No matter what you’re selling, whether it’s a product or a service, the recession is likely to have had an impact on your business. And if the recession means you have limited time for your customers because you have fewer staff, 2009 may prove to be a year when service levels could drop. The downturn in sales and increasing constraints on consumer credit means that pressure to perform will be felt more keenly, and one of the areas where these challenges can manifest themselves is in an extra strain on email marketing processes.
Every year the Direct Marketing Commission (DMC) receives consumer complaints about inappropriate or sub-standard email marketing campaigns. The fact is, though, that the vast majority of these complaints could have been avoided if companies followed some fundamental best practice principles.
The best retailers understand the importance of compliance and transparency in building consumer trust and, despite frequent negative press to the contrary, UK direct marketing enjoys high levels of compliance. To sustain this hard earned trust, however, there are several steps that savvy multichannel retailers need to follow throughout their email marketing.
It’s also worth remembering that, whether the data is being collected online or offline, the Data Protection Act requires that you give notice at the point where you collect data.
Keeping it clean: The most successful multichannel retailers, as you might expect, typically capture customer data from a variety of different sources across their channels. But in order that high levels of consumer trust and message delivery rates are maintained, it is essential that retailers perform regular hygiene procedures on customer data.
After clear and transparent privacy notices and the appropriate subscribe/unsubscribe options, the maintenance of list hygiene is the most effective way to maintain high deliverability rates. In offline direct marketing, the high cost of producing and sending individual mailings acts as a deterrent to ‘quantity over quality’ but with email the marginal cost of each additional message does not have the same effect. The result is that e-retailers can become lazy in removing invalid email addresses. There are many reasons for an address becoming invalid but the most common is poor data collection (especially troublesome when the address is gathered through an offline channel). Sending a confirmation email will help validate addresses collected offline but, of course, only if the sender stops sending to addresses where the mail bounces.
Whilst no-one would advocate a one size fits all approach, a good list hygiene policy should outline the procedures that a retailer can use to address the following issues:
- Handling bounce backs
- Processing unsubscribe requests
- Reply handling
- Suppression of invalid addresses
- Format validation
The ABC of ISP relations: No matter how diligently data is gathered and maintained, online retailers will occasionally find that some of their emails are blocked. At this point you may want to contact the anti-spam experts at the ISP in question but, before you do, you should look for information on the source of your block at the ISP website, normally found on the FAQ page. When you do speak to an abuse representative, ensure that you have all the relevant data to hand that they will need to help you such as your privacy notice; how you collect customer consent; date and time when the block started; a copy of the message that caused it and the IP address that is being blocked.
While it can, of course, never be guaranteed, the very fact that you have called is often enough to get your first block lifted — your willingness to call gives you and your brand some legitimacy. It sounds obvious but, when calling, don’t just think about getting the block lifted, think about how you can take corrective action for the future and how you can work with your ISP to ensure your emails are delivered.
Customer profiling: Appending customer information is something that any sophisticated retailer will be already doing. This is the process of attaching additional information to your customer records. This could be adding demographic or lifestyle data, or attaching an email address to an existing customer name and record.
Attaching additional data to an existing email records is relatively straightforward in legislative terms and is governed by the same regulations as would be case in attaching demographic and lifestyle data to any other name and address record. This is common practice and perfectly legal as long as the process complies with the 1998 Data Protection Act in that the consumer has been told by the organisation that originally collected the additional information that it would be passed on to third parties for direct marketing and that an opportunity to unsubscribe has been given. Attaching an email address to an existing customer name and address is slightly more complicated and depends on the customer permissions that have been given.
An internet retailer may append email addresses when the individual has given his express consent to the organisation that originally collected the email address passing it on to the third party, in this case the e-retailer.
Having consented to their email address being shared in this way, it is then best practice for the individual to be sent a message from the retailer to explain where they got their address and to give them the opportunity to refuse further emails if they wish.
Complaint handling: Finally, we would urge retailers to develop a standardised complaint handling policy that they convey clearly to their staff. It is common sense that any complaints from individuals about the use of their email address should be dealt with courteously and promptly. The majority of complaints that the DMC receives could typically have been resolved at this stage if the right steps had been followed.
Most retailers recognise the need to respect individuals’ rights under the 1998 Data Protection Act and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003, to ask them not to process their data for direct marketing. What is sometimes forgotten is that individuals also have rights under that Act to access all data held about them (so called ‘subject access requests’), require the correction of mistakes and take action in respect of any distress or damage caused by the processing of inaccurate data. A retailer’s response to these requests will depend on the data hygiene procedures they have in place but it is best practice to ensure, and to check regularly, that all your back-office systems are set up to enable the immediate suppression of an email address following receipt of an unsubscribe notice.
• Matti Alderson is the chairman of the Direct Marketing Commission, the self-regulatory body for service delivery in the UK direct marketing industry.