Five Common Myths About Email Deliverability

With more than one in five commercial email message being blocked or placed into the junk mail folder, problems with deliverability are common and can be problematic. Depending on your business, a large deliverability issue can reduce revenue generated from email by millions of dollars per month.

Unfortunately, mailbox providers do not provide a detailed roadmap for what exactly is causing a marketer’s delivery issue — nor do they provide detailed instructions on how to fix the problem. To make matters worse, the rules for obtaining great inbox placement change frequently.

Because of this lack of information and frequent changes to deliverability rules, several common myths about deliverability have sprung up to fill the information void:

Myth #1: If the content of your message looks spammy, you will have inbox placement problems.

Many marketers believe that having spammy content (e.g., “FREE!” in the subject line) will drive delivery problems. The reality is that spammy-looking content rarely, by itself, drives delivery issues. When there are content-based delivery problems, they tend to be keyed to  specific bits of content — such as a specific URL pattern — that have driven ”this is spam” complaints at the mailbox provider or have been seen in message sent to spam traps.



Myth #2: Because of engagement-based filtering, deliverability doesn’t really matter anymore.

Several large mailbox providers have instituted filtering at the individual subscriber level, based on the engagement of that subscriber with the email coming from a particular sender.  Subscribers who don’t interact with messages from a particular sender are more likely to have that mail put in the junk folder.

The argument goes that since only subscribers who don’t open and click will have delivery issues under this “individual engagement” filtering, a delivery problem doesn’t matter. The subscribers who open, click and convert will all get delivered.

In practice, deliverability problems are frequently based on many reputation factors (including engagement), and many of these factors are applied to all mail coming from a sender. Starting in March 2016, many marketers started to see dramatic drops in inbox placement at Gmail based on what are believed to be changes to Gmail’s filtering algorithms. A review of millions of Gmail mailboxes indicated that among those mailboxes that had “new” delivery issues were many mailbox that had significant activity with the sender.

Myth #3: The only way to drive better inbox placement is to stop mailing subscribers who haven’t opened and/or clicked in the last 30/60/90/180 days.

This approach is not appropriate for every circumstance and is extremely crude, throwing a lot of good addresses out with the bad. If a delivery problem is caused by a technical server configuration problem, sending less mail will usually not help. In cases where all mail from a sender is being filtered based on engagement rates, sometimes the right answer is to send more mail to the most engaged subscribers.  

Myth #4: Deliverability comes from my ESP.

Email service providers (ESPs) can provide guidance on how to address (and, better, avoid) delivery problems. However, most of the decisions and actions that drive delivery problems  are made by the email marketer (or other people in the marketer’s organization). The ESP is typically not in charge of list acquisition practices, design of the “customer journey,” decisions on list hygiene, and many other factors that determine inbox placement.

Looking at data from tens of thousands of senders that send via top ESPs shows some marketers  with good deliverability and others with poor deliverability across each ESP. It’s not the ESP, it’s the marketer that determines inbox placement.  

Myth #5: If I have authentication in place and I am signed up for complaint feedback loops with the major mailbox providers, I will have good inbox placement.

All commercial email should be authenticated. Taking this step will lessen inbox placement issues on the margin and make it harder for your domain to be spoofed. Signing up for feedback loops is a highly recommended best practice.

However, spammers can authenticate their mail with SPF and DKIM. They can also sign up for feedback loops. These practices are not enough to guarantee inbox placement.

With all these myths, what is a marketer to do? I would recommend a few things to start:

Measure your inbox placement to understand if you have a problem: It’s not enough to rely on the reports from (most) ESPs. These just show you whether your mail was accepted for delivery by the receiving mail server. That mail could then be put in a junk mail folder or simply deleted. You should develop reports to look at your opens and clicks by receiving domain to find new problems over time. You should use seed list and consumer panel-based delivery monitoring tools to understand what your true inbox placement rate is.

If you have a problem, get a guide: Deliverability can be complex. To achieve your optimal rate of inbox placement quickly, it’s best to find someone who already knows the ropes. This could be someone inside or outside your ESP.

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