Earlier this month I attended the Email Experience Council’s Email Evolution Conference where email experts converged to share success stories and opinions on the industry. The last session of the conference proved to be the most interesting. It included a panel of deliverability experts from some of the major email clients – can we agree not to call them ISPs anymore because most customers do not obtain their internet service through these providers – including Google (Gmail), Microsoft (Outlook.com – formerly Hotmail), AOL, and Comcast. It was a refreshingly open forum to clear the air on some deliverability speculations and get answers straight from the sources. Here is what I took away from the session.

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Click-through Rate, Open Rate, and Reputation

In recent years marketers have been focusing on increasing open and click-through rates by creating reengagement programs and suppressing inactive subscribers that haven’t opened or clicked in a specified period of time. But in reality, these email clients have no insight into whether subscribers clicked the links in the email. Therefore, there is no reason to factor click-through activity into the logic for an inactive segment.

The global reputation is one associated with the sender (and primarily the IP addresses for that sender), but inbox placement is largely determined at an individual level based on subscriber behavior. In these terms, open rate is still an important metric because the more an individual opens your emails, the more likely it is for the emails to be placed in that subscriber’s inbox.

Positive Actions

While opening emails is good, there are a few other actions that carry even more positive weight in the eyes of the email clients. If a subscriber files your email, it is viewed as a positive engagement. If a subscriber replies to your email, it is viewed as really, really positive engagement.

This was an interesting point to me since most brands’ from addresses are not monitored. There may be some rules automatically setup to remove subscribers who reply with “opt-out” or “unsubscribe” but in general brands (unfortunately) do not view it as a priority to monitor replies to marketing emails that are sent. A colleague pointed out to me that this is likely because the majority of emails are one-to-one communications, so obviously if you are replying to a conversation with a friend it is viewed by the email client as the most important email communications you want to receive. But this insight could lead to some interesting tactics for retailers that would actually encourage subscribers to reply and engage in one-to-one communication with a brand, to help maintain placement in the inbox.

If a subscriber adds the “from address” to their address book, it also carries positive weight. I didn’t have the chance to ask the panel how often this actually happens. I feel as though the email clients need to make it easier for this action to take place. It’s currently difficult to explain to a subscriber how to do this since it varies from email client to email client. I know this action doesn’t pass my “mom test” and when I ask even technology-savvy individuals how often they do this the answer tends to be “never.” When was the last time you added a brand’s from address to your address book?

Opening is good and replying is even better, but perhaps the strongest positive action a subscriber can take is to move an email from the junk/spam folder to the inbox (aka marking something as “Not Spam”). This isn’t a surprise because it takes a lot of effort on a subscriber’s part to fish something out of their spam folder and explicitly state that it is not junk.

Individual Behavior

Whether or not a brand’s email arrives in the inbox or the junk mail folder is based more on an individual subscriber’s behavior, rather than the global reputation of a sender. Gmail attributes this to the algorithm that determines where to place an email, based on the positive and negative actions a subscriber has taken with that sender’s emails. If subscribers are deleting the emails without opening, then over time these emails could be placed in the junk mail folder. However, if a different subscriber is taking positive actions, then that brand’s emails will continue to be delivered to that particular subscriber’s inbox.

The panel shared an interesting story about Groupon on this topic. They stated that a subscriber will mark multiple emails from Groupon as spam, and therefore the emails will begin to arrive in that subscriber’s junk mail folder. Later, the subscriber will complain that they didn’t get their Groupon.

In this respect, as it relates to individual behavior, it really all comes down to content and relevancy. Clearly the content in the Groupon emails that were marked as spam didn’t resonante with the subscriber, but the one they complained about not getting did.

SPF – Domains you do and do NOT use

Standard authentication with email providers includes setting up an SPF (Sender Policy Framework) record to indicate which domains are approved for sending email on behalf of your brand. SPF is used to prevent sender forgery by giving the brand the authority to state which domains and IPs are used for sending and which are not. This prevents phishing and spam from being sent as if it was from your brand and damaging your email reputation (not to mention upsetting your customers).

But did you know that in addition to listing the domains that are authorized for sending you should also include null SPF details in the record to tell email clients of domains you do not use? Financial institutions are often the victims of sender forgery, but spammers target retail brands as well by copying HTML from existing emails and changing copy and links. With the rise in data breaches, setting up null details in your SPF record is another way to protect the brand and its customers from being the next victims. For more about SPF configuration visit www.openspf.org.

The Dreaded ESP Migration

Speaking of domains, many brands have multiple domains used for sending email (for example, separate domains for transactional emails, separate domains for sub-brands, separate domains for loyalty programs). Some email clients, including AOL and Microsoft, have domain-based email reputation and whitelisting. This is often preferred over IP-based reputation because when a brand changes Email Service Providers (ESP) the email is sent from different IP addresses. This causes the brand to have to “warm up” the new IP addresses, which requires limited quantity sending to certain domains by day and over time. This can be complicated when factoring in one-day-only sales, segmented campaigns, and large list sizes.

Microsoft stated that if a brand is migrating ESPs to simply call and let them know and they can add your new IPs to your domain family. I found this really refreshing considering the headaches that IP warm-ups can cause. However, I was unable to ask a question to clarify if an IP warm-up is still needed for any other reason. And please note that not all email clients offer domain families where this can be configured.

Spam Traps

Spam traps are email addresses that are “dead” that are kept active by email clients to monitor who is sending to old, dead email addresses. This can be indicative of a spammer sending mail. But there has been speculation regarding if spam traps really exist, and if so, at what point an old email address would be considered “dead” and utilized for such purposes.

Microsoft, Gmail, and Comcast clearly stated that they do not convert old accounts to spam traps. However, AOL stated that they sometimes do. This is important in scenarios where you may have unknown subscribers. For example, we were recently working with a new client and came across data for which subscriber status was unknown. We are considering a campaign to ask the subscribers if they are interested in opting in, since we are unsure if they did at a previous time or not, but don’t want to assume so. However, with this information it may be important to exclude AOL addresses to prevent sending to any spam traps since we are unsure how old or new the subscriber data is (unfortunately).

Spam traps can cause your IP address to be blacklisted and damage your reputation. But it was interesting to hear that this practice is not as widespread by email clients as the industry can make it out to be.

Deliverability truths and myths have historically been rather difficult to uncover. Talking directly with a deliverability expert at any of these email clients is usually rare. After all, Comcast stated that they receive more than 90,000 calls a month related to deliverability. And the panel stated that 95 percent of the emails they receive is complete spam.

The brands agencies like DEG represent comprise of only about five percent of email volume. As a result, these experts are very busy keeping true junk out of the inbox and this unfortunately leaves little time to communicate with reputable senders. This session was a fantastic two-way conversation between the two groups and I look forward to partaking in more sessions like this. Kudos to the EEC for bringing the experts of both sides together. For more insights from the conference visit #EEC15 on twitter.

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