With e-mail marketing, you'd better prepare to get your hands dirty.

Unlike postal direct marketing, e-mail marketing will allow you to learn more than you probably ever wanted to know about the unsuccessful aspects of delivery.

You will learn from two sources: bounce-back reports provided by your e-mail service provider and customers themselves.

Bounce-back reports simply identify undeliverable e-mail addresses. In other words, the message could not be delivered fora variety of reasons, as we'll discuss later.

You can also expect to hear directly from those customers who received duplicate e-mail messages, from those who believeyou are spamming them, from those who can't view the message correctly, even from those who expected to hear from youbut never received the message.

Let's look at the two main areas where these glitches occur: message delivery and message creation. I'll discuss the former inthis column and the latter in a second column.

Message delivery includes everything that happens from the time you hit the Send button and your message starts winging its way across the Internet.

Are We There Yet?
E-mail is not like postal mail, which uses a well-established, simple, and consistent process. This process usually ensures that you can create a package and reliably deliver it into the hands of the intended recipient.

Keep in mind that the Internet is a still-evolving collection of hardware and software technologies operating on a Web of data communications systems and protocols. As a result, any number of combinations of technology-related issues can conspire to screw up the successful delivery of a message.

E-mail uses a store-and-forward process. Messages are not magically handed over directly to the recipient's inbox. Rather, they undertake a sometimes tortuous journey between computers.

En route, a message is first delivered from your PC to your ISP's e-mail server. From there, it travels via several other e-mail servers until it finally reaches the recipient's e-mail server. At that point, it's uploaded to the recipient's e-mail browser.

As these e-mail servers "talk" to each other, they read and add to the header information, which provides information about what is being delivered, to whom, and via which route.

Sometimes, one or more servers in the chain are temporarily unavailable. Maybe one is overloaded for a while or is off-line for servicing. Maybe the network is congested. Or perhaps a data cable has been cut by backhoe.

For many reasons, therefore, e-mail can take a while to reach its intended destination, and it is impossible to predict how long it will take to deliver every message.

Know the Enemy
Here are some other reasons delivery might fail or be delayed:

  • The recipient might have changed e-mail addresses and forgotten to notify you.
  • If you send messages often enough or in a sufficient volume, the recipient's ISP might automatically invoke spam blocking, thus preventing the message from reaching the recipient's inbox. Or it might be diverted automatically to a bulk e-mail folder, which the user has to search separately.
  • In some cases, virus scanning software on your customer's PC might erroneously block or discard HTML messages, especially those containing scripts, believing them to contain viruses.
  • Very occasionally, messages can simply get lost on the Internet due to system or network failure somewhere along the delivery chain. More often, however, it will simply be delivered later, after a number of attempts, once the temporary network glitch is fixed.

Double Trouble
In some cases, a recipient might receive multiple copies of the same message for the following reasons:

  • Failure to de-dupe your customer e-mail address list before delivery, so the same customer is listed with more than one e-mail address.
  • If you use more than one vendor to deliver your e-mail messages, each might send e-mail to the same customer.
  • The most common cause is a misconfigured e-mail gateway at the destination ISP. If this is the case, the recipient will typically -- though not always -- see all mail duplicated within a given time frame.
  • A rare timing error can occur whereby a message is successfully passed along by a mail server, receives no delivery confirmation from the receiving mail server, and so is resent.
  • This confirmation process occasionally fails if either the sending or the receiving server has a temporary technical glitch during the send-and-response cycle.
  • Certain firewall applications can also corrupt this confirmation process, resulting in the delivery of multiple copies of the message. This can also result from a configuration error or a software bug in the recipient's e-mail server.

Ignorance Isn't Bliss
Finally, what about e-mail messages that don't reach the intended recipients while you remain unaware of the situation?

This will sometimes occur. For example, some ISPs will automatically filter e-mail they believe to be unsolicited commercial e-mail into a bulk e-mail folder that the recipient has to peruse separately. Or, in some cases, ISPs block delivery of bulk e-mail to their members.

Often, the only way you can detect this is if the ISP notifies you of spam complaints from its members or if you suddenly detect an unusually low viewing or response rate from particular domains you are sending to.

Here's an example. Say all your messages to recipients at Hotmail have, until now, been generating a good response. Then you receive no response at all. This is a strong indication the ISP has blacklisted you, meaning it is now blocking any messages from you.

In such cases, you or your e-mail marketing provider will have to work directly with the ISP to meet any compliance or prior notification requirements it might have.

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