To My Competitors: Time to Step it Up

This week,  some of our competitors had a wake-up call. They learned that less than strict adherence to industry best practices when sending bulk email will result in getting blacklisted by major worldwide anti-spam organizations. The ones who suffer the most: their government customers and the constituents who receive information through bulk email. Our industry can do better and really needs to step up their game. iConstituent has been following industry best practices for years now – since we entered this market well over 10 years ago. Since our inception, we have successfully sent billions of messages throughout our years of dedicated service to government.

But, there are many vendors in our market who need to step it up.

Some government entities are experiencing serious bulk email delivery woes right now. Today. Why? Because, the basic principals of sending bulk email have been ignored by a few who don’t see or understand the importance of maintaining high standards for their customers when it comes to sending bulk email. There are industry standards that must be adhered to when sending bulk email or they risk their customers critical communication getting trapped in spam filters. Because some federal and state government entities purchase email lists, the challenge of sending bulk email is even greater; anti spam organizations, like Spamhaus, make it tougher for email to get past their barriers. Hidden spam traps are everywhere. One wrong step or best practice ignored will result in poor email delivery or even worse, no email delivery. So, what can be done to improve delivery of bulk email sent from government entities to their constituents? A lot, actually.

If you are a staff  member in a government office using a bulk email vendor, there is much that is not within your control. You must rely on your vendor to manage your IP reputation and list hygiene (and hope that they adhere to a myriad of other industry best practices). However, you should also be aware of some basic reporting that most reputable vendors provide. Without these key statistics, you will be in the dark as to the success rate of your bulk email delivery and overall emailing reputation.

There are three basic statistics that you may need to consider when sending your bulk email; “Open” and “Click Through” rates only tell you part of the story. It’s the Delivery Rate that is key.

  1. Delivery Rate: The Delivery Rate is different from “open and click through” rates. The Delivery Rate gives you the total percentage of your messages delivered. It follows a basic formula: Total number of emails sent LESS (Total Soft Bounces + Total Hard Bounces) = Total Delivered (Delivery Rate). Seeing this rate will indicate (at a glance) the success of your mailing. A low Delivery Rate indicates that there is a problem with your message delivery (i.e, blocked by a spam filter, etc). Incidentally, there can be no such thing as a perfect delivery rate; every mailing will have hard bounces and soft bounces. It’s unavoidable.
  2. Hard Bounces: These are emails that are invalid (for some reason or another). They simply cannot be used any more. Industry best practice is to remove these addresses from your list every time you mail. That’s correct: Hard Bounces should be removed from your list with each bulk mailing effort. Over time, your email list will shrink; there is a natural attrition of email addresses in every list. Email lists are always dynamic and never static, so list hygiene is a constant effort. Continuous mailing to Hard Bounced emails will result in poor IP reputation and thus, being blocked by spam filters.
  3. Soft Bounces: These are emails that were not delivered due to an unexplained reason. However, looking at this list will give you a lot of information. For example, if you see a lot of emails with the domain, this would indicate that Yahoo has blocked your email. Knowing this will help you correct the problem and fix this issue for the next mailing. Not knowing, worsens your issue and drives your Delivery Rate down.

You should note that there are many other industry best practices that I am not touching upon in this post related to content creation, feedback loops, IP reputation and so on. But, the above three points are what I consider to be a basic starting point in understanding the effectiveness of your emailing TODAY. Poor delivery rates, high numbers of hard and soft bounces should give you cause for concern – and, the ability to make changes.

I have been talking about good bulk emailing practices for years now. It’s something that iConstituent is great at doing – sending bulk email. It’s important that constituent mail is sent responsibly and correctly; ignoring industry best practices is not an option any more. Vendors who sell services to the Members of Congress and other branches of government (other than iConstituent), need to improve their game and better adhere to industry best practices. Gone are the days of “email blasting,” and hoping for the best. In fact, those days were gone many years ago. We encourage our competition to step it up.

Thoughts on 2014 – Citizen Engagement in Congress

How will diminishing office budgets in the Congress affect citizen engagement this year? Before the Sequester, Congressional offices spent thousands of dollars per month on telephone town halls, mass email communications and other basic outreach services to communicate with their constituents. There was a positive benefit from these services.

The Sequester is definitely taking a serious toll on how Congressional offices manage their office budgets, and citizen engagement is an unfortunate casualty. Congressional offices have less money to spend on constituent outreach services. Yet, this doesn’t mean that citizen engagement is less important than before. In fact, the demand to engage with citizens is ever increasing and not diminishing: elected officials should not cut back on their citizen engagement strategies. Not now, not ever. Instead, their challenge is to find new and better ways to connect with their constituents using fewer resources, both human and financial.

In the long run, I strongly believe that budget cuts will help to improve citizen engagement. Why? Tighter Congressional office budgets and leaner staff, will force Congressional offices to do more with less. Fewer resources will force Congressional offices to become more efficient and spur innovation in citizen engagement; Congressional offices will seek creative ways to maximize their staff and office funds because they have to – otherwise, they will fail in their mission to serve their constituents. Gone are the days of bigger budgets and ample resources. They must learn to operate on lean, mean, budgets – much like any small business. Leveraging low cost technology solutions, Congressional offices will discover new ways to connect with their constituents.

Some of my thoughts for 2014:

Sentiment analysis; iConstituent introduced sentiment analysis software to the Congress in 2009 with little sucess; most offices simply did not know how to turn the data into actionable information. The software provided a rich set of information to Congressional offices hoping to better understand how to serve their constituency. However, the question quickly became, “what do we actually do with this information and how do we turn it into action?” Though, fairly mainstream at this point, sentiment analysis software is not widely used in government. We may begin to see the use of sentiment analysis software in the Congress this year (again). Though, I believe the same issue remains; what do you do with the data? How do you turn it into actionable information once you have it? How do you use it to better serve your constituents? Aside from the “coolness factor,” it remains to be seen how Congressional staff will actually use this data.

Social media advertising; Congressional offices are spending money on Facebook ads to essentially market to their constituents. Though, some blogs, government watch dog groups and news media are critical of this practice, I believe it has tremendous merit. What’s not taken into account is that social media ad buying in Congress is actually saving taxpayer money; social media ads are less expensive than direct mail pieces – and more effective. The job of an elected official is to serve his/her constituents. Social media is an inexpensive and effective way of accomplishing this. I predict an increase in social media ad buying this year in Congress. That being said, it will still be dwarfed by the amount spent on Franked mail pieces.

Finally, given the state of Congressional office budgets, it’s doubtful that direct mail (Franked mail) will see an spending uptick. Though, it’s still the biggest expense overall with regards to constituent outreach, it has been on the decline over the last few years. The use of social media and mass email has taken the place of direct mail in many Congressional offices – and, I believe this is a good thing.