The term “best practice” is somewhat of an overused marketing term. However, when it comes to email deliverability there really are best practices every marketer should follow to increase their chances of reaching the inbox. We gave our deliverability experts a megaphone this month to remind marketers which email best practices they shouldn’t be neglecting.
We’ve got experts from SocketLabs, dotdigital, Word to the Wise, ConvertKit, Sailthru, Campaign Monitor, TrueAccord & Netcore Solutions, as well as yours truly, sharing which best practices they feel are the most important, and why implementing them into your email program is so essential to driving results and improving your deliverability.
Here’s what the experts had to say…
Permission & Engagement Are Key To Managing A List of High-Quality Contacts
We all know there is low-hanging fruit to grab when building and maintaining an effective email program. Email best practices such as making the unsubscribe process easy, optimizing an email’s pre-header text, not using a no-reply address, and setting up a web presence for all of your sending domains are just a few examples.
But managing a list of high-quality contacts who are active and engaged is an often overlooked, and very important, component of email deliverability. What are the key elements of maintaining a quality list?
At Kickbox, we get questions all the time about how to reduce bounces, remove spam traps and generally improve the quality of a problematic email list. It’s essential to point out that while email verification tools can help email senders avoid hard bounces (and missed connections with potential customers) by flagging those addresses at the point of collection, they cannot create permission where actual consent from the recipient has not been given. Email verification also cannot magically remove all of the spam traps on your list, or correct the reasons why they are entering your list in the first place.
It is a marketer’s job to ensure they’re sending only to people who have willingly given their email address.
After that initial sign-up, marketers must keep a close eye on engagement metrics and their target KPIs to understand if recipients are continuing to show interest in the content they receive.
Most marketers are already trained to focus on their positive engagement signals such as opens and clicks, as well as negative engagement signals such as recipients flagging emails as spam or unsubscribing. Be on the lookout for a lack of engagement as well. If recipients are not engaging with your emails, then they are hurting your deliverability.
There are a lot of things to consider when building and monitoring an email program, but understanding the underlying best practices of permission and engagement will help you truly be in control of your email program, even if things go awry.
A Solid First Step: Practice Good Email List Management & Hygiene
When it comes to email best practices, specifically in marketing, we have always told our senders that good inbox placement starts with good email list management and hygiene. This includes a few things:
- Building high-quality, opt-in lists
- Verifying email authenticity
- Regularly removing bounces
As a marketer looking to maximize inbox placement, you should first focus on creating an opt-in email list through your website, application, or point-of-sale. Opt-in lists ensure that the email recipients want the email and are more likely to open, read, and interact with the email which will improve your reputation/ability to hit the inbox. After establishing your list, it’s important to validate those email addresses to avoid bounces that could result from typos and other accidents on the recipients’ end. And finally once the email is sent, regularly remove bounces and complaints from your list to avoid future disruption.
While this isn’t the end-all-be-all in email marketing, practicing good list management and hygiene is a solid first step to improving your deliverability and maximizing the return from your email efforts — an investment that is often overlooked by marketers.
Let it (them) go!
The most valuable thing that marketers seem to forget is that each recipient has a value attached. They often start by asking “is it legal to send to these recipients?” and then skip straight to sending.
Focusing only on legality bypasses many important steps for successful email marketing. Put simply: legal is not enough if marketers want to maximize ROI from their email campaigns and I wish more marketers would embrace letting recipients go.
Marketers need to leverage all the data provided by the different tools at their fingertips to assess what the value of a contact is. If each recipient is worth $X for your company you want to make sure to keep all these lovely recipients in your list.
Marketers should be doing everything they can to keep their audience entertained and interested, but if the legal question has been the focus – without regard to the recipient experience – you could be leaving a future fan on the table.
Some recipients won’t become fans or will lose their enthusiasm for your brand over time. Use the data you have to identify someone who’s decided that they’re no longer interested, and then let them go.
More often than not, unsubscribe mechanisms are seen as a revenue blocker and marketers try to obfuscate the unsubscribe or make the recipient jump over hurdles. I would love for marketers to keep their unsubscribe mechanisms easy and quick.
Always keep in mind that you are not just talking about revenue values, but human beings who have decided that they’re no longer interested. The more hurdles for the recipient, the higher the likelihood of them clicking on the “this is spam” button and that can ultimately hurt your reputation and therefore reduce revenue.
Additionally, if a recipient is forced to receive emails they don’t want or has to take time out of their busy day to figure out how to get themselves off a list, it will leave a bad taste in their mouth. Their last experience with your brand will be one of frustration.
Make it easy for your recipient to find the unsubscribe link in the email, don’t hide it between a lot of other links. Don’t try to game the wording; if someone wants to go, let them go. Don’t put in hurdles like re-entering the email address, requiring a login or even a double opt-out mail.
You have a preference center with different brands, different kinds of newsletters or the possibility to “opt down” (receive mails less frequently)? Amazing – but don’t forget the “unsubscribe from all” option and don’t place that out of reach.
Let it go!
Enough With The Lip Service—Send Wanted Email Only
The best practice I wish email marketers would follow is: get permission for every email you send. That means you only send mail to people who have asked to receive it, you verify that the address belongs to the requester and you stop sending it when they tell you to stop.
This is THE best practice for email and most marketers don’t follow it. They give a lot of lip service to the idea of sending wanted mail. But many of them treat permission as something to take not something that is given to them.
Companies regularly fail to verify email addresses belong to the requestor. Many companies include pre-checked boxes on their checkout pages. Even more companies think if a mail is well targeted then that is just as good as permission.
But many marketers are horrible at targeting, just ask any small business owner. One of my more recent examples of targeting fail is the one office supply company repeatedly mailing me wanting to advertise their hanging file folders on the Word to the Wise website.
Email marketers spend millions of dollars a year on solutions that allow them to send mail without real and true permission. While collecting true permission isn’t always simple, it is the fundamental best practice email is built on. I really wish more email marketers would try it.
Branch Out. Test New Techniques & Experiment To Improve Subscriber Engagement
An email best practice I wish more email marketers would follow is to get comfortable with testing and experimenting. I find that many email marketers stick to the same strategy and don’t want to branch out and experiment with new techniques. I see this play out in deliverability conversations frequently as well. While drops in conversions can certainly be caused by an increase in spam filtering, there are also times when the decrease in engagement is due to a marketing strategy that isn’t resonating with subscribers.
Email marketers could benefit by stepping out of their comfort zone and testing out new approaches to improve engagement, deliverability, and ultimately conversions. A/B tests are a great way to try out two different strategies and make data-based decisions from the results. Subject lines aren’t the only part of an email that can be A/B tested. You can experiment with different content within the body of the email, different header images, different calls to action, and different levels of personalization.
If email marketers become better at experimentation, they’ll be able to make data-based decisions that improve their subscriber engagement. With more engaged subscribers comes better deliverability!
Protect Your Points of Sign Up To Prevent BOT Attacks
Use human verification tools to secure Opt In pages, such as Google reCAPTCHA.
Just a few years ago, us Deliverability folks across all ESPs, woke up to find a major spike in Spamhaus listings across the industry. While Spamhaus normally notes the cause of the issues to be “hitting a spam trap,” in this case, the listing was due to “list bombing.”
As a community, Deliverability teams across ESPs began to investigate senders impacted by these Spamhaus listings. We found that all senders listed had a massive spike in sign up volume over a 24-hour period. We also saw that many of these addresses were signed up across multiple clients within the 24 hours, which is pretty abnormal behavior.
It was determined that BOTs were scraping the internet and hitting unsecure signup pages with live email addresses, all within a very short time frame. This means the live email addresses being used by the BOTs to sign up were getting hundreds of welcome emails that day, essentially rendering the mailbox unusable. This is what is considered list bombing.
Why are the BOTs doing this? It could be that they are trying to distract the end user with the endless messages to their inbox while they hack into something of theirs, but we can’t say for sure.
Outside of list bombing, BOT attacks on unsecure signup pages remain a major issue. Sailthru tends to identify at least one or two senders a week getting hit by a BOT.
Some of these attacks are specific to a Forward to a Friend or Wishlist page that allows for freeform text. Here, the spammer can insert whatever they want and send to their own list of email addresses. Other attacks simply happen on the signup page where only a welcome email is triggered.
While the reason for most BOT attacks is not always known, we do know that they are prevalent and can have a significant impact on your deliverability. They are also invaluable addresses costing you money to mail to based on your CPM.
It’s clear BOTs are not going away, Implementing Google reCAPTCHA is the best way to truly prevent their attacks. I highly recommend senders invest more time in protecting their points of sign up to avoid BOT attacks that could result in deliverability issues.
Focus On Quality Rather Than Quantity At Every Stage Of Your Marketing Process
Most marketers follow general best practices for email marketing, however there are some areas that a marketer can focus on to improve their email deliverability and user engagement. It’s important to focus on quality rather than quantity at every stage of the marketing process, and the following practices can assist marketers when collecting emails and maintaining their database.
Improving the email collection process
Secure online forms with Captcha – It’s only a matter of time before an unsecured online form is targeted by a spambot. The invalid or non-permission based addresses added to a marketer’s list will affect their sender reputation and have an ongoing impact on their deliverability.
One of the best and easiest ways to protect online subscriber form is to use a Captcha form. Many marketers are reluctant to use a Captcha form as they believe it is a hurdle in the sign-up process or unaesthetic and will impact list growth. A solution is to use either Google Invisible Captcha or hCaptcha.
Track the source of list collection – By recording the method of email collection, such as in-store, social media, online landing pages, events, or third-party sources, a marketer can evaluate which methods are effective in increasing their ROI and which yield poor results. This practice can also help troubleshoot issues like a lack of engagement (low open rates or high spam complaints) or delivery issues (high bounce rate), which can result from high-risk list collection methods like scraped or third-party sources.
Use a subscriber preference centre – A subscriber preference centre allows marketers to collect more information about their subscribers which is essential to be an effective marketer. A marketer can record useful information like:
- the specific email content a subscriber wants
- how often to send emails to different segments of their list
- individual details for personalisation tags and targeted emails
Including a link to the preference centre in every campaign allows a subscriber to change their personal details or preferences at a later date, and gives them the option to opt-down (reduce the number of emails they receive) rather than completely opting-out of a list.
Prioritizing database management
Ongoing database review and maintenance – A marketer’s database is their bread-and-butter and requires ongoing maintenance (or you may end up with stale moldy bread!)
A marketer can better understand the lifecycle of their subscribers by regularly monitoring how engaged and active their audience is. By doing so a marketer can:
- focus on keeping their most active subscribers engaged
- identify when a subscriber is losing interest in their email content
- send less frequently to these unengaged contacts
- send one or two re-engagement campaigns to the inactive segment of their list
- remove dormant contacts in order to avoid deliverability issues
As a general rule it’s worthwhile for marketers to review their database every 6-12 months based on how often they email their lists. If a marketer sends emails several times a week, then at a minimum they should review their list every 6 months as this is enough time to identify trends in user engagement.
Remove dormant contacts – Removing dormant contacts is both normal and necessary for a marketer to successfully deliver emails to a person’s inbox. There are three important reasons for removing dormant contacts from a marketing list:
- Over time the number of dormant recipients will far outnumber the active ones
- This lack of engagement will impact inbox placement for active recipients
- Some email domains may be recycled as spam traps and result in the marketer’s IP or domain being blacklisted
When it comes to email deliverability, the majority wins! If the majority of people in a marketer’s database are dormant (no activity over a set time period) then their lack of activity will impact how successful the marketer is in reaching their active audience’s inboxes.
Many marketers believe that identifying a spamtrap and deleting it from their list will solve their delivery issues, however spam traps are the symptoms of pre-existing database management issues. It is a costly and time-consuming process to recover from a blacklisting and regularly reviewing and removing dormant contacts every 12 months is one of the best ways to avoid this issue.
By following the above practices marketers can increase the quality of their email list, better manage their database and increase the overall effectiveness of their email programs.
Have Processes & Practices Pre-Defined & Follow Them
Practices Email Marketers Should Not Ignore
Part of having the best deliverability and inboxing for your company’s email program is the email marketing team making it a point to follow the guidelines, processes and practices set out so they are successful in their programs.
Here are some of the few best practices I always ask my email marketing team to follow and abide by:
Build a strong list organically and don’t bombard them
It all starts with proper email collection. I don’t have to remind everyone but never purchase or rent lists. I have seen this too often and nip it in the bud as soon as marketers suggest emailing them.
Not only will it destroy your deliverability as your email program will experience low engagement, but it is a major risk of getting blacklisted by the major ISPs (for example Gmail, Yahoo, and AOL) and cause your email service provider (ESP) to possibly shut down your account.
When it comes to having happy subscribers and a good relationship, it should be achieved organically. This means attaining them with proper opt-in on your site that is completely transparent of your intentions to email them in the future about your amazing product. Do not just have the box checked automatically, let the user decide if they want to receive emails so when they do it is expected and not a surprise.
This works as a benefit in two ways for email marketers:
- When subscribers do an active opt-in and give you consent to send those promotional emails, you now know that they are interested in your content and want to learn more about it.
- Your program weeds out the uninterested recipients who in the long run can hurt your email deliverability and in turn affect the interested subscribers receiving email they signed up for.
I suggest if possible and not all programs are able to do so, have a double-opt-in which can simply be in your welcome email after a sign-up. Your overall program will be better off following this list collection practice.
Have a sunset period for your list to have the best hygiene for your program. Clean up and remove inactive subscribers or those that have not opened an email in 3-6 months.
Next, I want to talk about understanding sending more emails in a short period of time is not going to get the subscriber to open and click-through more as much as marketers wish for this.
There has to be a strategy and specifically a good cadence that will not overwhelm.
Whenever marketers bombard email recipients, what happens is that the recipient gets bored or ignores opening the email and leaves it in the inbox, never read (or worse, deletes it as unread). This now causes ISPs to notice that the subscriber has no intention of receiving emails from this sender and pushes it to spam and now the email program starts taking a downturn due to bad engagement.
Avoid no-reply addresses(Don’t do it)
Every time I start somewhere new and do a deep dive, I always see this one bad and horrible bad practice which is using a no-reply for sender address.
Marketers have to stop doing this. Is it not the objective to create a relationship with your subscribers? Why have a from address saying do not reply, I don’t care about you?
Not letting a consumer reply is red-flag and shows to recipients that this might be spam and the sender simply does not care about your feedback or what you have to say. The objective of emails should be that a user has the ability to respond and ask questions if needed.
A subscriber is much more likely to open emails if they know they were written by someone that wants to communicate with them first and foremost. Finally, inbox providers also filter no-reply emails as they are usually inferred as spam since the sender has no intention of two-way communication.
Build trust with your audience, encourage replies so they can continue to establish a relationship with your program. Treat every email you send like a real and live conversation.
A practice that is one that should be a no-brainer is experimentation. There are many different motivators to want to do A/B testing. From engagement being down, keeping subscribers interested, and possibly revenue expectations from stakeholders, there are many reasons to experiment and keep evolving the email marketing program.
Here are a few topics for experiments that can be useful:
- Content testing(different email templates, personalization, and Call to action)
- Subject line and preheader
- Cadence Optimization and send time
- From Names( different personas) and from addresses
Something I hear a lot is I want to try this strategy but I am afraid to hurt the email program. This is a fair concern, but that’s where you have to be smart about testing.
Always start with a small sample size, different test groups, and make sure to have a proper control group. If the test groups are performing well versus control, then increase the size of the test group(s). This will keep the marketer always a step ahead of any issue arising from testing and growing the program.
It’s about experimenting with different tactics and figuring out what works best for your program.
Have a proper QA process
A major practice and process that should never be overlooked is having proper quality assurance(QA) for an email marketing program. This is a consistent issue I have seen that email marketing teams do not follow which is not having a QA system setup.
Email marketers just want to get their emails out the door and hope there are no issues. This is how a recipient gets error emails which later the marketer apologizes for which at that point might be too late. This can be embarrassing and unprofessional for a business. Your email that is in your recipient’s inbox is your reputation in many ways, you are showing off your brand and do not want to seem sloppy.
Before sending emails, there has to be a proper QA process. I suggest always have some type of specification document stating what should be in the email, i.e subject line, preheader, the audience, dynamic fields, the from address(many companies have multiple depending on the type of email), required footer, an image of what the email should look like, explicitly knowing where all the links go for each button or text, etc.
So now when the email is being QA’d, there is a document to reference. The person can check off what is required in the email from the specification document, i.e Is the subject line correct, does it render properly across all clients, do all the dynamic fields populate as expected, do links go to the right place, is the from address/name correct where the email came from, etc.
No business that spends all their time creating, designing, implementing, and segmenting their email program wants to have errors to their prized recipients, taking that extra time to make sure everything is correct is worth it.
Even the most seasoned email marketers can make mistakes, having best practices should not be a nuisance for your email marketing team, instead, it should be taken as guidelines that keep them successful.
Custom Targeting At-Risk Customers In Order To Retain Them
There seems to be a one-dimensional and often misplaced approach by email marketers in terms of looking at the engagement metrics of your mailing audience. The traditional approach is that the users who are regularly opening your campaigns are deemed as loyalists and those who have been simply ignoring your emails need to be told goodbye.
But there seems to be another category of ‘openers’ who are regularly checking your campaign content but are not interested enough to click on your CTA (call to action) offers and explore your website/application. These are users who are 5 times more likely to unsubscribe from your emails than the inactive users who simply ignore your communication.
These are ‘at-risk’ subscribers in my opinion who are active on email for your brand but are actually on the verge of unsubscribing from your mailing list.
They are regular consumers of your content but due to their disappointment with your offers are not regular transactors. The at-risk users regularly open your emails for some period of time but, eventually when they get disappointed with irrelevant messaging received, they simply churn out.
Marketers need to dive deep into engagement metrics and not get fixated with just the open rates. An expert marketer needs to track the impact of the opens on your CTR (click-through rate) and transactions. Those at-risk need to be targeted with customized campaigns that are personalized to their preferences. Attribute tagging and deeper data analysis will present
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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