eM+C's Deliverability Dilemmas Solved: How to Tell If You Have a Deliverability Problem
Q: Our response rates have been declining, but our metrics’ reports show our emails are being delivered at the same rate as always. What else could be going on?
A: Thanks to spam, the term “delivered” isn't as simple it could be. When email marketers hear the term “delivery rate,” they think it means the number of messages that arrived in recipients’ inboxes — not the bulk or junk folder. If you look at a “delivery rate” report from an email service provider, you probably see a percentage that's simply the number of email messages sent minus the number of bounces.
The problem with both of these views is that internet service providers, who actually handle all this email, take a different approach.
To an ISP, a “delivered” email is one that was accepted by the receiving mail server. But there are several things that can happen to the message after acceptance besides being delivered to the subscriber’s inbox. It can be put in a bulk mail folder, for example, or simply deleted. This is hugely important for email marketers because when a percentage of emails aren't making it to the inbox, you can expect a corresponding decline in response rates.
In both of these instances, ISPs don't provide email marketers with any visibility into these issues.
So, how do you find out if you have a deliverability problem? Take the following steps:
1. Use a seed list. This is a list of email addresses set up at major domains, such as Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail, that allows you to monitor deliverability. If your emails successfully arrive in the inboxes of your seed account, you can safely assume that email arrived in the inboxes of all subscribers to that domain. You can build your own seed list or work with an email technology provider.
2. Check your score. Go to SenderScore.org, register and enter your IP address. You’ll get a score from one to 100. If your score is less than 80, it’s a reflection of issues that could be affecting your deliverability. These include appearances on blacklists, a high complaint rate and/or hitting spam traps.
3. Check your list. Review your list hygiene practices to ensure they meet industry standards. Do you immediately remove hard bounces? How long do you let soft bounces linger? Is a significant portion of your list inactive and/or very old? A high bounce rate combined with lots of inactive addresses could mean you’re hitting spam traps or sending to dead addresses — both red flags for ISPs trying to separate legitimate senders from spammers.
4. Check your sources. Where are you getting your email addresses? Do you have clear permission standards? Did your subscribers sign up for a weekly newsletter that's suddenly a daily blast? Have you recently rented a list from a third party? Any of these situations could result in a high complaint rate, the leading cause of deliverability and reputation problems. ISPs listen to subscribers who complain, and if enough subscribers don’t like your emails, ISPs will block them.
5. Talk to an expert. Start with your ESP; it probably has a deliverability expert on staff who can help you take a deep dive into your metrics. There are also a number of independent deliverability providers available to help.
George Bilbrey is the founder of deliverability service provider Assurance Systems, which merged with Return Path in 2003. He’s an expert on the subjects of email reputation and deliverability, and is active in many industry organizations, including the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group and the Online Trust Alliance. Reach George at firstname.lastname@example.org.