Emails & SMS

Benevolent Bots Are Botching Your Marketing

November 21, 2022

If your email marketing campaigns follow trends, 20% of the clicks received are likely phony and bot-generated. Talk about skewed marketing and campaign metrics. ๐Ÿ™„

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Email bot clicks (sometimes called server clicks or non-human interactions) are often associated with spam-fighting algorithms aimed at foiling phishing scams and protecting inboxes across the world wide web.

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These anti-spam algorithms scan every incoming email message and, sometimes, click links to ensure that they lead to safe websites. โœ…

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If anything seems phishy ๐ŸŽฃ or malicious, the algorithm flags the message as spam or blocks it altogether. As phishing schemes and spam increase, so do server clicks.

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These programs are used at large email services like Gmail and Microsoft Outlook, but they are even more likely to be employed on government, medical, educational, and some business servers.

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If a lot of your brand's customers use their work email, your email messages might be getting more non-human interactions than they deserve. ๐Ÿ˜”

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๐Ÿ“Š Metrics impacted

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Imagine your brand is A/B testing an email offer. Some recipients are shown a deep discount on in-stock goods with bulky boxes and others are shown your new green packaging that costs a little more.

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If the discount offer excites a spam-scanning bot, it could get lots of clicks, leading you to believe your customers care less about the environment than money. But truthfully, your audience of human shoppers might have been willing to pay more for greener goods.

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Sure, in this simple example you could also consider conversions as your metric, but thatโ€™s not the point! Anti-spam bots are good, ultimately, which is why theyโ€™re widely used. But they can and do impact the marketing metrics your brand is using to make promotional decisions.

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Overcounting clicks (and opens) can lead to loads of errors.

  • A/B test results may be inaccurate
  • Email automation triggers are inadvertently tripped
  • Email marketing metrics are misrepresented
  • Some customers might accidentally unsubscribe

๐Ÿฅธ Uncountable email bots

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So what can be done? Not as much as you might hope.

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Identifying an email server click is pretty difficult.

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First, you need to realize that your email marketing software โ€“ think MailChimp, Klaviyo, ConvertKit, and similar โ€“ is intercepting and redirecting every link in your email message. That's how they count it in the first place.

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You put in a link like example.com and it is converted to something like click.emailservicecompany.com/randomnumbers. This link leads to the email marketing software company's server first and then goes to your site.

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If the email marketing company checks the header at all, it should see what looks like a normal click since the anti-spam bots do their very best to impersonate human users. This is why these same email marketing solutions rarely report the percentage of bot clicks.

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About the only way to tell if the click is from a bot is by monitoring its speed. A click that occurs within a few seconds or milliseconds of the email delivery, itโ€™s probably a bot.

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๐Ÿง  What can you do?

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Most DTC marketers will have few options if they want to minimize email server clicks and normalize email metrics.

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โœ”๏ธ Authenticate

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The first option tries to make an anti-spam algorithm less likely to click. There are three email authentication methods that tend to give these programs warm and fuzzy feelings.

  • Standard Policy Framework (SPF). SPF is a way of telling email servers whether or not you sent a message. If the SPF check passes, email servers can be somewhat sure that the message is not spam.
  • Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM). This one is harder because it requires generating cryptographic keys and adding more entries to your DNS records. Essentially, you are placing a hashed signature on the message that the bot can validate. The goal of DKIM is to make it difficult for email spammers to forge your brand's identity in the message headers.
  • Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC). DMARC tries to do two things: (1) reduce spoofing by validating SPF and DKIM, and (2) collect data so you know when some nefarious person is using your pretending to be your brand.

Using SPF, DKIM, and DMARC together will go a long way toward reducing server clicks.

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๐Ÿงผ Have good hygiene

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Your brand's email-sending reputation may also contribute to how anti-spam email software reacts to your messages.

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If shoppers are not opening and interacting with your messages, send a win-back campaign and, if they don't respond, cut them loose.

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๐Ÿ‘€ Check your content

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There are lots of email validation tools that can help test email content before you send it out. Some of these are free and some are paid.

Short of investing in one of these tools, avoid spammy phrases like using the word "free" too often, emphasizing contests, and tossing around exclamation points like a middle schooler, you get the idea.

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๐Ÿค– Estimate bot clicks

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To be clear, even with authentication, a clean and hygienic list, and content validation, your messages will still get some server clicks. You can, however, at least estimate how many.

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Include a hidden link in the message. This is an HTML anchor tag not displayed to humans but still visible in the code.

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<a href="https://example.com" style="display:none">Amazing Link</a>

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This hidden link should not appear to a human subscriber, but an email scanner, especially an aggressive one, can and often will click it. You want to ensure the link goes to a valid and safe landing page, so your message doesnโ€™t get flagged.

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You might even use more than one hidden link, embedding one in the message header, one in the body, and one in the message footer.

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You will not get an absolute count of email bot clicks, but you will have a direction indicator.

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๐Ÿ‘ Good bots

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Email marketing solutions rarely report the percentage of bot clicks because there is no perfectly accurate way to measure them.

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Make sure youโ€™re checking on your email authentication, list hygiene, percentage of spammy phrases, and estimate number of bot clicks to ensure your campaigns get the love and attention they deserve.

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