Email Deliverability Guide (part1)

TMO Group

SECTION1: The Most Important Fact about Email: Delivery is Never Guaranteed

Email is the backbone of the social web, making all the connections work. Can you imagine Facebook without email or any other web application functioning without email? It is the primary – and often the only – channel for communicating with members and customers. Everything from membership confirmations to friend requests and privacy updates – all of these are sent via email.

What happens if your email doesn’t arrive in the inbox? Your customers won’t receive their purchase confirmations or shipping notifications. That request for a password reset never arrives. They’ll never know that someone special from their preferred dating site wants to meet them.

Where does all this email end up? It either gets routed to the junk folder or it goes “missing” which means the ISP blocks it at the gateway, preventing it from reaching a mailbox at all. When this happens you won’t receive a bounce alert or an error message from the ISP. You’ll not only lose revenue but also risk losing trust as emails that were promised never show up.

How big is this problem? Deliverability is a secret crisis facing any business that relies on email communications. Most companies don’t think about deliverability until they have a major issue where thousands or in some cases millions of emails fail to arrive. People assume that an email is delivered if they don’t receive a bounce notification. The reality is very different: 20% of commercial email sent never arrives as intended*. If you’re an online business you need to take steps today to increase the reliability of your email communications.

So, what is email deliverability? Simply put, successful email deliverability is your message arriving in the inbox of the recipient as intended. Email deliverability failure is when your message is either routed to the junk/bulk folder or goes missing all together.

How do you make sure your emails get delivered? Luckily there are proven techniques to prevent failures and improve your delivery rates for the long-term. This guide offers an overview of the steps most businesses need to take to maximize their email deliverability:

  • Build your reputation
  • Secure your infrastructure
  • Authenticate your mail streams
  • Monitor your sending data
  • Send great content

 

SECTION2: Reputation: It will Open the Inbox – or Close it

Now that you know that some email is not actually delivered and that hitting “sends” is no guarantee, you’re probably wondering, “What do I need to do to make sure my emails get to the inbox?” The answer is clear and unambiguous: reputation.

But, what is reputation? In the world of email, sending reputation refers to a set of specific metrics directly related to your email sending practices. Senders with good reputations get delivered and senders with poor reputations get blocked at the gateway or their messages land in the “junk” folder instead of the inbox.

What are these reputation metrics? A strong sending reputation, like a great brand or personal reputation, is built over time. Here are the things ISPs look for:

  • Send Relevant, Properly Formatted Email: Sending good email that your subscribers want to receive is the basis of a great sending (and brand) reputation. Make sure your HTML is properly formatted, as poorly coded emails get caught in filters or don’t render properly. Make sure your content is interesting and your emails look great.
  • Consistent Volume: How much email do you send? High-volume senders are always a red flag, especially when volumes are inconsistent. Do you send approximately the same number of emails each week or month, or is your mailing schedule all over the map? Consistent volumes based on subscriber preferences are a key consideration for ISPs.
  • Very Few Complaints: Do your subscribers complain or tag your messages as “junk” or “spam?” ISPs have little or no patience for senders with high rates of complaints. Even a tiny increase in complaints can cause your email to be blocked. Keeping your complaint rate very low (less than 1% of mail that is sent and accepted by the ISP) is very important.
  • Avoid Spam Traps: Sending to even one spam trap or “honey pot” will instantly set back your reputation and cause deliverability problems. When you send to a spam trap (an email address activated by an ISP to catch spammers), it means you’re engaging in email address harvesting (an illegal practice) or your list hygiene practices are weak. Either way, ISPs aren’t going to deliver your email. Doing every thing you can to avoid a spam trap is critical – keeping a clean list is an excellent start.
  • Low Bounce Rates: A good reputation also means that only a small percentage of your emails “bounce” back or are returned by the ISP because the account is no longer active (hard bounce) or the mailbox is temporarily full or the recipient is out-of-office (soft bounce). If a lot of your mail is bouncing back, it means your subscribers aren’t engaged and you’re not keeping up-to-date with them. It also indicates that your list hygiene ractices are not up to industry standards. This makes your email look like spam to an ISP and your email is not likely to get delivered. Keeping your bounce rate low by implementing procedures to immediately remove “hard” bounces is essential.
  • Professionally Configured Infrastructure: Is your infrastructure set up to send high-volume, commercial email? Do you have a team of IT professionals experienced in the issues related to commercial email? The way you send mail based on your set-up tells ISPs a lot about your organization. Make sure your infrastructure reflects that you are legitimate, responsible business.
  • No Blacklist Appearances: Appearing on just one of the leading blacklists is enough to get you blocked by some ISPs. Senders with low complaints, who don’t hit spam traps and send email consistently generally don’t get blacklisted. If you do get blacklisted, having a good sending reputation will help convince the blacklist administrator to remove your IPs.

 

SECTION3: Infrastructure: The Foundation of Deliverability Success

Setting up and maintaining infrastructure for high-volume, transactional email is complex, challenging and expensive. It’s not as simple as maintaining a corporate email environment, and very different rules and standards apply. You’ll need dedicated resources who understand the issues. Incorrectly configured mail servers present a serious risk for ISPs, as they can’t tell if it’s a legitimate server that has a glitch or a malicious bot, zombie or other harmful machine. In these situations, ISPs always block first and ask questions later. Can you afford to have your messages blocked for several hours or days? Do you know the current state of your infrastructure? Here are some questions to ask:

1. Are you using a dedicated IP Address?

If you’re working with an email provider, make sure you have an IP address dedicated to your mail stream. Ideally, have at least two IPs, one for your transactional email and a second for your marketing/promotional email. Sharing an IP address with other senders means their practices and reputation will have a direct impact on your deliverability – and that’s not good for any business.

2. Are your mail servers secured or could a hacker use them for spamming? Make sure you don’t have an open relay or open proxy. Follow industry standard best practices for network and server security. All the best mailing practices don’t matter if you don’t have control of your environment.

3. Are you signed up for ISP Feedback Loops? And do you have a process for managing complaints? Not only do you need to get signed up for all major ISP Feedback Loops but you also need a process for rapidly removing email addresses that log complaints. Continuing to mail to people who have reported your email, as spam will result in deliverability failures.

4. Do you have “postmaster” and “abuse” mailboxes set-up for all your domains? If yes, are you monitoring them? Many ISPs require that these mailboxes be set-up and working to get access to their Feedback Loops. These are also common destinations for complaints from ISPs that don’t have Feedback Loops.

5. Is your sending domain able to receive mail? Your sending domain needs to be able to receive mail, and it must have a valid MX record. If not, some ISPs will block your email.

 

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