Email Worst Practices: A Must-Read Primer on Bad Email Practices

According to the latest quarterly report from Doubleclick, click-through numbers for email campaigns are slightly down. A big part of declining click-through numbers might not have anything to do with lack of interest in the offers people are receiving, but of the atrocious quality-control practices and poor re-direct procedures used by many email campaigns. And there is absolutely no reason for it.

The problem is so bad, that I've decided to write a white paper that outlines all the worst practices out there and who is doing them. Here are just some highlights of what we've discovered after an in-depth analysis of more than 70,000 emails:

Format Errors: Format errors include things like broken links, html format errors and other problems that may prevent the email from being read by some browsers. Emails have a certain specification to which they are supposed to adhere. Although I will have an exact percentage when I write the white paper, close to 15 percent to 20 percent of all the emails we have examined have had some sort of format error.

Common errors include placing 2 @ signs in the sender's address and bad html tags. The biggest problem though is bad links. We have found everything from links generating "404 page not found" errors to the slashes in links being entered in backwards: instead of http://www.mysite.com, they are written http:\\www.mysite.com, making the links absolutely useless.

Depending on how forgiving your email browser is, html errors will either read properly or show up as garbage on they recipients machine. One of the reasons so many bad emails are sent out is that they are only probably QA's (quality assurance) of the latest version of Outlook, and not tested on Mac's or older email browsers. We'll get into this more when we talk about re-direct errors.

Compliance Errors: Compliance errors may or may not be fatal, but they are poor practice. Compliance errors include things like sending out emails with an incorrect time stamp. In other words, emails that are being delivered on Jan. 1, 2004, will have a time stamp of Jan. 1 or Jan. 2, 2005, a year or a year and a day ahead. This is so prevalent that I can only assume that it is done on purpose, perhaps so those messages appear at the top of someone's unread email pile, since most people sort by date.

Unreadable Emails: Probably 1 percent of all emails we receive are completely unreadable by any email browser. Most of these types of problems: compliance, format errors, and unreadable messages are more prominent in some email lists than others. Some lists are always clean, others have a 50 percent or more hit rate when it comes to errors. Marketers using any of these lists stand a good chance that their messages are not being viewed properly by the recipient. Finding this type of information is difficult except through our white paper. Anyone who would like to be notified when the white paper is available, please email me at bill@emerging.com.

Re-direct Errors: Re-direct errors and poor re-direct practices are extremely common in many email campaigns. Re-directs are links that take you to one server (usually for the purposes of counting click-through and other measurements). and then re-direct you to the landing page of the advertiser. Re-directs are used by most of the major email delivery companies including DoubleClick, CheetahMail, Mediaplex, and most of those do a good job. However bad re-direct practice or poor QA can send your message into an endless loop: re-directs that re-direct to themselves. Hanging a person's email browser is a common problem.

There are a number of ways to do re-directs. The worst is a JavaScript re-direct. First, there is no reason why anyone should be using a JavaScript re-direct but many do. The problem with a JavaScript redirect is that it takes so long for the re-direct to take place: the browser must first load an instance to the Java Virtual Machine in order to read the re-direct, which takes time. It means that when someone clicks on your link, the system just hangs while all the re-direct is processing and many people give up before they reach the marketing message. There is no reason for using JavaScript re-directs and you should ask your third-party service provider to make sure they are not using JavaScript re-directs before using them.

Other bad practices include the re-direct server sending out a 200 code. The way browsers work, when a web server sends out a 200 code, it means that you have reached the destination site. The problem is that many re-direct servers are sending out a 200 code by mistake. This is not a problem if you are using IE 6.0, which will ignore this problem, but if you are using Netscape or a Mac browser or an older copy of IE, the email just won't re-direct: it will stop when it receives the 200 code at the re-direct's server and never reach the landing page.

Simple testing on multiple systems would solve this problem, but obviously this is not being done. You need to be aware of these problems when using any third-party email system or rented list or talk to someone who has this data. These easily corrected problems if you know what to ask for.

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