Deliverability is the moving target of email marketing. When you hit send on your blast, a medley of factors influence whether that email lands in a recipient’s inbox, spam folder or cyber oblivion. The email service provider (ESP) plays a role, but the most critical deliverability factors rest with the sender. As a result, it’s imperative to be a proactive manager of your email sender reputation.
Think of it like managing your credit score, except in this case your score is being measured in hundreds, perhaps thousands of transactions with each individual email on your list. The sender, like the consumer, controls the health of his or her reputation. They can do this through good list stewardship, managing complaints, recipient engagement, how data is being collected, and the design and quality of the content. All of these factors affect your reputation.
An ESP will be responsible for aspects such as infrastructure, bounce handling, message throttling, authentication, and Internet service provider (ISP) relationship management. To improve your inbox placement rates, focus your efforts on these five essential practices.
1. Collect Quality Data
The quality of the email data used is absolutely vital to achieving high delivery rates. There are several actions your organization should take at the point of data collection. For starters, use positive opt-in. For example, while single opt-in (no confirmation email) remains the most commonly used way of gaining permission, double opt-in (when a confirmation is sent to the new subscriber with a link to activate the registration) provides 100 percent assurance in terms of the validity of the email address.
Once that’s done, verify entry of the email address. Asking the subscriber to re-enter their email address when subscribing, with the two fields being cross-referenced against each other, helps get correct email addresses the first time around. And don’t forget to send a welcome email. Even if double opt-in is not being used, immediately send a welcome email to validate the new email address. This offers an opportunity to positively reinforce the brand experience while the recipient is most interested in your organization.
2. Practice Good List Hygiene
Because of job changes, ISP changes, and other factors affecting recipients, approximately 25 percent of your recipient list becomes obsolete annually. Over time, an unmaintained mailing list can result in complaints from recipients, resulting in an ISP blocking your email from your recipients’ inboxes. Good list hygiene practices will help you avoid spam traps and keep your bounce rates low—both of which are key drivers of your sender reputation.
To maximize email deliverability, remove role addresses. Sending to role-based addresses, such as firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, often results in unintended people receiving email, possibly generating complaints with ISPs. Try to get users to add your address to their “safe senders” list. Place a simple link at the top of each email where it will catch their attention. You can also add this request to your join form.
Moreover, remove non-existent addresses. Removing email addresses that bounce repeatedly or bounce as non-existent is an important part of managing your bounces. If you are using more than one database, make sure you maintain your bounces and opt-outs across all mailing lists. Keep your hard bounces under 3 percent and spam complaint rate under 0.1 percent. Hard bounces can occur when an email address is invalid or the ISP/mail provider has blocked you.
You may feel these initiatives will work against your ultimate goal of having a larger list with more recipients. Historically, it has been the goal of marketers to reach as many people as possible. While this is true in print and direct marketing, it’s not the case for email marketing. Email marketing is different because, unlike the post office, ISPs don’t deliver your email to the inbox just because you sent it. The bottom line is that if ISPs don’t see quality, they will place your email in the junk folder and the quantity of people that actually see your message will diminish. A high quality mailing list will increase your ROI more than the quantity it represents.
3. Reduce Spam Complaints
Focus on building relationships while reducing complaints. Spam complaints have a big impact on the delivery rates a sender achieves. Most ISPs and webmail providers base their filtering decisions upon the number of spam complaints seen from that sender. If a sender has an unusually high complaint rate, an ISP will start to consider emails from that sender as unwanted, which may lead to poor delivery results.
According to John Pollard, a blogger and consultant at Return Path, data shows that email senders need to keep their complaint rates at 0.1 percent or below to avoid a negative effect on your inbox placement rate. That’s the equivalent of one message marked as spam out of every 1,000 inboxed emails. There are countless reasons people mark email as spam—they may not recognize the source, or they’re getting too many solicitations. To avoid spam complaints, set frequency expectations during your opt-in process. Use a recognizable “from” address. Include a clearly visible unsubscribe link with a simple opt-out method. Collect subscriber preferences. Ensure emails are rendering properly, and don’t buy or share third party lists.
4. Engage Constituents
Engagement metrics have become the leading determinant of whether an email message reaches your target’s inbox, bulk, or spam folder. The importance of creating highly relevant and valuable email content has become the key to keeping recipients opening, reading, and clicking through your emails.
Engaged recipients may only represent a small percentage of your list, but they have the highest value to your organization. It’s your job to find out how to get recipients to actively engage with your mailings. Typically if they open your message, it’s because they’re familiar with you.
Engagement is measured in a number of ways, the most basic being the unique open rate of the message. After the message is opened, your content has about eight seconds to grab the recipient’s attention. That’s how long the average attention span is, according to recent studies. Make sure links and calls to action appear throughout your message, especially above the fold. Clickthrough rates are a big indicator of customer engagement.
Sending a message that has high open and clickthrough rates and minimal unsubscribes and complaints is great, but it’s the tracking of these metrics over time that enables you to monitor your recipients’ engagement. In fact, ISPs are now filtering by engagement behavior, introducing new criteria that marketers need to measure such as messages being read and then deleted, messages deleted without being read, and messages being replied to. ISPs are even monitoring how frequent messages from a sender are received and read.
5. Design and Test and Test Again
Not only will your email design contribute to engagement metrics, it’s also a contributing factor to landing your content in the inbox. Follow best practices and optimize your template for maximum interactions across devices. Using a responsive design approach when creating templates will ensure your recipient will see the content displayed properly regardless of whether they’re viewing it on a laptop, smartphone, or tablet.
Once your email has been optimized, you’ll want to run it through a spam grader such as Spam Assassin. Most ESPs have one integrated into their solution. A grader will score your email and identify elements in your message that will decrease the likelihood of making it into the inbox. You’ll want to incorporate any suggested changes and rerun the spam test until you are satisfied with the results.
The testing of your campaigns expands beyond the spam grader. The easiest way to find out what resonates with your audience is to test a variety of messaging strategies. Campaign testing is an important component in getting the best return results with the resources you have available. A/B split testing allows you to test different subject lines and formats by sending modified versions of the email to a percentage of your list to see which performs better. The remaining campaign will deploy when a winner is declared.
Keeping your sender reputation untarnished requires vigilance and good data collection. Good data leads to good list hygiene, which keep spam complaints to a minimum. As a responsible sender, that’s exactly what you want.
Jill Jones is subject matter expert at Net Atlantic. Marianne Cellucci is a senior online marketing analyst at the company. Aristotle Miller Ramos served as contributing editor on this piece.