'Delivered' Does Not Mean 'In The Inbox'

It's rather amazing how much confusion there is between the bounce rate and the inbox deliverability rate. I've been on the road much of May and June speaking at online marketing conferences -- and while every marketer understands that if they don't reach the inbox, they don't earn a response, there is a sense of complacency around inbox deliverability that is not grounded in the right data. Marketers think they know their inbox deliverability rate, but in fact are either misinformed or just do not have access to that information.

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.

5 comments about "'Delivered' Does Not Mean 'In The Inbox'".
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  1. Sharon Swendner from .Com Marketing, June 17, 2009 at 11:46 a.m.

    Good points and very true but I find it interesting that the ESPs are not necessarily reporting on this. Our provider reports on standard bounce rates as well as a "delivery rating" which incorporates complaints but not specific measures of inbox deliverability.

  2. Keith Treco from Goodmail Systems, June 17, 2009 at 12:11 p.m.

    Stephanie makes a great point in that email marketers typically aren't measuring what % of their email gets to the inbox. There are several good tools out there that enable you to measure INBOX and bulkbox delivery, giving you a better idea of your REAL deliverability. I would be remiss if i didn't mention there are also tools out there, such as Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail offering, that enables senders to bypass spam filters and provides confirmation of inbox delivery, removing the challenges of default image
    blocking, false positives and unreliable bounce reporting.

  3. Kelly Lorenz, June 17, 2009 at 1:35 p.m.


    I work at Bronto Software, an ESP, and we have the standard reporting that Stephanie mentions regarding the "delivery rate. Essentially, any email that does not bounce back is considered "delivered." Unfortunately, the ISPs do not provide information back on where the message went if it didn't bounce, so we have no way of reporting the true inbox delivery rate. With that said, seed lists, like ones that Return Path provide, help you get closer to a determination of your true deliverability. As Stephanie said though, this is still just an estimation because ISPs will (likely) not tell you your true inbox deliverability for every message sent.

    What will give you a good indication of this, however, are your complaints by domain. ISPs have a range of acceptable complaint levels, and if you are higher than range, you can expect at least a portion of your deliveries are going into the spam folder. You can also take a look at the IPs' reputations you are sending over using, which will give you another indication of how likely you are to hit the inbox.

    Hope that helps!

    -Kelly Lorenz @ Bronto

  4. Jim Taylor from Eternity Enterprises, LLC, June 17, 2009 at 2:16 p.m.

    Great information. We are going to look into a program for email campaign deliveries. We just launch another email campaign and now I am wondering if anyone is receiving our emails. Thanks Keith for your comment I'll check it out at Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail offering.

    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." We need a system in place.

    Thank you.

  5. Allen Maccannell from SenderOK, June 25, 2009 at 10:09 a.m.

    With the increasing use of authentication for emails, responsible senders should have more of a guarantee that their authenticated emails will reach the inbox. If end-users are using the SenderOK email overload management plug-in, authenticated email from accredited senders will be taken out of the spam box if accidentally placed there...along with other "good email" from senders who are in the user's address book or from sites where the user obviously just visited.

    Such authenticated email will be represented by icons in the inbox list pane which will greatly increase open rates. This performs an anti-phishing function for the end-user while giving ESPs with reputable clients an added edge.

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