The Importance of Getting Email Right with Dunning

This is a guest post by Garrett Dimon. Garrett’s been working on the web with stints in design, development, marketing, and information architecture since 1998. Today, he works at Wildbit, makers of Postmark, Beanstalk, and Conveyor, after spending almost a decade bootstrapping and ultimately selling his own SaaS application as a sole founder. When he’s not working on the web, he’s finding something to do outdoors in the mountains of Crested Butte, Colorado.

Email delivery is important for any system, but when you’re attempting to recover payments, it’s absolutely critical. There are countless reasons for payments to fail. Credit card accounts are closed. Credit cards are stolen and require new numbers. People change jobs or email addresses. And email is arguably the best channel for recovering failed payments in the face of all of these challenges.

From a customer standpoint, email is less obtrusive than phone calls and more convenient in that it enables them to handle it on their time. From the business side, it’s low-cost, relatively easy to automate, and almost as easy to track for insights or know when there are delivery issues so you can proactively address the problem.

But delivery is only half the battle. Trust and recognition is the other half. If your emails don’t get to the inbox, nothing else matters, but once they’ve reached the inbox, you still have to gain the trust of your recipient. And when you’re asking for credit card information via email, the bar for trust is incredibly high.

Missing or untrustworthy emails can put a significant dent in your recovery rates, and that’s literally lost money. But fear not, there’s nothing tricky about sending and delivering trustworthy emails. You just need to be thorough and ensure you’re not overlooking anything. Let’s see what it takes to cover all your bases.

If you’re using a 3rd party service like Churn Buster to send those emails and handle dunning on your behalf, it’s a little more complicated as well. You’ll want to be confident that they’re using a reliable email service provider and that they’re enabling you to properly authenticate your emails and sending trustworthy communication on your behalf. Let’s look at the key elements of a good dunning email system and what you need to know to make sure it’s being done well.

Delivery

While you can’t guarantee delivery to the inbox, you can do a few things to stack the deck in your favor. If you do everything with a focus on great delivery, you’ll put yourself in a good spot for the other elements that you can control more directly.

There are quite a few variables when it comes to delivery, but almost all of them build off of a solid foundation of the basics. First and foremost, you have to be sending emails through a reputable provider. While it’s certainly possible to send email yourself, you’ll also be on the hook to monitor blacklists, communicate with blacklist services and ISP’s to get delisted if something goes wrong, protect your infrastructure from hackers who want to abuse your reputation to send spam, and much more. It’s certainly possible, but there’s a lot of overhead.

With a service like Churn Buster, you’ll want to ask how they deliver their emails and how they can be confident in great delivery. In Churn Buster’s case, you’re in good hands on that front with Postmark, but having a good email service provider is just the beginning. You also want to ensure you’re properly authenticating your emails via all available methods so that any emails sent on behalf of your brand appear as if they’re coming directly from you.

Authentication

If you’re using a dunning provider that sends emails on your behalf, you’ll want to make sure that they enable you to authenticate your emails. This requires a little extra work up front, but it’s critical to achieving the best possible delivery.

The first step for authentication is to start with DKIM in order to sign your emails and begin building domain reputation. We’ll talk a little more about domain reputation later, but the important thing to know about DKIM is that it’s the part that ensures recipients don’t see “via” tags in Gmail next to your email address or “on behalf of” tags in Outlook.

This is an image on the Churn Buster blog. It shows an email address that includes via tags. This is an example of poor authentication when it comes to email deliverability.This is an image on the Churn Buster blog. It shows an email address that includes via tags. This is an example of poor authentication when it comes to email deliverability.

These examples might be ok for newsletters, but that extra stuff after the via label can trigger fears of spam or phishing when you’re asking for credit card information.

Then, ideally, add in SPF and a matching custom return-path to pave the way for DMARC. I know that’s a lot of acronyms, so let’s take a second and talk about DMARC. At the simplest level, DMARC is all about helping combat phishing. If you’re not familiar with phishing, it’s the process of sending emails that claim to be from a certain brand like PayPal or Amazon and convincing people to enter their login or credit card information into a dummy form so they can steal the information. DMARC combats that by letting you publish a policy that tells ISPs that it’s OK to either quarantine these emails in the spam folder or outright reject them. As a result, scammers aren’t able to abuse your brand for phishing scams.

Domain and IP Reputation

With delivery, domain and IP address reputation are both significant factors. While your IP reputation will depend on your email service provider, domain reputation is in your hands. Once you set up DKIM for your domain, you’ll be able to begin building domain reputation with the various ISPs. Building domain reputation is important, but protecting it is where things can get tricky.

Most importantly, you’ll want to ensure that your use separate domains for your transactional emails like password resets and you bulk promotional email like newsletters and announcements. With the latter, you’ll generally see much lower engagement, and thus a lower reputation. The last thing you want is for your newsletter reputation to interfere with the reputation, and thus delivery, of your critical transactional emails. Generally speaking, you’ll want to send your transactional emails from your primary domain like example.com and relegate your bulk sending to a subdomain like news.example.com. This helps separate your domain reputation.

With IP reputation, you’ll simply want to be confident that your dunning provider is using a highly reliable email service provider. Moreover, you should verify that they’re actively monitoring delivery for their provider so that if a widespread problem occurs, they’re on top of things. If you have a reject or quarantine DMARC policy established, you’ll want to triple-check that your DKIM, SPF, and return-path are all in alignment in order to ensure the emails aren’t rejected or sent to the spam folder.

Bounces & Spam Complaints

One of the keys to maintaining a good reputation is paying attention to bounces and stopping delivery attempts to bouncing email addresses or addresses that have received spam complaints. In most cases, ESPs will do this automatically for hard bounces. That’s great for protecting delivery reputation, but stopping delivery falls short of fixing the problem. Once you’ve stopped delivery, you’ll want to take proactive steps to fix the underlying problem. That’s where bounce handling comes in.

Bounces happen. People change jobs. They switch email addresses. A domain registration expires. Or an over-aggressive spam filter can block delivery. Depending on the cause and context, there are a variety of best practices for bounce handling. Regardless, with dunning emails, there’s no room for shortcuts with bounce handling. Ideally, your dunning provider should provide capabilities to help you proactively address bounces by providing features that send notifications to alternate emails, provide notifications to ensure your team is alerted of any bounces, or a variety of other solutions.

Trust

Assuming you’re able to get emails to your recipients’ inboxes, you still have to convince them to take action, and that requires trust. People are naturally skeptical of emails requesting credit card information. So you’re fighting an uphill battle. That means your emails have to look beyond reproach in terms of legitimacy.

User your own domain and authenticate with DKIM

As we saw earlier, DKIM is one of the best ways to increase the legitimacy of your emails. If you’re using another provider to send your emails, you’ll want to ensure that the emails look like they’re coming directly from you so you avoid “via” or “on behalf of” labels in your sender name. You can also avoid via tags by sending using your dunning provider’s domain, but then the emails won’t look like they’re coming from you. So always use your own domain, and take the time to set up DKIM.

Avoid no-reply addresses

If someone has concerns, a no-reply address makes it difficult for them to ask questions. While this may be less of an issue with outright trust, providing great support to customers that are at-risk of churning is a great way to ensure your dunning efforts are more successful.

Be careful with copywriting

The copywriting of your dunning emails will be critical. You want to be simple, direct, and helpful. Avoid threatening content and focus on making it helpful and approachable. It’s alright to explain what will happen if they don’t update their credit card and to give them a timeline, but try to do so in a way that entirely avoids feeling like it could be mistaken for phishing.

One tactic with copy and content is to use personal information in the email to reinforce that the email is legitimate. That may include information like the amount owed, the last four digits of the current credit card on file, the date of their last payment, or other information that someone behind a phishing scam wouldn’t have.

Test your content

Even if everything else is great, if any little thing lands the emails in the spam folder. When that happens, the likeliness of being trusted plummets. While every spam filter is unique, you can take steps to reduce the likelihood your emails include content that may trigger spam filters. Sometimes, even the simplest things like phone numbers or other unusual content can trigger spam filters. Where possible, run the content of your emails through a spam checker to help uncover any obvious mistakes.

In conclusion

Delivery and trust are critical components of a successful dunning campaign. While building in-house dunning systems is a tempting option, ensuring reliable delivery on your own can become a big headache. Instead, opt for a dunning provider who prioritizes delivery above all else to ensure you’re both taking all of the steps possible to ensure the highest levels of delivery and trust with your dunning emails.

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Garrett Dimon

Marketing @ Wildbit

Garrett’s been working on the web with stints in design, development, marketing, and information architecture since 1998. Today, he works at Wildbit, makers of Postmark, Beanstalk, and Conveyor, after spending almost a decade bootstrapping and ultimately selling his own SaaS application as a sole founder. When he’s not working on the web, he’s finding something to do outdoors in the mountains of Crested Butte, Colorado.