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Permission trumps good metrics

Most companies and senders will tell you they follow all the best practices. My experience says they follow the easy best practices. They’ll comply with technical best practices, they’ll tick all the boxes for content and formatting, they’ll make a nod to permission. Then they’re surprised that their mail delivery isn’t great.

Too many senders, ESPs and deliverability services companies, believe that the key to the inbox is checking all the best practice boxes. List hygiene and list cleaning companies are the most obvious example. Bounces are a key reason for bad delivery. If we remove all or most bounces then our numbers comply with the standard metrics. If our complaints are low then we comply with the standard metrics. If our metrics all look right, then we’re clearly doing everything right and we should reach the inbox.

That’s really not the case, though. Good delivery is much more than just hitting the right metrics. Good delivery is more than doing the technical stuff right. Good delivery requires sending mail people want, and much of that can’t be measured in bounces or complaints.

As an example, there’s an ESP I only discovered because I received mail from their customers. Don’t know anyone working there, have never heard of them before. All I know about them is in my inbox.

Technical check

I’ll give the ESP this, they have their customers technically set up correctly. Going through the tests I do when auditing clients I can’t find anything really wrong.

  • Each customer gets their own d= domain.
  • That d=domain aligns with the from address.
  • SPF is set up correctly.
  • SPF validates
  • MessageID is correctly formatted
  • HTML looks reasonably clean
  • ListUnsub header is present
  • mailto: and href: links in proper order
  • CAN SPAM address
  • Unsub link works

There’s even a website on the domain used for SPF authentication. It’s not horribly useful, but it’s there.

It says:

Congrats on your hacking skills!

Wonder what this site is? We are an award winning high quality ESP – an Email Marketing Service.

We help companies maintain their brand with Marketing as well [sic] Transactional messages.

EMAIL.DELIVERED.PERIOD.

(Note: I don’t believe taking a domain name and typing it into a browser bar is hacking. I don’t think being able to read full headers is hacking.)

This email meets all the technical standards. If I had to guess, I’d say that the bounce rates are low. I expect complaint rates are also very low. Overall, these senders are following all the standard best practices and if I had to score them just on meeting technical standards I’d give them a 10/10.

Deliverability check

That’s the technical piece of delivery. What else matters for delivery? Things like format, content, and relevance.

Format wise, the messages themselves are text, not plain text but nicely formatted business style text. They almost look like personal mail. Nothing remarkable, but probably a good fit for the busy small business person.

Content wise, it’s well written copy. Each of the senders clearly put some work into the wording and phrasing. It’s not something they just dashed off, but doesn’t look overly polished. Again, nothing remarkable but probably a good fit for the audience.

As I am the audience for three of these messages, I get to decide if these messages are relevant.

  • One is selling me a plugin for Outlook to “transform my sales process.” Well, I won’t use Windows for email and I don’t have Outlook installed on my mac. So that’s not very relevant to me.
  • Another is selling me qualified sales leads. Almost all of our business comes through word of mouth and recommendations from industry folks. So that’s not very relevant to me.
  • The third is from my BFF on LinkedIn. He writes articles on investing, music, and life and will subscribe me unless I tell him stop. Even though he claims he’s my BFF, his opinions aren’t very relevant.

Overall, it’s a strong showing in formatting and content with a definite lack of relevancy. Overall, I give it a 8/10.

Permission check

And here’s where we get to the problem. None of these senders have permission to email me, and they certainly don’t have permission to email me at that address. There’s not much to say here other than to give them a 0/10 on permission.

Compliance Check

ESPs have two big roles in deliverability: technical and compliance. I mentioned the technical above and they’re doing stuff right. There are a few things I can’t see from receiving emails, like throttles and connection limits, but I suspect they’re right in the mainstream there as well.

The compliance piece is actually a big part of what makes deliverability from specific ESPs good. The reason might surprise people. ESPs do have reputations, but they aren’t the same as sender reputations. An ESP builds their reputation by effectively dealing with problem customers. Everyone leaks, bad mail comes out of every network at one time or another. Spamhaus, filtering vendors and ISPs know this. But they also know that some ESPs monitor and police their customers more than others. These ISPs often get the benefit of the doubt before blocks go up (dot zero listings for instance)

The ESP they’re using does have a decent looking AUP, evening mentioning they use the Spamhaus definition of spam. Unfortunately, I reported two emails to abuse@ and received a disappointing response. All they said was they would suppress my email address.

This is disappointing. I mean, it’s great that they’re going to suppress my address. But that doesn’t address the broader issue: their customers are sending mail in violation of their AUP. Last week I mentioned a complaint to an ESP (again, one I’d never heard of) that sent me back a message that said, “Thank you for notifying us, we take these issues seriously.  I’m investigating with the sender and will let you know when its resolved.” And they did!

I’ll give their compliance a 3/10, because at least they’re suppressing my address.

Overall

Adding up the scores I get 21/40. OK, so this is a somewhat arbitrary scale. But, the point remains, permission is critical to delivery. You can do all the technical stuff and content stuff right, but if you fail to get permission delivery is going to suffer. And if your ESP isn’t up on compliance, then they’re not doing you any favors.

B2B spam is still spam. Spam isn’t defined by what’s in it or by whether it’s authenticated or if it’s has the right metrics. Spam is unsolicited email. Permission is key. Permission trumps all.

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