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Halloween has just passed.

The holiday shopping season is nearly upon us. Gather near to hear the tales of three unlucky eCommerce programs and learn how to avoid their fates!

1. ‘The 25-day haunting’

A retailer ran a “25 Days of Christmas” campaign, sending a message a day to an audience that it usually emailed once a week. Recipients didn’t appreciate the heavier cadence and started marking the messages as spam.

Cloudmark, a messaging security company, noticed the higher spam complaint rate and sent up to 30 percent of the messages to the spam folder.

The campaign was halfway done when it found itself shut out from major outlets. The business then faced a dilemma: should it stop the campaign and lose the people who were engaged? Or, keep going even though most recipients wouldn’t see the messages? The company powered through, but the damage was done.

2. ‘Emailing the dead’

During Q4, a travel company’s heaviest season, its marketing team resurrected a list of dead email addresses to see how many really had found eternal peace and how many were just sleeping.

The campaign generated so many spam complaints that the specter of Spamhaus rose up and blocked the send. All emails ground to a halt for three days while the deliverability team worked to resolve the problem with Spamhaus and have the blocks removed.

3. ‘The forsaken best practice’

A retailer followed an industry best practice and sequestered non-responsive addresses in a separate database. Two years later, the company was in a Q4 numbers crunch. Panicky marketers decided to mail to that inactive database.

The first send encountered blocks at some ISPs and bulk foldering at others. Once again, the marketer’s email channel essentially shut down.

Panic in Q4 brings email mayhem

These typical panic button tactics surface as the fourth quarter grinds on and marketers are under pressure to make budget.

At the same time though, the ISPs are dealing with higher volumes and more requests from panicky marketers. So, it will take longer to resolve the problems you caused by taking unnecessary risks.

You could be out of commission for a week or more. Are a couple dozen resurrected email addresses worth the risk of losing access to your live subscribers for a week or more?

It doesn’t mean you can’t try to re-engage with non-responsive addresses lurking in the graveyard, but work up a plan to test them gradually. Don’t email them all at once and certainly not in Q4.

 Seven ways to sidestep risk in Q4

1. Be predictable.

ISPs want predictability, especially the top-tier ISPs. Your behavior, the volume you send, how much you send and how your audience reacts, factor into their decisions about handling your email.

They are also building profiles of you. That includes expectations of volume. If that volume spikes significantly, it gets on their radar. AOL in particular is known for pushing back if it sees your volume spike without knowing why, especially if you generate negative user response.

The ISPs also note when your audience reacts differently. Drastically and unexpectedly higher volume can trip automated filtering mechanisms. Deliverability problems can develop quickly but get resolved slowly.

If you want to do something different in Q4, test it in Q3. This means your testing window for new programs or experiments has closed for 2016. Put it on your agenda for next year.

2. Find the right audience for each message.

For best deliverability, send the right message to the right people, not the same message to everybody all the time.

Build a profile of everyone in your audience, and use that data to target your messaging. Use purchase and clicking, as just two examples, and leverage against that for messages in the future.

Cultivate subsets of your audience who love your products and emails. The last thing you want to do is to hurt your chances of sending to your biggest fans because of bad email behavior.

3. Add value to each message.

Recipients want to see value in email. Barraging them with the same message or irrelevant messaging, trains recipients to ignore subsequent messages and can prompt unsubscribes or spam complaints.

ISPs use spam filters to study how your users respond to your messages over time. They use that information to determine whether your recipients really want your email or not. That’s why it’s so important to tailor your message to your recipients’ needs and interests.

If your open rate is consistently below 10 percent, try reaching out to the other 90 percent with added-value messages instead of always pushing for a purchase. Instead of emails that say “Here’s 20 percent off on yarn and knitting needles,” send an email offering an instructional book and patterns.

4. Make gradual changes and target select audiences.

Although now isn’t the time to test and implement major changes, you can still fine-tune your program during critical revenue times.

Three safe tactics:

  • Increasing from weekly to twice-weekly
  • Matching messages to select audiences
  • Re-engaging recently inactive customers.

If you typically send three to four times a week, increasing to multiple sends per day can trigger ISP spam filters.

Target your VIPs. These people are your best customers because they have shown interest, but beware of burning them out with high-volume, low-value emails.

5. Explain the consequences to management.

You know what happens when you send email to an old list. But do others, especially those outside of email? They might back off if they knew they would lose email access for a week during Black Friday/Cyber Monday.

If you’re told to increase volume by 10 million, explain that it won’t happen in a day. Instead, you’ll have to ramp up over time to avoid filtering and blocking.

Monitor your delivery results closely so you can move fast if you see bulk-foldering, a spam-complaint spike or blocks. Let people see what’s happening, how it’s hurting your ability to email and what you have to do to fix it.

6. Rethink resending.

Resending messages to people who didn’t open it the first time on a consistent basis will hurt your sender reputation. Maybe you rewrote the subject line on it, but you’re still sending messages to your least responsive population.

If you have 100 percent deliverability and a spotless sender reputation, you might be able to make it work. But if you’re already having deliverability or engagement problems, double sends can put you on an ISP’s radar.

An ISP like Gmail would note that few audience members are engaging with your emails. That can prompt an unfavorable spam decision.

7. Warm up and win back your new customers.

Your stream of new customers should translate into more new email subscribers. Persuading them to sign up is only half the battle.

Welcome them immediately. Send a special greeting right away, and don’t wait too long to start emailing. Hot new customers go cold faster than you think.

Try to figure when people clock out. Half of your audience might start tuning out within the first 30 days. Start reaching out as soon as customers pass an inactivity threshold (such as not clicking on five emails in a row).

Act now to avoid long-term problems

Email’s biggest value and greatest curse is that it always yields an amazing ROI. Even a poorly managed email program usually makes money. So, many question, “Why put more effort into this?” Too many people see email as the free-money machine. Need more money? Just push the “launch” button again!

Short-term fixes have long-term effects, like ISPs blocks and burned-out audiences. These can mount up unseen until catastrophe strikes.

Don’t let your email program become a nightmare in the making!