Making the Grade: It Takes an A-Level Reputation to Get to the Inbox
Most email sent today is junk, at least according to recent research Return Path conducted, which showed that nearly two-thirds of all messages came from the least reputable senders in the world (aka spammers). With that being the case, why are most inboxes relatively spam free? Just like colleges do with applicants' transcripts, mailbox providers consider a sender's reputation to decide whether or not to accept incoming mail. Mailbox providers outright reject 72% of messages sent to their users, at least partly based on sender reputation, keeping the inbox free of undesired email.
The Grading System
The reputation of a sending IP address, based on the mail it has sent in the past, is one dimension of how mailbox providers evaluate inbound messages (senders' domains and even campaigns can have reputations, too). Mailbox providers' formulas for assessing reputations are highly proprietary, but Return Path uses a complex series of calculations to create a proxy for IP reputations called a Sender Score. Sender Score grades every sending IP on a scale from 0 to 100. This grade is the product of various indicators, the heaviest of which are complaint rates ("This Is Spam" reports from users); unknown user rates (messages sent to nonexistent addresses); and spam trap rates (messages received by decoy accounts known to have not given permission).
As an email marketer, every IP you send from has a reputation, or Sender Score. The bulk of your grade is dependent upon how your subscribers interact with your messages. Spam complaints are deadly. Nothing is a clearer indication your email is unwanted and unwelcome. Customers will flag your email as spam for a variety of reasons: your content is no longer relevant or not what was promised, your sending frequency is too high, or worst of all, they don't think they ever gave you permission to send them email.
Unknown users are probably mistakes. They're accounts that have been decommissioned or never existed. They may be old addresses, but more likely they were keyed in wrong, either by users themselves or often by reps on the phone or at retail stores. The good news is that they're easy to find and remove. If mail is sent to these addresses, the sender will receive a bounce code clearly identifying them as unknown or invalid. Remove these right away or you signal to mailbox providers you don't pay attention to list hygiene.
Spam traps are unused email addresses that are monitored to detect senders who cannot possibly have permission to send mail to them. There are two types of spam traps: recycled and pristine. Recycled traps are formally valid addresses that have been repurposed to identify mailers who do not monitor their lists carefully. They've generally been sending "unknown user" bounce messages for a long time, so senders are expected to have removed them long before the monitoring begins. The other type is a pristine trap: an address that was never valid. Pristine traps are created to catch mailers who are sending to scraped addresses, guessed addresses, typo addresses (i.e., aoll.com), or to subscribers who could not possibly have opted in.
The Honor Society
Marketers who avoid these reputation missteps, who constantly monitor their complaint rates and list quality, and who otherwise follow best practices have high Sender Scores as a result. On the Sender Score scale, the top senders have a great reputation in the 91-100 range, and their messages make up two-thirds of all email delivered to the inbox. But there's remarkable variation within this range, and some senders in this honor society of email marketers far outperform their peers.
• Taking a Few Honors Classes (A- 91-94) Marketers in the 91-94 range are among the top performers, which means most of their messages are delivered to the inbox. But unlike their peers within the top scoring groups, they are not applying themselves to their full potential. Marketers in this band still maintain a few bad habits, which keep them from being at the top. These marketers have an average inbox placement of 87%, typically as a result of higher complaints and poor list quality.
• Straight A's (A 95-98) Marketers with a Sender Score between 95-98 represent the biggest group, and also the average performers among good senders. The marketers in this range account for 40% of all email that is delivered, and they achieve an average inbox placement rate of 92%. Strong as that may be, they still lose a large volume of their marketing emails to the spam filter or blocking. Their complaint rates are low (0.17%) but that's 5x more than the A+ senders.
• Advanced Placement (A+ 99-100) The elusive A+ goes to senders who receive a Sender Score of 99 or 100. These marketers have optimized their email marketing and are constantly studying their programs to stay on top. Their hard work is well worth it with an aggregate 98% inbox placement rate. The distinguishing characteristic that separates them from the rest of the high performers: their messages are virtually always wanted and welcome. They have only of 0.03% receive a complaint rate collectively.
Email marketing is a competitive space and every incremental increase in inbox placement makes a difference. A flawed reputation will hurt your brand by disrupting your communication with customers and by creating an opportunity for your competitors to build relationships in your absence. After all, out of sight, out of mind. In reputation, getting an "A" does not cut it anymore. Marketers who want to stay connected to consumers need an A+.
Related story: 5 Ways to Grow Your Email List