Email Deliverability: Past, Present and Future

iphone with email notification

If you do a quick Google search for email deliverability,” you’ll see a lot of articles about what you should and shouldn’t say or do if you don’t want your marketing emails to be marked as spam. 

You might even have seen thought leaders” from email service providers (ESPs) post lists of words on LinkedIn that you should never use. Don’t ever say free,” and make sure you don’t use too many images! 

But the truth is, many of those rules” are pretty outdated. So where did they come from? Are any of them still relevant? And what should you really be doing now to optimize your email deliverability? I’m so glad you asked! 

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending (virtually, of course) a Litmus Live session by Chad S. White, head of research for Oracle Marketing Cloud Consulting and author of Email Marketing Rules. Chad spoke to a rapt audience about where we came from in the world of email deliverability, where we are now and where we should focus our attention in the near (and uncertain) future. 

According to Chad, 15 years ago, these were the factors that affected email deliverability:

1. Infrastructure

This is your ESP and its reputation.

2. Email volume

How much email you were sending daily, weekly, etc. Basically, sending more email got you looked at more carefully by internet service providers (ISPs).

3. Email content

Here’s where old-school advice like word choices and punctuation came in. 

4. Bounces and spam traps

These include hard bounces (user not found), soft bounces (a temporary inbox issue) and spam traps (email addresses designed or repurposed to trap marketers who are either buying lists or not keeping their databases clean).

5. Spam complaints

This used to be the hub of deliverability issues—people hitting the report spam” button.

6. Subscriber acquisition sources

Purchasing lists is still the easiest way to tank your email deliverability. The recipients on those lists don’t know you and don’t want to hear from you. Moreover, they might actually be spam traps!

That’s a lot, right? But that was the state of email deliverability 15 years ago. Today, some of those factors have become less important (like those forbidden” words), some have become standard practice (like having alt text behind your images and maintaining a good image-to-text ratio) and some are more important than ever (like your acquisition sources). 

The biggest change has been the introduction of a seventh factor: engagement.

7. Engagement is now king in the land of email deliverability.

Here’s a quick engagement health check:

- Are you meeting your subscribers where they already are and providing value in what you send them?

- Are you getting their explicit opt in that they want to hear from you?

- Are you using personalization and tailoring your content to your subscribers?

- Are your subscribers showing you that they’re interested in what you’re sending by replying (yes, it’s a factor, so rethink that no-reply” address), forwarding, starring or foldering your emails? How will you know that? Well, most of that data is something you don’t have visibility into, but you can see your clicks, which act as a proxy for that engagement. 

(Side note: Be wary of giving too much weight to email opens, since many inboxes will count an open based on tracking pixels firing when the email hits the inbox.)

- Are you paying attention to legislation like CASL and GDPR and thinking of how US laws might soon change to catch up?

- Are you segmenting out your inactive subscribers and actively trying to re-engage them?

- And if you run into trouble with issues like spam traps, are you putting in the work to rehabilitate instead of thinking you can just run away from a bad sender reputation by switching IPs or ESPs? (Spoiler alert: That no longer works.)

So how did you do? Most brands need to work on at least a few of those points.

Here are the key takeaways to keep in mind:

1. Email deliverability is not static.

It’s changed a lot in the past 15 years and will continue to change.

2. Deliverability has become much more complex.

And because of this, it deserves more attention.

3. Brands can no longer thrive by not making their subscribers angry.

They must engage subscribers.

4. Brands can no longer run away from a poor sender reputation.

The only recourse is to mitigate the damage and change sending behavior.

5. Deliverability has evolved from a tactical pursuit to a strategic one.

It’s now less about ticking boxes and more about getting to know your subscribers and what they want.

6. Privacy laws are only likely to get tougher, so get good at compliance!

Laws like CCPA are bringing the public’s attention to their data rights. A US law akin to GDPR will likely not be far behind, so start paying attention to how you’re acquiring and using subscriber data.

[You may also like: DS talks CCPA—What you need to know about the California Consumer Privacy Act]

You might be saying, That’s great, Emily, but what do I need to know for the next six months?!”

Alright, here are three final tips:

1. Closely manage your engagement levels, especially during the holiday season.

There are a lot of new people getting active online and they will behave differently.

2. Optimize your best subscriber acquisition sources, rather than adding low-quality ones.

List growth is less important than the health of your reputation. Become more customer-centric in how you appeal to prospects.

3. Be more thoughtful about mass transactional sends, should you need to send them.

That happened a lot in March and April, and ISPs aren’t going to put up with more of that behavior! Use transactional platforms to send to recipients you don’t have permission to send to on your promotional platform.

Stay safe and healthy, and keep those email practices healthy, too!

As Dixon Schwabl’s email marketing strategist, Emily strives to make every email communication compliant, personalized, relevant, compelling and actionable. No sweat, right? She recently was among the first 120 recipients of Litmus certification in email marketing.

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