Duck The Spam Folder With Seven Hidden Metrics: The Return Path Study

Email delivery is the dismal science of online marketing. You may devise a brilliant email campaign, only to find it fails because of delivery issues. But you can avoid that nightmare by measuring what Return Path calls The Hidden Metrics.

The Hidden Metrics? Yes, those are seven elements that can tell you if your emails are getting opened or shoved into a spam trap—and why. Your service provider should have these metrics on its dashboard.

All this is laid out in Return Path’s new study, The Hidden Metrics of Email Deliverability. The company studied over 5 billion commercial email messages sent by 17,000 entities to 2.5 million consumer panelists last year. The messages went to Microsoft , Google, Yahoo, and AOL users.

As MediaPost’s Jess Nelson reports, the study reveals that both spam rates and engagement levels rose in 2016. How does a company avoid the former and achieve the latter? Overall, the deciding factor is now subscriber engagement. Here are the seven hidden metrics:

The Spam Placement Rate

Historically, this would seem like the most obvious indicator that you have a problem. But there has been a shift in how it is determined. How you fare depends on your reputation — that is, by your sending patterns and behaviors. It is also determined by engagement, or subscriber behaviors. A low rate means you’re a trusted sender, and that people want to read your emails. But, Return Path warns, “a sudden increase in spam placement could indicate an issue with a specific campaign, or your entire email program.”

How are marketers faring? “Overall spam placement rose by one percent from last year,” Return Path tells us. But this slight increase “conceals the varying shifts in spam placement on an industry level. Insurance, which had a high spam placement in 2015, was able to improve its deliverability and achieve a 15 percent decrease in spam placement.”

The Read Rate

The read rate is another critical metric. It’s similar to the open rate, but is “far more accurate because it accounts for all emails viewed, regardless of image rendering,” Return Path writes. How do you ensure that you have a high rate?  

Various factors can have an impact on read rate,” Return Path states. “The quality of your subject lines and timing typically have the greatest influence, but deliverability issues can also be the culprit behind a sudden decline in emails being read.”

Here’s what to watch out for: Consistently low rates can prompt mailbox providers to see your email as unwanted, resulting in a trip to the spam folder.

Overall, read rates jumped by 8% last year, and each industry studied saw an increase. The largest boost was in the distribution and manufacturing sector.

The Deleted Before Reading Rate

Some consumers get so many emails that they go on deletion rampages, while others pinpoint the messages they want to delete. Either way, it shows a lack of interest on their part.  

“A high deleted before reading rate is a sign of a failed campaign,” Return Path writes. “But a consistently high deleted without reading rate may be an indication of permission issues or a lack of satisfaction with your overall email marketing program.”

As we reported, read rates rose last. But so did delete before reading rates — by an average 4%, according to Return Path. And every industry was hit. 

The Reply Rate

The reply rate is easily defined — it’s the number of replies you get from the total messages sent. A high rate could mean your subscribers are engaged. And that’s good.

But don’t rest on your laurels if you have a soaring rate: It could show that people are trying to unsubscribe, Return Path warns.

“Truthfully, there’s isn’t a target ‘reply rate’ that your email marketing program should try to achieve,” the study argues. “Having a low (or no) reply rate won’t necessarily hurt your deliverability, but having a high reply rate can help.”

That said, Return Path adds, “We don’t suggest email marketers try anything gimmicky to increase their reply rate. Instead switch from your “noreply@” from: address to one that’s managed.”

Here’s the good news — that the reply rate more than doubled last year, compared with 2015. The biggest winners? The insurance and utility industries.

The Forward Rate

Does anyone forward your email? We hope so — it’s the ultimate testament to your campaign. “Forwards are generated when subscribers and an email interesting enough that they want to pass it on to others,” Return Path writes. It means you’re attracting both subscribers and their networks.

Unfortunately, email forwards occurred only 0.3% of the time in 2016 — that's the overall average. Who had the best forward rates? Vertical sectors that rely on email for invoices and announcements that have to be shared — for example, like distribution and manufacturing and utilities.

The Complaint Rate

Generate a high complaint rate and you know you’re in trouble. “Spam complaints are a direct signal from subscribers to mailbox providers that your content is unwanted,” Return Path writes. And providers rely heavily on that in their filtering decisions. In 2015, spam complaints caused 21 percent of deliverability issues, Return Path adds.

On average, there were more complaints in 2016 than there were in the prior year. But some industries saw marked decreases — namely, telecommunications and distribution and manufacturing. The biggest losers? “Deviating from its strong performance in other metrics, utilities — along with flowers & gifts and office supplies — had the highest increase in complaints at over 0.15 percent,” Return Path notes.  

The This Is Not Spam Rate

Here’s another action that means your subscribers like you: When you end up in their spam box and they say that you’re not spam.  It serves as a “strong and positive indicator to mailbox providers that your emails are desired,” Return Path says. Or  it could also indicate “a false positive with the spam filter” — something you have to know.

But there’s one caveat: If your email is removed from a spam folder, you have to wonder how it got there in the first place. A low rate means you may not have a problem. But a high rate of mail being sent to spam (and a low ‘this is not spam’ rate) could mean “a lack of permission, lack of awareness, or simply a lack of interest from your subscribers.”

Last year, the “This is Not Spam” rate rose across the board.

So those are the Seven Hidden Metrics. Are you measuring them? We urge you to read the full report and delve more deeply into the findings. Path sums up by saying that “2016 saw a significant increase in both positive and negative subscriber engagement.” What to do? “Marketers aiming to land in their subscribers’ inboxes need to look beyond reputation and standard deliverability metrics, and begin considering subscriber engagement as a leading factor in email performance.” Here are some tactical tips: Test different elements, create subscriber segments and clean your list.




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