To subdomain or not to subdomain? That is the question or something along those lines. There are often so many questions that come in around sending domains that range from “What is it?” to “Does it matter?” to “Should I create a new domain” to “What do I use?” to “Why can’t I use that?” to “Oh, can I use this?”
In this month’s roundup, the experts from Word to the Wise, SocketLabs, Netcore, ActiveCampaign, Epsilon, and Campaign Monitor, as well as myself, your very excited Kickbox deliverability geek, share advice about selecting a sending domain and things to consider when it’s time to make that decision.
DomainsA domain is your destination.
You can also think of it as the text right before the .com in an address, kickbox.com.
Often referred to as the “organizational domain” or “root domain”. and subdomainsA subdomain is the added portion before the domain, mail.kickbox.com.
This can be used for many things, such as defining your webpage, email identity, or message stream. are used throughout your email, and each one carries its own reputation with it, so it’s important to be mindful when selecting your sending domain. It takes time and work to build a domain reputation, and once you do, it’s not a quick switch, nor is it easy to swap it out.
Your sending domain is the domain that will be used to declare who the message is from. And depending on who you speak to, which “From” your speaking about can vary.
Both the “Friendly FromThe “Friendly From” (5322.from) is partnered up with the Display Name.” and the Return-PathThe Return-Path (5321.from) is declared in the communications from the machines transmitting the message to those receiving it.
The Return-Path instructs bounce feedback and directs SPF authentication. carry importance and a unique purpose. When they align (match), you’re in the best position possible to declare that you “are who you say you are, a superstar” *cue Superstar by Lupe Fiasco.
So let’s begin…
Big Brand Senders Should Ride the Benefits of Their Brand
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I think Shakespeare here was downplaying the importance of branding and the trust that comes with a well-known brand.
Focusing on the world of big senders, if you already have an established brand and your intent behind the new stream is sincere, my advice is simple: Use a subdomain of your branded domain.
Take advantage of the recognition and relationship you already have with both your customers and the mailbox providers!
If what you need it for is a new stand-alone brand, then, my friend, still use a subdomain and anchor it to your new branded domain.
Steer clear of cousin domainsCousin domains that are created to look like the original domain, but are often used maliciously to deceive recipients, i.e. service-kickbox.com. There is a whole industry of scammer spammers and malicious intent out there. Avoid confusing your customers by using a domain they can’t clearly identify.
The end result may create more suspicion than anything, and they may end up falsely marking your mail as phishing and stir up a whirlwind of trouble for your deliverability.
If you’re asked to create a new sending domain because there is a new initiative that will knowingly create reputation issues for your BAU streams, then that warning sign should be burning a hole into your retinas.
Look away! Most likely, you’re better off not going near that initiative with, as Dr. Suess said, a “39 and a half foot pole.”
- Don’t get tied up in selecting the perfect subdomain. Most don’t see the light of day since the “Friendly From” Name is a display hog.
- Do make sure what you select does not appear spammy or deceptive.
- Tie your subdomain to your stream category based on purpose, product/service, division, etc. to allow:
- Customers and Mailbox Providers to customize their filters and actions on incoming mail.
- Unique reputation identities to build for each stream, which can help limit the impact on your most important streams if a problem arises on another.
- Customize security and email functioning for each of your streams (specific IPs allowed for each, DMARC policy, DKIM identities, return mail servers, etc.).
- Protection for the organizational domain used to send your day-to-day correspondence.
- Let your customers know what your new address is so they can update their safe-sender list.
- Warm anything new.
- AUTHENTICATE with SPF and DKIM and align (as best you can or as the technology permits) “both” sending domains and DKIM, and (therefore) DMARC.
- New (organizational) domains, including (gasp!) cousin domains, should:
- Match the purpose and site that the stream was sourced from mixing and matching is where suspicion arises.
- Be registered and left to sit in existence for at least 3-6 months if not more so as not to emulate the behavior of spammers that spin up domains just to burn and discard them.
- AUTHENTICATE (in case I didn’t mention that already).
At the end of the day, you need to be recognizable and trusted. Anything new should be clearly announced and phased in. Although a name is just a name, the smell is not so sweet if it’s mistrusted.
There Is No Single Answer When It Comes To Email Domains
The answer to that question depends on why they’re looking for a new domain for their email stream. What problem are they trying to solve by using a new domain?
If a new domain is an attempt to avoid blocking, my advice is always: Don’t Do That.
In my experience, it’s much harder to condition (aka warmup) a new domain or subdomain than repair the reputation of an existing domain or subdomain.
This is even more true when the domain is newly registered. A number of filters take domain age into account and treat newly registered domains as risky for months.
Subdomains, especially new subdomains, inherit some of the reputation of the parent domain, and bad enough reputation will hurt delivery even on the new domain. When senders are dealing with domain blocking issues, fixing the problem lasts longer than trying to outrun the consequences.
Some senders, though, need new domains for technical reasons or process reasons like expanding to a new program, moving to a new sending setup or trying to separate out their mail streams.
In most cases, I advise setting up a subdomain and conditioning it with the subscribers most likely to send good signals to the machine learning filters.
The actual naming of the subdomain doesn’t really matter. Use something that makes sense in your environment. If pressed, I will recommend SPF domains have bounce in the name, click and link tracking domains have click or ln in the name.
Generally, use what makes sense for your infrastructure and makes it easy for your staff to recognize what the domain is when troubleshooting things.
In a few cases using separate domains makes sense for a company. Typically, these are cases where non-employees generate bulk mail.
Consider the situation where users send invites to a system or posts on a social media site sends alerts to the individuals.
Another common case is companies that provide direct email services like mailbox providers or ESPs. They have separate domains for their customers and their corporate email. In these cases, using separate domains protects company mail from the mailing practices of customers.
There is no one answer for every company and every situation.
Consider the User Experience, Best Practices & Don’t Be Too Cute
Email marketers have big plans. And those aspirations can lead to beautifully crafted emails that drive engagement like never before, or they can lead to marketers stubbing their deliverability toes by moving too fast on an idea or waiting until the last minute to get all their ducks in a row.
Unrealistic timelines for implementation and lack of a thoughtful approach are some of the most common reasons why you may see unfortunate results for what would have been an otherwise successful campaign.
Thankfully, I recently sat down with blocklist providers and managers from Proofpoint, Spamhaus and SURBL during the ANA Email Evolution Conference.
They were able to share some incredibly helpful advice on how to stay off their radar, and keep your messages flowing into the inboxes of your recipients. You can check out my full recap from our discussion later.
For now, I’ll share a few of their insights that are highly applicable to selecting a new sending domain:
Consider the user experience with your brand. Marketers are often tempted to use lookalike domains for a new project or email stream (such as ‘yourbankpromo.com’ being created by ‘yourbank.com’) This typically happens because doing so allows you to bypass certain authentication challenges and corporate red tape that may come with sending from a subdomain under their company’s top-level domain (TLD).
But senders beware! These are brand new domains that look suspicious to anti-spam filters and blocklist and mailbox providers.
They can also lead to recipients mistaking your legitimate emails for phish. I can’t think of many things more damaging to sender reputation, so consider how the outside world might perceive what you’re doing during your project’s planning phase.
Follow industry best practices. I know, I say this a lot. But it’s important! Particularly for new sending domains, be sure you’re collecting permission from recipients before emailing them, authenticating all of your mail (with SPF, DKIM, DMARC), and engaging in regular list hygiene.
All of this will come in handy when you’re trying to make that ever-important first impression during warm-up. And yes, that was my subtle way of confirming that you do need to warm-up your sending domain just like you would an IP.
Remember that clarity normally outperforms creativity. Adding brand voice and a creative touch is great, but not if your actual message is lost in translation.
Make sure that no matter what From Name or sending domain you decide to use, it’s 100% clear that the mail is from you.
An employee’s name instead of your brand in the From Name or a subject line with pop culture references may not be understood by all of your readers. So try not to get too cute.
Ultimately, the best approach for your use case will depend upon what you’re trying to accomplish and also what your roadblocks may be to getting there. But make sure you’re thinking about the long-term success of your project, as well as what allows you to stand it up the quickest, because you may be trading a small headache today for a deliverability migraine later.
Cousin Domains Cause Confusion & Contribute to Mistrust
A domain name is your brand’s identity online. It is the place where you connect directly with your customers, partners and prospects. Being consistent with your brand is more important than ever these days to build a strong relationship with your customers.
So that raises the question, “When do you need a new domain for email”? This really depends on how you think about a “new domain.”
Purchasing a new domain:
In the realm of email security and anti-phishing, sending emails from a domain that is similar to your organizational domain but is actually a different domain can lead to a lot of user confusion.
This is also commonly referred to as a cousin domain. Is the mail legitimate from mail-example.com when a user subscribed at example.com, or is this a clever phishing attempt against a brand? It’s hard to say and can cause users to lose trust in a brand’s email, resulting in higher complaints or phishing reports.
Word to the Wise summarises the problems with cousin domains nicely in this article.
Configuring a new subdomain:
This is the ideal situation for any brand. It builds on the established brand recall with your users. Example.com and mail.example.com. This allows for a brand to utilize a single domain name with a virtually unlimited number of subdomains for any purposes they choose.
You can implement a subdomain for marketing, transactional, support-related emails and any other type of message you plan to send to consumers.
This allows for a common domain to be used and segmented domain reputations to be built for each mail type. This also avoids a number of problems brands often experience with crowded email authentication records after trying to jam all these different services and purposes into a single domain.
In short, use a subdomain for email when you need a new domain, don’t purchase other domain names that work to dilute your brand and confuse your customers.
Do You Have All of the Puzzle Pieces?
When working with customers who have decided they are changing their sending domain, I prefer to understand the ‘why’ behind the request first. 9 out of 10 times the decision was made without having all the pieces of the puzzle.
If you are changing domains or setting up subdomains, it’s generally tied to 1 of 2 reasons:
- You are rebranding or this is coming from a place of necessity or true business need.
- You are running away from a deliverability issue with your current sending domain.
If we are discussing a rebrand, then we are on the same page. Let’s get to business!
If you are running away from a deliverability issue, well…
Overall it’s easier to fix a bad domain than to start sending from a new one. Switching domains will not fix a deliverability issue because whatever was causing the issue is likely to return.
Plus, these problems will probably be worse on a fresh domain with no reputation. At a minimum, I educate on the pros/cons, then we can decide on what’s best for a particular customer depending on their unique deliverability issues.
Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of the puzzle pieces:
- Domain changes – The obvious change is you will be sending from a new domain that either has no reputation or an unknown reputation. This must be warmed up appropriately to prevent serious throttling and deliverability issues. And don’t forget to set up authentication for this new domain.
- Template changes – Do you plan to pair this change with a fresh template or layout? This may cause confusion with your recipients if not preceded by a ‘heads up’ email of sorts.
- Content changes – Are you changing what you send and how often? How will this impact overall engagement? Will it remain relevant and continue to generate interest? I’d be sure to offer easy ways to unsubscribe or update communication preferences.
- ESP changes – Are you pairing this change with a migration to a new sending platform? I work for an ESP, and I don’t recommend this as it introduces too many new variables that can impact your performance. Either rebrand, stabilize performance, and THEN migrate… or migrate, warm-up sending, and stabilize performance before beginning your rebrand.
- Branding changes – Will your emails have a new color scheme or logo? This is almost certainly the case, so there is a need to co-brand a few emails prior to making the full switch. This will help with recognition early on and will likely reduce spam complaints and accidental unsubscribes.
- From address changes – While the biggest factor here is the domain, the full ‘friendly from’ address is what contacts tend to use when adding you as a ‘safe sender’. You’ll want to encourage recipients to update their safe sender list with the new email address/domain.
- Filter changes – Email inboxes are smart, and individual inboxes learn the behavior of the user. These filters will have to be ‘re-trained,’ so to speak, so giving your recipients a heads up on possible temporary spam placement and asking them to open/drag the email to the inbox can make this transition smoother.
My overall golden rule is, DON’T change more than 1 puzzle piece at a time. It’s the Science Major part of my brain. A good experiment with too many changing variables doesn’t provide reliable results.
A Few Notes About the From Domain (a.k.a. Return Path)
Some of our most frequent questions are regarding sending domains.
Typically, a new sending domain is required when a client switches ESP or adds a new brand/mail stream to their current program.
It’s important to give this some thought because mailbox providers use the sending domain (and the sending IPs) as principal identifiers for sender reputation. This is especially true with Gmail.
To start with, you really want to use a sending domain that clearly identifies your brand as the sender of the email. The easiest way to do so is to use a subdomain of your main domain to send mail.
- We advise our clients to use a subdomain (email.domain.com) rather than a root domain (domain.com) for sending emails, as it needs to be delegated to us for link tracking to work.
- Senders should avoid using “cousin domains” at all costs (e.g., “email-domain.com” instead of “email.domain.com”) because it looks like phishing.
Subdomains can be used to separate the reputation of different mail flows. Let’s say you send transactional messages and want to isolate that flow from the bulk messages that are more likely to generate complaints and run into reputation issues. You can use a different subdomain (e.g., “receipts.domain.com” for the transactional mail and “email.domain.com” for the bulk mail) on top of separate IPs to preserve the reputation of the transactional mail flow.
- Mixing mail streams on the same sending domain isn’t necessarily a problem. It only gets problematic when a mail stream that’s very clean is matched with a more problematic one, sender reputation gets intermingled and the problematic stream can negatively impact the “good” stream. It’s definitely something to keep in mind when you plan your set-up.
- If the reputation of one of the mail flows gets really, really bad, this could somewhat transpire to other subdomains using the same root domain.
What about using the same sending domain concurrently from different ESPs? Not a good idea.
First of all, technically, some bounces and complaints could end up not being received by the appropriate ESP. On top of this, as reputation would get mixed up between the mail sent from the different platforms, it would be much harder to troubleshoot any issues.
We advise using a new sending domain when changing ESPs. Yes, it’s a pain – the reputation built on the previous domain will be lost, and the new domain will need to get warmed up.
Transferring a domain over from one ESP to another carries multiple liabilities. For example, CAN-SPAM requires the unsubscribe link to stay active for 30 days after an email was sent. This means that you’d need a minimum break of 30 days between the last send on [old ESP] and the first send on [new ESP] (if your linking URLs are the same as your sending domain).
It’s usually just easier to set up a new domain and start from scratch, building up reputation on the domain as you warm up.
Quick finishing notes:
- By “sending domain”, we mean the domain that is used in your bounce-to address, and to authenticate your emails – not the “friendly from” that is visible to the recipients.
- At Epsilon, we encourage our clients to align the domain used in their sending from (a.k.a mfrom / envelope from / bounce to / returnpath), their Friendly From, their Reply to addresses and even their tracked links – this way all their reputation remains attached to that particular domain, and they’re fully set for DMARC, should they wish to implement it.
- M3AAWG has published some guidelines on that topic.
Define “What, When & How” Before Changing Sending Domains
When an organization decides to change its sending domain, there are many internal discussions that happen as part of the decision-making process. The organization needs to decide what is the new sending domain, when will it start using the domain to send emails, and how exactly it will manage the transfer from one domain to another.
In some circumstances, like mergers and acquisitions, an organization may be required to change its sending domain to align with the business changeover and do so by a set date. While such a situation removes some of the ambiguity of the “what”, the hard deadline of “when” may add pressure on how to change the sending domain both thoughtfully and expeditiously.
If this transition is not carefully managed, the organization risks its emails being blocked or filtered as spam. It’s also worth noting that changing a sender domain is not the solution to deliverability issues brought on by poor sending practices.
We recently assisted a client in changing their sending domain due to an acquisition, and it’s a great case study that highlights the key factors that need to be successfully managed during this process. Our overarching goal in this process was to help the client re-earn the same metrics on their new domain.
Some of the elements that made this particular case interesting were:
- A fast-approaching deadline to send from the new domain.
- A schedule that prevented sending from the current domain while building the new domain’s sender reputation.
- Thousands of B2B recipient domains, which often have strict anti-spam filters.
- A lengthy communication chain involving our Deliverability team > the client’s marketing team > contacts at each recipient organization > each recipient organization’s internal IT team.
Generally, a domain ramp-up requires a gradual increase in email volume sent from the new domain while continuing to send the majority of emails from the established domain.
This trains the anti-spam filters to associate the two domains, both in terms of content and volume. Once the anti-spam filters expect to receive the specific content from the new domain, they’re more likely to treat the emails favorably and filter them to the inbox rather than the spam folder.
Being mindful of the client’s strict timeline, we devised a concise ramp-up plan to safely move their email traffic to the new domain and minimize any fallout. Fortunately, the client was very amenable to our recommendations, and we asked them to:
- Create MX, SPF and DKIM records for their new domain
- Set up a “From” and a reply-to address for their new domain, making sure both addresses could send and receive emails
- Send an email from the current domain notifying their subscribers of the change in sending domain and ask the subscribers to add the new “From” address to their Safe Sender contact list
- Share the detailed allowlisting instructions we created for them with each recipient organization’s IT team to avoid any misunderstanding along the communication chain
- Segment their list to follow the concise ramp-up plan, allowing them to send to their full list within 5 days.
I’m happy to say that the plan worked without any setbacks. The client was able to transfer their marketing program to the new sending domain without a notable drop in delivery and engagement rates.
The key focus of any domain ramp-up process is to ensure technical best practices are in place, notify subscribers of upcoming change, and spend sufficient time training receiving servers to accept and treat emails from the new domain favorably. Following these guidelines then makes deciding the what, when and how of changing sending domains less complicated.