Email marketing is a powerful digital marketing tool. For one thing, email is the most popular method for receiving marketing communications. It allows businesses and organizations to communicate with their contacts about important updates, products, services and promotions.
Furthermore, email marketers can leverage what they know about their contacts (e.g. product preferences and purchase history) to provide them with a very targeted, one-to-one experience. This fosters the kind of brand loyalty that leads to more sales and an enhanced online reputation (more on this below).
The biggest challenge businesses have when it comes to email marketing is ensuring strong email deliverability. But what is email deliverability, exactly, and why is it so important? Consider this blog your introduction to email deliverability: best practices, influencing factors, and key considerations.
What is email deliverability?
Technically speaking, email deliverability describes the likelihood that an email accepted by a receiving mail server will be placed in the recipient’s inbox (high deliverability), filtered to the spam folder, or withheld from the recipient altogether (low deliverability). In short, the goal of email deliverability is for an email to land in a recipient’s inbox where it is more likely to be viewed.
According to Travis Hazlewood, Head of Email Deliverability at Ortto, email deliverability is a unique field of work. He and his industry peers work against a common enemy: those who abuse the use of email. It is solely focused on ensuring that only desired and expected emails land in the inbox.
“As someone who works in email deliverability, our biggest enemy is the malicious actors, the really, really bad people,” says Hazlewood. “It’s not just spam, it’s malware, it’s spoofers, it’s phishing.”
Why is email deliverability important?
Type “email deliverability” into Google and you’ll see a great deal of articles that list tips and tricks for staying out of the spam folder. And, of course, every email marketer hopes that their emails are delivered as expected and seen by the intended audience.
However, for Hazlewood, the issues pertaining to email deliverability are a little more nuanced than this.
“What many people don’t realize is that the spam folder is a security feature,” Hazlewood explains. “So, as someone who works in email deliverability, I will never share tips and tricks for getting around the spam folder, because the spam folder is a necessary part of the email experience.”
Rather than telling people how to get around the system, Hazlewood focuses on creating a non-spam experience for subscribers. “I know it sounds basic, but the best way to reach the inbox is to avoid spammy behaviors and treat your subscribers like people,” says Hazlewood.
Below are three examples of the differences between a ‘spam’ and ‘human’ approach.
Spam Behavior: Sending all content types to new subscribers/customers
Human Behavior: Elevating a Content Preference Center at all subscription sources
Spam Behavior: Emailing generic content without attention to response metrics or personal subscriber interests
Human Behavior: Adjusting content according to engagement metrics while utilizing A/B testing and dynamic personalization elements to provide uniquely personal content every time
Spam Behavior: Sending continuously to unengaged addresses
Human Behavior: Creating a regular re-engagement and preference-adjustment customer journey for fading subscribers (6-12 months unengaged).
As you can see, these aren’t technical tricks but rather changes in approach where subscribers are empowered and treated as unique individuals.
The spam folder is a security feature; a necessary part of the email experience.
Travis Hazlewood, Head of Email Deliverability at Ortto
Why is email marketing tricky to navigate?
Unlike other types of marketing, how people interact with email has a major influence on email deliverability.
Hazlewood explains: “With a billboard, for example, you can just buy it and put what you want on it. Unless you do something illegal and you have to strip it down, how someone interacts with the billboard doesn’t matter. With an email, it does matter how someone interacts with an email because it changes whether your emails are going to be delivered in the future.”
This is what makes email marketing (and SMS marketing is following in its footsteps) so important to get right, because each email that is sent can affect a business’ domain reputation (aka sender reputation) and the ability to effectively communicate through big mail providers.
“Free mail providers like Gmail and Yahoo are big enough that they can aggregate how their users are interacting with a sender across time periods, and use that [data] to rate the sender as a ‘good’ sender or a ‘bad’ sender,” Hazlewood explains. “It’s sometimes a four-level rating (high, medium, low, bad), and that reputation helps them decide whether emails should be defaulted to the inbox or defaulted to spam.”
What is domain reputation?
Domain reputation is how ‘trustworthy’ a domain is, and is affected by the quality of the sender’s emails, including the quality of their recipient list. Mail providers like Google determine whether recipients like the content they are emailed by that domain, and give the sender a rating depending on things like open rate and replies, which impacts email deliverability. Having a bad domain reputation can cause a domain to become, in effect, ‘blacklisted’ with a provider.
What is the ideal email deliverability rate?
One of the most common questions businesses have around email deliverability is what is considered a ‘good’ deliverability percentage rate?
Hazlewood says that there are third-party services that use inorganic means to tell users what their deliverability rate is — that is, how their emails perform and whether they deliver into the inbox or not — but there is a good reason why email providers don’t divulge this information directly to senders.
“In an organic email situation, the provider doesn’t tell us whether the email went to the inbox or spam, because that’s a security question,” explains Hazlewood. “Because if a bad person had that information, they could run tests and Gmail would just tell them what works and what doesn’t.”
“Ideally, you want to be hitting the inbox at 100%, but there’s no way to guarantee that due to the constantly evolving elements involved,” says Hazlewood.
Rather than looking to resources that offer to run an email deliverability test, Hazlewood recommends looking at actual organic audience interactions. He advises that you look at whether your audience is engaging with your emails and ensure they are majoritively engaged versus unengaged. A sender’s audience is the best organic resource to understand what in their marketing setup is most effective – their very own crowd-sourcing opportunity.
“The unengaged [users] do weigh down over time,” says Hazlewood. “Even an unopened is technically a ‘negative’ in Google and Yahoo’s perspective. It’s not as bad as ‘mark as spam’, but it’s all about getting positive signals – e.g. opening an email and/or replying to an email.”
What are some of the main factors affecting email deliverability?
The complex nature of email deliverability means there are many influencing factors. It also means that there isn’t a simple checklist of tricks that can result in 100% deliverability.
“There are content practices that you should avoid – e.g. don’t use bad links or document links, or link shorteners because they have been abused so badly,” Hazlewood says. However, when it comes to email deliverability best practice, he says it’s better to focus less on what-not-to-dos, and instead zoom out to look at the bigger picture. Namely, ensuring you’re adhering to three main pillars: get clear consent, engage in an expected and desired way, and speak human-to-human.
Email deliverability best practice
1. Ensure consent is at the center
Hazlewood advises that the foundation of email deliverability is transparent consent. It’s about giving the audience the power to ‘opt-in’: to get permission from your audience to receive your emails at signup, and being responsive to preferences early on. It’s about being upfront about what message you’re trying to get across, and why you’re contacting that person before you even send them a single email.
2. Ensure language is engaging and 'human'
Hazlewood says: “You’ve got to think: Are you engaging with your audience and treating them like humans? Does your content honor a relationship? Are you being active and transparent with your subscribers about the exact type of content you will be sending to them? Email marketing has become a metaphor for a relationship because people can react and their reactions influence your marketing success.”
“It’s not ideal to say [spam words like] ’Free’ or use all capital letters and a thousand exclamation points, because it’s not human,” says Hazlewood. “It’s not respectful. It’s a one-size-fits-all, tacky attempt at getting a reader’s attention.”
He recognizes the focus on spam words, but says it is important to remember that it is actually the spam behavior that accompanies spam words that causes the issues.
3. Maintain your email lists
One other thing Hazlewood suggests is to regularly revisit and revise your subscriber lists, as repeatedly sending emails to unengaged subscribers will affect your domain reputation and could cause you to miss the inbox.
A powerful way to help keep your subscriber lists lean and engaged is to make it easy for your subscribers to adjust their email subscription preferences as needed. This can be done via a Subscriber Preference Center. Allowing your subscribers to easily tailor their email experience with you will result in a more engaged audience and, in turn, improved deliverability.
Furthermore, having a regular re-engagement and sunset process of older, unengaged subscribers (6-12 months unengaged) is a great way to both honor your audience’s passive preference and retain a strong sender reputation with mailbox providers.
To mailbox providers, a passive recipient is eventually considered an opted-out recipient. As a sender, aligning with that perspective will mean you are aligning with the mailbox provider’s idea of what makes a good sender.
The above approaches support quality over quantity when it comes to maintaining a subscriber list. Large, smart mailbox providers like Gmail ‘know’ when you’re sending to a high-quality list and will reward you and your good sender reputation over time with good inbox placement.
How will email deliverability evolve?
Is it likely that marketers will have to continually work towards email deliverability as malicious actors and mail providers become more advanced. “It’s an arms race against the bad actors who are finding new ways to abuse things. And it’s likely there will never become an [end-all] winning point,” explains Hazlewood. “The direction it is evolving is very smart, but the focus is still: Is this email expected? Is it desired? Is it relevant?”
Email deliverability is an arms race against the bad actors...it's likely there will never be a [end-all] winning point.
Travis Hazlewood, Head of Email Deliverability at Ortto
Hazlewood asks that marketers, above all, provide an email experience that is “secure, transparent, engaging, and respectful,” as this is what will give them the best chance of “earning” the inbox.
No one can know for sure what the next stage of email deliverability evolution will be, but we can rest assured that as technology and the litigation around it grows towards a more unique and empowered personal experience, email has just as much to gain by growing with it.