Preface by Matt McFee, Founding Partner, BriteVerify
At BriteVerify, we often counsel clients on the benefits of email verification in the context of email deliverability and inbox presence. These conversations typically center on the notion that “if you have all the other deliverability elements in place, cleaner email data will improve your deliverability.”
However, clean data alone doesn’t guarantee email campaign success. The ‘other deliverability elements’ mentioned above assumes our clients have the right messaging infrastructure, acquisition and data management strategies, and email messaging strategies in place to maximize the success of each email campaign. Since these elements fall outside of our purview we aren’t always able to educate our clients on the best way to ensure campaign success after the email verification process.
This is why we’re excited to present the second in a series of educational articles co-developed with Travis Wetherbee (@WC_Delivery), passionate anti-spam advocate, deliverability consultant, and ex-Postmaster at Hotmail. Our first article entitled ‘The Truth About Spamtraps’ provided insights about different types of spamtraps along with some great lessons for the reader. We can only hope that this article is as widely embraced and valued as our first. And now…on to Travis!
Disclaimer: In this article we will not attempt to define email deliverability. Instead we will present factors that have the greatest impact on your ability to deliver email messages to the inbox. While deliverability is widely considered difficult and sometimes referred to as magic, we will do our best to define the important factors and suggest courses of action that you can use to improve your deliverability strategy.
Demystifying Deliverability is broken down into 3 sections, all of which can significantly influence the success of your long-term email deliverability. While there are other variables in the deliverability equation, we believe Messaging Infrastructure, Data Acquisition and Management Strategy, and Messaging Strategy are 3 very important ones. We will present the basics of these 3 factors below and look forward to engaging in the spirited discussion and debate that is certain to follow!
Deliverability Factor 1: Messaging Infrastructure
The foundation of any successful email marketing program is a strong and reliable messaging infrastructure. Think about your messaging infrastructure as the car you drive to work each day. Your car serves a very simple but important need; to take you to work so you can earn an income and then to take you home safely. A reliable car will get you to work as expected each and every day. An unreliable car could get you to work on time some days and not at all on other days.
Your messaging infrastructure will have similar influences on your ability to deliver emails reliably and create value for your company. For the same reasons most of us prefer to rely on auto-makers to build our cars, messaging infrastructures are also best left to the professionals. The world’s best Email Service Providers (ESPs) build and manage the most reliable messaging infrastructures available.
As we dive deeper into the components of a reliable messaging infrastructure it becomes easy to see why your infrastructure is best left to the experts. As with many things in life, getting deliverability right takes a lot of effort and support. Getting it wrong takes almost no effort at all!
The experts at your ESP will be responsible for setting up the fundamentals of your infrastructure. These fundamentals include:
When your domain’s DNS is correctly set up it will have a zone file which includes MX, A and PTR records. You may also include a text record which will mainly be used for email authentication.
Each step of the DNS setup process plays a key role in helping your email messages reach the inbox. When setup incorrectly your DNS will cause your well-crafted messages to be blocked, junked or deleted by the receiving ISPs.
Another key factor that falls under messaging infrastructure is Authentication. Authentication has evolved from the standard rDNS lookup to today where DKIM, DomainKeys, SPF and SenderID are needed to help ISPs authenticate you – the sender. No single method is better than the other and each has their advantages and disadvantages. While DomainKeys Identified Mail, or DKIM, has proven to be the most widely adopted method we strongly recommend you set up SPF and SenderID as well to make sure you are properly covered.
Whitelisting & Feedback Loops
Last but not least is Whitelisting and Feedback Loop setup. Once the rest of your infrastructure is setup correctly you can apply to be whitelisted and setup feedback loops with ISPs that offer them publicly. Both Whitelisting and Feedback Loops are essential to maintaining good deliverability.
Whitelisting – Whitelisting it is fairly straightforward. There are a few ISPs that offer in-house whitelisting. Once accepted, your emails are subjected to less spam filtering than a sender that is not listed. However, whitelisted senders are held to a higher standard when it comes to email deliverability metrics such as complaints, spamtraps, hard bounces etc. In addition, ISPs that offer whitelisting have application processes that can include lengthy probationary periods during which your messages will be scrutinized. You should be on your absolute best behavior during this period.
Complaint Feedback Loops – Complaint Feedback Loops, often referred to as FBLs, are a form of complaint feedback by which ISPs forward complaints originating from their customers to the email sender. For years email recipients have had the ability to complain about junk email but senders had no way to access to this information. Originally pioneered by AOL, complaint feedback loops help senders maintain their complaint rates by promising to remove the subscribers that click the “this is spam” button.
Easy stuff right? When a reputable ESP builds your messaging infrastructure many of the deliverability fundamentals are taken care of. Just hop in the car, turn the key, and drive. But what if you’re a terrible driver? Your ESP can only guarantee that a good messaging infrastructure is ready for use. The way you use it, however, will have as much if not more influence over your inbox presence. So drive carefully and read on.
Deliverability Factor 2: Data Acquisition and Management Strategy
Now that you have a reliable messaging infrastructure it’s time to look in the mirror, so to speak, and evaluate your data acquisition and management strategy. Or more simply, how are you getting people on your list and what are you doing once they are there.
The cleanest method of adding new subscribers to your email programs is to collect opt-in submissions through forms on your website. On-site registration allows you to control the registration flow, data collection method, opt-in method, and data verification process of each new consumer BEFORE adding them to your list. Having complete control over the opt-in process will ensure that you have properly informed each consumer what you have in store for them once they join your list.
Owning the process also allows you to perform verification on each email address entered into your forms. Using a service like BriteVerify will identify data-entry mistakes and communicate with consumers to get corrections. Email verification ensures that your new emails are clean and ready to use while improving the profitability of your data acquisition programs.
While ‘on-site’ data acquisition typically yields the most responsive and problem-free subscribers, the cost-per-new-acquisition can be high. There are many other ‘off-site’ ways to obtain new email addresses. These alternative methods have varying degrees of risk and reward. Some, but not all, of the risks associated with ‘off-site’ data acquisition can be mitigated by your internal data management practices. Consider ‘off-site’ acquisition methods as a compliment to a well-managed ‘on-site’ strategy and please do so with extreme caution. To echo our previous comment, acquiring clean responsive data that won’t interrupt deliverability can be difficult, but destroying deliverability with poor acquisition methods is easy!
Once new email addresses reach your database the data is yours. If you verified data on the way in you will have email addresses that are free of hard-bounces. If your new data (regardless of acquisition method) has not been verified contact a service like BriteVerify to remove the addresses that will hard-bounce upon deployment. Delivering to email addresses that do not exist is not viewed favorably by ISPs. Don’t allow data quality issues to derail all the work you’ve done up until now. Verification is simply, quick, affordable, and, most importantly, it will remove a negative variable from the deliverability equation.
In Section 3 we will address Messaging Strategy as it relates to deliverability. However, as you begin to deliver messages you will need to pay attention to a few things. First, make it super-easy for recipients to opt-out of your list if they choose to. The position of your unsubscribe language is critical as is the ability for a recipient to remove themselves with one simple click. Remember, it only takes one click for someone to identify your message as spam. Make unsubscribing easy so the ‘This is Spam’ button doesn’t become the preferred opt-out method. Based on previous studies, upwards of 60% of all ‘This is Spam’ clicks are consumers attempting to opt-out of future messages. If your members take this route your deliverability may suffer.
Another by-product of your messaging strategy will be handling hard-bounces and soft-bounces. If you haven’t cleaned your data or hard bounces materialize through natural attrition you must remove those from future programs. In addition, soft bounces, or email accounts that are temporarily unable to receive messages (think OOO responders, inboxes over quota, temporary suspension of service) should be monitored closely and possibly removed if these emails don’t become deliverable over a short period of time.
Role accounts, or accounts that are set up to serve a function like accounting@, postmaster@, info@, sales@, etc. should also be removed. These addresses will dilute your engagement metrics and they could affect your deliverability. To learn more about soft-bounce removal strategies and how role accounts could influence deliverability please read our first article ‘The Truth About Spamtraps’ hosted at blog.briteverify.com.
Assuming you have complimented your ESP’s messaging infrastructure with a clean and attentive acquisition and management strategy, you are now safe to jump into your messaging strategy. A good messaging strategy will deliver information your members find useful, timely, and relevant. However, a poor strategy will ultimately destroy all the hard work and investment you’ve made up to this point.
Deliverability Factor 3 – Email Messaging Strategy
The primary goal of your email messaging strategy is to create value by increasing your members’ engagement with your brand. Typically, strong brand engagement will result in increased profits generated by your email programs. Higher profits will make your bosses happy.
However, ISPs don’t care about your bosses and instead rely on metrics like engagement, bounce rates, complaint rates, and content to determine what kind of reputation you deserve. In the eyes of an ISP, your reputation will determine whether your messages land in the inbox, spam folder, or trash. We will use our remaining time together to present the different variables that contribute to your mailer reputation. Pay attention, dangerous curves ahead!
Engagement: Testing, Testing 1, 2, 3…is This Thing On?
Have you ever heard the quote ‘consider plan B your new plan A?’ No, you haven’t, because we just made it up!
All kidding aside, the quote implies that your original plan A is not as reliable as it used to be. Plans B, C, & D are often needed to compare against plan A to determine which plan will deliver the most value. In the email world (and just about every other world) this is known as testing. Good email marketers test every variable possible, from subject line to time-of-day and everything in between. Testing in small doses ensures that your large email deployments will result in maximum member engagement.
POP QUIZ: What happens to deliverability when we send useful, timely, and relevant messaging that results in lots and lots of engagement?
ANSWER: Deliverability improves! Whew, that was a tough one.
Your ESP has testing tools built into your messaging infrastructure. USE THEM! Successful testing will improve member engagement rates. Strong engagement rates will improve reputation metrics. Good reputation metrics will improve deliverability.
More Information on Engagement
Each ISP has different thresholds for ‘positive engagement.’ However, they all believe that email marketers who consistently drive high engagement rates should have a better reputation. Engagement is considered a Positive Reputation Metric by ISPs, whereas complaint rates are considered Negative Reputation Metrics.
Very few things in today’s email ecosystem can positively affect your deliverability rates like a highly engaging email messaging program. Consider this: within the last 18 months several large domestic ISPs have introduced functionality that prioritizes the order of emails in your inbox based on which emails their customers want to see. This functionality determines the order by measuring engagement level with each email message’s sending domain. Get used to it, engagement rates will likely be considered a primary reputation metric by the ISPs for a long time to come.
We have worked with marketers who batted 2 for 2 (good infrastructure and data strategy) only to fall flat when it came to their email messaging strategy. This resulted in a very weak reputation. In rare cases the opposite has held true. From time to time we have witnessed brands go 0 for 2 but flawlessly execute their messaging strategy and, by no coincidence, see their deliverability rates flourish. This illustrates the power of engagement rates with the ISPs.
Ignore Rate: The Opposite of Engagement
As we mentioned earlier, ISPs have different thresholds for what qualifies as positive engagement. This means you should always generate the maximum engagement possible using techniques we share in this article. But what about those subscribers that never engage with your messages? These people drag down your engagement metrics, reputation, and deliverability.
I found a great example of how fleeting engagement metrics can be in my spam folder this week. One year ago I signed up for a daily news email with the intention of getting a quick snapshot of the important news in my inbox rather than searching it out on the web. I engaged daily with these emails at first, then weekly, and most recently only once a month at most.
Last month these messages stopped landing in my inbox and are now exclusively delivered into my spam folder. I suspect my reduced engagement had everything to do with these emails finding their way out of my inbox. If this is the case, what should this marketer do next?
How best to handle non-responders is one of the better debates going on right now in the email circles. Our suggestion is to consider a few variables before creating your own plan. First, determine exactly how long a subscriber should be unresponsive before moving them into this category. Second, create a separate program dedicated to winning back interest in your program. Third, determine why subscribers become unresponsive by asking about content, frequency, and delivery location so you can make your main email messaging programs better. Lastly, link non-responders with their acquisition method. If you find that one method or source of data acquisition results in the highest # of non-responders eliminate it from all future programs.
OK, enough about what engagement can do. Let’s get to the factors that ultimately produce engaged subscribers.
Timely & Relevant Content
Question for you: When was the last time you had a friend offer you a drink at the exact moment you became thirsty? Probably never right? Not sure about you, but my friends have better things to do than predict when I will become thirsty. Selfish right?
Email marketers are different. Successful email marketers can predict when needs will arise and fill those needs quickly. What’s more, subscribers love brands that deliver what they need exactly when they need it. How does this translate to increased deliverability rates you may ask? Through engagement metrics my dear Watson!
Timely and relevant messaging is the key to engaging your subscribers. But I am sure you already knew this. What you may not know is that engaged subscribers are far less likely to report your emails as spam. Since highly engaged subscribers don’t typically click the ‘This is Spam’ button, timely and relevant messaging also lowers complaint rates. ISPs believe that senders with low complaint rates should have better deliverability.
By becoming an expert on timely and relevant messaging you can improve two key reputation metrics in the form of stronger engagement and lower complaint rates. These changes will positively influence your mailer reputation. From experience on both sides of the fence I can honestly say that brands with better mailer reputation will have better deliverability.
Targeting is another key factor in your messaging strategy column that is often overlooked. From a deliverability perspective not sending targeted messages is akin to leaving money on the table during a negotiation. Subscribers are used to websites collecting data on their age, location, likes and dislikes in exchange for free stuff. Unfortunately, many marketers do a very poor job of using this information to create value for both themselves and the subscriber? Use all data collected to your advantage by segmenting your subscribers and creating content specific to the needs of each segment. This approach will reduce the dead weight and improve engagement metrics and other negative reputation metrics.
Why ask for the information if you aren’t going to use it. Targeting subscribers based on information collected during the opt-in process should be a no brainer. This bears repeating. Targeted messaging increases engagement rates, engaged subscribers directly affect deliverability by way of positive reputation metrics.
To some, email deliverability can seem like magic. But to those that make an investment and put in the hard work, deliverability is simply the well-deserved byproduct of a strong partnership (infrastructure) and good planning (data and messaging strategies). These two pieces go hand-in-hand in the pursuit of strong, consistent, and reliable email deliverability.
In the end, the pursuit of email deliverability is unending. From time to time, ISPs will tweak the rules forcing you to comply with a new set of standards. This makes the partnership with your ESP even more important as they are often the ones helping translate the changes into action steps.
Our last bit of advice is to remain active in the email marketing world by attending shows, interacting in forums, and keeping your knowledge-base up to date. You will find yourself falling behind unless you’re actively learning from the thought leaders in our space. Deliverability is a high-speed train. Once you’re on board you can get to your destination safely and quickly. Just don’t get off for a break because if the train leaves you behind it’s going to be expensive and time consuming to catch it the next time it comes by!
Travis Wetherbee (@WC_Delivery) is an anti-spam advocate and email deliverability consultant. Travis has 10 years of email experience, starting as a member of the Postmaster group at Hotmail and including years of deliverability services at Strongmail Systems and WhatCounts. Travis’ consultancy focuses on Email Deliverability, Marketing, Messaging Security, and Anti-Spam Services.
BriteVerify.com is a global leader in email verification services. Our mission is to deliver tools that help data owners follow best practices in email acquisition and protect themselves from the email evil-doers. Visit briteverify.com today to learn more.