The Deliverability Series is a collection of conversations intended to shed light on the intricate nature of deliverability and compliance. In this segment, Steve Henderson shares insights on UK email standards, email delivery best practices, and what needs to change in the email marketing space.
As the Compliance Officer at Communicator Corp, Henderson developed the email delivery, analytics, and reporting systems for Communicator. Currently, he is focused on recipient engagement analysis and international data protection and privacy regulations.
Look at every annual benchmark from every email institution, expert or agency, and you’ll see measurements which have nothing to do with the improvement and long-term optimization of an email marketing program. Undoing those ingrained and institutional beliefs is hard work.
Can you tell me about your history in the email space and what you currently do?
I came into email delivery solutions as a developer 9 years ago. I've worked through the implementation of ISPs and email domains migrating from content-based delivery to reputation-based delivery. During this time I developed the email delivery systems for Communicator Corp, working with the huge changes we have seen in recent times. I've also worked with Return Path on their sender reputation reporting software and created the UK DMA Email Marketing Deliverability Best Practice Guide.
Recently, I have moved into compliance as a result of the current international push for more effective data protection, privacy regulations, and enforcement.
What type of customers do you work with and what problems do you solve?
I work with literally every type and size of company. With email delivery, it’s far from just the “problem senders” who have issues. The email industry is constantly changing. ISPs change their standards and policies, and every email marketer experiences delivery issues. The companies I tend to work with are those wanting to solve a deliverability problem or achieve better results.
Since the introduction of reputation-based delivery, it has actually made delivery problem solving an awful lot easier. Pretty much every email domain and every ISP is pulling in the same direction; yes with different characteristics, but with the same fundamental message.
With most people, delivery issues come from data; specifically not having the best strategy for dealing with the lifecycle of customers and their data.
The US average inbox placement rate has been around 78%-82% for the past 4-5 years. In the UK, we average 90%-95% inbox placement rate. Because marketers now need to opt-in individuals before emailing, it’s an easier job for ESPs. UK minimum standards are US best practices.
What is a customer’s biggest pain point when it comes to compliance and deliverability?
Doing things the way they’ve always been done.
Many marketers, or marketing teams, have learned on the job; picking up practices from those who have come before them. These marketers report to management who tend to favor consistent year-on-year metrics; so they still ask for list growth and average open rate. Even worse, marketers may be incentivized to improve these metrics, which can actually be detrimental to email delivery and revenue. And it’s not just individual companies! Look at every annual benchmark from every email institution, expert or agency, and you’ll see measurements which have nothing to do with the improvement and long-term optimization of an email marketing program. Undoing those ingrained and institutional beliefs is hard work.
What type of vetting process is used for onboarding new customers and their data?
In the UK, and the wider EU, there are clear rules on using opted-in data. As long as the companies have recent and provable consent, the potential for delivery issues are minor. With that said, every piece of data imported or updated is checked against a database which looks for and prevents problems.
How does working in the UK affect how compliance and deliverability are handled?
Delivery and compliance are linked more than you may think. Permission standards in the UK, and the wider EU, are higher than in the US. If you look at the difference between average inbox placement rates as reported by Return Path, you see that the US average inbox placement rate has been around 78%-82% for the past 4-5 years. In the UK, we average 90%-95% inbox placement rate. Because marketers now need to opt-in individuals before emailing, it’s an easier job for ESPs. UK minimum standards are US best practices, so delivery issues are far less common and much easier to solve here.
Do these differences affect the way email marketers should maintain their data?
Absolutely. The best practices of organically grown-data; of having a positive and unambiguous opt-in process; of focusing on active data with a lifecycle-based strategy for reactivation and phasing-out long-term inactive data; and of long-term optimization instead of short-term gain all work together to create an email marketing strategy which delivers the best results long-term.
With email delivery, it’s far from just the “problem senders” who have issues. The email industry is constantly changing. ISPs change their standards and policies, and every email marketer experiences delivery issues.
What email best practices are the most important to deliverability?
Sending infrastructure, the data used for campaigns, and email content.
You need to make sure the servers, IPs and sending domains are secure and correctly configured. You need to use email lists which have an audit trail; so you can say for certain that you are sending to those who have recently subscribed or are active recipients. You also need the data to personalize, segment and target. The emails you send must be well-crafted, and relevant to the individuals who will receive them. These practices together provide a secure means of sending the right emails to the right people at the right time.
If one thing could happen in the email deliverability space to make it better, what would you like to happen?
Two things, actually. Bounce codes need rethinking! The codes we have can’t accommodate the complex nature of email now, so ISPs and email domains are forced to make things up as they go. It means that every set of bounce codes from every domain is different from the next – it’s painful!
Secondly, for managers and directors who dictate marketing strategy to understand that high standards are good for business; that sending emails to people who don’t want them and/or people who don’t exist doesn’t work; and that email marketing is a rich landscape of intelligent solutions and not just an electronic version of direct mail.