The topic of email deliverability certainly isn’t as sexy as the slew of advances in the email space like kinetic design and predictive intelligence. It doesn’t have the “wow” factor among marketers and it doesn’t dazzle subscribers. It simply focuses on getting the message through. That simple fact is what makes deliverability the linchpin of the entire program.
If our messages are not getting in front of the intended audience, every other investment we make into our email program is irrelevant. Crisp design, affinity-based content, comprehensive testing and interactive features will fail to deliver the anticipated results if a substantial portion of messages are landing in the junk folder or are blocked by mailbox providers.
By gaining visibility into the percentage of mail that makes it to the inbox (rather than being blocked or placed in the spam folder) and taking steps to improve troubled placement rates, marketers can recover ROI from the email channel and position the program for success.
As an email strategist with a healthy obsession with deliverability, much of my day-to-day involves helping clients root out and address their performance issues. More often than not, deliverability is a major factor. Below are some of the top contributors to problematic deliverability and some quick tips on how to improve them.
The complaint rate carries a lot of weight and is usually suspect when the path to the inbox is impeded. As discussed in my post on Gmail performance woes, mailbox providers take their subscribers’ experiences seriously. Complaints are a direct indicator of subscriber dissatisfaction and if your complaint rate exceeds ~0.1 percent of your total send, you are going to run into problems.
Microsoft and its properties (including Hotmail and Outlook.com) leverage another method of subscriber feedback called SRD. If feedback suggests that many subscribers view your messages as spam, that’s exactly where they’ll end up. While unique, the recommendations to address complaint behavior often apply to reducing negative SRD feedback.
The complaint rate is one of the most important and consequential aspects of an email program to address. It’s also one of the most nuanced. Since complaints are closely tied with perception and subscriber experience, reducing rates typically require marketers to pull more than one lever. Below are a few key levers to try:
- Ensure your brand is signed up for all available feedback loops and immediately suppress all subscribers who complain.
- For Gmail, sign up for their non-traditional (aggregated) feedback loop and look for trends in the types of campaigns or segments that tend to generate more complaints.
- Set expectations with subscribers during the acquisition and onboarding process and follow through on promises made. As an example, don’t offer “periodic emails” then send on a daily basis.
- Make it easy to unsubscribe. If subscribers want off of your list, get them out of there. Hiding the unsubscribe will only lead to more complaints and increased spam folder placement.
- Avoid over-sending to subscribers who have shown prolonged inactivity. This is the digital equivalent of beating a dead horse; however, in this scenario, the dead horse can complain and ruin your deliverability.
If you’ve read my other Target Marketing posts, you’ve heard my pitch for authentication multiple times and for various reasons. Proper authentication is low hanging fruit when it comes to deliverability. At a minimum, ensure that SPF and DKIM are in place. If you have a history of phishing and spoofing or are concerned about these topics, consider implementing DMARC.
Engagement and Inactivity
Filtering algorithms at top mailbox providers are increasingly taking subscriber engagement patterns into consideration as they determine where to place mail. A healthy balance of active subscribers shows mailbox providers that your list is engaged and your content is wanted. If that balance is off or begins to tilt, marketers will increasingly find their mail routed to the junk folder, especially among more sophisticated mailbox providers like Gmail.
In addition to throwing off this balance, a high percentage of inactives or subscribers with lengthy periods of inactivity can create several problems problems. Inactivity with the email program can be an indicator that the subscriber has abandoned their inbox. These accounts are often deactivated by the mailbox provider, resulting in an unknown user bounce code. Occasionally, dead accounts may be reactivated by the mailbox provider and converted to a recycled spam trap (read more about inactives, unknown users and spam traps here). Both unknown users and spam traps are associated with substandard list hygiene or poor marketing practices and can hurt deliverability and performance.
There are hundreds of ways to address engagement and inactivity. Below are a few of my regular go-tos:
- Periodically leverage a list validation service. If welcome/confirmation emails tend to see a high number of unknown user bounces or you have risky acquisition practices, you may want to consider real-time email validation.
- Ensure that you have an inactive threshold in place. This is dependent on a range of factors, so pinpointing the appropriate threshold is a bit of an art and science. Many of my clients use two years as the cutoff, but for brands with deliverability issues, we recommend a year or less.
- Test content to determine what resonates and motivates engagement. Consider segmenting by timeframe of last activity to determine what compels activity across those segments. This can be particularly relevant for brands that have the opportunity to experiment with different promotion and discount levels.
- Leverage a preference center that allows subscribers to provide direction of the kind of content they would like to receive and how often they would like to receive it.
Volume and Frequency Spikes
Mailbox providers have designed their filtering algorithms to help them detect messages and activity that looks out of the ordinary or suspicious. Major changes to your send volume or frequency can raise the red flag and get mail blocked or heavily filtered. By maintaining consistent volume and frequency at the IP address and domain level, you are less likely to run into these issues with mailbox providers.
If a change in volume or frequency is necessary, consider gradually increase volume and/or frequency. If the brand is migrating to a new ESP, IP address or even domain, a steady, gradual increase in volume is critical during the warm-up phase when the sending reputation has yet to be established and deliverability is at its most vulnerable. In addition:
- If mailing patterns are being adjusted due to a revamp of the email strategy, it can be beneficial to increase frequency by segment, starting with those who will likely be most receptive to increase mail.
- Sending an initial communication to subscribers that informs them of increased frequency and includes a method for them to manage their preferences can reduce the negative impact of this change.
As a Senior Email Strategist with Return Path, Casey specializes in driving increased engagement and boosting deliverability. Casey has a healthy fixation with helping marketers realize the potential of their email programs by addressing human needs, building better relationships, and ultimately driving improved results for the business. Her nine years of experience and obsession with evolving the email space helped land her a spot on ExpertSender’s list of “25 Email Geeks to Help You Get Your Geek On.”