Today I’m interviewing Dean Canellos, Real Magnet’s Director of Deliverability. We’re talking about a new movement to utilize engagement metrics as a function of sender reputation and deliverability. 

SECTION I: WHAT’S UP?

Dean Canellos is Real Magnet's Director of Deliverability

Dean Canellos is Real Magnet’s Director of Deliverability

Q: AOL recently announced some changes in how engagement with email affects deliverability. What’s new about their approach?

 

Dean Canellos: Traditionally, to enhance deliverability we would submit an IP address for whitelisting.  Email providers would make a decision on whitelisting based on a number of factors that influence that IP’s reputation.  Spam complaints and bad email addresses are the big issues.

Now AOL is starting to use engagement in determining some of their delivery practices. Moving a message out of the spam folder, forwarding a message, enabling links and images, or clicking on a link all indicate some measure of engagement with the message. Senders with more engaging metrics are more likely to get onto AOL’s Enhanced White List.

Q. Do these changes signal a different purpose for whitelisting?

DC: No, the function of whitelisting hasn’t changed. Its purpose has always been to help legitimate email reach its audience of subscribers. All that has changed is that some of the ways AOL is identifying “wanted” and “unwanted” messages is evolving.

And it’s not just AOL, by the way. Yahoo! has indicated that they are also using engagement metrics to tweak deliverability.

Q: If the objective of whitelisting hasn’t changed, why are the ISPs changing the way they set up deliverability filters?

DC: There have been a few pretty significant trends over the past few years that I think are responsible for these changes. One is that many people are using very old email addresses. The older an email address is, the more companies have it, which means there are more organizations emailing to each address.  Another factor contributing to more email being sent is that every year there are more companies active in email marketing. So there’s a lot more email than there used to be.

With all this email, many subscribers are finding that it’s easier to simply ignore a message than to unsubscribe or report it as spam. The use of client-side readers like Outlook and Thunderbird and Mac Mail also make it easier to ignore messages. People set up filters and folders to move messages out of the inbox before they even see it. The result is that a lot of messages people aren’t so interested in anymore are still being sent to them.

At the same time, emailers have no reason to stop mailing to old and unresponsive addresses. Unsubscribes and complaints they take action on of course. But the cost of continuing to mail to an old and unresponsive address is very small, especially when weighed against the possible reward of that customer returning to make a purchase.

The net result is an inbox clutter that inconveniences consumers and doesn’t benefit emailers either. Engagement based deliverability metrics are a step towards ensuring that more of the email messages sent are targeted by senders, and anticipated by recipients.

SECTION II: WHAT’S NEXT?

Q: AOL and Yahoo! are the first major ISPs to announce engagement metrics for deliverability. Do you think the others will follow suit?

DC: It’s an initiative that is likely to be welcomed by the major email senders, so it’s definitely looking like it could become a trend.  The factors that we believe prompted this change aren’t unique to AOL and Yahoo! – the same exact situations exist at Hotmail, Gmail, Comcast and all the rest.

Q: But those are all the major ISPs for consumer email. Granted, many business users login to their personal accounts during the day and even use them for some business email subscriptions. But how will engagement-based metrics trickle down into B-to-B email?

DC: If a business hosts its own email, or contracts through a smaller ISP that doesn’t have the scale of Yahoo! or AOL, they still need data to determine sender reputation in order to set up filters and their own whitelisting. Lacking the scale themselves, most rely on third parties for this service, like Return Path.

These third parties are already getting some of their reputation data from Yahoo! and other major ISPs. If it turns out that engagement metrics are a reliable way of enhancing sender reputation (and I think it will turn out that way) then it’s reasonable to assume that engagement metrics will ultimately make their way into the data the third party services provide to small ISPs and Do-It-Yourself whitelisters. So these engagement metrics will then impact reputation and filtering for senders targeting B-to-B audiences as well.

Ultimately, engagement will figure into reputation, and reputation impacts deliverability – no matter whose email address you’re mailing to.

SECTION III: WHAT TO DO?

Q: If engagement matters more than ever, what should emailers be doing in order to stay on whitelists – both at the big ISPs and at individually run email systems of their B-to-B subscribers?

DC: Once engagement starts to impact deliverability, you’ve now got two objectives for your emails. The first is to drive the action the email is intended for – registering for a conference, downloading a whitepaper, signing up for a webinar. But the other objective for every message is to drive some sort of interaction – clicking a link, sharing on a social network, forwarding to a friend.

Here you can kill the proverbial two birds with one stone by adhering to a tried and tested email marketing principle:  relevance.  The more relevant your content is to recipients, the more you’ll garner a higher response, marketing metrics, and now even deliverability rates.

When you’re mailing to your most engaged customers, nothing really changes. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’re engagement metrics for these messages will work in your favor.

But emailers should take a separate look at their subscribers who have low or no response rates in the past months. Instead of shooting the moon by asking them to sign up for a $1200 conference, aim a little lower.  Try to move them instead to take an action that’s easier for them – like “watch this video” or “read the rest of this article on our blog” or “fill out this 1-question survey.” Also, send to smaller, more targeted groups.  You’ll be surprised by the jump in opens and click-throughs.

Specific re-engagement campaigns like these will be increasingly important, once unresponsive subscribers begin dragging down reputation scores.  Senders need to put extra energy into making sure that what they are sending out is interesting, useful and anticipated by their subscribers. Targeting and content strategies should jump up to the top of the 2010 priority list.