bestpracticesIf you are wondering how email best practices have evolved over time, it actually becomes clear that they are timeless in many ways and it raises the question how this is possible in view of the ongoing technological progress in email communications.

Best practices themselves have indeed only changed little in the last decade, only the impact of the use of “best or poor” practices, because both the filter methods of mailbox providers and the legal consequences of failure to comply with best practices have continued to develop.

This means that it is no longer enough to consider just the basics to run successful email marketing, but that best practices are a must today for e-marketers, if they want to ensure that their emails end up in the inboxes of their subscribers.

In the beginning was the complaint rate

Ten years ago, all you had to do as an e-marketer was paying attention to a clean configured distribution platform and low complaint rate for achieving good delivery rates. Today, these criteria are still important, but mailbox providers have long recognized that its mechanisms have to take into account far more criteria to enable effective filtering of intercepting spam and malicious emails. With the cleanup of lists alone, spammers could keep the complaint rate low and their emails were able to reach the inboxes.

Thus, the IP reputation was established

As a next step, the general concept of IP reputation followed in 2009, introduced by mailbox providers as the most important criterion of email filtering. Instead of relying solely on complaints, they began to make use of criteria such as unknown users (error message "550 5.1.1 rejected"), TiNS (acronym representing the phrase “This is Not Spam”), when email recipients save desired emails from the spam folder, and content for filtering decisions. In addition, they developed methods, such as Microsoft's "Sender Reputation Data" (SRD) and Yahoo's "Trusted Voters", in which email recipients were randomly asked for feedback on whether a received email is considered “spam" or not.

This rating, at the same time, was used to estimate the sender reputation to obtain the most precise profile of the sender. Hence, the email filtering by the mailbox provider has become more effective and made it more difficult for illegitimate senders to use the email channel. Spammers could no longer mail to comprehensive lists without consequences, because the quality of the circulation list came more and more into focus. Even legitimate email marketers felt the effects: If they didn’t want to jeopardize the reputation of their IP addresses and risk falling return on investment, it became imperative to keep an eye on the complaint rate and avoid sending emails to unknown users or abandoned accounts.

Putting the spotlight on user engagement

Next, mailbox providers continued to refine the spam filtering by setting up criteria and indicators for the commitment of its users, which means their interaction with advertising messages – such as e.g. the SmartScreen Filter from Microsoft. Performance figures for the commitment are, for instance, clicks, the forwarding of email, if the email is deleted unread, or the loading of images. The filtering now went beyond simply detecting problems and TINS decisions, even if they are still relevant to the filter criteria. In this context, the dispatch frequency gained in importance and e-marketers could not shower their subscribers with emails anymore, without compromising the delivery to the inboxes, even when no complaints were made.

Authentication and domain reputation become more and more relevant

Recently, the examination of the proper authentication of emails as a filter criterion has become a broad-front trend for mailbox providers – being supported by the Domain-based Message Authentication and Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) standard procedures. The same applies to the concept of domain reputation.

Already in November 2008, AOL began to check emails on DomainKeys Identified Messages (DKIM) after the ISP included this authentication method in its ‘Best Practice Guidelines’ for senders earlier in April 2008. Then in 2009, Yahoo! implemented DomainKeys in its feedback loop, too. Hence, the authentication as email filter criterion has been around for almost five years now, but many mailbox providers actively use the authentication checks only now within their email filtering decisions.

With the proper authentication of their own emails, e-marketers can protect their brand from spoofing and phishing. Although authentication is not in itself a reputation parameter, mailbox providers are starting to involve the authentication data in their evaluation of the domain reputation. The assignment of the reputation of a domain allows mailbox providers to adapt the filtering to a sender - and thus a brand or company - regardless of the used IP address(es). The consequence is, that the strategy of segmentation of different IP addresses in emails of high or low quality is getting obsolete. Hence, it is becoming increasingly important to keep an eye on the reputation of the entire domain.

Anti-spam laws: Best practices gain effect

Rules for commercial email delivery, such as for instance the e-privacy directive of the European Union, have always been among the most stringent international standards. It will be interesting to observe how many other states will follow to set up such similar comprehensive rules.

For example, the Canadian Anti-Spam Law (CASL) went into effect on July 1, 2014 and the legal consequences of non-compliance with best practices - as opt-in mailing as a prerequisite – therefore have major implications. The CASL makes consignors more liable, reflected in hefty penalties that could be up to 10 million dollars, and makes obtaining consent to receive marketing emails obligatory.

The conclusion is that best practices are increasingly becoming a prerequisite for success in email marketing, starting with best delivery rates. Best practices have always been important, but their influence increased in the past few years. The methods of e-marketers to build and maintain their email distribution lists have not changed much, rather the possibilities of the mailbox provider to recognize acceptable or illegitimate practices and filtering respectively. Therefore, it can’t be helped that the quality and the segmentation of the address database for the email program are more important than ever.

By Daniela La Marca