It’s easy to get overwhelmed when it comes to deliverability issues within your email program. But as a marketer, you have more control over these issues than you may think.
That’s why we asked email deliverability experts Alyssa Dulin from ConvertKit, John Peters from Campaign Monitor, Raja Datta from TrueAccord and our very own VP of Industy Relations & Compliance Lauren Meyer at Kickbox to lay out some actionable steps and proactive measures you can take to overcome these issues and more importantly how to be proactive when it comes to outside deliverability hurdles.
In this post, we’ll outline some of the most important aspects you need to consider when managing your email program.
Here’s what they had to say…
A Comprehensive Plan To Overcoming Deliverability Hurdles
While marketers typically have a lot of control over how the addresses on their mailing lists are collected and how long they continue targeting them before a sunset policy kicks in, there are some outside influences which can lead to hurdles with data quality.
For instance, if your company has recently gone through a merger or acquisition, you could find yourself dealing with a consolidation of databases with varying age and quality.
Similarly, if you’re inheriting an email program that was run by an agency or someone who is no longer with the company, you might not have much information about how your mailing list was handled.
Some of those databases may have been built with optimal collection practices and managed closely to remove unsubscribes, spam complainers, hard bounces and inactives.
Other portions of your new “master list” could include purchased or scraped email addresses, prospecting data from sales teams, recipients who previously requested to be unsubscribed, or folks who haven’t been contacted in several years (potentially meaning their address has turned into a recycled spam trap).
In these cases, verifying your email list prior to sending can ensure your list is as healthy as possible. But list verification cannot shield you from a negative reaction by recipients.
If you have the ability, keep the different parts of your list separate until you can assess the quality.
Even if your list has already been consolidated, the more you can find out about how different portions of it were built and managed, the better.
While not all of these will be available to everyone, some helpful details to gather include:
- The collection source(s) of each address. Giving a general qualification to each collection type can help you break the list down into different risk categories.
For example, direct website signups typically carry a much lower risk to deliverability than all other list collection types, including advertisements, contests, co-registration, sales leads, list rentals and purchases as well as address harvesting.
Date when each address was last contacted.
As a general rule, each email address in your list should be contacted at least once within every 6 month period to ensure the address does not turn into a recycled spam trap. From a deliverability perspective, note that recipients should typically be contacted much more regularly than this to maintain a sender reputation.
- Date when each recipient last engaged with an email they received (i.e. opened, clicked). These are powerful metrics, particularly if you’re about to announce major changes to a brand they engage with, or contact them for the first time in a while.
Your most active subscribers could be excited by the news, or very interested in how it will impact them. Inactive subscribers may not care or even remember that you have their email address.
Consider if the content you’ll be sending is still relevant for them, and cut out anyone who shouldn’t still receive it. Those recipients can impact your ability to reach the inbox of your more active recipients.
- Date when each email address was collected. If you don’t have access to the activity or collection source data above, having an idea of when the address was collected could give hints about how the data was collected or help you determine if your content might still be relevant to them.
When in doubt, start sending to your most recent sign ups in small batches first to test the waters. As you work through to older subscribers, be on the lookout for negative trends in deliverability and be prepared to cut the riskiest parts of your list.
- Confirm that any addresses previously flagged as hard bounces, unsubscribes or spam reports are suppressed from future mailings. This may seem like a no-brainer, but sending to suppression files by mistake is more common than you think! This one typically results in a large spike in user complaints.
While most marketers are building their mailing lists using signups collected directly from their website, others are relying on lead generation and data partners to help provide them with new subscribers as well. This can present additional hurdles for deliverability.
It’s important to remember that while data partners and lead generators can give your mailing list a nice boost, these companies are not part of your actual brand, even if you have similar goals or offerings. Marketers need to be cognizant of the fact that not all data partners are equal.
Monitor Results – Whether you are using multiple data partners, or simply managing multiple subscription sources on your website, find a way to track performance of those sources separately, and watch the results closely! Be on the lookout for data feeds that are generating higher-than-average complaints, hard bounces, etc, and deal with those data quality issues quickly, before they pose a large risk to your deliverability.
- Set Expectations – Ensure all recipients signing up with your partner(s) are fully aware you’ll be contacting them. Explain how you obtained their contact information, and set expectations about what kind of content (read: value) you’ll be delivering to them, at what frequency. This information will go a long way to keeping your spam complaints low.
Lastly, we need to remember that subscribers themselves are outside of marketers’ control.
Using a double opt-in (DOI) subscription process can limit hard bounces and will also ensure only subscribers who really want your content are added to your mailing list. But even if you’re using a DOI process, you are relying on your subscribers to properly enter their email address.
How often have you fat-fingered your own email address? It’s unlikely that these subscribers will realize their error and come back to signup again if your welcome email never arrives in their inbox. Implementing real-time email verification on all of your subscription forms can ensure the email addresses you’re collecting are valid, and that your content will arrive in their inbox as expected.
If poor data quality is contributing to your inability to hit the inbox, start by improving all aspects of data collection and management that are within your direct control. This will vary depending on your role and organizational structure.
Then gear up to start getting others on board for any larger changes that are outside of your control: colleagues, other departments, and your manager.
Making a proper case about how these changes will increase your ROI with email is where you’ll want to spend most of your time and energy.
Saying “because it’s good for deliverability” might fly at your local email geeks meetup, but it’s not going to get your executive team on board for deviating from business as usual.
Your ESP’s deliverability team (and the lovely folks over at Kickbox!) can provide suggestions on how to make a compelling case based on the issues you’re facing.
Don’t Underestimate the Amount of Control You Have Over Deliverability
It’s important to acknowledge that a marketer has direct control or can influence the majority of factors that impact Deliverability.
For the most part Deliverability is about recipient engagement and whether a person reacts positively or negatively to their emails. As such, a marketer can make sure:
- They have explicit and voluntary consent to send emails rather than mandatory, implied, 3rd party or group consent
- Their email content is both expected and wanted by their audience which increases open rates and link click rates and reduces the risk of high spam complaints
- They monitor their results over time to see trends for subscriber engagement, acceptance rate and domain reputation
- They regularly refresh their lists by re-engaging inactive subscribers and removing dormant ones
- They authenticate their sending domains, sign up for Gmail Postmaster Tools and request recipients whitelist their details
The above points show how much control a marketer has over their emails and how they can influence recipient engagement and their own sender reputation, both of which are essential for good Deliverability.
We can now look at factors outside the marketer’s direct control, and we can differentiate between those internal and external to their company.
Internal factors might include:
- A company policy that prioritizes list growth over list health, which in some cases could mean purchasing lists and not removing any contacts, even if they’ve been dormant for years.A Sales department that requires a fixed subscriber count, as they sell advertisement space based on list size rather than unique open rates.
- Sending account-based “cold call” marketing emails to generate sales leads, which will impact the company’s domain reputation and the deliverability of all their email.
- A business contract where lists are shared between companies for cross-brand promotions, even when the recipients didn’t expect to receive 3rd party content.
It can be difficult to highlight a problematic practice or policy to internal stakeholders and gather support to change the way “things have always been done”. Kickbox’s previous article Communicating With Stakeholders has some great advice on how to successfully communicate the impact these practices have on Deliverability.
External factors may involve things like:
- Your domain may have been spoofed and used to send malicious or spam content. If this is the case, you may consider setting up DMARC, which was created to destroy the deliverability of phishers and spammers.
- A recipient domain may have a set rate for accepting emails, which can lead to less emails being accepted over time, longer delivery times, and emails bouncing because of time-out errors.
- Your email service provider’s IP or Domain has been blacklisted, which does happen sometimes and it’s important to understand what impact (if any) this has on your email delivery.
- There could also be seasonal variations, especially during the busy holiday season of November and December, when global email traffic dramatically increases and many servers struggle to consistently accept all incoming emails.
Depending on the issue, a marketer can reach out to the Deliverability, Postmaster or technical team of the email service provider or recipient domain and get help with troubleshooting the problem.
On the whole, marketers can effectively manage many aspects of their Deliverability and influence those which they cannot directly control. For the latter, it’s useful to identify and quantify their impact on the marketing program, and then communicate it to the relevant stakeholders or external parties.
3 Common Hurdles & How To Avoid Them
When it comes to deliverability, your sending domain’s reputation is one of the most important factors. Unfortunately, there are some ways that your domain reputation can be damaged by influences outside of your control.
Here are three of the most common hurdles I see affect marketers’ deliverability, and how to avoid them:
If you use online forms to collect subscribers, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced listbombing. Listbombing happens when email addresses are added to your signup forms by a malicious person (likely using an automated script).
In this case, the person that owns the email address didn’t actually sign up to be on your list, and likely doesn’t know who you are. As you can imagine, this results in an elevated number of spam complaints, which can quickly harm your domain reputation and deliverability.
To avoid this hurdle, add reCAPTCHA to all of your forms, and be sure to use confirmed opt-in. This will stop bot-added addresses from making it onto your list and damaging your reputation. To learn more about spoofing, check out my blog post here: Are Fake Signups Hurting Your Deliverability?
While you could be doing everything right when it comes to deliverability best practices, it’s possible for someone to send spam from your domain and damage your reputation.
To find out if this is happening to you, consider adding a DMARC record to your domain’s DNS and set the policy to “p=none”. Be sure to add a reporting email address as well.
Once this is in place, you’ll get email alerts about messages sent from your domain that are failing DMARC authentication. You might see that some of these messages are coming from your own organization, and that you need to make sure these mailstreams are passing DMARC.
However, you might also see unrecognized and unauthorized mail that could damage your domain reputation.
If you see that your domain is being spoofed, you’ll want to first make sure that all of your own messages are passing DMARC successfully.
Second, you can make your DMARC policy more strict, which will either send unauthenticated messages to the spam folder or block them, depending on whether you choose “p=quarantine” or “p=reject”.
3. Others Who Use Your Domain
Sometimes, the damage is coming from inside the house. It’s likely that the same domain you use to send your marketing emails is being used by others within your organization. Their practices will impact your domain reputation, and could influence your deliverability.
To avoid negative impact, I recommend trying to understand all of the places where your domain is in use and how it’s being used. Communicate with those who use the domain and make sure they understand deliverability, reputation, and why it’s important that they are sending high quality mail to people who want it
Understanding Key Indicators & the Impacts on Deliverability
Marketers can do everything right, have the perfect content, subject lines, run foolproof experiments and have data-driven targeted campaigns. Unfortunately, their emails are useless unless they actually make it to the user’s inbox.
What needs to be considered are all the factors that are completely outside of their control.
Let’s start with the most important things to consider that will affect your marketing team being successful which is the overall email Infrastructure. When discussing email infrastructure, the following must be considered:
- Email Authentication
- Email Validation
- Dedicated IP instead of Shared IP
- Not using Parent Domain to send all emails for every department
The purpose of proper Email Authentication is to prove an email is to verify that an email comes from who it claims to be from. I have been asked by several companies “why is it so important?” and “what’s the underlying reason?”.
Email authentication allows ISPs (Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, etc) to properly identify the sender of the email and make smart decisions about delivering mail being sent. Even more important for your company, this helps avoid your domain being spoofed, have phishing attacks, and avert scams to your audience pretending to be your brand.
To become properly authenticated, make sure to prioritize Sender Policy Framework (SPF), DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), and DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance) implementation. Finally, there is a new policy called BIMI (Brand Indicators for Message Identification).
BIMI is designed to help provide a visual indicator of legitimate and well-authenticated email communication from a brand. If a brand is using SPF, DKIM, and DMARC, they can include a BIMI DNS record that will display the logo of the company in the recipient’s inbox. It’s another brand touchpoint and helps further establish real and not real emails from trusted senders.
A hurdle that can be simply avoided for bad deliverability is having email validation also known as email verification.
What does it mean to have email validation? It is a process to verify whether or not an email address is deliverable and valid. The biggest hurdle for your marketing team is sending to email addresses that have a risk to bounce.
The primary reason why you should validate your email list is that the hard bounce rate directly affects your sender reputation and deliverability.
Mailbox providers use a number of things to measure sender reputation. One of those things is the hard bounce rate. If an email sender is continuously sending to a lot of invalid users, mailbox providers consider it as poor list management and the sender as a potential spammer.
Your task is to prove that you are a legitimate sender so your Marketing team has the opportunity to be successful. Good list hygiene will get you there.
I have discussed this throughout my career in Email and there is always a back and forth, “why do I need a Dedicated IP?”.
Well, the biggest reason is for a brand to create its own reputation, because at the end of the day if your marketing team is doing everything correctly in terms of best practices, why ruin it by sharing reputation with other companies that may not be following the same methodologies.
It is not always the case, but often companies that use shared IPs are email senders that want to leech off other’s good reputation and in the long run, have the ability to hurt deliverability for your team.
Avoid using Parent Domain for all emails:
One of the first things I do when I start investigating deliverability issues at a new company is ask, “Are you using your parent domain for all business email?”
Having dedicated subdomains off of your main domain is very important from a sending perspective, especially if other departments in your organization are sending their own email campaigns without your Marketing team’s knowledge.
Let’s say, if Sales is sending cold emails to a purchased list and they start getting complaints or simply non-openers, this not only affects the marketing team sending emails but in my experience regular peer-to-peer work emails may get pushed to spam.
Remember one department’s actions can affect the reputation of the shared parent domain, which can hurt other departments. I always recommend having different subdomains for different business and department purposes.
Remember when all of your emails go through your parent domain, it’s hard to tell what’s affecting your sending reputation.
With subdomains, it’s easier to find the root of the problem by identifying which emails have deliverability issues and why. And once you find the issue, correcting becomes simpler, because you’re only looking at one domain.
At the end of the day, Email is only a powerful tool if your customers receive your messages! By having proper email infrastructure setup for your business, your marketing team will be on their way to great email deliverability.
Keep your list healthy and boost campaign performance by regularly cleaning your email list. We’ll let you know which email addresses are good, bad and risky, before you hit send.
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