by Jordan Hatch
A simple Google search of the term email deliverability returns a gazillion pages with just as many confusing, technical, and complex recommendations on how to add that extra tenth of a percent (I even wrote one trying to dispel some myths).
For most small business owners though, the effort involved is no where close to worth the result. Let’s say you have a list of 5,000 people. That extra 1 percent boost means that 50 more people might see your email, but if your open rates are at 25 percent, it really means that maybe 13 people open your email. If your click rate is 5 percent it means three extra clicks. If 13 opens or three clicks makes or breaks your email, you have bigger problems to worry about (like building a bigger list).
Sure, there are a few things you absolutely need to do (like setup your SPF records), but for the most part, your email service provider (ESP) handles all the heavy lifting. You can’t really do much about it, so stop worrying about it. All ESPs have great acceptance Rates (read my post to understand what that means)—everyone I’ve looked at reports 98 percent-plus. That means 98 percent of the time, the server of the person you’re sending the email to accepts it and says “Thanks, I’ve got it from here.”
Therein lies the problem. Email providers (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL, etc.) HATE marketers. There I said it. They don’t like you. It’s nothing personal—they just have a bunch of stuff they have to filter out so the people they really care about (their subscribers) don’t get overwhelmed with a million emails in their inbox. They have a tough job. There’s no way they can be 100 percent accurate with what gets through and what doesn’t. They have to use a broad stroke to filter out spam/junk/marketing emails and, unfortunately, your legitimate emails get caught in the crossfire.
There is hope though. We can look at the trends in the industry to see what they do care about and we can play nice with them, which hopefully means more emails to the inbox. Let’s take a look at what the two big players (Gmail and Hotmail/MSN/Outlook) in the email world are doing and what they care about in terms of email deliverability.
About three years ago, Gmail introduced the tabbed inbox. Basically, Google is using extremely complex machine learning algorithms to determine whether or not an email is a promotional email. If it can determine that it is, it shows up in a different tab when the user is logged into Gmail. When this new feature first came out, email marketers freaked out. They were worried that if their emails got put in the promotions tab, that their recipients would overlook their emails. Early last year, our friends at Return Path studied over 3 million Gmail users to see what was actually happening with email deliverability, open rates, and click thru rates. TLDR; it’s actually way better for marketers.
So, how exactly is Google determining if an email is a promotion? They look at the data they have available to them. Here’s a partial list of what that might include:
- Individual email opens/clicks/unsubscribes
- Email bounce rate (how many bad addresses are you sending to)
- Are you in the recipient’s contact list?
- Has the recipient moved your emails to their primary inbox
- Unknown user rate
This tells us a couple of things about Gmail:
- Getting to the inbox is a person-by-person experience that is based on the individual recipient’s engagement. One person might get the email to the inbox, the other might go to the promotions tab.
- Your email sending practices (i.e. how clean your list is) has a major impact on where your emails go.
About the same time that Gmail introduced the Tabbed Inbox, our friends at Microsoft were busy implementing the Sender Reputation Data network. Microsoft’s SRD network is made up of randomly selected Microsoft users. Microsoft gets feedback from them by resending emails to the participants with a new subject line of “Junk e-mail classification.” The users then vote on whether or not the email is junk. A sender’s SRD rate is calculated by taking the number of junk votes and dividing it by the number of responses they get. Microsoft says that each junk vote is equal to 50–100,000 Microsoft users. Ten negative votes can be equal to a million recipients complaining that an email is junk. Like Gmail, Microsoft is also looking at how many people you’re sending to that aren’t active Microsoft accounts, as well as how engaged in general your audience is.
This tells us a couple of things about Microsoft:
- Inbox placement on the Microsoft Network is also an individual thing. Those that are more engaged are more likely to get put in the inbox.
- Microsoft can tell if someone gave you their fake/garbage email account that they never check. You should have measures in place to figure that out as well.
What should you do about it?
Based on a little bit of investigation into what the major players are doing, there are a few big things you need to start doing to maximize the effectiveness of your email marketing efforts:
- Stop worrying about improving email deliverability and start focusing on improving engagement (opens, clicks, etc.). The more people are engaging with your emails the better your inbox placement will be.
- Clean your lists regularly. I recently wrote a blog post about how you can leverage the Lead Scoring functionality in Infusionsoft by Keap. Once you have that setup, you can introduce a sequence that sends them an invitation to opt-out after a period of inactivity. Often times, those emails actually re-engage a contact.
- Segment your emails based on past history with the contacts. This requires having a tagging strategy implemented and working. The more targeted the group, the more relevant you can be, which leads to lower opt-out/complaint rates, as well as higher open and click rates.
- Focus on a quality list vs a quantity list. Anyone can go buy a million email addresses and play the numbers game—it’s not going to work very well, though. A smaller, but highly engaged list is way more valuable than a large non-responsive one.
Once you realize that worrying about your email deliverability is generally a waste of time, you can start to focus on stuff that does matter. Focus on engaging your list, cultivating a highly responsive, and targeted list of contacts, and don’t forget my rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t open or click on the link in the email you’re about to send, don’t send it. Why in the world would anyone else do it if you won’t?
Every job that Jordan has had, from his first real job at the age of 16 to his current role as senior product manager, has helped him gain a tremendous passion for helping small businesses succeed. He has a knack for making complex, technical issues easy to understand. Jordan's knowledge and passion has helped thousands of entrepreneurs learn new and exciting marketing ideas and strategies to help them be successful.