Why delivering your e-mails into users inbox became so hard and what you can do to about it

If you are an email marketer you know that ISPs are making your life harder. A lot has worsened in 2015 and you have probably seen your deliverability rate fall to the ground. We all have suffered at some level and this new scenario is forcing us to take email strategy and governance to a whole new level.

Every digital marketing campaign starts with the same purpose: capture interested and engaged leads. Although not always worried about the “interested and engaged”, everyone know that leads are equivalent to gold in the internet universe. And, in the end, leads are the best way to keep contact and create a relationship with potential buyers. That’s probably why more than 50% of growth hacking tips seen include some form of e-mail.

So, now it’s very common that websites develop any number of lead capturing strategies that goes from pop-ups and exit intents to landings pages, free content, webinars and more. And what does everyone do with leads? Send them lots of e-mails, of course. Yes, you should be feeling guilty! Users want stuff for free, but this doesn’t mean that they want to be bothered with a sequence of e-mails from you.

I know what you’re thinking:

– but they have opted-in!

We know that, because it’s an old misconception. But nowadays, there is a price to pay if you are still thinking like that.

Here’s the hard fact:

ISPs have been getting harder and harder on spam fighting policies for high volume senders and it doesn’t matter if you are a viagra spammer or not.

But users are helping make things even worse! Those who have opted-in. And it was a simple UX change that caused this: more evidence to the report spam button. That’s when “report spam” became the new “unsubscribe” for users. By making it too easy to report spam. User behaviour is another big thorn on your side. Yes, people are even reporting spam at transactional e-mail stage, simply because they can!!!

In the past, it was ok to think that if the customer has not unsubscribed, or clicked into report spam, they still want to receive your message, even if they didn’t open or click it.

Maybe they are saving it for later, right? Damn, right! But major ISPs don’t care about that. They have “improved” their SPAM algorithms and now track user engagement by analyzing opens, clicks and replies as a way to understand if you might be a candidate for their spam folder.

In other words, if most of your emails are sitting unopened in users inbox you are going to get into spam anytime soon.

The first symptom was a weird delay on our email delivery (also known as email throttling).

— “This cannot be happening” was all I could think over and over…

There are so few articles you can trust, or people willing to help on email deliverability & governance that we decided to write a full guide on what’s been learnt during the hard process of getting and staying out of the spam folder.

This is also a guide on how you too can keep your levels of deliverability at a maximum.

Step 1) Understand How User Engagement is Measured

Regardless of anything else you have read, these are the main types of user engagement you need to be aware of:

  1. Email Reported as Spam
  2. Email Unsubscribed
  3. Email not read
  4. Email read, then deleted
  5. Email read, then clicked
  6. Email read, then replied to / Sender in Contact List

These engagements levels will have different weights depending on the frequency of email received from a source (usually a domain).

So take note:

  1. The range here goes from very bad (1) to very good (6).
  2. For your peace of mind, user engagement must be from 4 to 6.
  3. But from 5 to 6 is even better
  4. If you are a high volume sender being at 3 is already quite dangerous
  5. 1 and 2 is dangerous to anyone, which means that algorithms are working toward to classify your email as spam, and passing it on!

And remember, do everything you can to avoid high complaint rates (user who report your email as spam) at all times. You should never go beyond 0.3%.

Step 2) Email Technology Set UP

  1. Choosing a email system is hard and there’s a lot of rubbish out there. If you’re astute you would choose SwiftERM as your default email remarketing system. As it delivers one email at a time, from your HTML server, to only those people who have opted to be on your database, and only send them emails with the highest possibility of their being interested-in, with the highest likely buying propensity. That this is probably the cheapest solution in the world shouldn’t be under-estimated, nor classify it as anything other than the most effective. The great news is that if you are using it, and you choose to, you can ignore all the rest of these necessities! ESPs such as mailchimp and hubspot are not guaranteed to pay off but are cheap and reliable or you could set up your own system using MandrillSendgrid or Amazon SES etc.
  2. If you can’t develop your own system go for the big players such as Pardot or Vero and ask for discount by the end of their sales process (they can go up to 75% of discount from their list price and this segment is getting a red ocean of competitiveness — this is no joke). however it is still the old technology of segmentation and you still have to select products for them.
  3. There are some interesting options for self-hosted email out there. We are currently researching Arp Reach with Amazon SES (which seems to us to be a good email service to deliver to hotmail accounts if you don’t have a certified dedicated IP) for promotional/manual emails, or you could use Sendy.
  4. Add your domain to the only whitelist that matters: DNSWL.org
  5. Have a SPFDKIM and DMARC records in place (all of them). They help you certify which services are allowed to send e-mails in your behalf and guarantee to ISPs trustworthy of e-mails from your domain.
  6. If you use Google Apps we advise you to follow Google Help on how to setup them or contact your email service or marketing automation tool to help you with that. Check Google on SPF RecordsGoogle on DKIM and Google on DMARC.
  7. Make sure to setup SPF and DKIM for each one of the services you use to send email in behalf of your domain (e.g.: ticketing systems, CRM systems, etc.) and not only your email and email marketing/automation service provider.
  8. There’s no need to setup SPF2.0 (sender ID). It’s obsolete and it makes no difference to improve your deliverability with hotmail/outlook/live ISP despite being mentioned in some articles on the web.
  9. Avoid too many DNS lookups in your SPF Record. Use the Email Stuff Checker here to find out how many lookups yours have.
  10. Setup a Reverse DNS (also known as PTR Records) whenever possible. Many email service providers help you with that. This is how you have to do it in Mandrill.
  11. There are some wizards that may help you with SPF Records. We recommend this two: SPF Wizard or Unlock the Inbox.
  12. Should you go with dedicated IP? Only if you are a very high volume sender (Over 1MM emails / month) and if your are planning to have an Email certification from a company such as Return Path in the long run.
  13. If you decided to go with a dedicated IP understand that it takes time for it to get good credibility with ISPs, even using the IP warm up option in email service providers. So expect worse results at the beginning and up to 3 months to see it get at good levels. Every single new IP is seen as a potential source of SPAM by ISPs.
  14. Although sender score of shared IPs might be lower than dedicated IPs, a few spam complaints won’t hurt as much as if you have your own domain. In the end what matters is not shared IPs sender score but email service provider quality in first place. Good email companies have strong governance on complaints and unsubscribe rates to have their shared IP at the best possible performance. Bad email software companies have no idea what’s going on and this might hurt your domain.
  15. We recommend a mix of dedicated IP and shared IP, but it really depends on your sending volumes and setup.
  16. If you go with dedicated IPs, don’t have too many. Two is a good number.
  17. Remember that if you decided to use dedicated IPs make sure they are at your SPF records with the ip4 syntax.
  18. Should you use a different domain for your promotional emails? This is a good idea if you want to avoid affecting your email communication. Companies such as Buffer use buffermail.com to send newsletters, for example. The rule of thumb here is: use a domain that relates to your branding to avoid confusion.
  19. Whatever domain you use avoid using e-mail addresses such as mail@yourdomain.com or news@yourdomain.com to send e-mails.
  20. It’s better to use people names as senders, but don’t forget to say that they are from your company. Buffer send messages from “Courtney from Buffer“.

Step 3) Feedback Loops

  1. After initial setup steps, check if your setup is okay with MX Toolbox or Google’s Check MX.
  2. Have a Feedback Loop System in Place. A feedback loop allows you to be notified from all major ISPs everytime an email user report you as spam. This will allow you to automatically or manually remove emails from your list. One of the worst thing you can do nowadays is keep sending emails to users who have marked you as spam. All SwiftERM email have an opt out selection built-in.
  3. Some email sending service providers will automatically set up a feedback loop for you. For example, if you use Sendgrid or Mandrill don’t worry, they do it.
  4. If you send emails through your own servers or use a sending service that does not automatically set it up for you, go and do it yourself by manually registering in the feedback loop of major ISPs. Here’s a full list.
  5. To register at them you must create an e-mail specifically for compaints reports. Create both abuse@yourdomain.com and postmaster@yourdomain.com.
  6. Add those e-mails to Abuse.net.
  7. Have a privacy policy page in your website. Some feedback loops will ask that you do.
  8. Some feedback loops will notify you about complaints, but won’t tell you which user has done it (which will not help you on identifying which user to remove from your mailing list). So it’s important to add the recipient email address automatically in the html of each message (e.g.: this email was sent to “loremipsum@gmail.com” because you have subscribed to our newsletter)
  9. If you are having problems with Gmail you can contact them through this page.
  10. If you are having problems with Hotmail you can contact them through this page.
  11. Unfortunately they usually don’t answer you, but I think they consider it somehow.

Step 4) Lead Generation and Email List Management

  1. You have to avoid sending to incorrect emails addresses at all costs. Although it might be a simple typing error from a user, ISPs think that you might have purchased a email list with a lot of non-sense emails used to bloat lists or that you are inserting inactive e-mails who won’t report your e-mails as spam. So your lists should never have over 5% of inactive/disengaged users.
  2. To help you with that there are some tools on the market, such as: KickboxBrite Verify and Verias.
  3. Mailgun offers a free API email validator that you might want to try.
  4. Many of those services allow you to verify emails right at the opt-in forms, which saves you time and let user correct mistyping. But the verification may take up to 3 seconds (or more) and may impact user experience.
  5. Always use a checkbox (remember to let it unchecked) to ask users to confirm that they want to receive newsletter or promotional emails.
  6. Always use double opt-in email to validate user intention and engagement. Trust me, although this may reduce your conversion or lead capture results, it will give you more piece of mind in the future.
  7. All those steps are also important to avoid Microsoft Spam Traps.
  8. Create a routine of list cleaning: for example, you should remove any e-mail address which has not engaged with your e-mails for more than 3 months. But this depends on your e-mail sending and lead capturing volume, so you are the best person to choose cleaning frequency.
  9. Do not send more than one e-mail a day. Although this may seem obvious, be aware that having different landing pages, lead capturing boxes and e-mail systems (for transactional, promotional, etc.) can make this happen without you notice it. But ISPs and users will surely do.

Step 5) Monitoring Tools

  1. Always use monitor tools to keep a close eye on your performance.
  2. Use free tools from major ISPs, such as: Google Postmaster and Microsoft SNDS
  3. And choose a paid tool such as: Inboxtrail or 250ok. Other options here.

Other Observations

  1. No matter what you do, you will see a higher complaint rate during weekends from unsolicited emails(which will affect your delivery rates on monday). Happy engaged consumers have a higher buying propensity at the weekends, with higher CTR and much greater conversation rates.
  2. Every effect on your e-mail strategy usually takes 24h to take effect. ISPs algorithms don’t work on real-time. They usually process results in 24 hours.
  3. Hotmail/Live/Outlook is the worst ISP to deal with nowadays. If they represent a big portion of your mailing list, you really have to consider investing in a Return Path certification.

How to Get Back into the Inbox

First, understand that it’s possible!

  1. Do all the steps above;
  2. Monitor your feedback loop every single day to take out complainers e-mail addresses;
  3. Use inbox monitoring tools to correct wrong decisions (content, subject, etc.) as fast as possible;
  4. Send emails only to engaged contacts (this meant reducing our mailing list from 200,000 emails to 20,000 — hard but it was the only way to start reverting our domain reputation on ISPs);
  5. Keep volume constant, don’t vary too much your sending intervals and volume;
  6. Create a re-engagement strategy and send it to very low number of e-mails. If you see bad results, consider building your mailing list from the ground up;
  7. Wait, be patience and test a lot of different content strategies to improve engagement;
  8. After two weeks of the first signs of improvement, start capturing leads again with all best practices in place.
  9. Have in mind that your master objective is: engagement. period.

If you still want to use 3rd party systems

  1. For simple email newsletter I do recommend Mailup (mailchimp is effective, but expensive). However it is not personal and as an Experian report found, underperforms SwiftERM by 6:1.
  2. For automation system, you might try Pardot or Hubspot
  3. If you are an E-commerce you could try Klaviyo.

Final note:

Like it or not this is the new level of governance you must adopt in order to deliver your companies emails to users inbox. technology is massively enhancing solutions to all these problems, none more so than SwiftERM.

If your levels are still ok, the recommendations above might improve it to even better levels. If you are not delivering well, keep in mind that it takes time (3 to 4 months) to get out of this hole. It’s very distressing but it does revert and get back to good levels.

Please try the FREE 30-day SwiftERM trial, keep it simple, keep it personal!