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Running Windows Live Mail's SmartScreen Gauntlet

Jan 12 2010, 07:38 AM

Microsoft's Windows Live Mail SmartScreen ratings are now being at least partially determined by a panel of actual users. If even a small number of these users perceive your email marketing message as spam, your entire program could be canned. There are ways, however, to improve your odds.
A World-Class Cheat
Many years ago when broadcast television was still a major force and Nielsen ratings alone determined the expenditure of billions of dollars, a Los Angeles television station got caught with its hand in the cookie jar. It seems that a particularly devilish programming director figured out the best way to boost his station's ratings was to air a special series of news reports during Sweeps Week: about Nielsen families! Of course the Nielsen families tuned in to watch reports about themselves and the station's ratings skyrocketed.
Thumbs Up Or Down On Millions Of Messages
Although the media world has changed since then, plus ça change... The practice of basing wide audience patterns on very small allegedly representative samplings is being still implemented today. Microsoft has set up their Windows Live Sender Reputation Panelists to classify over a quarter of a million email marketing messages per day as to whether they are junk or not.

As in any focus group tyranny where a tiny statistical sampling has enormous ramifications, the future prospects of an entire organization end up being determined by a handful of anonymous average Joes, the mood they're in, and what side of the bed they got out of that morning. Joe's girlfriend dumped him last night? Your entire email marketing program gets dumped today.
The System Can't Be Gamed. Right?
Microsoft claims that this independent input into their SmartScreen ratings is not skewable and of course they're wrong. Software monoliths have always been at the mercy of the junior sized ankle biters who conduct devastating hit and run guerilla attacks against their "unbreakables." Place yourself in the "creative" mindset of that L.A. program director and you'll come up with many ways to appeal to these "impartial" panelists, albeit in a black-hat and fully unethical manner.
Legitimate Ways To Maximize Your Odds
There are "legitimate" ways to if not outright game the panel, at least improve your chances of getting lovelorn Joe from dumping your whole program in the spam heap.

Permission Reminding - Joe has a life (or did anyway) so he may not be immediately aware of how he opted-in, by an email subscription form, print or store response, etc. Your message should reinforce the fact that it is permissioned right up top and emphatically.
Brand Recognition - Joe has to be aware of your brand, so make sure he can recognize it at a glance. Get around image suppression by featuring your brand name prominently even in the From and Subject line if you possibly can.
Respect Joe - Keying your message to Joe's demographics and past behavior will build relevance into your thumbs up rate. Joe is less likely to toss your message if it refers to a service or product line he has already shown interest in, and if it is presented in a way that is respectful of his demographic and sensibilities. Screaming, flashing, dancing "BUY NOW!!!" exhortations will grease your slide to the spam can.
Panelist Appeal Is Good Practice Anyway
As it turns out the basic white-hat ways to help your messages pass through the SmartScreen gauntlet are the same ones that will ensure success for any email marketing program. Apply them across the board and you won't have to resort to black-hatting Microsoft's panel.

Posted in Tips & Resources, Deliverability

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