Email Deliverability


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Email deliverability is on a lot of email marketers’ minds during the holidays because of increased volume from almost all senders.

Although delivery is important for seasonal email campaigns, delivering smarter is vital all year round. It’s more important than ever to make sure your messages not only get delivered, but also make it into the inbox where they can be seen and acted upon.

Following are copious notes about the recent shakeups at Gmail and Yahoo, as well as everyday delivery challenges. Inside this notebook are ideas and best practices for optimizing your inbox placement during the holidays
and all year long.


• Changes at Gmail and Yahoo
• What changes took place
• How they affect you (and the email industry)
• Whether you should react – and how
• Engagement as the key to the inbox
• How personalization and targeting improve delivery rates
• The effect of user engagement on your deliverability
• When it’s time to say good-bye

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Email Deliverability

  1. 1. INSIDE: Gmail tabbe d inbox Yahoo! dea ctivation The key to the inbox and more!
  2. 2. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK What if your email never reaches the inbox? Email deliverability is on a lot of email marketers’ minds during the holidays because of increased volume from almost all senders. Although delivery is important for seasonal email campaigns, delivering smarter is vital all year round. It’s more important than ever to make sure your messages not only get delivered, but also make it into the inbox where they can be seen and acted upon. We’ve taken copious notes about the recent shakeups at Gmail and Yahoo, as well as everyday delivery challenges. Inside this notebook, we have ideas and best practices for optimizing your inbox placement during the holidays and all year long. Here’s what we’ll cover: • Changes at Gmail and Yahoo • What changes took place • How they affect you (and the email industry) • Whether you should react – and how • Engagement as the key to the inbox • How personalization and targeting improve delivery rates • The effect of user engagement on your deliverability • When it’s time to say good-bye There’s no guarantee your emails will always get into the inbox. However, by understanding the way ISPs look at emails and following evolving deliverability best practices, there’s an excellent chance your emails will make it into subscribers’ inboxes! 2
  3. 3. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK What’s inside 4 Gmail Tabbed Inbox 11 Yahoo! Account Deactivation 13 The Key to the Inbox 21 Q&A with a Deliverability Expert 25 Deliverability Definitions 3
  4. 4. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK CHAPTER 1 Introducing the Gmail Tabbed Inbox In early June 2013, Gmail quietly announced the addition of tabs to its inbox. What this meant was that from now on, emails would be automatically sorted into tabs. 4
  5. 5. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK The Tabs Primary Tab: The tab automatically displayed when a user opens his or her Gmail account, the Primary tab displays emails from people users know, as well as emails that don’t fall into the other tabbed categories. By default this also includes any starred conversations. Social Tab: Facebook friend requests, Twitter DM notifications, Pinterest invites – all these emails and others like it get sent to the Social tab in Gmail. Promotions Tab: This tab mostly contains promotional or marketing emails. Updates Tab: Emails from financial institutions and things like order and shipping confirmations will usually end up here. Forums Tab: (user-added) If you’re following comments on a form or forum, the Forums tab is where Gmail will reroute notification emails. 5
  6. 6. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Gmail’s recommendations come via: Behavior: Basically, Google crowd sources emails. How other people categorize certain emails affects the way Google categorizes emails into tabs. For example, if most people open your emails and move them to the spam folder, that’s where Gmail will most likely send your emails. Your email s are filtered ba sed on Gmail’s recommend ations. Google algorithms: Gmail has been close-mouthed about the details of the tabbed inbox, including how its algorithms work. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, though. What is known is that the algorithms are based on Gmail data, to which no one except Google has access. Not to worry, though, as there are still ways to improve your chances of inbox placement. We’ll discuss a few of those later. 6
  7. 7. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Gmail Tabbed Inbox is Here to Stay After slowly releasing the tabbed inbox to some Gmail accounts, in July 2013, Google went “whole hog” and released the new feature to everyone. Not only did desktop accounts see the change, but tablet and mobile devices using Gmail apps were also updated with the new tabbed interface. What happened to the messages email marketers sent? Since most commercial and marketing emails are routed to the Promotions Tab, not the Primary tab, many marketers assumed their messages were doomed. It seemed like the end of the world for open rates. The not-so-good news is that yes, some open rates have been affected by the Gmail tabs feature. The good news is the decrease is so slight, it probably hasn’t impacted your email marketing overall. On average, digital marketers reported only a one to three percent decrease in opens. In fact, a few individual senders have reported slight increases in opens. 7
  8. 8. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Should you take action? Some marketers have sent emails asking readers to move their emails to the Primary Tab. Maybe you’re one of them. Or maybe you didn’t send one of those emails and are still wondering if you should. As with most ideas in email marketing, there is no right answer. Sure, industry data can certainly give you a baseline to work from. If companies similar to yours have seen open rates soar after sending a specific move-our-emails-to-the-Primary-tab email, perhaps you should consider it. However, your own open and conversion rates should be the driver of any decision you make in email marketing. Pinpoint your motivation for sending a notification email to subscribers about Gmail tabs. If your emails aren’t seeing a negative impact from this feature, don’t send a special message. It’s a privilege for you to send subscribers emails; make sure you don’t abuse that privilege by sending unwanted or pointless emails. Your own open and conversion rates drive any decision you make in email marketing! 8
  9. 9. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK If You Send that Email If your metrics indicate you should send an email to subscribers encouraging them to move your emails to the Primary Tab, include concise, correct directions for doing so. Drag and drop: Encourage users to drag and drop emails from one tab to the other. Gmail will prompt the user to allow all future emails from your email address to be rerouted to that tab. This prompt allows subscribers to move your emails ONCE or ALL. If it’s not apparent, encourage subscribers to choose ALL. 9
  10. 10. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK The prompt asks if a person wants to move emails based on your email address, so make sure it’s the same for all the emails you send. If you have different email addresses for different mailings, Gmail users will have to go through the prompt several times to move all your emails to the Primary tab. That’s a hassle for readers – it’s probably best to avoid asking them to take this action. Use a consist ent from address in all your email s. Star a message: Another way to get a message to display in the Primary Tab is to star it. However, stars only apply to that specific message. It will not move future emails to the Primary Tab. It’s a manual change similar to flagging a message in Outlook. 10
  11. 11. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK CHAPTER 2 Yahoo! Account Deactivation About the same time Gmail introduced its tabbed inbox, another ISP dropped a bomb on email marketers. In June 2013, Yahoo! announced it would be deactivating any account not accessed in 12 months. Yahoo! also said it would allow users to request the deactivated usernames, which would be reactivated just one month later. Concerns skyrocketed about increased hard bounce rates for deactivated accounts, as well as spam complaints for the reactivated accounts. Yahoo! repeatedly asserted there would be little to no impact in these areas. They stated the deactivation would affect only a small amount of Yahoo! mail users; most of the affected accounts were other types of Yahoo! accounts. The deactivation date rolled around on July 15, 2013. WhatCounts: Our users saw no significant increase in hard bounces. Other sources: Most marketers reported little or no change in hard bounces. “ If you’re following email marketing best practices, you’re running re-engagement or win back campaigns that get rid of inactive subscribers. Or you’re tossing out subscribers after one hard bounce. On August 15, 2013 Yahoo began reactivating requested accounts. WhatCounts: Our users saw no significant increase in spam complaints. Other sources: Reported scattered complaints of users receiving emails not intended for them. 11
  12. 12. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Potential Yahoo! Risks And what to do about them In theory, someone who reactivates an old Yahoo! email address could log into a site like Facebook and ask the social media site to send them a reset password link. The new user would then be able to access the old user’s Facebook account. This potential issue could affect many social networks and even financial institutions using online log-ins. Yahoo! worked with Facebook to create a special header for senders with sensitive data who use their email addresses as login keys. If you send sensitive and/or personal data in your emails, implementing this header is a good idea. This “Require Recipient Valid Since” header requires the recipient to confirm owning the email address before the deactivation (June 2013). Yahoo! also rolled out a “this is not me” button to benefit those who requested and were given a reactivated account. If these subscribers receive any emails intended for the old recipient, they can click this button and Yahoo! will filter those emails from their inbox in the future. Our Support Team can answer questions about Gmail and Yahoo! changes, and help determine the best solution for you. Reach out to us! 12
  13. 13. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK CHAPTER 3 The Key to the Inbox: Engagement Nearly all major ISPs have recently increased their focus on user engagement as the primary factor in email delivery. In years past, the factors were certain words or phrases in a message. Sending to specific types of users also affected inboxing, which still matters, but not as much. ISPs determine positive engagement levels through certain metrics. DD OPEN rates DD CLICK rates DD CLICKING the “not spam” button There are also metrics contributing to negative engagement. UU SPAM complaints UU NOT opened UU NO ACTION taken within the email 13
  14. 14. “ THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK To keep up, marketers must adapt their practices to target engaged users and foster engagement in others. vant Send rele o content t rs. geted use tar Provide a prominent unsubscribe link. Set clear expectation s for new subscr ibers . Clean lists regular ly. Cut ‘em loose if they’re not engag ed. 14
  15. 15. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Smart Delivery = Relevance + Targeting Provide content subscribers want to read, not the content you want to send them. When they want to read it, engagement with your messages goes up. For example, just because you have three specific items on sale doesn’t mean that’s what your subscribers want to buy. Tailor mailings to segments of subscribers based on demographic data. In the WhatCounts Smart Marketing Engine, segment by zip code or state. Take it a step further and segment by psychographic data: target back-to-school messages at college students, teenagers, or parents. Give subscribers a reason to keep opening your emails instead of deleting them. The more times someone engages with your emails, the more times they’re going to convert on your email and the better placement your future emails will have in the inbox overall. Use open, click and purchase data to target your most active and loyal subscribers. Send these subscribers an extra email each month with never-before-seen content or special offers. Doing this not only drives engagement metrics. It also boosts revenue since repeat buyers produce the most return-on-investment. 15
  16. 16. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Set Clear Expectations When new subscribers sign up for your emails, they should know exactly what to expect in their mailboxes. It’s essential for you to include vital information about each of your emails on your Preference Site. At a minimum, you should address these topics: Who is sending: Identify from which email address the email will be coming. This address should be clearly identifiable with your company. Type of email: Create a short blurb about the content in the email. It doesn’t have to be long; just a sentence or two indicating whether the email is a newsletter, event invitation, a promotion or educational content. How often: This is mucho important. Tell people how often, on what day, and at what time they’ll be receiving your email: daily, weekly or monthly. If you don’t say you’ll be sending a daily email, people who sign up for it expecting a less frequent email will burn out quickly. Be honest and upfront about your send frequency. “ Unclear expectations at the time of sign up are often the drivers of spam complaints. Clearly outline these items to reduce these complaints. 16
  17. 17. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Topics of interest: Preference Sites provide customization options for pinpointing specific topics in which subscribers are interested: deals and specials, hot products, newsletters. Target people by what information they want to receive. 17
  18. 18. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Promote the Unsubscribe Link It goes against your instincts to promote the unsubscribe link: you don’t want people to unsubscribe from your email list. You think smaller lists are bad. You think losing subscribers means losing ROI. No, it’s not crazy to think this way. Consider the alternative to unsubscribing. Inactive, unengaged subscribers would most likely mark your emails as spam or delete them. This could lead to bigger deliverability issues overall and a definite loss of ROI. Think about a person who unsubscribes as one less individual who could hurt your engagement metrics. The truth is, you should value unsubscribes. Promoting the unsubscribe link in your emails will help your delivery rates. Hidden or hard-to-find unsubscribe links will generate spam complaints from unhappy users who aren’t interested in the content of your emails anymore. Where should the unsubscribe link appear in your email? Placing the link in the preheader has been shown to reduce spam complaints in many cases. 18
  19. 19. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK So long, farewell Who knows why subscribers stop reading your emails. It could be they’ve abandoned their email addresses. Perhaps they rerouted your emails to a folder they purposefully never open. Whatever the reason, it’s time to say farewell to these subscribers. For every email marketer – no matter who you are or what you’re sending – there comes a time when you must say goodbye to non-engaged users on your lists. No matter how enticing your subject lines, no matter how delicious your deals, these people aren’t reacting. There’s no clicking, no opening, no action whatsoever on your email. All they’re doing by sitting motionless is damaging your deliverability - doing nothing is (almost) as bad as clicking the spam button. How do you know when to officially bid farewell to subscribers? Generally, a good rule of thumb is to say bye-bye when users don’t open your last 50 emails or six months of inaction. This is based on a sending frequency of a couple of times a week, so if you only send an email once a month, this time period will be longer. Overall, subscriber inactivity behavior should be based on your company’s particular target market and send frequency. 19
  20. 20. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Last Shot: Re-Engagement Campaign You’ve figured out the love is gone between you and your inactive subscribers. Is it time to throw them to the curb? Try a re-engagement campaign first. Re-engagement campaigns are one way to recapture some of your unengaged subscribers. Best practices recommends sending a series of two or three emails based on subscribers’ behaviors. For example, the first email would go to subscribers who’ve been inactive subscribers for over six months. The second email would send to those who received the first email, but didn’t open it after two weeks. Type of content for re-engagement campaigns: Remind subscribers this is their last chance to stay on your list. Create strong calls-to-action for the subject line and preheader. Promote a coupon or special offer in the content of the email. Grab their attention with a catchy subject line: “We’re saying goodbye.” “Are we breaking up?” “Don’t go!” Most importantly, let go. After sending these emails, and not receiving any responses, it’s time to remove these non-responsive contacts. Your deliverability will be better off! 20
  21. 21. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK CHAPTER 4 Q&A with an Expert You’ve got questions about deliverability and we’ve got answers. Here to help is our resident expert. Brad Gurley is the Director of Deliverability at WhatCounts and has over 10 years’ experience working for email service providers. He’s got the skinny on getting into the inbox. Do ISPs factor engagement into overall reputation or at the individual junk inboxing level? Both: User-level engagement drives individual placement and aggregate data drives overall placement. No doubt, engagement is getting more critical. Any idea how much the individual webmail providers are currently using it? All of the big four (Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook and AOL) are using engagement, with Gmail probably using it most heavily. Smaller ISPs and third-party filters are also becoming more reliant on engagement by the day. Related to engagement, how essential would you say responsive email layouts are? Responsive email layouts are usually only seen once a reader is engaged. But these templates can foster future opens. For example, if I know Company A sends mobile-friendly emails, I’ll be more likely to open its emails going forward. An email marketer’s primary focus should be developing a relationship with subscribers and fostering long-term engagement. A move to a responsive email template is a big one, but worthwhile, as mobile email opens are overtaking desktop email opens. 21
  22. 22. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Is image-to-text ratio still a concern? Image-to-text ratio still matters, but not as much as it used to. Most filtering has moved from content to engagement. It’s still important to include text-only versions. Omitting them can cause delivery issues. What’s the biggest difference between B2B and B2C delivery? B2C inboxes mostly use similar filters, especially the big four (Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook and AOL). B2B inboxes have a much wider range of filter methods. Overall, complaints/spam trap hits are still the #1 driver for delivery. Is there a benefit to serving images in email over https instead of http? There can be security and user experience advantages, but there’s not necessarily any provider using that to determine inbox vs. spam folder placement. Has Comcast had any recent changes? We have not seen any indication of changes at Comcast. Typically, mail blocked at Comcast indicates your volume of spam complaints and/or spam trap hits are too high. List cleaning is usually the best option. If you have questions on specific delivery difficulties, you can contact our Technical Support team for further assistance. How can I determine a good open and click-through rate? This question is probably better suited for our Strategy Team, but I can say what is considered “good” for open and click rate varies widely by industry and market. The “average” open rate across all sectors is typically in the 10-20 percent range. 22
  23. 23. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Many companies are using the little graphics in subject lines. Does that affect deliverability? All of the testing we’ve done, along with data from others in the industry, indicates most symbols in the subject line do not affect delivery rates – yet. In fact, many tests indicate they increase open rates considerably. However, there’s always the possibility spam senders may start using these characters frequently, which could lead to a delivery impact down the road. When we launch a campaign that includes thousands of emails to Google, Yahoo, Outlook/Hotmail, and certain other services/ISPs, mail servers begin to throttle the receipt of email and start bouncing mail once we reach a certain limit/hour. Is this common, and is there a way to overcome this problem? ISPs and mail providers rarely block mail based solely on volume. Any blocks are usually based on reputation or engagement. While most ISPs do have a connection limit or limit on number of messages sent per connection, WhatCounts’ mail software is already set up not to exceed those thresholds. So any blocks you’re seeing would likely not be based on the volume of mail sent, but on other factors. If you could give one tip to everyone doing email marketing, what would it be? GET PERMISSION! Send timely, relevant email to engaged users who have explicitly requested it (maybe I cheated – that’s really about four tips rolled into one!) 23
  24. 24. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK One Last Thought The notes we took on deliverability best practices will help you send smarter, more personalized messages that get into your subscribers’ inboxes. But we wanted to leave you with one last idea. Every company is different – each has unique goals, target markets and email marketing programs. Testing your email marketing and comparing those metrics against your own past metrics is how you should measure improvement. Industry standards are a way to see if your metrics are significantly off. However, improving your metrics against yourself should be your primary goal. All of the information in this notebook is available on our webinar recording - Deliver Smarter: Insights on Reaching the Inbox. Watch it! 24
  25. 25. THE EMAIL DELIVERABILITY BEST PRACTICES NOTEBOOK Deliverability terms to know: blacklist - a list of IP addresses identified by an ISP as unacceptable or spam senders. Placement on some blacklists will cause much of your outbound email to be outright blocked. click-through rate - the rate at which subscribers open your email messages and click inside them. complaint - when a subscriber clicks a “junk” or “spam” button while reading your email, this is registered as a complaint, as opposed to an opt-out. High complaint rates negatively impact deliverability. hard bounce - when an ISP’s mail server explicitly rejects a message due to any number of reasons, such as an invalid email address, your email being blocked, etc. ISP (Internet Service Provider) - an email provider such as Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, AOL. open rate - the rate at which subscribers open (or view) email messages, e.g. if one subscriber out of a hundred opens a message, then the open rate is one percent for that particular send. soft bounce - when an ISP’s mail server temporarily withholds delivery of a message in order to try again sometime later. This is often due to mailboxes being full, for example. spam - unsolicited bulk email messages. spam trap - email addresses which have been inactive for a very long period of time and are then recycled by ISPs for the purpose of identifying spammers. Also sometimes known as honeypots. whitelist - a list of email addresses or domains that a user grants explicit permission for sending email, usually to prevent the spam-filtering of desired email. 25
  26. 26. About Us WhatCounts provides data management, software, and services to marketing professionals seeking to deliver smart personalized digital messages to their target audiences. Each day our team partners with over 800 customers to leverage email, social media, mobile devices, and the web to drive revenue. We believe that smart marketing equals personalization which requires marketers to have the right data, a content strategy and automation. Using smart technology, some of our customers are seeing email marketing ROI as high as $200 returned for every $1 invested. We’re headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, with offices in Seattle, Sydney, Baltimore, and other regional locations. Learn more at W H AT C O U N T S , Inc. 3630 Peachtree Rd. Suite 900 Atlanta, GA 30326 Telephone: 404.995.8600 Toll Free: 866.804.0076 Fax: 404.995.8611 Email: ATLANTA • BALTIMORE • SEATTLE • SYDNEY © 2013 WhatCounts, Inc. All rights reserved.