Six Sigma Deliverability -- Why Not 100% Delivery Rate?

This question haunts me when I hear marketers talk about their email programs. They seem to accept the loss of one in five emails as inevitable and out of their control, thanks to spam filters, customers who mistype their addresses or file spam complaints, invisible and inexplicable quirks in the system and other reasons.

One in five doesn't sound too bad -- until you start looking at real numbers. If you send 100,000 messages, you've lost 20,000. Where else in your company would such a loss rate be tolerated? In fact, everyone else most likely has to meet a strict near-zero defect rate. Why should email marketing be any different?

The answers I get from marketers are just as troubling. They generate enough ROI on that 80% to meet their budget goals and don't see an economic incentive for trying to ratchet up deliverability by 5 to 10 or more percentage points.

Or, they don't have the time or financial resources to do the necessary analysis to find and fix the problem. Or, they still think like direct marketers, who might well accept that 20% of a postal delivery hits the trash or the recycling bin before it gets into the house.



Even some email authorities say there are better ways to boost ROI than by spending money to get more emails delivered to the inbox, such as segmenting a mailing list and sending more targeted emails.

I won't argue that increasing relevance will jack up your ROI in attention-getting ways. But, a 20% or more delivery loss out of the gate tells me you have serious problems, and you should find and fix those first.

That missing 20% hurts you three ways:
1. You're paying, even if it isn't all that much, to email to a bunch of dead ends that will deliver no return on your investment.
2. You harm your sender reputation if you keep emailing bad addresses or ones that no longer exist, because ISPs can interpret that as a spammer's trademark.
3. You're missing the opportunity to make your email program stand out as an invaluable asset to your company's bottom line, which might be why those needed resources aren't coming.

To get your email program taken more seriously, especially by the people who divide up the budget pie, move as close to 100% deliverability as you can. Do what other departments have done already: Figure out where the problem is, design a process to reduce the defects, and measure the improvement.

Start Thinking the Six Sigma Way

This drove the quality movement in American industry in the 1980s and 1990s with concepts like Total Quality Management, quality circles, zero-defect manufacturing.

The Six Sigma methodology, pioneered by former GE chief Jack Welch, dictates no more than 3.4 failures in every 1 million opportunities. Applied to email, no more than 3 to 4 emails would go undelivered every time you send 1 million messages. An unrealistic goal perhaps, but one worth working toward.

To some extent, marketers are correct when they say that certain delivery factors often are out of their hands. However, many aren't doing everything they can with the factors they do control.

DMAIC is a Six Sigma methodology that can help you do the right kind of analysis to find the root of your delivery process:

  • Define the project goals and customer (internal and external) deliverables (Set a goal of 100% deliverability.)

  • Measure the process to determine current performance. (Review delivery reports to determine your delivery rate and isolate problems, such as high block rates at ISPs.)

  • Analyze and determine the root cause(s) of the defects. (Review your opt-in procedures, how you handle spam complaints, etc.)

  • Improve the process by eliminating defects. (Change the way you operate; for example, confirm opt-ins before adding addresses to your database.)

  • Control future process performance. (Monitor future delivery more closely and act on problems as soon as they crop up.)

    In a future column, I'll outline the economics of process improvement to your email marketing program.

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