Category Archives: Deliverability

Managing your Sender Reputation

Over the last decade or so, marketers have faced many challenges with deliverability (getting emails delivered to the inbox). Today, the most important factor associated with successful email delivery is entirely in your hands! As a marketer there are many different factors that you need to be aware of in order to successfully deliver email marketing campaigns; the most important of which is your Sender Reputation.

Sender ReputationA Return Path study found that 77% of delivery problems were based on sender reputation. Your Sender Reputation is a measure of how trustworthy you are as a sender (like a credit score), and has a direct relationship with getting your emails delivered; If you do not have a good sending reputation, you will not get your emails delivered.

So what’s included in building your Sender Reputation and how can you ensure you keep a good Sender Reputation and the best chance of being delivered to your recipient? Here we are going to look at 5 key elements.

  • Infrastructure

Ensuring your technical infrastructure is in place so that receiving ISPs can identify that you are who you say you are, is the first element you should consider when starting your email programme as well as maintaining a good Sender Reputation.  You infrastructure is often the first thing that the ISPs look at when determining whether or not to deliver your emails and includes the following elements (there are others in addition so make sure you talk to your ESP):

Make sure you look at the following areas of authentication in particular:

- WHOIS contact information

The WHOIS database gives users a way to contact you should they want to provide feedback, unsubscribe or complain for example so it is important to make sure your contact information is up to date and clearly available.

- Reverse DNS

Reverse DNS determines the authenticity of a domain compared with the IP address it is originating from.

- DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) + DomainKeys (only used by Yahoo!)

Your domain reputation starts with validating your domain by implementing DKIM authentication. Having a DKIM record is often a requirement to be able to apply for feedback loops.

- SPF (Sender Policy Framework)

Senders must publish an SPF record for their (sub)domain to prevent spam and spoofing by validating that they’re sending IP is allowed to send from that domain.  Most ISPs will check for a valid SPF record and if it is not present/valid, will often place the emails into the junk folder.

- Monitored postmaster@/abuse@ email addresses on your domain

This allows ISPs to contact you should any issues occur with your email programme so ensure that you have these set up and monitor them regularly.

  • Volume

Spammers have a tendency to send inconsistently and in high volumes. To ensure you don’t appear in the same way, it is important to consider the typical volumes you send and the consistency of your volume so that ISPs can learn your sending behaviour.

  • Spam Traps

Many ISPs will reclaim email addresses after a certain period of inactivity (one of the two types of spam traps that could appear in your list). By emailing subscribers that have been inactive for a long period of time, you run the risk of inadvertently emailing one of these reclaimed spam traps.

The other type of spam trap that could occur on your list has been set up by ISPs as a decoy email specifically designed to catch senders who obtain addresses through data harvesting. This may not even be something you are doing yourself, but if you are using a purchased list for example, you may inadvertently be buying this type of spam trap (purchased lists may also include spam traps created through inactivity).

To avoid spam traps, try following some of the below tips:

- Only email users that have explicitly opted in to receive email communications from your brand.

- Ensure that you are segmenting your database by activity recency and changing your messaging strategy for those who are inactive to try and re-engage them.

- Monitor external sources of data that you may be using to ensure data quality.

  • Complaints

Complaints are one of the biggest reasons for a drop in sender reputation and decreasing deliverability.  There are many reasons why people complain (press the ‘spam’ button) including receiving too many/too few emails (and not recognising the brand), a difficult unsubscribe process or they simply didn’t understand what they were signing up to and when emails would be received.

If you are generating complaints (and it doesn’t take many to start causing deliverability issues – just 0.3%/3 in 1000 recipients) it is a good indication that something is not hitting the mark with your email programme.  In order to minimise complaints, it is important to provide targeted, relevant campaigns and deal with the reasons why people have chosen to click the spam/junk button to register a complaint.

Try focusing on some of the following elements to improve your complaint rates:

- Set expectations at point of signup.

- Ensure that your emails are what people expect to receive and sent when they expect to receive them.

- Make it easier to unsubscribe than to complain.

- Remove unsubscribes from your list immediately.  If someone has given you the benefit of the doubt and unsubscribed from your mailings, they may not do this again if they continue to receive communications from you and may reach for the spam button.

- Send relevant, targeted content. Utilise the functionality available in most ESPs and the information you store about your subscribers to send triggered emails and dynamic content to plan and broadcast relevant email campaigns.

- Ensure that you unsubscribe anyone who complains

  • Unknown Users

Unknown users occur when a subscriber’s email address is not recognised due to reasons such as the email address simply doesn’t exist or a spelling mistake was made on signup; also called a hard bounce.

As a general rule, if an email address hard bounces, it should immediately be unsubscribed from future sends. Broadcasts with a high number of unknown users/hard bounces can contribute to a drop in Sender Reputation.

As part of your technical infrastructure you should have strong bounce processing procedures in place to remove these and other types of bounces.

In order to ensure the quality of your data, ensure that you are checking email addresses on signup, either through the use of double opt in or through email address validation. If you are using affiliate marketing or other 3rd party sources to collect your data, keep an eye on these sources to ensure data quality.

With Christmas approaching and the volume of email marketing broadcasts increasing, it is even more important to ensure you keep your Sending Reputation high to ensure you make the most of your campaigns with a high delivery rate.

How’s your Sender Reputation looking and what do you think you could do to improve it?

Hot topics in email for August

Although August is the holiday season for most, the DMA Email Marketing Council is tireless in its quest to champion email and its dedicated members still met to discuss everything email, albeit with a few members missing.

The first topic discussed was the release of Return Path’s H1 2013 placements benchmark report and the headline statistic that 22% of permission based email worldwide fails to reach the recipients inbox. As a headline this is attention grabbing but we all agreed it appeared to be a much higher figure than anyone would expect. The figures for Europe (20%) and the US(14%) are slightly better but surely if this was true all our clients would be jumping up and down with frustration? Hence the questions arose regarding how and what data was collected. Is the date for retention or acquisition campaigns? Are the senders following best practice? Are purchased lists included in the data?

Fortunately, Richard Gibson of Return Path sits on the council and he was able to answer some of our questions after the meeting. The report was generated using Return Path’s proprietary email intelligence data from their own customers and although their are no exact figures, the vast majority would be retention campaigns. This means that purchased data and non-opt in is unlikely to have a significant effect on the report results.

So if we assume that the data used is a good cross section of retention opt-in campaigns, then we can only conclude that most marketers don’t know that 20% of their email isn’t making it to the inbox? Or here’s a thought. One reason to become Return Path certified is to improve your inbox placement. So a large percentage of data used may have been clients that had inbox placement issues to begin with so hence the higher than expected stats?

The other scorching hot topic for email marketers at the moment are Gmails new tabs and how they are affecting everybody’s open rates?  Our own Philip Singh wrote a great blog post early this month explaining how the new tabs work. Most members of the council that use Gmail regularly said they really liked the new tab filtering. It helps with email triage and actually means you keep more promotional emails for future use because they are no longer cluttering up your inbox.

How has this change affected opens? Litmus recently released a report that shows that Gmail opens have dropped 18% since the release of the new tabs. Putting this figure in context and looking at the graphs in more detail, Gmail opens In July 2011 were 2.95% and this rose to nearly 5% in late 2012. After this they starting a steady descent to below 3.5% in May 2013 when tabs were released. So I’m not really sure this proves anything yet and more data is required.

Mailchimp did their own research and they compared Gmail open rates for the previous 18 mths (2.5 billion) with open rates around the 6 weeks that the tabs were released. They only saw a drop of 0.5% in open rates but this was consistent for a 3 week period. Return Path looked at read rates of engaged recipients before and after the tab release and noted a drop of 0.74% which is pretty consistent with the Mailchimp findings.

As ever we shouldn’t get hung up on open rates. Its engagement and conversions that matter. Only time will tell if the new tabs will have a long term negative effect. At the end of the day if the recipient is interested in what you are sending then they are likely to read it whichever tab it lands it.


Tabbed Inboxes: What It Means for Email Marketers

I read an article recently by Weightwatchers that 7 out of 10 Britons spend 20 hours a day seated or lying down (I must remember to go to the gym tonight) and according to SAP, 24 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020.

More and more of us are accessing our emails at home, in the office, on the move, sat down or lying down and that brings me to the fact that email inboxes are changing.

Back in May, Google announced an update to Gmail that organises the users’ inboxes by tabs. While these tabs can be adjusted by the individual user, the default settings separate emails in the inbox into three separate tabs: Primary, Social and Promotion.

The broader roll-out of these changes by Gmail which has over 425 million active users and is the leading free email provider has taken place over the last few weeks.

In those weeks, several email clients have asked what the new tabbed inboxes mean for their brand and email programmes. While there appear to be some slight kinks in Gmail’s algorithm—we’ve seen promotional travel emails land in the Primary tab and bank statements in the Promotion tab—below are steps you, as marketers, can take now to ensure that your emails are being seen by the intended recipients whether they are sat or lying down when they read them.

While Gmail users do have the option to adjust their inbox tabs, assume they will not and will simply use the default tabs provided by Gmail.

  • Test all of your messages through the Gmail inbox to see which tabs they’re ending up in and adjust your email templates accordingly.
  • Send a one-off email to your subscribed house file or add some words to the top of your emails alerting Gmail users of the inbox changes. Include step-by-step directions to edit their settings to allow your brand’s emails to hit their Primary tab or the tab of their choosing.
  • Monitor the overall response rates of pre and post-tab implementation to understand how the change is affecting your key metrics. You may need to change your forecast projections based on what you discover.
  • Timing is more critical than ever with the new tabs. You should rethink how you customise communication streams to be based more heavily on consumer behaviours and triggers and other ways to contact consumers when they’re most likely looking for brand communications, no matter what tab they land in.  Also, focus on understanding when consumers are most likely to go into the Promotions tab versus other tabs.
  • Additionally, while 90% of email activity typically occurs within a few hours of receiving an email, we may see this window of time expand. Consumers may not check their Promotions box as often—or they may only check it when they’re looking to buy a specific product. Think longer shelf life. This may mean longer lead times on sales and promotions are needed.
  • As a brand, it’s more important than ever to stand out from the crowd now that all promotions are grouped together. Personalisation and customisation are a must. Data and customer insights will enable this level of relevance.

The good news is that we’re also seeing many triggered emails, such as confirmation, shipping and welcome messages, being placed in the Primary tab.  These email streams have always been valuable means of engagement. Marketers should think of new ways to leverage triggers knowing that they secure a prime spot in the inbox.

Smart marketers need to view the Gmail updates as an opportunity. We now have the ability to take advantage of an uncluttered Primary tab, as well as the Promotions tab which, with all of the marketing emails will essentially become a brick-and-mortar shopping mall.

I also read that 46% of co-habiting couples in the UK argue about the cleaning, but that has no bearing on me accessing my Gmail account, so I’ll leave it out till next time!

Yahoo! Changes will Impact More than just Email Marketers

Not to be outdone by its rivals caught up in the PRISM ‘scandal’, Yahoo! has decided the best way to deal with lapsed users is to give their private details to the first person that asks for it.  Okay, well it isn’t really that bad but their recent announcement that they will start recycling dormant email accounts on August 15th will have significant repercussions for the both ecommerce and the email industry.

About two years ago my iTunes account was hacked using a well known Apple scam.  The hackers just need your account ID, which they use to download apps. How can they download apps without the password you may ask? They can’t, but when you unlock your password those apps are downloaded to your device and they get the cash because it was their app that was being downloaded. The whole ordeal around getting this sorted is another post for a different blog, but the important thing here was the remedy I used to fix it, which was to create a Yahoo! account using a random password generator to create the bit before the ‘@’. So far so good, no dictionary attack has cracked this email account.

The problem is, that I don’t ever log into the account (clearly I will have to add this to the list of monthly tasks like cleaning out the washing machine filter and checking the smoke detector). What would happen if I missed this announcement from Yahoo!? Come the middle of August somebody could take this email address from me and suddenly have access to my iTunes account.  The password reset would go to the address that they control and away they go.  If I was like many people including Mat Honan of Wired Magazine, this email address would also be used for other things and I would have lost control of all of them.

This will also clearly have implications for me as an email marketer.  Loads has been written over the past few years about removing data that has not opened or clicked in more than twelve months from your list. The thinking is that inactive addresses are being used as spam traps, although there has been a lot of disagreement on this by email experts such as Dela Quist. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on this topic, you need a plan in place to be executed between the 15th of July and the 15th of August because if you email a recycled address – you will have spammed them.

Yahoo! will hard bounce all of the addresses that are to be recycled during this thirty day period, so you need to take this opportunity to tidy up your Yahoo! addresses.

There are well over 3 Billion email addresses in the world. It is not surprising that the email application providers want to start recycling them. Let’s face it, jimsmith@yahoo is a lot better than jimsmith345@yahoo. This is going to become a regular part of our world, so we better develop some strategies to address it.

LinkedIn: No greater email marketing #fail than over-writing your customers preferences

I just got this  email from LinkedIn  Subject Line “A change to your DMA: Direct Marketing Association (UK) Limited digests” – the 3rd such email I have had this week about a group I belong to.
In it they tell me that they are going to ignore my mailing preferences and unsubscribe me from the group digests of which I get 1 a week a frequency selected by ME! I have now been forced to go and re-subscribe to the weekly digests of groups that I want to hear from 3 times this week. Do LinkedIn really think that is a good use of my time?

Just in case anyone was wondering, while I am not really a FB kind of person I definitely am an UBER LinkedIn user.

- I am a paid subscriber and highly active – I post, place jobs, recommend stay in touch connect etc.
- I have several thousand connections
- I check my page multiple times a day and use it as my primary vehicle for maintaining my business network. I have my preferences set exactly the way I want them for some groups – no email, others weekly and some daily
- I get 10 or more emails a day from linked in and open about 1 in 3 on my desktop and 80% of them on my mobile
- I click on at least one a day and some days 3 or more
- I save all my emails I currently have 2900 in my Linked in folder of which less than half 1427 are “unread”
- I regularly search for old messages or invites and click on them

So how on earth can a bunch of engineers and/or too clever by half marketers come to the conclusion that they know what I want better than me?
The irony is by stopping the DMA group weekly digest, they are going to reduce the chances of me ever visiting again! I wonder how the DMA and other group managers feel about that.

I can’t understand why having gone to the trouble of asking me to set my preferences LinkedIn should choose to expressly ignore the stated preference from a highly engaged – dare I say knowledgeable – paying subscriber. Surely that is as bad as spamming after all what is so different about these 2 scenarios?

1) I use LI preference centre choose to receive 1 email a week – after 3 months LI decide to unsubscribe me for not visiting the group.
2) I use LI preference centre and choose to receive 1 email a week – after 3 months LI decide to send me daily digests or 3rd party emails from partners they think I should hear from

LinkedIn are insulting their members’ intelligence one would think that someone like me would know how to both unsubscribe or hit the spam button. So if I haven’t done either of those things, it’s probably because…I DON’T WANT TO!

Become a “permission purist” for maximum deliverability

The delivery rate you see in your email service provider’s UI only tells half the story. You may be sending with a 99% delivered rate but what that means is that your email messages were handed off to a receiver without a bounce response – what that receiver, usually an Internet service provider (ISP) actually does with the email when they receive it is perhaps the most important aspect which most marketers tend to take for granted.

When I talk about the topic of deliverability, I am always keen to stress that true deliverability is about making sure you as a marketer follow best practices as a sender in order to maximise the chance of your email marketing campaign reaching a subscriber’s inbox. If you’re not doing this, you are very unlikely to be achieving the end goals of whatever you set out to do – be it boosting your click rate, conversion rate or even just a simple brand awareness campaign whIch doesn’t even have a call to action. Bottom line is, if you aren’t getting to the inbox, your results are not going to be optimal – your beautifully crafted email creative could be languishing in the junk folder or, worse still, could have been deleted silently by the ISP.

Personally I am a purist for permission, in the Seth Godin sense of the word. If you want to send truly effective email marketing campaigns (not just deliverability, but overall ROI), and maximise your chances of reaching the inbox, then make sure you have permission to do so from the person you are sending to. Not only is this sensible commercially, but also legally – by ensuring your recipients have actually consented, or opted-in to receive communications from your company or brand, you are highly likely to be in compliance with most Anti-SPAM legislation that exists around the globe.

The consideration from a deliverability perspective is that permission best practices usually go hand in hand with data management best practice- making sure your list is clean of bad data which may hard bounce, making sure the data you have has an associated date stamp (be it acquisition source date, or last click/open), and making sure all those people who have unsubscribed, or opted out, of receiving your communications have been removed before send.

This in turn means that the metrics which receivers will judge you on should be relatively good, or at the very least, better than the worst offenders (spammers) – I.e. they won’t see you having loads of bounces, generating lots of complaints or unsubscribes and people will actually open and click within your emails.

If you are not sure what happens to the email once it has reached an ISP, then there are some key things to look at which may give you some insight. They will also help better protect yourself as a sender:

  • Monitor key metrics such as open & click rates – particularly by domain. If you are seeing noticeably lower rates at a particular domain that can be a good indicator that you are having some issues reaching inboxes at that ISP.
  • Also look at complaint rates and unsubscribe rates – make sure you are signed up to feedback loops and are able to process those complaints (your ESP should be able to handle this for you). If complaints are high this is potentially because subscribers are seeing your message as junk, or perhaps not expecting to receive it. If unsubscribe rates are particularly high then something is potentially very wrong as your subscribers have asked to receive these emails.
  • Track and Monitor your Sender Score – this will give you good insight into how receivers (ISPs) are viewing you as a sender. They will look at similar metrics – this can be done for free at
  • Regularly check your Inbox Placement – this will give you an indication of how ISPs are classifying the messages you are sending, either sending them direct to Inbox, placing them into the JUNK folder, or perhaps deleting them without a second look – this can be done by seeding your list with your own accounts at key ISPs, or by using a third-party such as Return Path’s Mailbox Monitor or IBM Unica’s Email Optimization tool
  • Sign up for SNDS – this is operated by Hotmail, but if you have a good proportion of Hotmail addresses on your list then this will provide useful insight into whether you are hitting any spam traps

Note that many of these depend on you being able to send from your own dedicated IP address – by doing this you typically need to maintain a good level of volume in order for receivers to have a consistent view of you as a sender, but even if you don’t have masses of volume at least you are in complete control of what is sent from your IP address. This way you are not held accountable to senders who may be using the same shared IP range as you, but who may have completely different business models or data management practices, which may not be as good as yours…

By constantly monitoring these aspects of your campaigns, you can tweak and adapt your email marketing programmes when issues arise, and are much better placed to maximise your chances of those emails reaching the inbox, in turn helping you to achieve your marketing goals.

Disposable email addresses in your subscriber lists

Disposable email addresses, sometimes referred to as anti-spam addresses, are email addresses that people use for a period of time and then disappear causing emails sent to that address to either bounce or get automatically filtered to the trash. No email address lasts forever but these types of addresses can have very short life spans. They can be categorised into two types. Those that exist permanently until the recipient removes them, which we will call semi-disposable, and those that exist for a short pre-defined period of time or for a set number of messages before disappearing. A semi-disposable email address is in effect an email alias. For example I have the email address shill@ but also the alias sh@. At any time I can remove the alias sh@ and the emails will start to bounce without it affecting my main email address. Many disposable email addresses are unrelated in any way to your main email address as they use a third-party email service and forward replies to your main account until the address expires.

Disposable email address services

Most ISP’s will allow you to create semi-disposable email addresses. Yahoo! Mail call the service AddressGuard. Gmail and Hotmail allow you to set up alias addresses so the new address gets delivered as normal to your main account.

Some ISP’s including Gmail and Hotmail also allow you to append a tag to your email address to create a new address. For example, if your address is, then you could also use or and they would both get delivered to your inbox. You can have any text after the “+” symbol to create an infinite number of possible email addresses.

The downside of using a tag to create a disposable address is that there is no way to remove the address should it start to get spammed. It will always be valid and if you no longer want to receive anything from the address you will need to setup filters to send it to your trash.  The advantage of an alias is that they can easily be deleted and the address becomes invalid and will then bounce.

If you want to create true disposable email addresses then there are many free services available such as SpamGourmet, TrashMail or Guerrilamail. Some give you the option of setting the number of messages your temporary address will receive before consuming or bouncing messages, others allow you to set a life span for the address. Some give you the option to do both.

Why do disposable email addresses exist ?

Disposable email addresses have been around for a few years now. People are very protective about their email address and are very aware that the more they give out their email address the more likely they are to receive unwanted emails and spam.  The idea is that you only give your real email address to friends,colleagues and trusted sites. For everything else you use disposable or semi-disposable email addresses.  You can give a different email address to every website or company that requests an email address. If you start to receive spam you not only know who shared your details but you can also simple remove the address and the spam will get consumed by the disposable address service.

How does this affect your subscriber lists ?

Semi-disposable email addresses or aliases are a standard part of email and shouldn’t really cause a problem within your subscriber list. If you’re sending relevant content at a good frequency to these addresses then the recipients will be less likely to remove the alias. Basic list maintenance such as removing your hard bounces in a timely manner will ensure that any addresses that are no longer valid will be removed from your list and not affect your reputation.

Disposable email addresses can cause more of an issue if they exist in large numbers in your lists. They can cause damage to your IP reputation and waste resources.  ISP’s use engagement as a measure for deliverability. If you send to disposable email addresses that aren’t being used then the emails will likely get consumed (deleted) by the service and your level of engagement will be lower. Some disposable address services bounce emails when they are no longer used and these should be removed in the normal way.

The best solution is to stop people subscribing to your lists with disposable addresses. When requesting an email address if you tell people exactly what you need the email address for and what you are going to use if for then you are more likely to get the “real” address you are after. As a second line of defence there are services such as that allow you to check for disposable addresses when the address is submitted and reject them.

It’s all about trust. If the user trusts that their email address won’t be abused then they are more likely to give you their real email address and not use a disposable address.