Perhaps I should not be so surprised at the level of confusion. Most marketers are just going with the reports they are being given.Most email broadcast systems report something called "delivered." It's usually a pretty high number -- like 95% or 98.8%. That's because it's probably only telling you how many messages bounced, and nothing about how likely messages are to actually reach the inbox. Bounces are the number of records on your file that either no longer exist (a hard bounce) or are having temporary delivery failure (a soft bounce), perhaps due to an out-of-office reply or a full mailbox or some glitch in the ISP server.
Most marketers who keep their lists clean and have good permission practices have a bounce rate of 1% to 5%. So that "delivered" metric is high, and often stays high consistently. Since it's the only number most ESPs provide, this lulls marketers into thinking they also have inbox deliverability under control. Those deliverability challenges they keep reading about? That must happen to other people.
What's the number marketers really need to know? Inbox deliverability: How many messages actually reached the inbox so you can try to earn a response? Let's be honest. Very few subscribers will search for your message in their junk folder or contact you if they didn't receive it at all.
You know about spam filters and probably know that some of your email gets lost. However, many marketers don't know the full extent of the problem. In fact, about 20% of email marketing messages globally never reach the inbox (source: Return Path client and ISP data). And if marketers think it couldn't possibly happen to them, they are fooling themselves.
Twenty percent is a big number. Most marketers would be very pleased with the instant revenue boost that would result if all the response metrics -- opens, clicks, purchases, downloads, page views -- went up by 20% this week.
The fact is irrefutable: Email must reach the inbox if it has any hope of earning a response.
The good news for marketers is that the factors that go into whether your messages reach the inbox are under their control. They can improve inbox deliverability rates by following best practices around complaints, permission, list hygiene, blacklists, frequency, relevancy and yes, bounce processing. Marketers need to pay attention to what their reports actually say. And then they must be sure that they know the inbox deliverability, and know it by campaign and by domain (e.g.: Gmail vs. Yahoo). This data should be considered an addition to whatever your ESP or MTA reports as "delivered."
Knowing that your bounce rate is low is a good thing. But it won't guide you on optimizing response. If you don't see inbox deliverability data, then ask for it.