10 Tips on Email Deliverability (and One Core Principle)

Let’s talk about deliverability.

Because it’s a vital part of an email marketing strategy.

You can have a red-hot list of rabid followers who desire your offerings so much, they’ll wait outside your shop all night in the cold just to get an opportunity to buy from you, but if your email doesn’t show in their inbox that brand equity counts for nothing.

That’s what deliverability is about.

And it’s something we’ve been looking at to quite some depth (with a few clients, actually) over the last few weeks, so it’s fresh in my mind right now.

Now, I’m no expert on email deliverability.

It’s a whole field in and of itself, and it can get very technical.

(Back when I used to write software, I once spent a whole week building an email server from scratch. The pyramid of technology that underpins it all – and the sheer number of moving parts required just to get send some text from one computer to another – is unbelievable. And this was just a server for sending personal emails. When we’re talking about sending mass marketing emails on an industrial scale, it gets even more complicated. In the end, I opted to just pay Google ~£3/month instead.)

That said, a lot of deliverability comes down to non-technical things too – i.e. who you speak to, what you tell them about, and how you communicate your message.

Over the last five years, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about email deliverability. And if it helps you get more of your emails read, then I’m happy to share them with you. (It’s also good for the “industry” if all email marketers knew these things.)

First, though, a cautionary note:

When you get down to brass tacks, deliverability really comes down to one thing:

Do subscribers VALUE your emails?

If the answer is yes, you’ll find that subscribers will naturally engage with your emails and your sender reputation will take care of itself.

But if the answer is no, then you’re marketing on borrowed time because – internet service providers will notice that your subscribers are not engaging with your emails, your sender reputation will take a hit, and your messages will stop getting through.

There’s nothing “ninja” about this principle, but it’s probably the most valuable concept I could share with you about email deliverability.

So, with that in mind, here are those ten tips:

  1. The “warmer” your list, the lower the risk. Deliverability is generally more of an issue with “warm” and “cold” lists. (If you’re not sure what these terms mean, read my blog post on suspects, prospects, and customers.)
  2. If you plan on sending regular marketing emails to a cold list, it makes sense to set up a separate domain and email service provider (ESP) account. That way, if a deliverability issue does arise, it won’t affect your other email campaigns.
  3. Set up a portfolio of “dummy” or test email addresses for different email account providers, e.g. Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, AOL, etc. Seed these addresses into your list and monitor them regularly to whether they show in the inbox, spam, or not at all. (You could have an assistant do this weekly.).
  4. Keep a close eye on your bounce rate, and aim to keep it below 2%.
  5. (A “bounce” is when an email is rejected by the recipient’s email server. It can happen for many different reasons: the address could be wrong; their inbox could be full; or the server may simply reject your message because it believes that it’s spam. After you send an email broadcast to your list, your ESP reports the number of bounces. Take this number and divide it by the number of email subscribers who were sent your message. This is your bounce rate.)
  6. When adding new email addresses to your “cold” list, use an email list clearner tool (like QuickEmailVerification or ListWise). Never import email addresses into your ESP until they have been verified by one of these tools first. Why? Because a lot of bounces are due to invalid or outdated email addresses.
  7. Include the occasional “content” image in your emails. When a subscriber clicks the button in their email system to enable images from you, it seems to send a positive signal to the large email providers and improves your sender reputation. Memes and diagrams are great for this. Make the image part of the content.
  8. Likewise, get subscribers to reply to you. (See last week’s memo for advice on how to handle these replies in such a way that you build a valuable intelligence database that grows organically.) This seems to send another positive signal.
  9. Avoid using language that is associated with spam. Most ESPs will review your email copy using the SpamAssassin tool and assign a numerical score based on how likely it is to be caught up in spam filters. This tool will highlight parts of your copy that need to be modified to make it less spammy.
  10. Avoid sending emails to subscribers that have stopped opening your emails. (As a rule of thumb, if you’ve been sending emails for the last three months and they haven’t opened any of them, it’s safe to assume they’re not interested.)
  11. You can send a few “re-engagement” emails to such subscribers, to see if you can “re-activate” them. However, I recommend you do this using a separate domain name and ESP account. Send them some of your best emails – i.e. those that, historically, have produced the highest open, click-through, and action rates – and if they still don’t respond, let them go. You gain nothing by sending emails to people who don’t value your emails.

These ten tips are worth storing away.

A final thought for you:

“Do not pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
– Bruce Lee

In the long run, deliverability problems are your friend, not your enemy.

Why? Because as you send more and more emails to your subscribers and their engagement increases, your sender reputation will improve. This creates a “moat” that can make it more difficult for competitors to replicate your success – for the simple reason that it takes time and patience to earn this reputation.

If getting marketing emails in subscribers’ inboxes was plain sailing, this competitive advantage wouldn’t exist. So be glad that spam filters make our lives difficult!

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