Articles & Tips
Scrubbing Behind the Ears, or Keeping Your List Sparkling!

No doubt you heard it many times when you were young. Did you wash behind your ears? Well believe it or not, that simple question plays an integral role in the success of your e-marketing efforts. Insuring that your lists are as clean as possible will go a long way in achieving success. Your lists are valuable assets and when properly maintained will provide unlimited contact potential.

If you’ve been in the business awhile, you’ve probably heard the term “List Hygiene”. What is it exactly and why should I care?

There are many obstacles in the path of your attempt at customer contact, the first being the mail servers of the destination ISP. Each ISP has different standards for email acceptance and classification but two numbers are used by all ISP’s to broadly classify incoming mail. These are aggregate complaint and bounce rates. While both are important, this paper will focus on the second metric, bounce or unknown user rates.
Unknown users are a direct result of poor list hygiene or acquisition practices. When attempts are made to deliver to an ISP, they count the number of times they have to say “No one here by that name”. Once the campaign reaches the “magic” number, a block is placed on further mail acceptance from the source IP address. Some domains will let you know that it’s happened but generally at that point it’s too late to do anything about it. In some cases these blocks are rolling or temporary but they essentially render that campaign useless. The door has been slammed in our face but it didn’t have to happen. Not if we implemented and adhered to a list hygiene process.

Email addresses are dynamic. In the corporate world, people move on to different organizations. Individuals change Internet access providers, obtaining new email addresses and lastly in the “Free” email space, email addresses were created but never used. Eventually they have been aged by the providing ISP. This last instance is of great concern as the ISP looks upon these aged addresses as a form of “Spam Trap”.
Acquiring the email addresses in a responsible fashion is the first step. Double opt-in lists locally obtained are golden. Baring that, putting in place an automated review of your new list is crucial. Addresses to abuse, hostmaster, webmaster, postmaster and other system related accounts should be removed immediately. These are key addresses that would realistically never sign up for anything. Giving the list a once over looking for mail format errors and obvious typographical errors will help minimize bounces for the initial send and make for increasingly accurate delivery numbers. There are many scripts freely available to provide these safeguards. Remember, the impression you give to the receiving domains is at stake. It takes much less effort to maintain a decent mailing reputation than to recover from being labeled a spammer.

Once you have a list that’s respectable, your initial campaign with this list should be kept separate from any current campaigns. You need to evaluate the integrity of the list as it stands. Resist the impulse to integrate the addresses to your ongoing campaigns immediately. In order to increase your safety net, you may want to consider sending a discreet campaign using an alternate vendor (IP space) to vet the list before use on your own system.

In a nutshell, “List Hygiene” is the practice of removing or segregating bad or non-productive addresses from your lists.

After the test campaign has expired, an evaluation of the campaign statistics should be performed. Remove any addresses that return any variant of an Unknown User error. These may occur synchronously (during the initial transfer) or asynchronously at a later point. Unknown user failures are considered hard errors and should not be retried at any point during the campaign cycle. At this point the vetted addresses may be integrated into existing campaigns and sent as a normal rotation. Insure however that a mechanism exists to track the source within the lists for further evaluation in opens and clicks.

Now that we’re relatively certain mail is being accepted by the servers we need to monitor our open and response rates. Care should be taken to identify addresses with no activity. This could mean the campaign is being delivered to the bulk folder or the mail is being “Black Holed”. A review of the address sources should be conducted and an analysis performed pertaining to address inactivity. If after a period of address dormancy, a method should be employed to re-engage the individual. If that fails, moving those addresses to a semi-retired pool then eventually retired pool is appropriate, progressively reducing contact attempts.
This process performed on an ongoing basis will allow campaigns to be delivered with the minimum amount of negative feedback from ISP’s. It will also allow for the controlled expansion of potential addresses while weeding out non-responsive recipients. The key to consistent mailing is as simple as washing behind your ears!

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