“Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”Jeff Bezos
Social media’s founding document, The Cluetrain Manifesto, pointed out that “Markets are conversations.”
That has been true since the dawn of civilization. Citizens learned about quality merchants in the market square and spread the word about those who sold shoddy goods.
But now because those conversations scale globally online, they can create a massive dataset that is measurable and is interpreted by the algorithms that increasingly dictate how we perceive the world. This dynamic is The Reputation Algorithm.
It’s An Algorithmic World & We’re Just Living In It
So, let’s amend Bezos’ quote: Your brand is what people say about you online.
Smart business owners, executives and brand managers know this. What they may not know is how those algorithms work and what they can do to manage how algorithms can shape their reputations.
While the algorithms powering digital platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter are closely-guarded secrets, we can make educated guesses about the consumer behaviors that feed those algorithms.
Let’s take a look at a marketing scenario with which all of us are familiar.
Holiday Email Promotions
This holiday season, our inboxes will be flooded with promotional emails…as they are every holiday season. Email marketing provider Litmus reports:
“On average, retailers increase their email frequency to their subscribers by roughly 50% during November and December, compared to other months.”4 Reasons to Start Planning for the Holiday Email Marketing Rush Now!
Most of us will ignore most of those emails.
A significant percentage of us will never see those emails because they will sent directly to our spam folder.
Many of us will mark those emails as spam either because we forgot that we did indeed subscribe to them or simply because that’s the quickest way to keep them from invading our inbox.
Spam, it turns out, is as much in the eye of the beholder as it is a “worst practice” marketing tactic.
A small percentage of the recipients of most retailers’ holiday promotions will actually open and engage with those emails. It is this subscriber behavior that is a major factor in whether or not a retailer’s emails are seen.
Negative Signals: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam
Let’s take the most obvious behavior first: clicking the spam button. This is a direct, clear and loud signal that the email is unwanted.
Providers of email services like Gmail, Apple Mail and Outlook and spam filtering companies collect this data and share it through industry networks in the form of a “Sender Score,” which is essentially a Reputation Algorithm for email addresses.
The higher your score, the better your reputation will be; the lower the score, the less likely people will see your emails. (Return Path provides a tool to check your Sender Score.)
Many factors contribute to that score, positive and negative.
If you just think about how you’ve dealt with unwanted emails in the past, you can guess what some of those factors might be.
If a critical mass of users mark the same email sender as spam, that signal will contribute to their Sender Score.
If enough people create filter rules to send a given email address directly to trash, that will lower your Sender Score.
If your emails use spammy techniques or words that trigger spam filters, that will lower your Sender Score.
If enough of these signals reach a critical point, your email address could end up on an industry blacklist to which email service providers subscribe.
Positive Signals: Email Behavior
While a high Sender Score is determined mostly on the basis of an absence of negative signals, positive engagement with your emails sends signals to the Gmails of the world that can increase the visibility of your email campaigns.
Again, we need look no further than our own behavior to get a sense of the positive engagement signals consumers send through their interaction with email.
Open and click-through rates have been standard metrics email marketers use to gauge engagement.
Behaviors such as creating a labeled folder to store newsletter subscriptions, opening, reading and then placing each newsletter edition into that folder is a clear indication that the subscriber values that content.
Forwarding an email to multiple people within your contact list demonstrates enough trust in the content to recommend it to others.
Replying to the sender and having a subsequent conversation with that sender is a very strong engagement signal because it implies a strong relationship between the parties.
Even the act of retrieving an email from the spam folder and clicking the “not spam” button is a strong positive algorithmic signal because it suggests the user considers the content valuable enough to save it from getting caught by spam filters.
Email Provider User Data
Litmus reports that Gmail became the top email service provider this year, followed by Apple’s iPhone email client. Google announced last year that Gmail had 1.5 billion users. Those users represent a massive amount of data to feed Gmail’s spam algorithms.
But what if the reputation score Gmail gives emails isn’t limited to email?
Though the algorithms powering big tech companies are a closely-guarded secret, it would seem logical that Google would use an email reputation score as a factor that the algorithms powering its other properties would take into account.
In most cases, the email address used for sending marketing messages would use the same domain name (yourcompany.com, for example) as the company’s website, if for no other reason than to uphold brand standards.
A poor Sender Score resulting from your email marketing activity, then, could conceivably have an effect on the visibility Google gives your website content in its search engine results.
It is conceivable a poor email Sender Score might have the same effect on videos uploaded to your company’s YouTube channel, a property owned by Google.
That Sender Score could affect how likely your company’s business listing shows up in the “Map Pack” when people use Google to find a local business.
Sophisticated marketers are not merely following email marketing best practices but focusing more closely on how to prompt those positive engagement signals from subscribers that burnish their email’s Reputation Algorithm.
Retailers whose email marketing budgets are spent mostly over the holiday season ought to start rethinking their strategy to create subscriber engagement throughout the year.
Guitar company Epiphone, for example, includes a drawing to win a free guitar in every edition of their newsletter. Who doesn’t want a free guitar? It is the reason I open each and every newsletter (email opens are positive engagement signals, as are click-throughs) and click to complete the entry form on their website.
Quartz Obsession Newsletter
Quartz includes a fun poll (along with the previous edition’s poll results) at the end of each issue of its Obsession newsletter.
I’ve noticed more engagement with emails that use a first-person, casual tone versus the third-person corporate voice of many marketing emails.
Results, of course, will vary. What works for one company or brand may not necessarily work for you.
But if you haven’t yet done so, it’s time to start thinking about and experimenting with email engagement tactics to find your sweet spot.