Hi, I figured as my first post, it might be best to introduce myself and give a bit of my background and then talk about what really goes into email deliverability. My name’s Brett and for the last 8 months I’ve been focused on email deliverability for Salsa Labs. I get to wear the white hat and do everything in my power to make sure there’s no roadblocks for you the email sender, but also at times I have to don the black hat and lecture an organization about their email habits.
I know a thing about email having worked on numerous campaigns and as an online consultant for a few years. And, I have a confession. I was once one of the trouble makers. I’m in the advantageous position of having been on the other side of the equation, abusing email service providers and doing everything I could to get results. That meant not caring about the impact to my technology provider, and yes, that also meant using bought, borrowed and "found" lists. I know all the tricks in the book, and what to look for, because I’ve done it. That also allows me to speak as to what works, what doesn't and the good and bad about it all.
I have sympathy for the email sender. There are often needless roadblocks that make it harder and harder to get your message delivered, let alone seen, by its intended recipient. But those roadblocks are important. A study by the Radicati group estimates there’s over 247 billion emails sent every day, and Microsoft has found 97 percent of those emails are unwanted (spam in the eyes of the receiver, but that’s a discussion for another time). Stats like that are staggering, but they show why there’s a need for rules governing email deliverability and best practices.
But before exploring those rules (in many more blog posts to come) I figured it’s best to list out some of the many factors that go into getting your email blasts out and delivered.
- Content – lots of folks think content is the only thing that matters and that by putting a single "spam" word here or there will cause issues. The truth is, some keywords cause more issues that others, but in reality context is what really matters. The algorithms that scan emails for patterns are smart enough to recognize patterns in sentences and emails to determine if a message is spam as opposed to just looking at one word here and there. Content does matter, but overall it’s one small piece to the very big and complicated puzzle.
- IP Reputation – An Internet Protocol address (IP address) is a numeric number assigned to each device online. Your emails come from a device with an IP address. These IP addresses are graded by various organizations (see bullet point 4) based on the volume they send and the type of feedback and complaints that are received. A grade is given as to the "strength" of the IP address, and if the IP address is bad enough, emails might be blocked or filtered no matter how solid your content is.
- Organization Reputation – ISP (Internet Service Provider) and email address providers look at the domain (a website’s address and all things associated with it, like email) that emails are coming from as well as the domain of links contained in the email themselves. Do you have a horrible reputation for sending spam? It doesn’t matter what email service provider you use as your blast system. That reputation will follow you around and you’ll get into more trouble for shopping for a new email blast provider.
- Spam filters – Ironport, Cisco, ReturnPath, Senderbase, Senderscore, Postini, all of these are services organizations can use to filter their corporate email. Universities, government addresses, businesses, other non-profits, all of them use these types of services that are automated and often have their settings controlled by the company that utilizes them. Out of all of the filtering devices out there, as an email service provider these ones tend to mostly be out of our hands and at the whim of the company (either the provider themselves or the organization using them).
- ISP “mood” and traffic – I have always said, email services (Yahoo, AOL, Gmail, etc,) need to deliver just enough email so their customers don't notice messages are being filtered. Internet service providers have no incentive to deliver every piece of email. They can’t. It takes up bandwidth; it takes up space to save it all. There’s no reason they’d ever want to deliver everything (or even everything that’s legit). Yahoo is notorious for delaying delivery for hours due to the volume sent. It may get there, it might not, it might take five days. That’s for Yahoo to decide. Traffic, not just by your organization, but everyone else emailing matters as well. Just like a busy highway, if there are too many cars on the road, something needs to be done to alleviate congestion. This can lead to delays in delivery or outright rejection.
- Actions by individual receiver – Does the recipient read the email? Do they respond? Do they forward it? Delete it? The history of the individual to the email sender is being recorded now, and that can have impact in services like Gmail with its priority email. This means you as the sender need to use the same email address more and more and give a reason for people to not just open the email but react in some way other than deleting it.
- Overall receiver reactions – It isn’t just the individual’s reaction that matters, it’s the overall reaction from the entire universe you’re sending to. If you send 1000 emails and 999 of them are marked as spam or deleted that one person won’t likely see it, no matter how active they are (the order people are sent to matters too - told you there was a lot that goes into this). This is why sending email to only people that are interested matters. The less interested they are the more likely they are to delete the emails or mark you as spam, potentially hurting your overall deliverability.
- Potluck! – Does the “from” and “reply-to” email addresses exist? Is there an unsubscribe link? Do you have an SPF record set up? A SPF (Sender Policy Framework) basically says an email service provider has permission to send on your behalf. While you’re emails might look like it’s from your company, they’re actually being sent by Salsa Labs as an example. There are so many other factors out there that each could be a blog post unto themselves. Every tiny detail matters and you need to be aware as to the basics of what goes into email deliverability.
That’s it for now. As a man who was on the outside, and now on the inside as “one of the good guys,” you can expect to hear a lot more about what’s out there. Next up is a discussion on the Spam Filters mentioned above and why “spamming” really isn’t a good thing and can derail your entire online operation.
Until then, check your inbox and answer your email replies,