  • Does the form of the consent used correspond to the sensitivity of the personal information?
  • Does the use of the information meet the expectations that the consumer granted consent?
  • Is there a direct and clear way that the consumer can withdraw consent any time?

Marketers shouldn’t be asking how to manage sender reputation — they should be asking how to manage consent and consumer preferences. An interesting thing happens when your marketing communication and privacy policy communications are aligned — sender reputation largely manages itself.

Andrew O’Halloran ([email protected]) is chief privacy officer at Cypra Media, a Montreal-based full-service provider of email marketing campaigns.