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Deliverability 101 – the importance of sender reputation

By / / In Insight /
Will the person you are emailing open your message? Will he or she click through? The answers depend entirely on trust; what faith the recipient has in you – it boils down simply to sender reputation. Here’s how to check yours stands up to scrutiny – and thus your email message makes it successfully through to your intended recipient.
sender reputation

Today’s deliverability landscape is making it harder to reach your subscribers’ inboxes. Roughly one in five emails globally don’t even reach the inbox due to messages being blocked, identified as junk or delivered to an incorrect email address. Therefore, it’s critical to get deliverability right for the success of your email marketing – and it needs ongoing maintenance. However, there’s an even bigger factor that determines whether or not a recipient will open an email: recognising and trusting the sender. According to Return Path, sender reputation is more important than subject lines, great design, clever content or anything else.

Sender reputation maintenance

Looking after your reputation is a major part of getting your deliverability on the right track, but how do the ISPs determine your sender reputation? Gmail, for example, monitors activity in great detail by drilling down to the user level. It looks at behaviour such as whether recipients are opening and interacting with brands’ emails and uses this data to build sender reputation.

It also considers interactions such as replies, forwards, etc, positively – so for marketers, encouraging organic forwarding activity, such as sharing a Valentine’s promo, can have a halo effect on overall metrics.

At the same time, tracking of user behaviour on mobile devices can impact your campaigns negatively. Microsoft’s Outlook (and Hotmail) particularly look at behaviour down to the mobile device level, so actions such as moving emails into the junk folder gives feedback as complaint data.

Inbox placement & subject lines (…or when to use the poop emoji)

Many marketers are flying blind when it comes to actively tracking inbox placement today, relying on metrics such as open and click-through rates rather than specific delivery metrics. There are tools available for testing deliverability – such as Return Path – which show a range of specific metrics, including whether your campaign likely reached the inbox or bulk folder. Using a system that generates trend data is invaluable, as it means marketers can see what’s trending up or down and see what’s really happening with deliverability.

Subject lines can also impact whether an email reaches the inbox. While a subject line has a lower impact on deliverability than overall reputation, it does have a higher impact on engagement (which in turn impacts reputation and inbox behaviour). It used to be that certain words, such as ‘free’, could be perceived as ‘spammy’ and might be best avoided if it means your customers won’t engage with your campaigns – but subject line testing is key as every client is different.

We are often asked if there are any special characters to avoid in subject lines, especially emojis. Emojis can work if you are smart about using them. For example, one brand used an emoji to categorise holidays – using a wave emoji for beach holidays or sun emoji for hot destinations – and saw a 10-15% uplift in read rates once customers understood it as a classification of the messages they were seeing. I’ve even received subject lines with the poop emoji, but it worked in those instances because it was aligned with the tone of that market/brand.

Using domains & sub-domains

The decision to use the same sending domains or use different ones is based on the brands, types of mail and audiences you are focused on. For example, winter skiing and cruising holidays are both seasonal campaigns, but could be considered separate audiences, so different sending domains might work best. Marketers can also consider setting up different types of emails, such as welcome series and reactivation strings, on different sub-domains. Keep in mind that ISPs look down to the sub-domain level, so you don’t want to negatively impact your overall reputation. There are lots of different tactics you can try, and a Return Path certification programme can help.

Face of your brand

We’re often asked if it’s a good idea to send messages that appear to be from a brand’s CEO. While it might seem personable, it’s important to consider whether or not a marketing email from the CEO would be well received.

In addition, if the brand is taking flack in the media, that can affect deliverability. Monitoring sender email metrics in this instance will likely show an upshift in complaint rates. When a brand has a negative reputation, consumers are more likely to seek out the next touchpoint to complain – whether that’s future emails, social programmes or in-store promos.

Frequency vs. relevancy

Today’s marketing is all about sending relevant messaging to your customers and sending those relevant messages at the right frequency. A few years ago, you might reach list burn-out if you sent more than one email per week, but as more companies started to challenge the status quo, everyone started sending more often.

Deliverability best practice says don’t send to somebody who hasn’t engaged with you for 12 months, or don’t send multiple emails per day. However, marketers should make decisions based on the brand, audience, specific business goals and what it’s found gets them the most engagement based on measurement.

Sales down? Send more email?

Sometimes it’s a challenge for marketers to get buy-in from stakeholders when it comes to email volume – particularly because more isn’t always better. Email marketing is different from TV ads, where the more people who see it the more revenue you’re going to make. Email is a cost centre for the ISPs, especially when you consider that of the 10-20 billion emails that are sent each day, 99% are true spam . . . and they have to store all this on their servers.

It’s good practice to use metrics that can calculate value per email sent – this report shows it can vary from 4c to 8c per email, depending on the sector. Metrics can be used for stakeholder buy-in and to demonstrate the associated cost as well as the tipping point where sending more email could result in complaints and/or unsubscribes. If your CMO says you need to send more, test it for a month and then analyse the results. If your market has a longer product lifecycle or higher ticket price, carefully track the send frequency against return.

To conclude:

Overall sender reputation is key to ensuring your emails arrive safe and sound in the inbox, and it’s an ongoing management process. Testing is, of course, vital and best practice is encouraged, but it isn’t a fixed standard. Don’t forget it’s a connected cycle: deliverability, reputation and good inbox placement work hand-in-hand with relevancy, good subject lines and content.

Have an opinion on this article? Please join in the discussion: the GMA is a community of data driven marketers and YOUR opinion counts.

Spencer Kollas
Author: Spencer Kollas
Vice-president, Global Deliverability Services at Cheetah Digital |

Spencer Kollas is a recognised industry leader in email deliverability and subscriber engagement. For more than 13 years, he has worked with the world’s foremost email marketers to help them connect with their customers and increase the return on investment (ROI) of their email marketing initiatives. As vice-president of Global Deliverability Services, Kollas is responsible for the product development and innovation road map of Cheetah Digital’s email deliverability services in more than 30 countries around the world. He works directly with Cheetah Digital’s clients to help them understand best practices around email delivery and how consumers in different regions worldwide approach and use the email marketing channel. He also works with internet service providers to understand the way their filtering systems work, in order to create valuable, strategic and tactical insights on how client messages can stay in their customers’ inboxes.

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