Ask for the review

Customer Review Form on WebsiteI recently added a ‘review reminder email’ feature to a customer’s website. The website has had customer reviews functionality for years and I’ve only recently taken over responsibility for it.

A single email is sent out two weeks after purchase, summarising all the products a customer ordered that day, with a direct link to each product.

In this highly unscientific test, the volume of reviews submitted before was on average 1 per day, now it’s between 3 and 4.

Given the SEO power of User Generated Content, the business value of asking for reviews, aside from the social proof and useful additional product info that customer reviews generate.

But what if the reviews are negative?

Negative reviews help too (h/t @aeonmcn); they add further credibility and help potential purchasers make informed decisions – what’s a minus for some may be a plus for others.

Are your transactional emails getting through?

Are your transactional emails falling foul of spam filters? Is nobody getting your order confirmations or password reminders? Here’s why…

I just booked a night in a motel with a major UK chain and the booking confirmation got marked as spam by my mail host’s SpamAssassin filter.

Most websites send a variety of different emails but they can usually be grouped into two basic types: transactional and promotional.

Transactional emails are anything that is triggered by an engagement on the part of the customer – creating an account, submitting some information to a directory, placing an order on an e-commerce site.

Ever get a call from a customer asking “where’s my order confirmation?” Your transactional email is probably being sent to the junk folder (or worse).

What’s stopping them?

There are many reasons transactional emails get blocked, often because they may have a similar profile to promotional (newsletter type) bulk sends.

How to test?

It’s a good idea to regularly trigger transactional emails yourself to test accounts on a variety of email services. Create accounts for yourself with Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo to cover a decent percentage of the global email space and any other significant webmail providers in your country. Try also to test with a variety of other spam filtering solutions that are installed on hosted services such as the open source SpamAssassin and various other commercial filters. There are web based tools that will enable you to run some tests too but these aren’t quite real-world enough to catch all the errors.

How to fix?

Some spam filters insert the results of their tests into the email headers of the message, you can usually find pointers as to what to fix and often it’s just bad message composition. Sending only HTML in an email is a minor black mark. In the case of my booking confirmation email, the biggest penalty was for “FUZZY_XPILL Attempt to obfuscate words in spam”. Googling that found a 2006 bug report that the word ‘Oxon’ (abbreviation for Oxfordshire) is the reason. That’s a 4 year old bug in a filter that hasn’t been fixed yet. Let’s assume it isn’t going to be. If you have an issue like that in your email, stop using the abbreviation and your mails get through.

What if the problem can’t be fixed by changing the email itself?

You might find that your email is being marked of spam not because of what’s in it but who it is sent by. If you have a bad sender reputation then you have your work cut out for you. Hire an email deliverability consultant and do what they tell you, no matter how harsh their criticism of your past practices.

Image credit: abrinsky via Creative Commons on Flickr

So here it is, Merry Christmas!

Almost every one of us will have been inundated with ‘season’s greetings’ from companies this holiday season.

This subject was discussed on the latest edition of Media Hacks (#22) and the consensus was summed up as “[it’s] time to kill these impersonal Holiday Greetings by email.” To underscore that, sometime Media Hacks co-host Chris Brogan’s newsletter mentioned something similar:

“My gosh. Has your inbox suddenly filled up with holiday messages about how thankful companies are that you’re their customer? I’ve received dozens and dozens of messages today alone from a bunch of software that I’d forgotten I’d even installed. Gushy gushy messages with lots of love and cheer.

And yet, it’s all mostly an effort to sell me something. Every one of those holiday wishes offered me a discount on something else. Wow, now there’s the spirit. Let me hook you with something else to buy while I’m thanking you.”

So what’s a company to do?

Sending individual ‘hey, John, thanks for shopping with us through this tough year, we hope you’re still getting lots of fun from that comedy DVD box set you bought from us in August’ messages doesn’t really scale.

Not every company has the resources of a digital marketing agency at their fingertips to create an interactive Christmas card (with added points for making it share-worthy).

Sending a bland holiday greeting seems like a waste to your average brand manager – you’re loading up the email cannon, why not throw an offer in there to get more business? Oh and call it ‘a present from us’ so people won’t see it for what it really is.

Here’s a dictionary definition of gift:

“Something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance; present.”

That doesn’t really cover discount coupons now does it?

You want to give me a gift? Give me something I wouldn’t necessarily buy for myself. You value my custom over the past year(s)? Show me, by actually giving me something, not giving me money off a future purchase.

Virtual presents

If you deal in electronic goods (software, music, subscriptions) then giving me something is easy – an extension on my license, a free upgrade if I’m a laggard and still on your previous version, 9 months after the release of the latest version. Even if you’re atoms rather than bits-focused don’t let that stop you. There are plenty of things that you could give people that are virtual. Subscriptions to websites, newspapers and online services could all work. E-coupons that can be exchanged for real-world stuff like coffees or donuts are a  nice gesture too.

Schwag and tchotchkes

You’ve got a brand and a logo right? Design a selection of branded items, they can be t-shirts, stress balls, a beach ball, anything. When you’re sending out these emails invite your valued customers to choose their gift. Tell them that you’ll send it out after the holidays, or if they prefer (and are feeling environmentally conscious) you’ll hold on to it for them till they order next time.

Unconditional love

Don’t, whatever you do, make that gift conditional on a future purchase.

Merry Christmas One and All.


Image credit: Alice Harold via Creative Commons on Flickr

Dear Email Marketer

mailfailOK, maybe I’m special, maybe I’m one of the ‘too savvy to be marketed to’ crowd. Or maybe I’m not, and maybe you’re too self absorbed to realise that the rest of the world isn’t inclined to click the ‘load images, with associated “mark me for more spam” that this implies’ button.

Whatever it is, sending emails that look like this to the AVERAGE recipient is just dumb. OK, back in 2000 we had to send plain text emails (hey I did it too) and we had no idea if they worked or not, other than actually, you know, selling the things we’re telling people about, or putting tracking codes on the link, seeing as how click-through is a pretty good measurement of interest. Then we got this amazing capability to display ‘rich HTML’ messages, when suddenly Thunderbird and Apple Mail and Outlook were cool with displaying HTML emails. So we put those sneaky little web bugs in emails that allowed us to count the open rate (as long as your recipients were looking at the HTML version). Then the developers of email clients got wise, and realised that these sneaky little web bugs were giving their users away so now they warn against loading images in an email and don’t load the images by default.

So who thinks it’s a good idea to send emails wholly comprised of broken images to the vast majority of users? I’m amazed open rates are above 10%. Maybe that just accounts for the curious recipient who wonders just what the hell they’ve been sent. What the hell kind of metric is open rate anyway? The data is muddied by the fact that you don’t even know if your email got past the gatekeeper known as the server-side spam filter, so your open rate relative to number actually delivered is anyone’s guess. If you’re relying on forcing the recipient to acknowledge receipt (because that’s what this is all about isn’t it?) by loading images otherwise they see nothing, then you’re acting out of desperation.

Can we dump the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ cliché and get back to the idea that when we’re writing an email to our customers or prospects we are talking to human beings. Bulk emails right now are the equivalent of forcing a flier into someone’s hand. It’s supposed to be capable of so much more. Go (re-)read One-to-One Marketing and Permission Marketing if you don’t believe me. You’re supposed to be able to work out from our past interactions what it is I might be interested in. I’ve spent over £1000 with the company that sent me this. I’ve bought numerous products that should allow them to slice and dice me into a specific group, a buyer persona if you will (mountain biker with a taste for high-end light weight components), then write to me almost personally. Instead they send me something about another business unit entirely just because I agreed to be informed of future promotions. My attention is there to be piqued, not abused.

Quit bugging me

hand over mouthKeeping with the theme of email marketing (see this post about spam from a couple of days ago), this time from the customer’s perspective.

Every year or so I order a few IceBreaker and Bridgedale items from Sierra Trading Post, an outdoor clothing outlet store. Over the course of a year they email me pretty often with details of sales and special ‘we miss you’ discount codes. This is great and I’ll usually order using one of these codes, saving 25% off their already excellent prices. What bugs me is that right after I order I seem to invoke some sort of mailing avalanche. I get an email every one or two days, with another discount code, or a reminder that the discount code they sent me two days ago is about to expire.

I don’t want to unsubscribe from their list because I like receiving the codes, just not right now, plus it seems rude to unsubscribe when they’ve saved me so much over the years.

Meet me half way
What I want is an option that is somewhere between unsubscribing and having to receive then delete/ignore their emails for a while. What if there was an option for “keep me on the list, but don’t send me stuff for a couple of months, unless it’s a really impossible-to-refuse offer”.

I am not a number
Mailing frequency is a difficult thing to get right, it’s tough to gauge what’s best, but mailing managers (and the services they use) need to realise that the people they’re sending to are human beings, not just a number on a list.

Respect your audience
Seth Godin’s post a couple of days ago sparked by his experience with highlights the fact that you need to respect your subscribers and the fact that every time you send them an email you ask for a piece of their attention. It is essential to keep things relevant to them and recognise their needs. Sometimes they need you to back off, not forever, but for a while.

The next opportunity I get with a client to work on their mailing list practices I’m going to implement a ‘chill period’ whereby someone can say ‘yes, I want to be on your list, but don’t send me stuff for 2 months’.

Image credit: M Lyn

One man’s Spam is another man’s lunch

No Spam pleaseEmail marketing is both one of the most cost effective methods of reaching your customers and the most loathed.

Email marketers have to contend with over zealous junk mail filters, spam crusaders that seek to destroy them and list subscribers who forgot they gave permission. It’s so much easier to ‘report as spam’ than it is to unsubscribe.

I’ve used email marketing myself. I also hate spam. I will only use opt-in lists for this reason. Yet that doesn’t stop recipients of emails I’ve sent replying with torrents of abuse for daring to darken their inbox, and those are the ones I’ve heard from.

Many users will just instruct whatever spam filter they use to block an email. Depending on how that spam filter works, that action gets reported and if enough people do that, the sender of the email gets blacklisted. In the case of an opt-in list this is sailing pretty close to a collective act of defamation.

When users mark an email as spam, and that blacklists the sender and prevents other subscribers, who would gladly have received (and may even have been looking forward to) that email from benefiting from the content of it.

There is a solution, though it’s only partial, in the form of FBL or FeedBack Loops. Setting them up is a little complicated, though is often included in the service provided by reputable email marketing providers. I say partial because it only provides a solution for large email providers/ISPs like AOL, Comcast, Hotmail and others (a non-exhaustive list can be found here), and has to be set up with each ISP, per sending domain. An entry on the FBL for an ISP means that when one of that ISP’s customers reports your message as spam, instead of you getting blacklisted, you get a report, requiring you to unsubscribe that user. An FBL however makes no difference if the recipient of an email isn’t using their email provider’s web interface, a third party spam filter

What is needed is a concerted effort by providers of spam filtering solutions, internet service providers (as users of those spam filters), email client developers (web and desktop) and email marketing vendors. All it would take is a recognised standard email header for ‘unsubscribe address’ and ‘unsubscribe URL’, which email client software, or the spam filter in use, would interpret and communicate with, instead of placing a black mark against the sender. The email marketing vendors (or the DIY sender) would handle the unsubscribe submissions. The list might get smaller but the deliverability goes way up.

This appears to be the way Google are going with their unsubscribe option in Gmail. Criticism of this by email marketers is levelled at the wording and operation – equating unsubscribing with reporting spam. It fits with Google’s usual m.o. of trying to simplify a process as much as possible, as long as the sender does what they’re supposed to.

Who loses out? People who don’t play by the rules. Everybody else wins. The spam filter providers have shorter, easier to process blacklists. Email providers and email marketing vendors spend less time processing blacklist removal requests and finally the end user who wants a mailing is guaranteed to receive it.

Image credit: Thomas Hawk