Email has been a crucial element of direct marketing since the late 1990s as internet users began to adopt this new method of communication. Early internet pioneers, recognising the importance of email as a marketing tool, began enhancing their marketing strategies by implementing email marketing programmes in order to reach early adopters.
The new electronic communications allowed brands to reach prospective customers at a fraction of the cost of advertising or direct mail. Email marketing as one of the most effective online marketing tools due to its low cost and high response rate.
As internet adoption increased from 2000 onwards, the use of email rose with it. For example, Microsoft reported that adoption of their web-based email platform, Hotmail (now Outlook.com), grew from 8 million users in 1997 to a staggering 110 million users in 2002. As the number of email recipients grew, so did the number of emails being sent by businesses to consumers.
Global email adoption continues to increase to this day. The number of worldwide email users is expected to increase from 2.9 billion in 2015 to 2.9 billion by the end of 2019. This means over one-third of the worldwide population will be using email by the end of 2019.
Despite there being more digital marketing platforms and approaches available than ever before, email marketing still holds its place as a channel that offers a strong ROI. Nearly 73% of in-house marketers (73% of agency) rate their ROI for email marketing as “excellent” or “good”.
Recent advances in technology have seen the marketing landscape expand dramatically – personalisation, marketing automation and optimisation for different devices are now integral best practices. In fact, it’s been reported that 66% of marketers chose marketing automation as the most important attribute of an email technology provider.
As developed markets become saturated, most of the current growth in internet and email adoption is attributed to emerging economies. Businesses that want to reach new customers are increasingly looking to these new growth markets in order to increase sales and profits.
However, while these territories offer huge opportunities, they also pose challenges for businesses due to language and cultural differences, legal constraints and different attitudes to technology and privacy. Being aware of these differences will increase your organisation’s chances of success when formulating and implementing your email marketing strategy.
There are some basic rules that you should follow to ensure that your emails are being successfully delivered to clients and once delivered, to increase the likelihood that these recipients open the email, read your messages and click on the links contained within the call-to-action on your email.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) work diligently to fight against spam, phishing scams, malware and other abuses of email. They use a number of sophisticated techniques which you should be aware of so that you can bypass the filters designed to capture spam email.
Email deliverability rates vary depending on the region. For example, according to Return Path (2015), 26% of email to recipients in Brazil was spam or went missing compared with just 18% of users in the United Kingdom.
Sender reputation is an indication of the trustworthiness of an email source. ISPs are increasingly relying on sender reputation in order to determine whether they should allow a message through their complex filters.
According to Return Path, the sender reputation with the ISP is the most influential factor in your email reaching your intended recipient.
There are many different factors that affect your domain’s sender reputation. Some Email Service Providers (ESPs) have developed their own ‘sender reputation’ ratings. For instance, Return Path use their own methodology known as ‘Sender Score’ to rate email senders.
Return Path reported that there are also regional differences in average ‘Sender Score’ which is dependent on the average volumes of spam, phishing, malware and other such abuses within the target region and even industry sector.
For instance, the average Sender Score for Return Path clients in Brazil is just 16 while it is over 70 for their Canadian clients. This is largely due to lower levels of trust being placed by IPSs in Brazilian domains when compared with Canadian ones.
Spammers typically send lots of emails. So most ISPs keep a tally of how many emails are delivered to their customers from specific domains and IP addresses and sometimes block high-volume campaigns if they do not recognise the IP or domain as a reputable sender.
Your own email provider may also have limits on the number of emails you can send daily. For example, as of June 2017, GoDaddy allows you to send 250 emails a day and Gmail allows delivery of up to 500 daily emails.
So for delivery of email to a large number of recipients, it is important to use a reputable Email Service Provider (ESP) as they will allow you to send many more emails whilst still providing the reputation signals which will allow them to be delivered to users.
Most ISPs offer facilities that allow their customers to mark emails as spam. Unfortunately, you don’t have to be a spammer to be reported for spamming. Often users forget that they signed up for a service or opted in for third-party communications. Similarly, users may even use spam complaint buttons in error. Most companies will eventually receive a spam complaint if they send enough email.
MailChimp found that even legitimate marketers with clean lists might receive one or two abuse reports per 50,000 recipients. The industry standard for an acceptable percentage of complaints per email campaign is around 0.02%. If a major ISP receives enough spam complaints about your emails, they may start blocking all email from your domain.
In order to reduce the likelihood of spam complaints, you need to ensure that you set expectations for the type of content that your customers will receive and how often they will receive your communications. Try to send relevant content to recipients by allowing them to select the topics, products or services of interest to them.
Relevant content increases your open and click-through rates. In turn, your reputation is improved with ISPs, earning you lower spam detection rates and increasing your deliverability success.
It’s also relevant to ensure your contacts have indeed opted in to receive emails. Customers that have purchased products online or the collection business cards at an event isn’t permission to be sent marketing emails.
Finally, you should always ensure that it is easy to unsubscribe from future communications to stop users marking your emails as spam.
There are two types of email bounces:
- Soft bounce: Occurs when an email can’t be delivered due to a temporary issue such as a full inbox or an out-of-office auto-response.
- Hard bounce: Occurs when an email can’t be delivered due to a permanent issue such as a closed account or non-existent email address.
ISPs are more concerned with emails that ‘hard’ bounce since this suggests that the organisation has not been managing their list properly. It might be that the company is using old recipient email addresses or has failed to confirm user’s email addresses in a two-step verification process.
This may lead to delivery to emails with typos and non-existent email accounts which will have a negative impact on your sender reputation and deliverability.
The reason ISPs pay attention to bounce rates is that spammers who harvest email address from websites, forums and directories on the internet, often send email to old or non-existent addresses. Similarly, many spammers use dictionary attacks to ‘create’ email addresses by placing a string before the ‘@’ symbol on popular web-based mail accounts.
While bounces are considered normal when sending large volumes of email over a relatively long period of time, industry standards typically suggest that your overall hard bounce rate should be below 3%.
To reduce bounce rates, you need to ensure that email addresses associated with hard bounces are removed from your mailing list.
Similarly, avoid using competitions to collect data and if you have to – ensure that all email addresses are validated using a two-step verification process whereby the user is not added to the mailing list until they have confirmed the existence of the email address by clicking on a link within a confirmation email.
List hygiene is a key factor determining the success of your email marketing strategy so it may even be worth considering email validation services such as datavalidation.com who charge between 0.3 and 0.7 cents per email to validate email addresses contained in your mailing list.
Since spammers harvest email addresses from any sources they gain access to, ISPs have started to set up ‘traps’ to catch the spammers. There are two types of spam trap: ‘pristine’ and ‘recycled’. Both will negatively impact a sender’s reputation if a sender sends email to a spam trap.
A pristine spam trap is an email address that has been fabricated by either an ISP or blacklist organisation. The email address is placed in a location that can only be accessed by a bot whose purpose it is to crawl for email addresses. If a sender sends email to a pristine trap, their sender reputation will decrease immediately and email from that sender domain or IP is likely to be blocked.
Recycled spam traps are far less damaging to a sender’s reputation, however, can result in delivery rates being adversely affected. Recycled spam traps are old email addresses that subscribers have abandoned and the ISP has reclaimed.
The ISP may wait for some time before analysing the inbox of reclaimed email addresses. The idea is that reputable senders should have identified the invalid email address and removed it from their lists.
Sender authentication is a system that verifies the identity of an email sender and confirms that the email message is being sent from the source that is stated as the sender of the message.
Validating the identity of the email sender is important for ISPs to fight spam and fraud. Email authentication simplifies and automates the process for ISPs to verify the identity of an email sender. If the email messages are not authenticated then ISPs are likely to reject these messages if they suspect spoofing or phishing.
There are two authentication methods:
- Sender ID and SPF
- Domain keys and DKIM
Sender ID and SPF are IP-based authentication methods. With this method, the sender of the email specifies which IP addresses are permitted to send email from a particular domain.
When an email sender requests a connection from the ISP, the ISP uses this method to verify that the IP address of the server that is sending the messages has permission to send emails from the domain name displayed as the sender.
Domain keys and DKIM are cryptographic-based authentication methods. With this method, the sender adds a digital signature (a key) in the header of the message that can only be verified by the ISPs. ISPs then look at the sending domain name and digital signature and perform a DNS lookup to verify that the digital signature provided is authentic.
If you’re using a reputable ESP, then it is extremely likely that their email servers will already be authenticated to allow the delivery of email. Most ESPs maintain relationships with ISPs to ensure that mail routed through their servers is not blocked by the major ISPs.
However, if you’re using your own servers to deliver mail to recipients, it is extremely important to set up sender authentication. If your messages are not authenticated then ISPs are more likely to attempt to block your communications. Some ISPs use Sender ID/SPF and others use Domain Keys/DKIM so it is important to authenticate your messages with both standards.
If the advice above is followed it is very likely that your email will circumnavigate the ISP’s spam filters, however, the content of your email may still trigger a spam alert. False-positives are common with spam filters, meaning that legitimate email can easily be mistaken for spam and subsequently blocked.
To ensure that your email is delivered you need to ensure that both the subject line and main content of the email do not contain keywords which are typically used by spammers. A common way to filter spam is to check the content of the email against a list of known spam emails for similar key terms. Terms such as ‘free’, ‘save’ and ‘earn’ can even trigger spam filters to leap into action.
Hubspot provides a list of common English language email spam keywords. By ensuring that you avoid the use of these terms, you can increase the likelihood of your email being delivered.
Most ESPs provide spam checking facilities which allow you to check your email for spam signals. Contactology provides a free tool for this purpose which returns a ‘spam score’ – a value between 0 and 10 – which can be used to determine whether your email is likely to be delivered.
Another technique spammers use to get around keyword-based spam filters is to place the content into an image. Even though some of the more sophisticated spam filters are able to scan images for text using optical character recognition, emails that contain an image and very little text can often still be blocked.
So in order to increase the likelihood that your email message will reach the intended recipient, you should ensure that your email HTML template has a low text to image ratio i.e. much more text than image content. Ideally, your email should contain less than 25% image content.
There are huge differences in deliverability rates across the globe. In 2016 the UK had a higher deliverability rate (88%) compared to its mainland European counterparts7 – France 85%, Germany 80%, Spain 82%. However, users in the UK are more likely to receive spam (at 5% vs. 3% for France and 2% for Spain).
But it’s Brazil that’s made the most significant growth over the last five years. In 2015, Brazil achieved a 14% YoY increase in its deliverability rate and the number spam users received dropped from 40% to 26%. In 2016, Brazil ’s deliverability rate stood at 79%, ahead of the US at 73%.
Once your email is delivered, you still need to engage users in order for them to open the email, click on any links contained within it and visit your site to complete actions on your site which fulfil business goals.
The first step in engaging the user is to encourage them to open the email. A strong subject line is key to achieving a high open rate. Typical open rates are between 15% and 30%, however, open rates can differ quite drastically both by region and industry. Below are some typical open rates across a number of industries.
Source: IBM 2016
In order to increase your open rate, you should ensure that your subject lines are concise, relevant to the user segment and depending on your users, you may want to experiment with personalisation to increase user engagement.
Depending on the nature of your business, it may or may not be important for users to click on your email and visit your site. It might be that simply reminding your customers of your brand and delivering your message to them is sufficient. However, most organisations, particular eCommerce retailers require users to visit their sites to buy products or services in order to achieve ROI from email marketing activity.
Achieving a high click-through rate is not straight-forward and there are no hard and fast rules. Your design, message and call-to-actions are largely dependent on your target audience, region, language and industry amongst other factors.
The only way to effectively increase click-through rates is by creating an attractive brand, a compelling product offering and a clear message and call-to-action.
If you’re sending out graphical HTML email, you also need to ensure that you have a text version prepared with clear text, call-to-actions, URLs and instructions for users to copy and paste these into their browsers. If your organisation is operating in a region with slow internet speeds such as some parts of Africa or China, then you may want to consider just sending a text-based email.
Once the user has clicked on your email and arrived on your site, then it is up to your website to perform well at engaging and converting the user.
Email benchmark statistics
Email open rates can differ between industries and regions. However, it is advised that you benchmark your email activity against other organisations in a similar industry. MailChimp has published email marketing statistics with which you can benchmark your email campaigns against other organisations within your industry.
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Devices & clients
The array of devices and email clients in use presents huge challenges for marketers as they attempt to deliver their message to consumers by email. However, by obeying some basic best practice rules, it is possible to ensure that your design and marketing messages are displayed well on the various devices and email clients. In order to achieve this, it is good to know which devices and clients are being used by consumers in the target region.
The device landscape has changed drastically in the last few years. Globally, desktop devices have given way to smartphones and tablets and global mobile internet traffic surpassed desktop for the first time in late 2016. As a result, there has been a large increase in the number of global users opening their emails on smartphone devices – an increase from 27% in 2011 to over 54% in 2016.
This presents challenges as email needs to be optimised for smaller screen sizes while still displaying normally on desktops – especially for the world’s largest internet markets such as China and India where mobile internet traffic surpassed desktop as early as 2013.
Consumers are using a range of clients to access their mail. The world’s most popular email clients for desktop as of July 2017 were Apple Mail and Outlook. The most popular mobile email clients were Apple iPhone, iPad and Google Android. The most popular web-based email services were Google’s Gmail, Outlook.com, Yahoo! Mail.
These platforms have different functionality and different levels of support for certain HTML and CSS tags. Building an HTML template for an email is not like building an HTML web page. While many modern browsers have been striving to achieve compatibility with modern web standards as prescribed by the W3C, email clients have been stubbornly playing by their own rules.
In terms of standards, some have actually gone backwards. For instance, in 2007, Microsoft switched the Outlook rendering engine from Internet Explorer to Microsoft Word. This caused huge issues with how emails displayed in the world’s second most popular client.
It also caused a bit of a furore amongst ESPs, designers, developers and digital marketing consultants – leading Campaign Monitor to launch fixoutlook.org, a petition on Twitter which they hoped would encourage Microsoft to backtrack on their decision.
On the website, they state that “Microsoft has confirmed they plan on using the Word rendering engine to display HTML emails in Outlook 2010. This means for the next 5 years your email designs will need tables for layout, have no support for CSS like float and position, no background images and lots more.”
So, to get around these issues, it is recommended that your email templates are built using HTML tables and table backgrounds rather than the alternative CSS-based solutions used on most modern websites.
Aside from Outlook causing issues when designers attempt to embed CSS stylesheets into email templates, a lot of web-based clients also behave strangely when confronted with CSS-based emails – notably Hotmail and Yahoo!.
AOL Mail, Facebook Messenger, Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail are all trying to create a more simplified inbox experience to help their customers manage their emails. With social media messages taking up a larger portion of the typical customer’s inbox, each company is vying to become the digital communication hub for users to view their email, instant messages and social updates.
This comes as good news to consumers who often feel overwhelmed by the messages in their inboxes and are increasingly looking for services to help them prioritise their emails.
For instance, Hotmail users can sort emails by only their contacts, unread messages and social updates from Twitter and Facebook with a click of a button.
Google has also implemented an inbox segmentation system on their Gmail platform; widely referred to as the “tabbed inbox”. The tabbed inbox, which started rolling out in July 2013, separates email delivered to users into five groups by default:
- Primary – contains emails from contacts and messages that don’t appear in the other tabs
- Promotions –contains offers, deals and other promotional emails
- Social – messages from social networks, media sharing websites, online dating sites, gaming platforms and other social websites
- Updates – notifications such as confirmations, receipts, bills, and statements
- Forums – Messages from communities, groups, discussion boards and mailing lists
Whether you use tabs or not, all messages are automatically sorted into one of the five different categories. These categories can be used as automatic labels. The same categories are also available in Gmail’s official mobile apps on Android 4.1+ devices as well as the iPhone and iPad.
This development has been a major concern for marketers since most corporate communications will no longer appear in the main tab so users are less likely to see the emails which could potentially lead to much lower open and click-through rates.
In fact, it was reported that open rates were negatively impacted by the new user interface during its initial release. Marketers are urged to ask subscribers to add the companies email address to their contacts in order to beat both the promotional tab as well as the junk mail.
UK & European Union
UK consumers were historically protected from unsolicited mail as a result of a 1998 amendment to the Data Protection Act. The law states that all email marketing should include an opt-out, allowing users to decide who could send them emails.
In 2003, an EC Directive known as the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations came into force for EU member states. This law stated that the sender was only allowed to send commercial electronic messages to individuals who have subscribed (‘opt-in’). In other words, the user must select the option to be included on an email marketing list.
However, with the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the collection, storage and use of customer data, businesses now have to adhere to a new benchmark. The GDPR aims to extend the rights of individuals to their own data as well as ensuring all personal data is secure.
More importantly, the new EU legislation gives individuals control over their data including the right to request their stored data, to know exactly how it will be used or to request its removal.
Although the GDPR only affects consumers who reside in the EU, the new European regulation has the potential to affect business worldwide. For Example, a customer from the EU who purchases goods on a website in the US will need to ensure they are GDPR compliant. Failure to comply would incur a fine from the data watchdog of up to £17 million or 4% of the company’s global turnover.
The USA law on email marketing (the CAN-SPAM act) only came into force in 2003. Unlike the UK and EU, commercial email messages in the USA can be sent to anyone without their permission but should include compulsory opt-in instructions.
Like in the UK and EU, the opt-out process should be user-friendly and users are required to be excluded from email lists within 30 days of submitting an unsubscribe request.
Organisations can not by law charge a fee for opting out, and the customer only needs to provide an email address to unsubscribe. To request additional personal information during the unsubscribe process is illegal in the USA. Organisations are also not allowed to pass on or sell personal information of customers that have unsubscribed.
The 2006 Chinese legislation entitled “Regulations on Internet Email Services” includes some of the strictest rules concerning email communications of any country in the world. For instance, all email marketing messages are required by law to contain the word ‘AD’, or the Chinese translation, in the subject line.
There are also thousands of words that are banned in China, including Democracy, Tiananmen, Dalai Lama and Falun Gong, but also more common terms that are regarded as neutral from a Western perspective such as “truthfulness” or “compassion”.
Furthermore, marketing of anything that fits the Chinese government’s description of gambling, pornography, tobacco and in some cases, alcohol, is prohibited.
The Chinese government levies hefty fines on organisations that break their telecommunications laws. Each transgression of the regulations is subject to a penalty of 10,000 Yuan (around $1,500) but the fines are tripled to around $4,500 if the violation involves “unlawful proceeds” – a deliberately ambiguous statement allowing the authorities to clamp down on anyone they consider to be crossing the line.
So if an organisation sends out a million emails which include prohibited content, it may be subject to $4.5 billion fine.
If your email subscribers are accessing their email while on a visit to China then Chinese laws apply. However, it is rare for the Chinese government to prosecute organisations over email communications. Most email that the government considers to be illegal is simply blocked by the Great Firewall of China.
Russia is the source of around 4.9% of global spam. As a result, the authorities and ISPs have stepped up efforts to curb spam mail. Russian ISPs have become very adept at identifying and blocking spam messages. For instance, Kaspersky Lab is one of the top five leading developers of internet security software – providing the spam filtering facilities for Mail.ru – Russia’s most popular webmail service.
Data protection and privacy laws are a recent addition to Russian legislation with most of the laws being enacted in 2005 and 2006. Similarly to the UK and EU, unsolicited electronic commercial communications are illegal.
Email communications can only be sent legally after obtaining an individual’s consent. Similarly, the sender must stop sending email to a recipient if they choose to unsubscribe.
If your organisation wants to deliver email marketing campaigns in Russia, it is important to have people on the ground. Managing Russian e-mail bases in Russia from abroad is virtually impossible.
Not only does it impact the level of sophistication required by the sending platform, it also means that a local presence is required to manage technical issues that arise daily in delivering email campaigns.
Like China, in recent years, the Russian authorities have been tightening controls on the internet in what some commentators are labelling an attack on free speech. In a country where the media is predominantly state-run, the internet is one of the last bastions of free speech.
However, the authorities are increasingly concerned about the impact of the internet on political dissent.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB – successor to the KGB – stated that the popular communication services Gmail, Hotmail and Skype pose a potential threat to the nation’s national security. The FSB even suggested that they may ban these services. So, if you intend to continue doing business in Russia, it would be wise to avoid delivering email communications criticising the government or security services.
Brazil has the 4th highest number of internet users and has one of the largest mobile markets in Latin America so it’s important for marketers to start prioritising mobile optimisation when creating email campaigns.
M-commerce remains low compared to the Chinese and US markets, however, Brazil still remains a pioneer in the region. Initiatives between mobile networks, banks and credit card companies have targeted huge amounts of consumers without a bank account.
As a result, this stimulation in the eCommerce market has led to m-commerce transaction volumes rise from just over 10% in 2015 to 32% in 2017.
Despite these promising statistics, Brazil is historically known for its high level of span due to a lack of regulation. Unlike fellow BRIC countries, there’s little protection from spam for email users and the rare cases of punishment from spammers involve issues around content rather than sending spam communications itself. Brazilians are accustomed regularly marking emails as spam.
If you’re targeting consumers in this market ensure content in your email campaigns are both engaging relevant and to customers.
Although around 34% of the Indian population has internet access, the country has had tremendous growth in internet penetration – up from 138 million in 2012 to 462 million in March 2017. There are already more internet users in India than the entire populations of Australia, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal and the UK, amongst many other countries.
In India, the majority of web users (79%) are accessing the internet from their smartphone compared with 34% in the UK and 37% in the USA. So having a mobile responsive email template is critical in India.
India introduced new data privacy legislation in 2011 which shared many of the characteristics of the EU Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations Directive. Organisations in India are not permitted to send unsolicited email.
Where data is collected from individuals by organisations, the individual is required by law to be made aware of the fact that their data is being collected, the purpose for which the data are collected, the intended recipients of the data and the contact details of both the agency collecting the data and the agency that will retain the data.
It is not yet clear how the new rules will apply in practice, particularly in the context of data processing activities outsourced to India. There is some ambiguity as to the extent to which the rules will apply to local outsourcing vendors and/or to off-shore arrangements where data processing remains within the corporate group, albeit in India.
Sender reputation is key to email marketing success
It is important to ensure that you avoid using spam-related keywords in your emails, minimise the use of images and ensure you deliver email which is relevant to your users to reduce the likelihood of being reported as spam or blocked entirely.
Mobile optimised email templates are increasingly important
If your organisation is considering email marketing in the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India or China, then a mobile optimised or responsive email template is highly recommended since most users in these regions access the internet from mobile devices.
Obey the law
Organisations should not break the laws regarding data protection and privacy as they risk being blocked or fined – damaging their brand in the long term. In countries with strict censorship and data protection laws, organisations should also avoid using language or content that may anger the authorities.
Benchmark your email marketing against industry averages in your target region
Every region and industry has different delivery rates and levels of user engagement. So pay attention to industry averages for delivery, open and click-through rates and try and achieve better than average levels of delivery and engagement.
Don’t underestimate the value of email
Email has been around for a while so might not seem as attractive or cutting-edge as some other digital marketing approaches. However, email is tried and tested in many markets and consistently delivers a good ROI for brands. When breaking into new markets, start building your email list straight away, but make sure your list contains users who have opted in to receive your communications – regardless of the law.