There’s no quick trick or simple solution to resolving deliverability issues. The fact that all of our deliverability experts point out a different aspect or issue that is difficult to solve only emphasizes how complex it can be to hit the inbox.
From ensuring marketers are adhering to best email practices to trying to navigate email filters and DMARC, one thing is certain: you don’t want to let inbox placement issues linger. Acting swiftly to identify your deliverability issues and in some cases, enlisting expert help to resolve those problems, is key.
This month, we tapped deliverability experts from ConvertKit, Word to the Wise, Campaign Monitor, dotdigital, TrueAccord, Netcore Solutions, Typeform, Iterable, as well as yours truly, to share the problems we’ve encountered throughout our career that seem to be the most challenging to fix. Be sure to take a few notes along the way because these problems won’t simply work themselves out.
Deliverability Is A Moving Target, So Be Prepared to Dance
Deliverability experts face a variety of challenges as they are helping their customers improve inbox placement, ranging from technical to strategic to analytical.
This is particularly true for brands sending millions of emails per day, where being blocked as a result of a Spamhaus listing could lead to huge impacts on revenue. The stakes are high, and there is big pressure to solve the issue quickly.
Authentication issues or those dealing with domain alignment can also be difficult in their own way because you need to activate the technical part of your brain, queue up your attention to detail, and hone in on finding that little needle in the haystack that is causing the problem. This can be challenging, but once you find and fix the issue, you’re done.
In helping companies diagnose their deliverability issues, I’ve found the most difficult is when a company has become accustomed to engaging in less-than-ideal mailing practices for years, and are suddenly facing challenges hitting the inbox. Deliverability is a moving target, with ISPs increasing their focus on user engagement as a factor in determining the fate of an email. Even if the company hasn’t changed anything on their side, it’s possible that the tactics that worked in the past will no longer allow them to reach the inbox moving forward.
In these cases, companies are very tied to the fact that their “Business as Usual” has been working for years, and they are unwilling to invest in things like improving their list collection and management practices or reducing their volume sent to inactive recipients. Building a strong business case to justify the change you’re proposing can be far more time consuming than actually solving the underlying problem itself.
In order to avoid this situation with your own email program, take advantage of as many data points as you have access to. Running A/B tests regularly and monitoring your delivery and engagement results closely after each campaign (i.e. delivery rates, bounces, opens, clicks, unsubscribes and complaints) can help you head off results that are slowly worsening over time, allowing you to catch that dramatic drop in inbox placement before it happens.
Most importantly, be vocal with your managers and executive team about what’s going on, and bring data to the conversation. Oftentimes, the decision makers at the top do not have a strong understanding of what drives inbox placement, and what best practices are truly important. If you are about to suggest an improvement, be prepared to justify how what you’re proposing is going to increase ROI. You will be doing yourself and your company a favor by steering stakeholders in the right direction using a more effective data-driven approach.
Email Spoofing & Navigating DMARC are Tricky Issues
The hardest type of deliverability issue to solve is when a sender’s domain reputation has been damaged because a spammer is spoofing their domain. The hardest part about this situation is identifying that it’s happening. I’ve seen cases where a sender is doing all of the right things, and nothing has changed about the way they send mail or collect their list, but they see sudden drops in engagement and higher spam filtering.
DMARC is the best way to know for sure if a sender’s domain is being spoofed and used to send spam. Implementing a DMARC policy of p=none will allow senders to monitor the mail that is being sent from their domain, and will provide clear insight into whether or not the sender’s domain is being spoofed and used to send spam. However, implementing DMARC and monitoring reports isn’t always easy. Luckily there are plenty of companies and experts who can help with this!
If the DMARC reports show that spam is indeed being sent from the sender’s domain, the best next steps are:
- Ensure all legitimate mail is successfully passing DMARC
- Enforce a more strict DMARC policy of p=quarantine or p=reject
In summary, the hardest deliverability problem to identify and resolve is when the sender’s domain is being spoofed to send spam. It can be hard to know that this is happening if DMARC isn’t in place, and once DMARC is in place, it can be difficult for senders with fewer resources to monitor reports and act on them properly. For senders who are struggling to implement DMARC, I’d highly recommend reaching out to one of the many talented companies or individuals who specialize in DMARC implementation.
Individual & Company-Wide Filters are the Toughest Nuts To Crack
The absolute hardest delivery issue to solve is the individual email failure, especially when delivery monitoring tools tell us the overall delivery was fine.
Deliverability is the art and science of sending mail that server-wide filters decide to deliver to the inbox. As deliverability professionals, we know how to influence those filters and can generally get just about any non-spam mail to the inbox.
But server-level filters are not the only filters that act on our mail. Most mail clients have the ability to create explicit filters and many have built-in bayesian filters that learn what the user thinks is spam. These filters are specific to each individual user.
As deliverability professionals, we mostly ignore the individual filters when troubleshooting delivery failures. But when we’re looking at individual email failures we have to focus on individual filters as they are the most likely cause of the problem.
But pinpointing why a bayesian filter decided a message was spam is nearly impossible. How hard is it? I can’t even do it for my own mailbox.
I know, for instance, that the bayesian filters built into mail.app deliver about 90% of my password reset emails to my junk folder. I’ve got no clue why or what’s triggering it. I just know that if I’m trying to reset a password and it’s been 10 minutes and I don’t have the message, I need to check my junk folder. I also don’t know how to change it, my only fix is to remember to check the junk folder.
The second most difficult delivery problem to solve is a close parallel. In this case, it’s not filters for one person, it’s the filters that act on a whole company.
This is typically presented as “our delivery stats show we’re getting to the inbox everywhere, but all of us, including our executive team, received our own email in their spam folders.”
In some ways, it should be the easiest as we have all of the data from the time the email hits the recipient’s server through to when it’s delivered to the final recipient. In theory, support folks inside the company and at the vendor should be available to help us troubleshoot what happened.
Unfortunately, finding the right people and getting email transit information can be tricky, particularly in larger organizations. In smaller organizations, there may not be the internal expertise and knowledge to track down the needed information.
Some companies layer different filters on top of one another, making it difficult to even figure out which filter is causing the problem.
Deliverability for bulk mail is easy compared to the challenge of troubleshooting one email or one domain delivery failures.
That doesn’t mean it’s simple, of course. But at least when we’re troubleshooting server-wide filters, we can influence them.
When it comes to personal filters, the only person who can manipulate them is the final recipient. Outside third parties have no way to shape these filters; that’s what makes them such a difficult challenge.
Pinpointing Why Your Open Rates Have Decreased Isn’t Always Clear Cut
One of the hardest deliverability issues to troubleshoot is a decrease in open rates. Firstly, the email has to be successfully delivered to the inbox, and secondly, people need to open and engage with it.
As Deliverability Specialists, we have visibility on the first of the above variables and can provide some recommendations for the second. After providing a client with technical information and best practice advice, a high recipient engagement requires the client knowing their audience by sending them wanted and relevant emails, which the person will open and interact with.
Assuming a client generally has a good open rate for their emails (20% or higher), investigating why their recent email has a low open rate requires determining what’s changed from one mailing to the next, and what impact these changes had on their overall deliverability.
Alternatively, if the client is observing a consistent trend towards low open rates over a period of time (6-12 months) then there may be completely different factors at work.
Looking at just the scenario where a client sees a sudden drop in open rates, any of the following elements may be at play.
The client made the following changes:
- sent the email to an old list, a purchased list or a 3rd party list and this resulted in poor delivery (high bounces) and low recipient engagement (low open rates and high spam complaints)
- used a new domain or subdomain with little sending history, and this caused receiving servers to filter the email as spam
- removed or changed their sending domain authentication (DKIM), so that their domain is no longer correctly authenticated with their Email Service Provider (ESP)
- set up a DMARC policy of p = reject for their domain without having SPF or DKIM authentication set up with their ESP
- changed the email content triggering content filtering because of:
- too many URL link shorteners
- hosted links to external addresses
- PDF files
- large images or GIF size
There could also be other reasons for a sudden drop in a client’s open rates, which are outside the client’s influence, such as:
- environmental factors, like the increase in email volume during the holiday season or a global crisis causing email fatigue and a drop in open rates
- the ESP’s IPs or domain may be temporarily blocklisted with a specific mailbox provider
- a mailbox provider has changed their spam filtering algorithms significantly, resulting in false spam positives
- the client’s unsecured signup form is being attacked by a spambot, which is triggering many welcome or confirmed opt-in emails and damaging their sender reputation
While the above is not an exhaustive list of factors that contribute to a decrease in open rates, it helps illustrate how identifying a deliverability issue can be a complex and time-consuming process. There are many elements to review and tests to be done before providing a client with a strategy to resolve the issue.
Keeping Marketing Practices In Check
Even the most basic deliverability issue is hard to solve if marketers have the wrong expectations.
My job is to manage the mailservers themselves: how dotdigital’s infrastructure is set up to maximize throughput and delivery, and making sure we’re playing by mailbox providers’ (often totally obfuscated) rules to avoid delays and some types of bounces.
I’m constantly experimenting with new ways to make sure as many marketing emails are delivered as quickly as possible because I want marketers to be successful in their email marketing as much as they do. This is how I make sure our tech supports marketers in their endeavors, but what I can’t do is make their emails land in the inbox.
Whether marketing emails land in the inbox or get junked is down to the brand’s reputation as a sender with the receiving mailbox provider. That reputation is 100% under the brand’s control because it’s built on the contacts their marketers send to.
A good reputation starts with collecting real email addresses from people who have given explicit permission for the brand to send them marketing emails. It then continues with marketers managing that relationship by sending them relevant content which they’re expecting to receive. And it relies on marketers being willing to let go of recipients who show they’re no longer interested, as my colleague Mathias detailed in a previous blog post.
ESPs provide the tech that allows email marketers to manage a brand’s sending reputation. There are subscription forms with CAPTCHA (to help prevent malicious scripts from signing up) and confirmed opt-in (to ensure the email address signing up is valid and the recipient is engaged).
There are tools like personalization based on expressed interests and past behaviors, and segmentation based on engagement such as last open date.
It’s up to email marketers to use these tools to their fullest so that they can build a good reputation and improve inbox placement.
It’s frustrating to see my deliverability colleagues provide marketers with excellent advice on how to take ownership of inbox placement challenges and fix them, only for some marketers to expect the mailservers to somehow bypass their poor practices without having to think about their own strategy.
Trust me, if there were some magical settings I could put into our configuration to force marketing emails to go straight to the inbox, they would be in there. In reality, marketers need to listen to and implement the advice of deliverability experts to take ownership of the brand’s sender reputation. We are here to support them and guide them, but they are in control of their inbox placement destiny.
Biggest Nightmare for Deliverability: Parent Domain Reputation Tanking
One of the toughest deliverability issues in my experience that is hard to solve is when a parent domain has lost its reputation. This is one of the hardest challenges because once a parent domain’s reputation falls, it affects the overall business.
Let’s say an individual in a hurry on your Marketing or Sales team sent an email to 50,000 recipients and forgot to put an unsubscribe link accidentally in the footer (could have been avoided with proper QA) and this email was sent directly from the parent domain. Now what happens is since the recipients have no way of unsubscribing, they will hit the Spam button and worst of all ISPs will blocklist the domain.
That means that all company emails are now going straight into recipients’ spam folders, impacting the effectiveness of your email marketing. Think about if your company’s transactional emails now go straight to spam, which means a user trying to do a password reset to get access to their account will no longer receive that email in their inbox and not think of checking the spam.
Lastly, one thing that many marketers ignore when it comes to domain issues is that it also affects regular peer-to-peer business emails in catastrophic ways as well. Imagine your CEO who is attempting to send emails to business contacts from his or her inbox and they are all received in the spam folder. This will be very ill-received and naturally force some unwanted internal conversations with Marketing, Sales and any other teams sending mass emails.
Now the lack of unsubscribe link is an extreme issue and naturally, there are safeguards against a person doing this. The larger issue here is using the parent domain for sending bulk emails when these types of mistakes happen.
Using different subdomains to send all communication can help to mitigate the negative consequences of situations like this, by ensuring that if something does go wrong, your parent domain (and those all-important company emails) are not affected. In a situation like the one above, if the email in question had been sent using a subdomain, only that specific subdomain would be blocklisted, allowing other emails sent by your brand to go through and limiting the business impact of this massive error significantly.
Remember to always have a separate subdomain for each department and only use your parent domain for business peer to peer emails. Fixing a parent domain’s reputation is 100 times harder than solving a subdomain’s.
A Tale of Two Problems: Lack of Segmentation & Historical Reputation Issues
There are a couple of issues faced in my experience as a deliverability expert at Netcore that were hard to solve. A large chunk of the issues which are difficult are mainly due to the adherence of traditional methods of marketing by the brands. Some are due to a lack of pro-activeness on part of the brand marketer to resolve the problem and seek deliverability expertise before it gets out of hand.
1. Lack of a segmented approach to the mailing list:
When the brand marketer wishes to target every of their client ids under the sky, it’s a tough nut to crack.
For Example: When a brand wants to mail to their entire mailing list with a spray and pray method as they wish to reach out with the offer to all their subscribers.
We always advise against it. We suggest a segmented approach to their targeted audience and stop mailing to the inactive users who have not engaged with their emails for the last 6 months.
An effective sunset policy is the need of the hour for marketers to avoid wasting their campaigns on ignorant eyes who are not checking their email anyway. Instead, target their loyal customers more often to engage them. It not only boosts engagement but also significantly increases your inboxing percentage.
Sometimes a smart marketer will listen to our recommendations and ace their email program with a more segmented and personalized approach to users. Marketers need to follow good practices as dictated by the ISPs in order to get better results from their email program.
But, it’s a matter of concern that even after email marketing has evolved so much over the years, brand marketers still resort to email blast campaigns which only manages to reduce your subscriber count, land you in different block lists and increase your deliverability issues. A careless approach towards your domain hygiene makes it difficult to solve.
2. History of deliverability issues:
Then there are brands we consult who have historic deliverability issues. This could be hard to solve as they don’t have a quick fix. It requires consistent inboxing and good engagement to come out of such issues.
For example: The primary sending domain has a low reputation for months and their majority emails have been landing in spam for a year.
The thing to understand here is that it’s not only their domain hygiene which is low but also their brand reputation, which has been affected for a while. As we know now that major ISPs monitor your domain based on different data sources and social signals. This information plays a part in their anti-spam filters placing the emails into spam or inbox.
So even when we recommend to start a fresh email program with a new domain, due to the bad history, the likelihood of those emails landing in spam is higher. Even if your emails land in the inbox, the users will be surprised to see those after a long while. So there could be a possibility of higher spam complaints from your audience. That will hurt your email deliverability as well.
So in essence, the longer they stay in deliverability issues, the harder it gets to solve them.
Striking the Right Balance When It Comes to Sunsetting Users
Most SaaS companies rely heavily on email to communicate with prospects and customers. It’s a channel that is unmatched in its ability to reach targeted audiences at scale, relatively cheaply.
In order to maximize email performance, there are several things that need to be taken into consideration: your message should be as dialed-in as possible and provide clear value to the recipient. The days of casting a wide net with a general message are long gone, and the best email practitioners are cognizant of quality over quantity.
Great segmentation is key to ensuring the right audiences receive the most targeted message possible – at the moment when they are ready to receive it. Of course, segmentation is not a new concept, and by now most companies are doing some version of it.
Leaving the technical and compliance aspects of email deliverability aside (as those can be solved once someone has an understanding of the requirements), a major challenge for marketers is deciding someone should be moved from an active email list to an inactive when they haven’t unsubscribed.
Remove them too soon, and that’s a lost customer. Wait too long, and your spam score will creep up while your email performance drops. It’s a delicate balance and one that is not often solved in marketing alone. It usually requires synching with sales, data and ops to make sure stakeholders are aligned on what an active vs an inactive user is, and getting buy-in across the board to decide when it makes sense to stop marketing.
Marketing orgs invest heavily to acquire those email addresses through a variety of campaigns, and it can be painful to move inactive members out of your marketing funnel. But the health of your marketing funnel requires a regular, steady database cleanse to remove those inactive email addresses (that will—let’s face it—probably never return to the fold of active users).
Digging Into the Details Is Daunting, Yet Important
This is a great question and—much like many things in the email deliverability world—it can depend. I wouldn’t say there is just one specific issue that is the hardest to solve because every customer of ours is different in how they use data and how their business operates. Best practices are not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather they’re all about safely pushing and pulling data to maximize deliverability and customer reach.
In my opinion, one of the hardest parts about email deliverability is really understanding each individual customer’s data, sending infrastructure (IP, Domains, IP + Domain, etc.), and business objectives.
Encountering a Spamhaus listing or Gmail reputation issue can be extremely impactful to your deliverability and revenue, but the majority of the time there are underlying data issues that need to be fixed, and each customer must solve them differently.
The power to potentially influence how an entire business collects, maintains and sends data every single day can be a daunting task.
Not to mention, how you approach cultivating the narrative to all of the key stakeholders and how they should approach email deliverability for the long-term takes a lot of perseverance and confidence. Many times, this leads to real architectural and philosophical changes from the customer that are not easy, or cheap.
This is where being able to analyze, understand and articulate the data—plus, show the impact of doing such changes—becomes one of the most important parts about working in 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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