Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, global internet volumes have risen around 50%, which has resulted in a number of new technical challenges for retailers when communicating to their customers through email.

While it’s integral for retailers to adapt their language and tone to reflect the needs of their subscribers in the current climate, these efforts will be in vain if senders don’t take the necessary technical steps to ensure their messages reach their subscribers inboxes.

Be aware of increased traffic

Greater global internet volumes is a result of people working from home and an increase in the consumption of online entertainment. In fact, global streaming services like Netflix and YouTube are voluntarily degrading the quality of programs to help ease traffic. While we may think otherwise, the internet’s capacity is finite and it’s currently taking longer for traffic to get from point A to point B.

As a result of the huge increases in traffic, mailbox providers like Gmail and Microsoft are having to deal with far higher than average quantities of inbound mail. They need to make decisions about what to accept and reject, before deciding what order to process the accepted emails in. Therefore, retailers need to hold their communications to an even higher standard than usual to ensure they are delivered to recipient’s inboxes.

Time emails differently and set expectations

Interestingly, email traffic tends to spike on the hour as most senders schedule their broadcasts to go out on a round number, e.g. 10:00am, 12:00pm, and so on. Businesses can try to avoid these hourly traffic jams by setting up send outs to be delivered at less competitive times e.g. 10:15am, 12:15pm, etc.

Increased email traffic can also have an impact on time-sensitive emails such as order confirmations. Consumers expect these messages to be delivered immediately, however this may not always be the case in the current landscape. To set expectations, retailers should consider posting temporary messages on their websites explaining that order confirmation emails may take a few minutes to deliver.

Protect your reputation

Sender reputation is critical to cutting through the increased traffic — it’s like being outside a nightclub, if you’re a VIP you go to the front of the queue, otherwise you wait your turn, and in some cases, you don’t get in at all!

Reputation is determined by factors including data quality, volume, and spam complaints. Validity Inc.’s 2020 Sender Score Benchmark Report clearly shows that senders with poor quality data (e.g. invalid email addresses) and high volumes will generate worse reputation metrics. These senders will find it harder to get accepted and delivered to the inbox.

Similarly, when spam complaints go up, reputation metrics go down and deliverability becomes more difficult. Spam complaints occur when recipients mark emails as spam or junk — usually because they feel the content isn’t relevant to them, they shouldn’t have received it in the first place, or that the email contains a phishing attempt or a scam.

It’s important to note that reputation can be applied on a “sliding scale” basis. For example, during quieter periods mailbox providers might say ‘we’ll accept any mail with a score of X or higher’, whereas during busy periods that threshold might be Y. Given increased traffic, best practice senders will ensure they’re consistently sending quality data and not emailing their subscribers too often to ensure a good reputation. Senders can check their reputation using Sender Score.

Given the huge surge in email traffic currently, a high reputation score for businesses is integral if you want your communications to be received and read. To protect your sender reputation, only send quality and relevant content to your subscribers, as this will increase open rates and boost your reputation score. Ensure emails are being sent from a registered and recognisable subdomain name and don’t send unsolicited emails i.e. purchase an email list.

Set up an email verification program

Setting up an email verification program is another way to protect your sender reputation. Over 15 percent of emails used in marketing lists are invalid and when businesses send messages to these addresses, not only are they wasting money, they’re also negatively affecting their sender reputation. By using a third-party verification program, such as Validity Inc.’s BriteVerify, all existing and new emails are verified before being added to the outreach list.

Authenticate and avoid looking spammy

Authentication is just as important as reputation in determining whether your emails reach customers at this crucial time. Authentication allows the receiver of an email and the mailbox provider to confirm the identity of the sender, and all of the major mailbox providers now expect email programs to operate some form of authentication such as SPF, DKIM and DMARC. Failure to use authentication will generally result in your emails being blocked or routed to the junk folder which can be disastrous when you’re trying to communicate time-critical information that relates to COVID-19.

Also, to make sure your emails can’t be perceived as spam, put them through a spam checking tool like Spam Assassin first, and then adjust them as necessary to mitigate any issues that are highlighted.

The stakes are higher than ever for businesses, particularly retailers, so make sure your efforts to innovate and survive this challenging time aren’t in vain by understanding how to navigate new technical challenges created by COVID-19.

Guy Hanson is vice president for customer engagement at Validity Inc.