Are your emails considered steak, or spam? An email isn’t an email until it successfully reaches the inbox of your intended recipient. And arrival in the inbox is far from guaranteed these days. Today’s email marketers need to be savvy about deliverability: what it is, what makes an email deliverable, and what marks you as a welcome sender.
Managing email traffic, and suppressing unwanted email, is a job that email service providers (ESPs) like Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail take seriously, and ESPs are constantly updating their “good sender” criteria to keep the spam out.
The Dish on Spam
Enacted in 2003, the CAN-SPAM Act gives recipients the right to have you stop emailing them commercial messages. Most of the provisions of the Act, like using correct email header information, or providing an opt-out link, have become second nature for email marketers and are built into most email marketing applications. But it’s important as a sender to keep in mind the spirit of the law as well as the letter: No one is obliged to receive your emails and maintaining access to a recipient’s inbox depends on your good behavior and their good will.
As the sender of numerous email campaigns for clients, MDR is vigilant in ensuring that our deployment behaviors keep our clients’ reputations clean and that we maintain the good will of the audience. Here are some best practices in email citizenship you should be following to improve deliverability of your email marketing:
To enable ESPs to make quick decisions on passing through your emails, your reputation as a sender can be converted into a metric or “score” based on criteria like spam complaints, mailing to unknown users, industry blacklists, etc. There are several free services that offer this grading, one of the best known being ReturnPath.com. They define their Sender Score as “…a number between 0 and 100 that identifies your sender reputation and shows you how mailbox providers view your IP address. Your Sender Score is like a bank running your credit score to gauge your credit history…Sender reputation is an indication of the trustworthiness of an email sender’s IP address.”
Google is a big ESP, especially in education. Google is handling probably 25% of .edu email traffic and is playing a role as content manager. They are using an algorithm that makes a determination on the value of your content based on engagement. Are you delivering relevant information on a consistent basis so that your recipients are clicking on your email, opening it, and scrolling through it? Or are they not clicking on it, deleting it, or marking it as spam?
The lower your sender score, the more likely your emails are to get aggressively filtered. The good news? A damaged sender reputation can be repaired through good email list hygiene, improved message relevance, and demonstrating recipient engagement through clicks and scrolls.
Monitor Your Feedback Loop
To improve deliverability—and prevent a poor reputation before it happens—it’s important to stay plugged in to all the sources of feedback from your email campaigns. Your reply-to email address needs to be carefully monitored. These emails are valuable diagnostic tools and the first place you will see indications that you may need to make course corrections in your deployment process. For example, recipients may reply questioning why they got your email and its relevance to them. That’s a red flag that your segmenting may be too broad, you may have inaccurate prospect contact data, or your messaging is unclear.
Return codes from the deployment (if you have access to this information) and system-generated or user-initiated reply emails should also be monitored. Analyzing the emails you receive in your reply-to email box will help you learn from and adapt to the response to your campaigns, strengthening your deliverability.
Soft Bounces vs. Hard Bounces
Not every email bounce-back is cause for worry, but too many bounce-backs can begin to impact your sender score. Soft bounces can be caused by a full inbox, a down email server, or a too-big message. These bounces don’t mean you’ve lost a contact, just one email. Hard bounces are an indication that the email address is invalid or the domain doesn’t exist. To ensure email deliverability and prevent hard bounces, some proven techniques are:
- Maintain good list hygiene – Purge your list regularly of invalid emails and non-responders.
- Use double opt-in – Send a confirmation email when users subscribe to your list. This way you can ensure that the user’s email is not only valid, but that they in fact want to receive your email messages.
- Monitor your email delivery – Track your email delivery rates by paying close attention to your bounce rates as well as your response rates.
- Work with an expert – Data providers and email deployment companies should stake their reputation on the quality of their contact data and on staying abreast of the latest requirements for deliverability.
IP Throttling and Warming
We’ve discussed many reasons why a mass blast email deployment is a bad idea. Here’s another, ESPs evaluate your email based on HOW much you send, not just WHAT you send. If you deploy a lot of emails all at once to multiple recipients within a district, that can be a problem. The receiving server may see the high volume of email as spam and deny delivery to its recipients. For instance, some ESPs limit the amount of email they accept from a particular sender during a block of time, this is called filtering. To avoid filtering, email senders will limit the amount of email they send into a domain and this is called “throttling.” MDR employs an exclusive “no mass” email throttling delivery technology that staggers messages sent to an institution’s network to ensure maximum delivery and sender reputation.
IP “warming” is the practice of gradually increasing the volume of mail sent from a dedicated IP address according to a schedule. This gradual increase helps establish your reputation as a legitimate email sender by allowing the ESP to closely observe your sending habits and the way recipients treat your email. As mentioned in our post on email segmentation, smaller deployments to fewer than 50,000 addresses perform better overall, and also serve the objective of helping warm IPs.
In business, a good reputation is priceless; the same is true in email marketing. Paying attention to how you deploy emails, and how your deployment behavior is interpreted by ESPs, will ensure that your emails are seen as steak, not spam.
Bringing Email Back to Life
Email best practices are a big topic, and every aspect of email marketing needs to be addressed to achieve the reinvigoration today’s marketers are looking for. Look to these related posts for deep dives into improving campaign performance with:
- Audience Segmentation
- Persuasive Copy
- Smart Email Design
- A/B Testing
- Integrated Campaigns
Want to dive even deeper? Take a minute to review our Email Best Practices webinar which has tons of tips for getting better email results!