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A Beginner's Guide to Email Deliverability

February 21, 2017
By Phil Davis

email-deliverability .jpgMost people believe the idea of referring to junk mail as “spam” is because the emails are considered “fake messages” just as the Hormel product is considered “fake meat.”

But did you know the idea is actually from a Monty Python sketch? It’s true.

Regardless of the origins of the phrase, email marketers are (understandably) insulted when their messages are marked as spam. The way to avoid the shameful moniker is by understanding the importance of email deliverability and a .

Read on to learn the basics about email deliverability and why it’s a metric every email marketer should care about.

What Email Deliverability Is (and What It Isn’t)

Though they sound nearly identical, “email delivery” and “email deliverability” are two different metrics. Unfortunately, many marketers use the terms interchangeably, which only adds to the confusion.

The best way to think about the relationship between email delivery and email deliverability is to consider them two steps in the same process:

  • Email delivery is step one and is often referred to as “acceptance rate.” It indicates whether or not your message is accepted by the internet service provider (ISP)—in other words, can it even be delivered in the first place? Email delivery only measures the messages that did not bounce, regardless of whether the email ended up in the recipient’s inbox or bulk folder.
  • Email deliverability is the second step and can also be called “inbox placement.” This is the percentage of emails that actually make it to the subscriber’s inbox. It is a better measure of success than email delivery, since emails that reach the inbox have a much greater chance of being opened. If all an email marketer can say is, “At least the message was delivered!” it’s similar to a server bringing you an ice-cold dinner two hours after you ordered and then exclaiming, “Well, at least I brought your meal!” While true, the experience is much different.

The Elements of Email Deliverability

Email deliverability is affected by three primary factors: identification, reputation and content.

  • Identification. Consider this akin to when you’re asked to present your driver’s license at the airport. This is the stage where the subscriber’s ISP determines if you are who you say you are by using a set of standard protocols: Domain-Based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC); DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM); and Sender Policy Framework (SPF). These protocols are the gatekeepers to the recipient’s inbox.
  • Reputation. This is a score assigned to your domain which indicates your level of trustworthiness as a sender. It is based on a number of factors, including (but not limited to) blacklist listings, bounce rates, complaint rates, email volume and spam trap hits. Your reputation dictates what ISPs do with your messages—for example, does your email hit the inbox, or is it marked as spam?
  • Content. The quality of your content has a substantial impact on whether or not your message makes it to your recipient’s inbox. Emails with spammy subject lines such as “FAST CASH” or “MAKE $$$ TODAY” or copy with excessive exclamation points, weird formatting or URL shorteners are all big red flags to ISPs. In addition to these obvious email marketing mistakes, make sure your content is high-quality and relevant to the recipient.

A Quick Email Deliverability Vocabulary Lesson

We could create an entire blog post simply on email marketing terms. (In fact, we did. Twice.) But because the goal of this article is to introduce readers to email deliverability, and not overwhelm them, we picked five of the key email deliverability phrases to know.

  • Blacklist. A real-time database of senders who have been marked as spammers. If an email fails to meet the criteria for legitimate mail, the domain is added to the blacklist, which affects the sender’s ability to get future messages to a recipient’s inbox.
  • CAN-SPAM Act. The abbreviation for the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003. The law established national guidelines for commercial emails and mandated senders to allow recipients to opt out of their messages.
  • Hard Bounce. An email that has been returned to the sender because the address is non-existent, blocked or invalid. Repeated hard bounces can hurt a sender’s reputation.
  • Soft Bounce. An email that cannot be delivered due to a full inbox or server issues. If the message cannot be delivered after 72 hours, it becomes a hard bounce.
  • Spamtrap. When email servers see a previously valid address that is now repeatedly triggering hard bounces, they can turn the address into a spam trap. This means if a sender continues to email the address, the email server knows they are ignoring the hard bounces and will report them as spam.
  • Honeypot. An email address created for the sole purpose of catching spammers.

Email deliverability is certainly a complex topic, but we hope after reading this post you have a better understanding. If you have any questions, feel free to give us a shout, post on our Facebook, or tweet at us!

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