Email is undoubtedly the most widely used and trusted channel for businesses and people to communicate. However, getting emails into an inbox takes more than simply hitting the send button. While today’s spam filters do a good job of separating the credible from the not-so-credible, many organisations can get caught in the crossfire in the war against spam, with their emails also ending up in the junk folder as “false positives”. In today’s competitive marketplace, reaching a customer’s inbox is critical for building relationships and generating a strong return on investment (ROI).

This year, on average, one in five messages failed to reach the inbox, with 21% being diverted to a spam folder or blocked entirely. Global deliverability also experienced a slight but steady decline quarter over quarter, with 24% of messages failing to reach the inbox in the last quarter.

Emails that are deemed malicious or untrustworthy (and these can often be legitimate emails) are generally blocked at the gateway, never reaching the inbox or the spam folder. However, for messages that do make it past the gateway, spam filters then consider authentication practices, sender reputation, subscriber engagement, and content to decide if it should be placed in the inbox or the spam folder. Marketers looking to boost their own deliverability and avoid the spam folders must focus on these.

Anyone who sends email, whether they know it or not, have a sender reputation. This score is like a barometer for the health of an email program, and provides senders with an important understanding of how Mailbox Providers (MBPs) see their programs. Do they see the emails as legitimate and wanted by their mailbox users, or as spam that should be blocked from the inbox. Each MBP has its own formula that scores incoming mail to determine whether to deliver it or filter it. The formulas generally contain the same elements; unknown users, spam traps and complaints. Every spam trap, unknown user, and inactive account a list contains damages a company’s reputation, deliverability, and could even lead to emails being blacklisted.

In addition to your overall reputation, some MBPs—especially the Big Four (Gmail, Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL)—also incorporate inbox level engagement metrics (e.g. ignores, deleting unread, recovered from spam, etc.) into their filtering decisions. Marketers who frequently generate high levels of positive engagement from their subscribers from higher inbox placement rates, while marketers that generate low or negative engagement from their subscribers are more likely to find their emails landing in the spam folder.

Engagement is also a function of the level of trust that exists between sender and receiver. Trust is strengthened when consumers are confident that email programs will only use their personal data for the intended purpose. Senders can reinforce this trust by being open about what subscribers will receive, providing them with the ability to change their preferences, and making a strong “no 3rd-party emails” promise. In return, subscribers will be more likely to provide their “primary” email address. This is their “best” address – the one they access every day, open their emails from, and are most likely to transact from. Return Path shows that while only quarter of a typical list is formed of primary addresses, five in six of all opens are generated by these addresses.

The deliverability landscape is changing, and it’s only getting harder to reach subscribers’ inboxes. Acquiring and maintaining quality subscriber data, establishing trust between sender and recipients, understanding the basics of deliverability and what’s needed to build and maintain a positive sender reputation, as well as increasing positive subscriber engagement, is therefore key to a successful email marketing program.


By Guy Hanson, senior director of professional services at Return Path


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