E-Mail Marketing: Managing Clients Who Behave Badly

By Aug 07, 2007

Third party providers who mail on behalf of others face one of the toughest challenges in e-mail marketing. They’re often put in the unenviable position of trying to solve deliverability problems outside of their direct control. Or worse, they end up assuming the risk for clients who behave badly, and that risk negatively impacts their own reputation and ability to deliver e-mail on behalf of clients who play by the rules.

Essentially, this is a risk management challenge, and it’s the same one faced by enterprises that have multiple business units sending e-mail from in-house systems. Affiliate marketers, list rental companies and append vendors face similar challenges in managing the risks associated with their different list sources and offers. Therefore, many of the same risk mitigation strategies apply.

Unfortunately, even though the problems may be of their own making, many companies expect their e-mail service provider, agency, marketing partner or even technology provider to solve their deliverability problems for them. They don’t understand that good deliverability is fundamentally about good marketing, and that practice deficiencies are what produce the vast majority of problems (high spam complaint or unknown user rates, etc.) that culminate in poor e-mail delivery.

As a third-party provider, you need to help clients recognize that their expectations are misplaced. While you can provide the informed guidance, tools and technology to enable best practices, the hard truth is that you can’t “solve” their practice problems for them. However, what you can do is implement processes that prompt greater ownership and accountability, take measures to protect your own reputation, and ensure good results for those clients who do adhere to industry best practices.

First, you’ll want to segment your bounces and complaints by client so you can assess relative list and practice quality, and isolate those that are most problematic. Focusing on the list, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the incidence of hard bounces. Of course, you’ll then want to encourage clients with particularly dirty lists to exercise tighter controls with their own list sources and points of data capture, such as registration pages. Aside from identifying clients with weak list management practices, you’ll likely find correlations to other list-related problems, such as spam traps, closed accounts or stale records, which can precipitate complaints or blocks that impact the deliverability of your clients’ lists as well as your own reputation.

Obviously, correcting the practice deficiencies that produce bounces at their source is your best bet. Second best is identifying and correcting problems before you send and reap the negative consequences in your delivery rate and reputation. There are e-mail address hygiene software packages and services from companies like Return Path and FreshAddress that allow you to identify and fix or suppress some bad addresses. You should consider applying them to all new lists received from clients. While you can’t identify all problems in advance of sending, your address hygiene results can be very informative. A high incidence of bad addresses is a danger sign that other problems may be lurking in a list as well.

Knowing the quality of your clients’ lists and incidence of complaints, you can further mitigate your sending risk by assigning individual IP addresses to clients or by grouping them into risk categories and segregating their IPs and sub-domains. This approach minimizes the “common fate” syndrome you may be suffering from today and makes clients more accountable for their own practices. It also enables you to set up sending rules associated with the risk profile of individual clients or groups of clients, such as throttling and re-try rates. This approach can be extended to how you utilize the real-time data coming from your bounce management system, such as bounces or complaints relative to known ISP blocking thresholds, to manage the sending process.

Lastly, you’ll want to closely examine your bounce results by client to understand the reasons, underlying causes and appropriate corrective actions. At minimum, you should be removing hard bounces, such as bad addresses and unknown users, from your clients’ lists and taking steps to ensure they’re not subsequently re-introduced in the new lists you receive from them.

Implementing these strategies won’t be easy. You’ll need to modify your own processes as well as the expectations and, ultimately, behaviors of your clients. To get these jobs done, you’ll need a sophisticated deployment engine with differentiated sending capabilities and a smart bounce management system. While not trivial, these may be minor issues compared to the bottom-line consequences of progressively worsening delivery rates for both you and your clients.

Dave Lewis is the former vice president of market and product strategy for StrongMail Systems.