James Koons, Chief Privacy Officer

Inbox placement can make or break an email campaign. And with the ever-changing regulations for reputation and deliverability, it can be difficult to stay up-to-date. What used to work isn't guaranteed to work now; but, what used to land you in the junk mail folder might now be okay. It's confusing – and it's meant to be confusing as ISPs need to stay ahead of the spammers. About 95% of all email received by AOL, Gmail, Outlook and Comcast is spam. Fortunately, ISPs are able to block all but 10% of those messages.

The remaining 5% are sent from permission-based marketers, who have the responsibility to prove to ISPs that their messages are wanted and valid. That means some extra work and vigilance for legitimate senders.

The good news – ISPs are no longer taking an "all or nothing" approach to inbox placement. Specific user behavior plays a large role in determining if an email lands in a recipient's inbox or junk mail folder. Deliverability, like the messages themselves, has become personalized.

The Inbox is Not the Same for Everyone

ISPs focus on a personalized inbox experience for each user, meaning subscribers have more control over their inboxes than ever before. Specific user actions, or signals, are combined with the ISP machine-learned algorithms to determine the relevancy of the message and the sender's reputation.

Positive User Signals

  • Moving a message out of the spam folder - Marking as not spam/junk
  • Replying to a message (keeping a conversation going)
  • Adding the sender to the address book
  • Reading or viewing a message
  • Moving the message to another folder (or tagging the message)

Negative User Signals

  • Deleting the message without opening or reading it
  • Marking the message as spam or moving it to the junk folder
  • Reporting the message as a phishing attempt

Tip 1

Recipients should not only be able to reply to all messages, it should be encouraged. And those replies should start a conversation.

Subject lines and clicks don't impact your reputation

Think the subject line "FREE FREE FREE!!!!!!!!!!" will get you blocked? It won't – not anymore. Subject lines alone are no longer a reputation factor – the length, message, capitalization, punctuation, or even the use of special characters – won't impact inbox placement. However, recipients decide to open or delete an email based on the subject line, and that action will impact your reputation. If it's deleted without being opened, the ISP could filter future emails with similar subject lines sent to that person. It's also worth noting that subject lines still do matter to the FTC, so be sure your subject line isn't misleading so you remain CAN-SPAM compliant.

Tip 2

Don't just personalize your subject lines with the recipient's name. Try including other personal factors, such as recommended product names or brands. Also, be sure to get it right as an incorrect name can trigger a negative signal.

Similarly, engagement factors, such as click-throughs, don't count towards your reputation either. ISPs consider tracking what a user does inside of their email as a privacy violation – they only look at how users respond to messages in the inbox. Opens matter, and that engagement factor is enough to prove the recipient isn't inactive or unresponsive.

Tip 3

Don't simply suppress the inactive subscribers on your list. Instead, cut back on the number of emails you send them. If you send daily, cut back to one email per week. If you send weekly, cut back to one or two emails per month. If you don't see any engagement in six months, send a final re-engagement campaign asking if they wish to remain on your list. If they don't respond, remove them from future deployments.

For more information on how ISPs handle inactive email addresses, read James Koons' blog "Inbox Placement: Insights from Industry Experts"

Infrastructure still plays a major role

Good list hygiene practices shouldn't be left to validation services after things go wrong. They should be part of your program from day one and followed throughout the entire lifespan. A solid infrastructure is essential, and ISPs look at things – such as email authentication (DKIM, DMARC, etc.), DNS & rDNS, a properly functioning reply addresses, feedback loops and working unsubscribe mechanisms – as a given. It's something every permission-based sender should have in place.

Tip 4

With 1.5 trillion unsolicited emails being sent daily, ISPs have shifted away from labeling bad emails as spam and instead have started rewarding senders who follow all of the rules, regulations and best practices. A solid infrastructure is the first step. For more information, read our whitepaper "Email Deliverability Tips for Every Stage of the Customer Lifecycle".

Words of advice from Google

Google's Gmail is a powerhouse. It's leading the way in inbox improvements and email marketers must adapt to these trends in order to reach their Gmail audience. Sri Somanchi of Gmail's Anti-Spam team, recently gave our Chief Privacy Officer, James Koons, some advice to share with Listrak's clients. "Don't make attempts to get your promotional emails into the Primary Tab. The Promotions Tab was designed for promotional content for our users. Please do not try to game the system as this is generally viewed as subversive behavior. If you are being offered some sort of back way into the Primary Tab, don't listen to those consultants."

He explained that Google is a large sender as well and they also see "the other side of things". Further advice from Somanchi are what he calls the "5 R's":

  1. Right Acquisition: Also known as the Right Opt-In. Senders should be following best practices when it comes to building their lists. Permission based is the best practice and he prefers confirmed opt in when at all possible.
  2. Right Engagement: This is where personalization comes in to play. Understand your recipients and don't send the same thing to everyone. Make sure your recipients are responding positively.
  3. Right Measurement: Keep a close eye on your analytics and make sure you are effectively tracking engagement.
  4. Right Adjustment: Properly ramping up and ramping down as well as making adjustments on the fly based on your analytics and engagement.
  5. Right Opt-Out: Make sure that recipients can easily and conspicuously unsubscribe from your list. Honor other sources of opt-outs quickly as well (reply-to, abuse@, etc.).

Tip 5

Understand how many of your subscribers use Gmail and test your emails to that audience to see what subject lines, offers, timing, etc. works best. Many retailers have a large Gmail user base. Knowing what works best for that segment of your customers can greatly increase your email revenue and ROI.

For more information on email Privacy and Deliverability, contact us.