Everything That You Know About Spam Is Wrong

At least, if everything you know about it is everything that I knew about it before last week. I attended an NTEN 501TechClub event where Brett Schenker of Salsa Labs spoke on how the large mail services identify Spam emails.  It turns out that my understanding that it was based primarily on keywords, number of links and bulk traits is really out of date.  While every mail service has their own methods, the large ones, like GMail and Yahoo!, are doing big data analysis and establishing sender reputations based on how often their emails are actually opened and/or read. You probably have a sender score, and you want it to be a good one.

Put another way, for every non-profit that is dying to get some reasonable understanding of how many opens and clicks their newsletters are getting, Google could tell you to the click, but they won’t.  What they will do is judge you based on that data.  What this really means is that a strategy of growing your list size could be the most unproductive thing that you could do if the goal is to increase constituent engagement.

As Brett explained (in a pen and paper presentation that I sadly can not link to), if 70% of your subscribers are deleting your emails without opening them, than that could result in huge percentages of your emails going straight to the spam folder.  Accordingly, the quality of your list is far more critical than the volume. Simply put, if you send an email newsletter to 30,000 recipients, and only 1000 open it, your reputation as a trustworthy sender drops.  But if you send it to 5000 people and 3500 of them open it, you’ve more than tripled the engagement without soiling your email reputation.

I know that this goes against the grain of a very established way of thinking.  Percentage of list growth is a simple, treasured metric.  But it’s the wrong one.

Here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure that your list is Opt-In only, and verify every enrollment.
  • Don’t buy big lists and mail to them. Just don’t! Unless you have solid reasons to think the list members will be receptive, you’ll only hurt your sender score.
  • Put your unsubscribe option in big letters at the top of each email
  • Best of all, send out occasional emails asking people if they want to keep receiving your emails and make them click a link if they want to.  If they don’t click it, drop them.
  • Keep the addresses of the unsubscribed; inviting them to reconnect later might be a worthwhile way to re-establish the engagement.

Don’t think for a minute that people who voluntarily signed up for your lists are going to want to stay on them forever.  And don’t assume that their willingness to be dropped from the list indicates that they’ll stop supporting you.

Even better, make sure that the news and blog posts on your web site are easy to subscribe to in RSS.  We all struggle with the mass of information that pushes our important emails below the fold.  Offering alternative, more manageable options to communicate are great, and most smartphones have good RSS readers pre-installed.

One more reason to do this?  Google’s imminent GMail update, which pushes subscriptions out of the inbox into a background tab.  If most people are like me, once the emails are piling up in the low priority, out of site subscriptions tab, they’ll be more likely to be mass deleted.

6 Responses to “Everything That You Know About Spam Is Wrong

  • I’m inundated by email as most people are. I’m a newsletter “grazer.” I very rarely spend much time on an individual newlsetter but I enjoy the stream of newsletters that make their way to my mailbox. When the volume of newsletters becomes unmanagable, I go on an “unsubscribe” campaign. Then I let the newsletter volume build up until it’s time to purge again. I am not pleased when I’m asked to confirm a newsletter I already subscribe to. These unsolicited emails impose a requirement to take action in order for me to preserve something I already have.
    By the way, I never explicitly subscribe to newsletters and I doubt very many other people do. I usually receive newsletters after I sign up for an account on a website. If the website doesn’t require that I sign up for an account in order to access information, chances are that I will not sign up for a newsletter and will end up forgetting the site altogether.

  • Thank you for this great post, Peter. “Bigger is better” and “the more the merrier” is only sometimes true. A bigger email list is a prime (make that prime +) example: like debt in the junk bond era, bigger is only better when used judiciously. When used improperly, it can readily lead to failure. To be successful, consideration of the what (message)- when (to send it)- where (if an email goes to spam, or where to post it) – and why (your intended audience would care) are important as is the who (is on your mail list). Organizations naturally want to grow their reach and be inclusive- your post provides insights on how that can be best accomplished.

  • Jenny C
    11 years ago

    unsubscribe link at the top? mmm… like @susan above, I subscribe to many advocacy lists. I rely on the first 3 line summary, so that I don’t have to open all my list messages to decide which interest me. I already hate the emails that begin “if you’re having trouble reading this email…” – they rarely get opened, since I’m rarely going to take the extra click to see what’s behind the cryptic “act now” subject if I can’t preview the first few lines (… and who has trouble reading HTML emails nowaday’s anyhow?)

    I also agree with @susan above that one of my reasons to stay signed up is remember an organization who’s work I found interesting. So those emails may be rarely opened, even though I want to continue receiving. They’d lose me if they followed the automated opt-out suggestion above.

    If I had my choice, I’d be able to opt to hear from these organizations quarterly or even annually – as you used to in the old days of paper. I even find it rather presumptious that so many organizations think that just because I showed an interest in their work, I must hear from them on a weekly basis. I have tried in vain with organizations I really want to stay connected with (just not every day) to opt for quarterly (or even just monthly) updates, and where that’s not available I’ve unsubscribed instead.

    So another way to think of open rate is not just % of recipients who open the weekly e-update, but % of opens per constituent, which in my case is strongly correlated to list volume; I am far more likely to open from a sender that is ‘rare’ in my inbox. It is easy not to open today’s move-on email because I know there will be another one tomorrow – so my % of opens is higher for infrequent messages than for frequent ones.

    From my POV as a high volume list recipient, it’s not just the quality of your list, but the quantity of your emails.

  • Monique H
    11 years ago

    I completely agree with @jenny & @susan. I would extend jenny’s commentary to snail mail also. Just because I sent a donation does not mean I want to be inundated with mail from your organization every week/month, etc. An annual donation request would suffice for me.

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