Browser Competition Renders Email Previews A Necessity

Posted in Email marketing, Uncategorized on 11/03/2011 by Richard Gibson

Competition for European email subscribers’ attention is at an all-time high following an increase in browser options available to internet users. Mozilla’s Firefox recently knocked Internet Explorer off the top of the European internet browser ladder for the first time. This is partly as a result of the European Union’s competition case against Microsoft for abusing its dominant position in the browser market and because Google’s Chrome stole customers away from Microsoft as it tripled its market share in 2010.

Microsoft, conceding to implementing its Browser Choice Screen in March 2010, enabled European Windows users the choice of 12 different internet browsers, rather than simply being supplied with the default Internet Explorer option. Research from StatCounter into browser market share in Europe further highlights Chrome’s growth, mostly at the decline of Internet Explorer.

This increased competition in the Internet browser marketplace is excellent news for the internet industry and European consumers, but it poses a huge problem for email marketers competing against fellow marketers for email recipients’ attention. They need to make sure their emails appear flush in Firefox and not gobbledygook in Google Chrome.

Potential customers will only engage with a brand if they can easily read, understand and digest marketers’ messages. The key to achieving this is ensuring all emails render properly in whichever browser. To avoid being inundated by customer complaints and to increase response rates, marketers must now ensure their email campaigns are fully compatible with more than 50 email interfaces, including mobile environments like Blackberry and Windows Mobile.

Naturally that’s the reason Return Path continues to develop and enhance Campaign Preview, which enables marketers to assess how their emails will look and function in different internet browsers. Problem links and poorly formatted images can be identified and rectified before hitting the send button – not only to avoid being consigned to spam filters, but to keep the brand’s identity intact.

Any marketer that hasn’t been worried about how their emails appear in all interfaces, be it online internet browsers or mobile formats, needs to start doing so. Bad rendering delivers a bad user experience for the recipient.

With internet browser competition ever-increasing, the race is on for marketers to ensure their emails stand out from their rivals in the inbox. Marketers must make sure all their emails render properly so that every email they send is readable for every single email user on their database. Those that don’t will be left behind in the competition to attract email subscribers’ attention.

This blog post was originally written for the Return Path In the Know blog and can be viewed here.

Language and deliverability

Posted in Ecommerce, Email marketing on 15/02/2011 by Richard Gibson

Taken, as I have been of late to reading about the topic of language and linguistics I paused to think how the topic might relate to deliverability, often seen as a deeply technical subject. It is my hope that the metaphor of language may be useful to those that consider deliverability a deeply technical subject.

Just as the English language evolved from Proto-English to the Modern English we use today the definitions of actual words and their usage has changed and evolved. How does this relate to deliverability? Allow me to explain – depending on who you talk to deliverability can, and historically has been defined differently – rather, inconsistently. Certain actors may define deliverability as the number of emails for which bounce codes are not returned; personally I prefer to think of this as an accepted rate and not perfectly helpful and far from an accurate success measure. At best it gives an indication of what may have been received by the ISP’s. A further challenge for those technically minded is that these bounce codes vary and aren’t always reliable in terms of interpreting where the email message was ultimately delivered to – if at all. The definition of deliverability calculated from number of email sent, less the bounces could also be more accurately reported as ‘received’ as in received by the receiving server – i.e. not rejected.

However if you follow with the language and linguistic theme and specifically English accents ‘Received Pronunciation’ (which is sometimes known as The Queen’s English, Oxford English or BBC English) has historically been seen as a standard for ‘correct’ pronunciation. In my mind whilst ‘accepted’ and ‘received’ are in the vocabulary it creates confusion in respect of deliverability and they are far from perfect or correct. For me the preferable definition is a measure of delivered to the actual inbox. It is far more reliable than using the aforementioned bounce codes and more indicative of success.

Just as from the 16th Century onwards there was a movement to standardise the English language, particularly spellings which varied mostly because of many regional dialects. Creating uniformity was aided, in part by dictionaries of varying quality. With the release of the next iteration of the DMA’s ‘Email Benchmarking Report: Half 1 2010’ data on inbox placement is available for the first time. It is my hope that for email marketers this will have a similar effect as Johnson’s Dictionary had on the English language in the 18th Century – namely to provide the definitive and pre-eminent definition.
Whilst I expect that just like those dictionaries available before the publication of Johnson’s other definitions of deliverability won’t disappear overnight it is my hope that this document and the incorporation of this new data point will help email marketers by defining deliverability to the inbox as an important success metric and the most correct way to define deliverability.

This blog post was originally written for the DMA (UK) Email Marketing Council blog and can be viewed here.

Captain: Red alert! Incoming variable response signals!

Posted in Ecommerce, Email marketing on 06/02/2011 by Richard Gibson

Those familiar with the original ‘Star Trek’ television series may be familiar with the following scenario; a previously un-seen character that happens to wear a red coloured uniform is amongst the first to be teleported from the Starship Enterprise to a new planet after the distress signals are heard on the bridge. An unspeakable peril waits on the new planet. Our previously un-seen character is amongst the first or indeed the very first to meet a tragic end.This ‘signposting’ technique can frequently be found elsewhere in cinema and television and not just in Star Trek, you don’t have to look very far to find it.

What on earth does this have to do with the subject in hand, namely email marketing? Quite a bit and more than you’d think actually. Signposting, whilst recognisable in the television example just doesn’t happen in terms of deliverability. The ISPs or filtering companies aren’t in the habit of communicating to marketers the landscape that they are responding to.

That is because their primary goal is to protect their customers and not to help or signpost for the benefit of email marketers. The ISPs have to respond to a dynamically changing set of incoming mail streams and threats to their network and their customers. The same is true for the filtering companies whose customers may be the ISPs or those that aim to secure their corporate infrastructure. Their objectives for their customers may include conserving resources, saving bandwidth and stopping all incoming threats.

What this means in practical terms for marketers is that just because you have good deliverability and inbox placement rates today, doesn’t mean that it will remain so tomorrow and in to the future. It’s this variability that impacts response. As an example it may transpire that a marketer notices a significant depression in opens or clicks from a segment of the database. Upon deeper investigation the impact can be clearly seen across one or two important domains. Logic may suggest that the receiving ISP (or filtering company) may be blocking the incoming mail.

This variability can be evident to those with access to the actual inbox placement data, those without it most likely will struggle to understand, troubleshoot and ultimately rectify the root cause. Whilst ISPs don’t signpost in the same way that ‘Star Trek’ did, marketers can minimise the impact in variability by understanding their reputation, knowing their inbox placement and considering third party accreditation programmes.

This blog post was originally written for the DMA (UK) Email Marketing Council blog and can be viewed here.

Some thoughts on deliverability as we start 2010

Posted in B2B, B2C, Email marketing on 31/01/2010 by Richard Gibson

Whilst everyone is full of excitement around the New Year and making predictions for 2010 I’d like to take time and ponder the DMA National Client Email Marketing Report (free for DMA members) that came out late in 2009. This is the companion piece for the quarterly surveys and tracks only the clients (or the actual marketers) viewpoint rather than their technology providers.

There is much to digest in the report and I recommend it to one and all. The thing that is most interesting for me to read is the actual concerns that marketers have and they have several it seems. The specific question was worded; “Which of the following are you most concerned about?” Top of the list for both B2C and B2B marketers alike was deliverability; top of the list means the client marketer’s number one concern. That’s right, you read it correctly, the number one concern for email marketers was deliverability and that is ahead of concerns such as clicks and conversion rates.

Although it may sound obvious but simply put without deliverability, and very specifically delivery to the recipients inbox those click and conversation rates will be depressed. Indeed the ROI of the overall marketing programme will be less than it could be.

Yet deliverability remains for some a confusing term, what does it mean? Who is actually responsible? How can I reliably measure and improve upon it? What can I do to improve upon it? Wait a minute are my messages even reaching the inboxes?

Whilst I don’t plan to tackle these questions in this post, I will make some predictions on the topic of deliverability for 2010. Firstly getting messages delivered to the inbox is, for many reasons not going to get any easier. Why? Because as ISPs get better at identifying truly criminal spam, they will focus more attention on the email practices of legitimate mailers. And as they rely more on trusted whitelists and start using engagement metrics to determine if mail is actually wanted, marketers will have to work harder to achieve relevancy in the inbox by developing loyal subscribers that regularly open, click and convert. Secondly, and following on from this, monitoring email deliverability will become more important than ever for all marketers. Those who want to outperform their competitors, cut through inbox clutter and earn higher response rates will want to understand which factors drive good deliverability and demand greater insight into whether their messages actually arrived in the inbox.

The data point they will now covet is the Inbox Placement Rate (IPR) a metric that is fast becoming widespread as marketers become savvier about measuring true ROI and a metric marketers are more frequently asking their technology providers to provide in order to gain full visibility of their email marketing programme. If you are a marketer and would like to find out more, why not take our quick three question survey here.

This article was written for the DMA (UK)’s Email Marketing Council blog, which can be found here.

Email marketing: Two steps forward, one step back?

Posted in B2B, B2C, Email marketing, UK on 29/12/2009 by Richard Gibson

The findings of the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) National Client Survey, released 19th November 2009, have made for interesting – and at times surprising – reading. While many of the facts, figures and opinions that rise up out of the study promise great hope for the channel, there are a number of more disquieting revelations that indicate email marketers have much more behind the scenes work to do to ensure that email can fulfil its potential.

The most positive message to come from the report is that email marketing is showing great resilience in the first major economic recession the sector has experienced. Seven in ten marketers polled stated that they expect expenditure on email marketing to increase during 2010. Unfortunately, this is not a sign that marketing budgets are set to rise across the board; 50 per cent of marketers believe that the increased spend on email marketing will be at the cost of other direct channels. Email’s inexorable rise, however, does not mean that it is set to replace other channels. Email is shown to be particularly effective when it is partnered with offline channels, with direct mail proving to be the most successful method tried.

However, pulling up the floorboards we can see a few cracks in the foundations on which email marketing’s success has thus far been built. As progress in the discipline has been at break-neck speed, it would seem that application of best practice is inconsistent and often overlooked.

This eschewing of best practice is perhaps most clearly reflected in the fact that under half of marketers surveyed said they have a strategy in place concerning maximum consumer contact frequency. Furthermore, 12 per cent stated they did not know how many emails should be sent to individual addresses over the course of a month. Failing to follow best practice is particularly troubling in these difficult economic times as marketers are increasing contact frequency to stretch the value of email. Without the correct best practice and evaluation measures in place, these companies risk alienating customers by over-mailing.

Following best practice is also crucially important for ensuring deliverability to consumers’ inboxes, which marketers in the survey ranked as their chief concern, rating it higher than conversion rates and return on investment. Their concern is well justified, with a number of recent studies showing that 20 per cent of all commercial emails are blocked. However, there seems to be a general lack of understanding of the crucial factors in determining deliverability. Just 36 per cent of marketers identified sender reputation as being important to deliverability. This is an alarmingly low percentage given that reputation is the fundamental factor in determining deliverability.
Sender reputation is similar to a credit rating, and is assigned to every email sender to help internet service providers (ISP) differentiate between reputable senders and spammers. Sender reputation is based on a number of factors, such as the percentage of customers marking a sender’s emails as spam and making a complaint; list quality used by the sender; whether or not a sender has the infrastructure that enables ISPs to recognise their emails as coming from them, rather than from an unknown source; and whether or not the sender consistently sends out the same volume of emails from the same internet protocol address.

If marketers are truly concerned about deliverability, as they should be, then they should be concerned about following best practice when conducting email marketing campaigns. Managing your sender reputation really is nothing more than following best practice. Currently, the DMA’s Email Marketing Guidelines lead the way in setting out best practice for the sector. These guidelines, published in 2007, are currently under review and a revised set will be published in 2010 to ensure they keep up with the latest developments in email marketing. Following best practice will not only keep consumers happy and engaged with the emails they receive; it will also ensure that the email messages actually reach them and continue to reach them. Once these basic issues are resolved, then we can expect email to realise its potential.

Note, a variation of this article originally appeared in Technology Weekly/mad.co.uk (publisher: Centaur Communications) in November 2009.

UK economic situation and what it means for direct marketers

Posted in Direct Marketing, International Marketing, UK on 05/03/2009 by Richard Gibson

Before writing this column I looked back at an article I’d written for this magazine [Direct Marketing International] back in July of last year, some six months ago. Like this column its focus is the UK economy and what it may mean for direct marketers.

In the middle of last year inflation was rising and despite the slowing of the credit markets consumer sales were still buoyant. However as I write this in mid January 2009 most of the readers will be aware of the increasing signs of economic woe. The second half of 2008 was peppered with negative signs. Indeed the government’s own statistical department announced what many had already feared but may not acknowledged that the economy’s GDP shrank by 0.6% in Q3 and 1.5% in Q4 (source: Office for National Statistics) and that by doing so met the definition of a recession i.e. two negative quarters of growth. With the economic contraction comes rising unemployment and with that decreased spending. It is no wonder then that a poll by ICM/The Guardian newspaper of UK consumers in December found 86% of those surveyed plan to make cutbacks on their spending, with only 13% thinking that they would spend as much in 2009 as they did in 2008 (source:  ICM/The Guardian).

Decreasing levels of inflation, a small cut in VAT (sales tax) and significant drops in The Bank of England base rate, currently at 1.5% (down from 5.0% for most of 2008 and 5.75% at a high for some of the later part of 2007) all designed to ease fears have seemingly done little to curb the growing economic position to: negative.

I believe that there are two camps about how the recession may play out in the UK at least for direct marketers. There are those that are bullish about the industry and those that are slightly more bearish. The bulls tend to be those that believe that because of the measurability the direct marketing industry is well placed to ride out the economic situation in this country. The bears tend to be more cautionary (as is their nature) principally because the last time the UK economy was truly in a recession (early 1990’s) the internet, and by this I include email marketing, as an advertising channel did not exist. The truth is perhaps somewhere in between.

The IPA’s (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) respected Bellwether Report for Q4 2008, released in mid January suggests further reduction in spending and offers some supporting arguments to both the bulls and the bears. The reports author Chris Williamson does indeed show the largest reduction for media, with direct marketing also showing a reduction, indeed even Internet search shows a reduction in spending, albeit significantly less than direct marketing and media.

For 2009 marketers, direct or interactive have a challenge on their hands as the UK consumer adjusts spending habits accordingly. The battle ever more is around increasing effectiveness, most probably with static or likely declining budgets whilst at the same time trying to recruit new customers.

For the suppliers the challenge for some will be around staying competitive and fighting to keep their products in front of potential buyers and users. For others it can be about growth. A recession, whilst painful for all concerned tends to shake out weaker companies and survival and maintenance of a strong position potentially leads to far stronger prospects once growth occurs. Whilst I had previously written in this column about evidence from Prof. Patrick Barwise around strategies based on his research from the last recession, principally that those brands that do best post-recession tend to be those that invest during the recession. Anecdotal evidence, for example the latest Bellwether Report appears to suggest that very few brands are in a position to take this advice on board.

If further evidence was needed about direct mail volumes being squeezed, research from Billets (a media monitoring agency) reported via DM Bulletin show a decrease of close to 40% (Source: DM Bulletin) from November 2007 to November 2008 in terms of total volume. That said, separating customer and prospect mailings is as always a thorny issue.

Note: a slightly shorter version of this post appears as an article in the print and digital edition of the January/February 2009 issue of Direct Marketing International magazine.

References used in this post:

Barwise, Patrick (1999) Advertising in a Recession: The Benefits of Investing for the Long Term.

DM Bulletin

ICM/The Guardian

IPA (Institute of Practioners in Advertising) Bellwether report, accessed 01/03/09.

Gracias from Elautobus

Posted in B2C, Ecommerce, Email marketing, International Marketing, Not for profit on 22/01/2009 by Richard Gibson

Following on from an earlier post, ING Direct and UNICEF emailed me to thank me for helping to raise funds through their viral email marketing effort in December 2008.

For the record here is the creative used (click to enlarge):

ING Direct Espana UNICEF Autobus Viral Email ING follow up 16-01-09