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Can’t Keep up? 9 Ways to Simplify Your Path to the Recipient’s Inbox

How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

Download a PDF of this whitepaper to read it later or print it.

Email marketing is about the balance between strategy, deliverability, funding, process, staffing and the need of the customer. Email marketing has a whole set of things that make a decision to the program. Deliverability is just one of them.

So, when you are making a decision about re-activating customers or sending that next promotional email or welcome email, or transactional email, there are a lot of things that make that decision happen. One of which is deliverability.

You can test your email deliverability right now using this email spam checker and find out how different mailbox providers treat you and your emails.

If you don't have a lot of problems with deliverability, then… you are a rock star!

But have you ever wondered what determines whether or not your email will be sent to the recipient's Inbox, or filtered as junk mail, or blocked?

To help you understand email deliverability at major Internet service providers Comcast, Microsoft, AOL, and Gmail, I reveal the main practices (all shared by the ISPs representatives at different webinars) these ISPs apply in terms of list quality, sender reputation, and recipient engagement. And to make it easy, I broke it down into 9 questions/answers.

You’ll get a clear understanding of how these ISPs treat inactive accounts, what they think about engagement and how they measure it, how they determine “inactive” users, whether or not inactive users harm deliverability, and what ISPs think about the email open rate and dedicated/shared IP addresses.

So, let's start diving in.

How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

You know it's partially true with AOL. But whenever they've done it, they've never used the accounts that have been abandoned or canceled accounts but have been dead accounts unable to receive mail for one or more, sometimes multiple years.

Guys at AOL know that anybody who was actually doing list management or making sure they cleaned up their list properly, shouldn't ever be sending emails to these accounts. They also know which accounts used to be real and which accounts have been setup as spam traps and have never been signed up for email lists.

For former accounts that should be dead, they treat those rather closely because they should be dead accounts and everybody who is doing a proper list management shouldn't be sending emails to them.

Comcast, Microsoft, and Gmail do not convert abandoned accounts into spam traps (it seems I’m debunking a myth right now!). However, if you are sending to a lot of accounts that are not active anymore, that will impact your overall reputation as a sender with these providers.

Therefore, best email marketing practices teach to keep the list up-to-date and remove inactive users to avoid hitting spam traps.

How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

Obviously, an inactive user is somebody whose mailbox is turned off. AOL keeps an eye on how often somebody logs in, and if a user does not log in for a hundred eighty days, they will turn off the user's mailbox and stop accepting mail for that user. They will return an SMTP error with the 550 SMTP error code whenever you try to send an email to a customer whose mailbox is inactive or have never existed.

Then, Comcast, AOL, Microsoft and Gmail look at explicit actions. Even if the customers do continue to log in to their accounts, ISPs pay attention to whether or not they open the email, whether or not they file the email etc. ISPs know what mail the customers are doing that to, who they are interested in and who they are not interested in. Providers also know when the customers are just logging in on their phones.

Their phone checks mail all the time, but they never do anything else: they never send, they never move anything around, they never delete anything. They basically have just forgotten to stop accessing that mailbox. And when ISPs stop seeing a customer interact, they are no longer active, no longer engaged.

How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

Removing inactive users is definitely going to help you in terms of your deliverability at any ISP. If there are inactive recipients on your list, it's going to help you not emailing to them.

Read:  Improve Email Deliverability: Insights and Best Practices That Really Work

In a lot of cases, email marketers have a clear picture of whether or not people are opening their email. You know who is opening it, who is clicking it, and most marketers have a general idea what the point of diminishing return is. There is a point at which it's not really worth it for you to continue trying to re-engage the customer because they are just not interested.

If you don't have those kinds of metrics, and you haven't figured out what that point of diminishing return is, spend some time to do it because it will save you from trouble in the long run.

One of the things the bad guys do is they send mail to accounts they own trying to pump up their volume. So, when they come around later on trying to send their spin run, it looks like they established usability of the service. We pay attention to the fact that they are sending mail to accounts that never do anything with mail. So, having a large number of recipients on your mailing that do not interact with you at all is a negative feature.

It's not gonna kill you if you do it once in a while, but it you do it repeatedly, if it's habitual, especially if some of those members you're trying to send mail to don't exist anymore, and you're sending to a lot of dead accounts, those are gonna cause you problems,

Paul Rock,
AOL Principal Programmer/Analyst,
the "Mythbusters: Deliverability vs Engagement" webinar,
March 17, 2015.

If you start thinking about your time frame that you want to deal with, figure out what the expiration of a mail account is. All services are different. So, maybe it's a year, maybe it's two years of inactivity.

Also, the time frame really depends on the frequency you're emailing. If you're emailing one or two times a month, it is reasonable to consider a longer period, for example, 1,5-2 years. If you're emailing quite often, every week or several times a week, you should shorten the period of inactivity to 6-12 months.

So, it differs from a marketer to a marketer. You just need to track your recipient engagement to have a clear understanding what users on your list are no longer interacting and remove them because they are doing you damage every day.

How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

The way the ISPs treat inactive accounts is different. While Comcast and Gmail do not cancel accounts, AOL will turn off the user's mailbox if the user did not log in within the last 180 days. They will stop accepting mail for that user and return the 550 SMTP error whenever you try to send an email to the user.

At Microsoft, it's purely based on when you log in as a time frame. If you stayed logged in during a minute roughly within a year, then they can hibernate the account. But they don't do that immediately, they give an additional grace period on that (but not too much) due to privacy concerns because someone may expect the mail to go out. So, they have a small grace period in case you've made a mistake or whatever the case.

There is a very large number of accounts get created on free email services and even paid email services. There are spam accounts. If you are trying to use a Microsoft account to send out spam, they delete spam accounts quite often, and they do close them. But they do not nuke active good accounts.

How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

Email marketers used to track email opens and link clicks and measure engagement based on these metrics.

With ISPs, it's a little different. ISPs do track a lot of other features of how the customers interact with email: whether or not they are forwarding it, whether or not they are replying, whether or not they are reporting it as spam, whether or not they are adding the sender to their address book, whether or not they are moving it to the Junk folder or from the Junk folder to the Inbox, whether or not they are deleting the mail without even looking at it.

Read:  Authenticate Emails with DMARC for Better Deliverability

Things like that really tell Internet providers a lot about what the customer has done with the email and give them a level of the customer's engagement, which then directly impacts the sender reputation.

Every time we get a certain amount of spam markings from our users, reputation goes down. And as we get non-spam markings that is when users move emails from the Junk folder to the Inbox, they [senders] get some positive reputation. That's how it looks",

Sri Somanchi,
Gmail's Anti-Spam Product Manager,
the "Mythbusters: Deliverability vs Engagement" webinar,
March 17, 2015.

At Gmail, engagement is seen as the sum of total user's actions upon the email. They track explicit user's actions (marking email as spam, replying to the email, moving it to the Junk folder etc.), and these explicit actions have a direct relation to how they classify the email.

Also, Gmail looks at implicit signals like email opens and other interactions of such kind to determine how they personalize the email class for a given user. These implicit signals are very important because they make sure that your email is reaching the end user.

With outlook.com, it's done on a personal basis, and how users behave upon explicit actions is not necessarily damaging or increasing the overall reputation of your domain and your IP address. With outlook.com, it's up to know whether or not you reached a specific customer because your test accounts may show it got delivered, but if somebody else has been deleting your junk mail for weeks, your email is not getting delivered to that user.

So, with outlook.com, engagement is personal. If people are engaging in your mail, it increases the likelihood of the "dog" deliverability within their specific Inbox, but not necessarily broadly.

Thus, Internet service providers primarily look at explicit actions users take on emails to measure the level of engagement of their customers with your emails and determine your overall server reputation. But implicit actions do matter too for some providers in terms of email classification for a particular user.

How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

It may seem odd but from the point of view of Internet service providers, there is nothing wrong with sending such a campaign.

There's always going to be the case when you are sending just informational or transactional mailings, and there is not really much for your recipients to do with such emails. So, asking to do something with the message can be good for your recipients.

A bad way to get the recipient to open the message is say "Reply to me if you don't want to get this mail and then want to get off the list." That's an example of a smarmy behavior that not all email marketers would do, but it sometimes takes place.

But sending them an email and saying: "Hi, can you put this in your archive folder?" or "Hi, you see this email and to make sure you'll get other emails from me, save my email address to your address book" is something you can consider. But how effective is it going to be?

If it's really done in a high integrity way, and people are willing to take that action because you are not duping them, that's great. But people are pretty smart and a large enough percent will realize that they feel like they are being duped and will actually make you pay for it by hitting the spam button.

How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

In the end, recipients are going to hold senders accountable for the quality of their emails. The problem is that the sender can't hold the author accountable for the quality of their emails. As a sender, you may be doing mailings for fifty different brands, all campaigns coming from the same IP address.

And there may be one person who is doing newsletters that are absolute garbage so that his tactics are not only unhelpful but really harmful, to the collective. It's like a bad sheep spoils the whole herd. If those brands have their own IP address, they are now responsible for managing the quality and reputation of their IP address.

That's the same truth with the Internet providers. When they have different customers, it's much easier to track and manage these customers on individual IPs. They personally pay the price when they get overly aggressive and not the rest of the customers. So, yes, a dedicated IP is better than a shared one.

Read:  Why Is My Email Filtered as Spam?

Even within a brand, you might consider having a dedicated IP address for your transactional emails which is separated from the marketing emails because transactional emails inherently have a really good reputation and you really want to make sure people get them. It's super important and you don't want a bad campaign to impact your transactional emails.

How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

Below is the summary of recommendations from ISPs that you want to adopt to look like a good sender for them. You are most likely aware of some (if not all) of the practices. If some are new to you, take the time to adapt them to make your life in email marketing easier.

1. Always seek explicit permission from the user with more specific options. No pre-checked boxes. Make sure the user clearly understands what they sign up for.

2. Make sure it's very clear who you are, make sure that your brand is reflecting in the emails.

3. Send a type of emails that your recipients signed up for and want to receive. Do not send a lot of other things just because you got the permission.

4. Get on feedback loops so you can see what's going to be causing you the mystery.

5. Set up email authentication.

As Paul Rock, AOL's Principal Programmer, said:

If you don't have a reputation, you have a bad reputation. 98% of new IP addresses we see are spewing garbage. We don't know you – that's the problem. And the only way we can know you reliably and know that you are not somebody pretending to be you is to make sure you are authenticated. Without authentication, we don't know you.

6. Use the right measurement. Measure your clicks, measure your opens, measure everything you can, try to measure those metrics across campaigns and see how they look like.

7. Measure your Inbox delivery rate. Let’s say your email service provider is reporting 100% deliverability with a 0% bounce rate. It looks like 100% deliverability but it may be 95% Inbox placements and 5% spam placements. So, actually 5% of your delivered emails did not reach the recipients.

With time, your spam rate could be increasing and preventing your mail from reaching your subscribers. For some senders, this could mean thousands in lost revenue.

Thus, measuring your overall deliverability rate vs. Inbox placement rate before sending out the real email campaign is important.

For example, the G-Lock Apps test report will show you Inbox placements and spam placements of your email with major ISPs just within minutes, and calculate your Inbox rate and spam rate. Based on the report data, you can see how your message is treated and take steps to fix deliverability issues if detected.

Plus, using G-Lock Apps, you can verify your sender authentication such as DKIM and SPF, run the email against spam filters, and check your sending IP against blacklists.

Email spam testing report from G-Lock Apps
How ISPs Gamble with Your Reputation

8. Provide a very easy way to unsubscribe to protect from a negative user feedback.

And the last but very important thing

9. Ask yourself what your angle is. Is it a high rate of conversion or is it a high rate of deliverability? Do you really have to send the amount of emails that you are sending to get that kind of conversion?

If it's about conversion, make sure your recipients are actually liking your emails and that you are actually capturing their attention. Then probably you will be able to achieve a higher conversion with fewer emails by sending, for example, 2-3 killing emails they can't ignore instead of sending a dozen of vapid messages. That's the big question you need to ask.

Here is to your success in email marketing!

Download a PDF of this whitepaper to read it later or print it.

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