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Deliverability is overwhelmingly the greatest email marketing challenge. What can you do to make sure your marketing campaigns avoid the obstacles and get delivered for the highest possible ROI?

The major obstacles to email deliverability are lack of consumer trust in email, ISP blocking and emerging authentication standards. Consumer trust in email is under assault on two fronts:

1) Trustworthiness: Can I trust that this email is coming from whom it claims to be coming from?

2) Reliability: Can email be relied upon to deliver the communications I want, need and expect to receive?

How can we make email safe and trusted again?

Bringing Trust Back to Email

Underhanded tactics such as spoofing and phishing, as well as the larger spam problem, are the reasons for people not trusting unknown email and ISPs being forced to beef up their filtering process.

Many ISPs are adopting authentication standards such as Microsoft's Sender ID and Yahoo DomainKeys. These technologies provide a way to verify that an email server is authorized to send email for the sender's domain. Legitimate senders need to comply with these standards to ensure their mail gets through and that images and links are displayed properly. In fact, Microsoft recently announced plans to activate a user interface warning customers of mail that does not comply with the Sender ID standard.

Although systems such as these do catch spam, they can also be hurtful to legitimate marketers because they sometimes incorrectly flag legitimate email as spam (these instances are known as "false positives").

CAN-SPAM legislation is yet another major hurdle to overcome to get your mail delivered. In early 2004, CAN-SPAM drew a line in the sand between spammers and legitimate mailers. In addition to putting yourself at risk of legal repercussions, including the possibility of jail time, noncompliance will hurt your deliverability and puts your entire corporate brand image at stake. Developing a reputation as a spammer certainly will do nothing to increase your deliverability rates and thus your ROI and the overall efficacy of your marketing strategy.

While deliverability rates have begun a slow climb as more ISPs have adopted whitelists and reputation-based filtering, deliverability remains a key value driver in the industry. So how do smart, legitimate email marketers run that gauntlet to get their email to the inbox?

Trust = Sender Accountability

The first, and most necessary, step your Email Service Provider (ESP) must take is the adoption of authentication standards. If the top three ISPs in the world won't let your mail through because it fails to comply with their authentication systems, then you've essentially tossed your email marketing dollars right out the window. Fortunately, some ESPs were the early adopters of authentication systems and keep up to date with the most current ISP practices and regulatory standards.

The second step is for ISPs to adopt a "guilty until proven innocent" standard for filtering incoming email. Reputation systems go hand in hand with authentication, establishing senders as "good" or "bad" (in other words, spammers or legitimate senders).

Across the board, ISPs must make it clear that it is unacceptable to be unknown, that new senders must either pay for accreditation service or slowly establish a good reputation. But until they do, their mail has the risk of being labeled as spam.

Authentication alone won't stop spam, but the one-two punch of authentication plus reputation equals accountability, which can indeed stop spam.

In addition to authentication and reputation, it is advisable to get white-listed with AOL, Yahoo and the other top ISPs to ensure that they allow your legitimate email through to the inbox.

You must also analyze the content of outgoing messages for words that tend to set off spam filters. These triggers must be identified and eliminated in order to lessen the likelihood of their being classified as spam.

Content is key when it comes to restoring consumer trust in email. In addition to eliminating spam triggers from your message copy, it is crucial that your messages be as relevant and timely to the consumer as possible. Using features such as dynamic content, which deeply personalizes each message to each subscriber, and triggered messaging, which automatically sends messages based on time and user action and/or inactions, allows marketers to tailor each message specifically to each member so that the messages are wanted and expected.

Finally, you should be working with an ESP to avoid having to do it all yourself. ESPs have been addressing these problems for years and are designing the next generation of delivery solutions, making them the de facto experts on email compliance and deliverability.

In fact, the ESPC recently held the first-ever Email Authentication Summit, a cross-industry collaborative initiative to improve the security and reliability of email and to protect customers, users and online brands from the persistent threats of spam, phishing and email fraud.

Partner With the Experts

In the end, the most important factor in deliverability is the business and marketing practices used to build and operate your lists. Educate yourself and your marketing department about industry best practices, or use an ESP that will implement them for you. Having the right technology provider can significantly limit your risk and reduce the learning curve.

CAN-SPAM compliance, authentication, and deliverability affect more than just email marketing—they apply to every message sent by an organization, service providers and affiliates. Deliverability requires a holistic approach that looks across corporate email, Web site notifications, remote salespeople, sales force automation, CRM, internal software, ESPs and even third-party affiliates.

When your brand image, reputation and legality of actions are at stake, don't take a "wait and see" approach.

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Joshua Baer is the founder and CEO of SKYLIST (www.skylist.com).