Sustainable email sending programs in an inherently hostile environment now require great care and planning. Before considering the technical complexities and the marketing tactics, email senders must adopt a basic paradigm shift.
The five guidelines included in this series should become watchwords for ezine emailers as they incur the risk and responsibility of sending newsletters or any other repetitive type of email.
Part 1 of 5: Treat Email as a True Risk and Cost Center
Part 2 of 5: Avoid Collateral Damage
Part 3 of 5: Plan to Use Every Legitimate Tool and Tactic Available (M2M)
Part 4 of 5: Build strong relationships (H2H)
Part 5 of 5: Continuously evaluate messages, lists, and recipient populations
Part 1 of 5
Treat Email as a True Risk and Cost Center
not as just an Internet infrastructure tagalong
Because it was "free", easy, and universally accessable online, email became the breeding ground for a vast number of experiments in communication and commerce. Ezines, newsletters, CRM programs and many other online publications are the product of some of those experiments. More pathological forms of information transfer also evolved in the same space, such as Spam and viruses. Today the Internet is trying to develop an immune system to fight those pathogens. Unfortunately, non-pathogen marketers and online communicators of all types have become the victims of this primitive new immune system's stumbling efforts.
Many online publishers moved to email back when the costs were essentially limited to a computer, some bandwidth, and a lot of work. Well, email has changed since then in many ways, almost beyond recognition. As this guideline points out, the cost of email risk avoidance and email delivery assurance have now become significant, even when they are not direct out-of-pocket expenses.
Senders need to catalog and understand the risks they face, and the costs to overcome these risks, as they adapt to the new hostile email environment.
New Potential Legal Risks From Email Programs:
Despite the prevailing opinion amoung newletter and ezine publishers that the recently enacted email legislation is directed only toward "Spammers", there is good reason to take these regulations rather seriously.
Even if we assume that you only send permission-based email (that all of your recipients subscribed to your ezine), so by definition you are not a "Spammer", there are many other aspects of the email process that have now become regulated. Examples include email transmission practices, list records, operational control over complaints and unsubscribe requests, claims of false or misleading Subject Lines, and several other issues. Mistakes in these areas, even with clearly permission-based mail, can have legal implications. And in fact, precisely what constitutes "permission" is still being worked out in some cases.
Online publishers should also be concerned about the motives and circumstances of some actions under the new laws. Targets may be chosen more for their ease of accessibility than for any serious infractions. It is much easier to find and go after a target you can see (such as an stable ezine) than it is to hunt down an elusive Spammer.
Finally, there is a common assumption that the email laws of other countries are similar to those in the US, however in many important respects this is not true. The differences in these laws compels (at the least) strict controls be maintained for any lists that are not fully geographically targeted.
See the Email PhD "Compliance" section to research the email regulatory environment further.
New Service Access Risks From Email Programs:
Impact on Your Personal Communications
Some online publishers assume that higher risk email programs, such as newsletters or promotional campaigns, are somehow naturally distinct or compartmentalized away from other types of personal email channels. Unless specifically designed as such, this is usually not true. It has come as an unpleasant surprise to many that blocking caused by, for example, an email marketing campaign can also cause the blocking of your email to friends and family. Blocking caused by a simple auto-response program at a minor Web site can disrupt your ability to communicate with anyone at a particular ISP.
One basic response to this type of risk is to segment and isolate different types of sending streams so that a shut down in one area does not push your entire e-communications system offline.
Recipient ISP Disruption
It is usually easy to determine when communications are cut with a major ISP, potentially denying access to a large number of customers or subscribers. But blocking at any one of hundreds or thousands of smaller corporate and local networks can be robbing you of revenue, customer satisfaction, and name recognition without your even knowing it. Testing for these blocks can be a difficult and involved process.
Direct blocking is not the only way in which email communication is disrupted at recipient ISPs. Having messages land in the Junk-bin rather than the In-box effectively eliminates that message for many recipients who automatically delete those messages without looking at them.
Every recipient ISP has the right to interfere with communications it judges to be inappropriate for its network. Unfortunately, a small number of Spam complaints, an appearance on a Blacklist, or just the perception of that system's administrator may cause breakdowns that can be very difficult to detect and resolve.
Unless you are an email wizard yourself, one of the most effective ways to begin to track down your delivery profile is through a delivery testing company. See the Email PhD "Data and Tracking" section for more information on this type of resource. Unfortunately, this type of service also represents a new cost for online publishers.
Hosting ISP Disruption
Even more directly, publishers are sometimes surprised to find that their own ISPs or NSPs can, and will, kick them off the service based upon email sending history.
It is amazing to realize that despite the sales cost and effort of acquiring new customers, and the service and support cost of retaining satisfied customers, most ISPs have placed the decision as to whether you can keep your service into the hands of a small group of "abuse" administrators. By declaring a violation of the contractual Acceptable Use Policies or similar provisions, these administrators have suspended many email and Internet accounts. Sometimes this can occur without notice, and often without recourse. Even very low levels or ratios of complaints can force you to scramble for new sources of Internet service.
See the Email PhD "Sending Signature Management" section for more information on avoiding basic disruptions within your email service chain.
Customer Affinity Risks From Email Programs:
Changing Consumer Perceptions
It is not unusual for a recipient to sign up for an email list on one day, and to report that email as Spam the next. The reasons why this happens are numerous, but unless a companies' email program is well managed and controlled there is a risk that a few recipients can do a lot of harm.
"Everyone knows" that Spam is a potentially dangerous pervasive evil online, and that any email they don't immediately recognize or want to receive at that moment is Spam (as incorrect as that definition is). The news media, recipient ISPs, and companies selling anti-Spam products are also training recipients that they need to actively suspect every email they get.
Online publishers have to adapt rapidly to provide assurance and reminders to recipients that they actively requested to receive that email, and to embed relevant and high interest content in all of their sends.
Negative Brand Impacts
Beyond the risk of turning off individual recipients with ineffective email programs is the broader risk of reputation loss within the general online community. Highly compliant, carefully managed email programs are their own reward when it comes to avoiding uncomplimentary PR outbreaks or having your name posted on the anti-Spam activist boards.
See the Email PhD "Content Controls" section to further research customer perception management issues.
Increasing Costs Within the New Email Environment
By all accounts commercial email can no longer be treated as if it were free. Whether for increasing internal control time and costs, or external service costs, you need to allocate the resources necessary to operate a sustainable and effective email program.
Increasing need for technical and strategic expertise
More than ever before, email has become a domain requiring a broad mix of different types of expertise. Because this knowledge can be highly specialized, or require access to proprietary data, this expertise often needs to be acquired from outside the sending organization.
Costs of outside service providers
It is frequently the case that an external Email Service Provider can better handle certain types of email sending. And there are obvious advantages to off-loading infrastructure risks and to increasing the embedded expertise (such as in ISP relations) by using ESPs. The trouble is that they cost money. The range of pricing among ESPs is extreme, as are the levels and types of services offered. Check out potential service providers carefully, and comparison shop - it is well worth the trouble.
Additional costs for administration and controls
Compliance elements and rising recipient expectations require more time and better records, and the need to track and respond to all complaints from numerous sources has added new manpower requirements. Of course, the costs of defensive records and permission audit trails are also growing. While these costs pale beside potential costs of non-compliance or customer erosion, in many cases they represent new and unfamiliar budget items.
Costs from distributed bandwidth and sending system architecture
The need to segment and distribute outbound email streams can increase both bandwidth and technical administration costs. The need to capture and retain more extensive records, or to access sending, delivery, response, unsubscribe, and complaint information in a timely fashion may require additional investment in computing hardware. Updated sending and tracking software purchases may also be needed.
Performance Benefits That Offset Costs
Simply put, you may have to absorb many of these costs to maintain effective, deliverable, and sustainable email programs. It is very likely that without this investment the efficiency of your email program will continue to slide, at the same time that the risks of uncontrolled programs are increasing.
Over all, email sending programs have moved significantly away from the simple question of what "can" be done to a much heavier emphasis on what "should" be done, based upon increasing legal and recipient perception risks. The cost of sustaining effective programs is growing. Fortunately, so is the differential advantage of maintaining a working email communications channel.
Copyright © by Email Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Tim Starzl is the chief editor of Email Ph.D., an informational Web site dedicated to improving email delivery for all permission-based senders. With several years experience in email sending system design, high volume sending, and high precision tracking systems Mr. Starzl provides practical working advice for a difficult and rapidly changing environment.
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