We’ve Got Our ISPs on You


The current state of email deliverability is, well, confusing.

On one hand, the way Internet service providers (ISPs) determine email deliverability has quickly become more automated, more complicated, and less personal. ISPs churn hundreds of factors and signals through complex algorithms to determine if a message should reach its target.

On the other hand, getting email to its destination has never been more straightforward, according to the experts who live and breathe deliverability each day. “The most important factor, hands down, is to send mail that our customers want,” says Paul Rock, AOL’s programmer/analyst and principle lead for mail abuse. “If our customers don’t want your mail, you’re going to have a bad time…. When our customers want your mail, those of us at the ISPs will make sure it gets to them.”

If you’re pressed for time, stop reading here and go forth equipped with that simple, yet essential guidance. The complete story of email deliverability, however, is far more elaborate.

Rock’s solid advice crystallizes what email marketers should keep in mind at all times—especially when the current state of deliverability happens to be highly fluid, and, by the way, based on a system that was never designed for marketing, let alone for built-in email authentication.

Given this delicate situation, it’s essential to understand and manage the more technically focused deliverability determinants. It may be even more important to make the humans who own email addresses fall in love—to borrow a phrase from Google anti-spam maven Sri Somanchi—with your carefully crafted and incredibly engaging electronic messages.

Inbox placement rates decline
Rock, Somanchi, and their counterparts at Comcast and Microsoft spoke on the topic of “deliverability versus engagement” at the Direct Marketing Association’s 2015 Email Evolution Conference. Their message was simple: Engagement matters, so you should track and manage engagement with the latest monitoring tools.

“There really is no excuse for shortcuts today because if you’re using these tools, then you can have a better understanding of what that end user is doing with your emails—and what they’re doing on your website once they click a link in your email,” says Return Path Chief Privacy and Security Officer Dennis Dayman, who moderated that panel discussion.

Marketers who know which products and services email users are looking at on their website can apply that knowledge to make subsequent emails more segmented and engaging. “Treat the individual with the email address as a person,” Dayman adds. “Don’t simply treat it as an email address.”

This sound advice is getting more challenging to execute. Return Path’s latest research indicates that inbox placement rates declined 5% from 2014 to 2015. “It’s not getting any easier for marketers to reach the inbox,” Dayman says.

This is due, at least in part, to the intensifying good-versus-evil battle that pits spammers, phishers, and other bad actors against ISPs, anti-abuse organizations, and security groups. “The bad guys are looking more and more at ways to co-opt or abuse existing relationships between known brands and customers,” Rock explains. “They’re also targeting the trusting relationships that have been built up between the services that companies use, such as the various hosting providers and [email service providers], and the ISPs…. The last thing you want is a phone call from an upset brand owner asking why their latest email campaign was a ‘Canadian Pharmacy’ spam run, or worse, wanting to know why complaints are flooding in only to discover that their domain has been co-opted to send out ‘adult’ dating-site spam.”

Four-factor identification
As email marketing use has exploded—and, as a result, attracted more spammers, phishers, and criminals—ISPs have fortified their controls, the bulk of which are necessarily automated.  In the past decade this shift has altered the relationship dynamic between ISPs and their marketing counterparts at companies and vendors.

When Spencer Kollas, head of global email deliverability for Experian Marketing Services, waded into the deliverability realms a dozen years ago, the relationships between ISPs and email marketers were more personal. “Today,” Kollas says, “a lot of the filtering systems are automated.”

As a result, Kollas advises email marketers to focus on four primary factors that influence deliverability: unknown users, spam traps, complaints, and customer engagement. This entails removing outdated and invalid email addresses from lists, avoiding spam traps, and applying marketing skills to limit complaints and increase the likelihood that recipients will click on links or, even better, move mail labeled as promotional into their primary inbox tab. “Now,” Kollas continues, “you’ll hear people in the industry say, ‘Well, ISPs don’t really look at engagement.’ They may call it different things, but it’s all around engagement. They want to know: Do people want your mail? That’s the most important factor. If they don’t believe the majority of people want your mail, they’re probably going to block it or put it in the spam folder.”

Rock has said exactly that, as well. He also runs through a list of other deliverability factors that are important to AOL, including the use of feedback loops to track deliverability information; the authentication and protection of domains—preferably using Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC), a technical specification created by a group of organizations to reduce email-based abuse; exhibiting respect for complaints and unsubscribe requests; and the removal of dead addresses from email marketing lists.

According to Rock, it’s helpful for marketers to segregate promotional and other bulk email from transactional or notification traffic. Finally, he points to a factor that most ISP experts also emphasize: historical consistency. “New is usually bad in the anti-abuse world, so having a good reputation with history is what you’re after,” he says.

Return Path’s Dayman agrees that reputation is a crucial deliverability factor. Recipients of email campaigns help build or break that reputation with each email-link click and spam button impression.

So-called best practices
Given that the majority of factors ISPs use to determine deliverability are tactical, marketers should consider some leading deliverability practices—a phrase that Kollas treats delicately. “I usually talk about best practices with air quotes around them,” he says. “Something that is a best practice for one [company] might not be a best practice for another. It really comes down to their business model, their business goals, and what they’re trying to get out of the email communications channel.”

A consumer packaged goods company probably should not send a message to an email address that hasn’t opened any of the company’s emails in the past four or five months, for example. But a tax software firm maker may not expect its targets to crack emails for more than six months, until April 15 approaches.

Consider the following practices in terms of how they apply, and can be adapted, to different companies’ unique needs:

Validate email addresses: It’s a simple and frequently overlooked step that can cause major problems. “Get the right information at the point of collection, whatever that point of collection may be,” Kollas asserts. “When people think about deliverability they often think: OK, I have an email address; how do I get it in the inbox? What they neglect to think about is: Do I have the right email address?

Listen and respond to ISP customers: Rock exhorts email marketers to respect—and quickly respond to—unsubscribe requests and complaints. “Complaints about your mail are a big deal,” he explains. “Someone didn’t want it, so it’s probably a good idea to try to figure out why people are complaining, and adapt…. The worst thing that can happen is for our customers to repeatedly complain about the mail you’re sending, especially if they escalate their complaints via customer service or take their grievances into the public domain.”

Be proactive: Rock encourages email marketers to let ISPs know in advance if a change or a new campaign may impact the normal email flow, or potentially cause a complaint volume to spike. He also advises marketers to track their deliverability metrics in as close to real time as possible. “Watching what’s happening as your mailings go out can give you valuable feedback to improve deliverability,” he explains. Are complaints spiking? Are bounces higher than normal? “Seeing this early can help avoid problems,” Rock says. Additionally, knowing typical deliverability statistics for their company can help marketers have the conversation with an ISP counterpart if a need for that discussion arises. Being proactive also means pulling the plug on a campaign if it begins sparking too many complaints. 

Don’t forget to market: The ease and success of email marketing can cause marketers to focus too much on the technology and too little on their core skill. Kollas believes there is ample room to inject more marketing strategy and precision into email messages. By way of example, he says that many email marketing programs neglect opportunities to upsell customers (e.g., “free shipping on any item you order”) when they email them a sales receipt for an online purchase.

Perhaps the most valuable best practice—no air quotes necessary—concerns treating recipients of email marketing messages as humanly as possible, despite the increasingly technical and automated nature of the activity. Dayman suggests applying the “grandmother test” to guide deliverability decision-making: How would your grandmother feel if she received this email marketing message from you?

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