I have a confession to make.

Before I joined Campaign Monitor, I knew nothing about getting my email campaigns delivered.

I was like most marketers who focused most of my efforts on building our list, designing great emails and writing amazing copy. I never once considered the deliverability part of our email marketing efforts.

It’s only since joining Campaign Monitor that I’ve spent some time with our in-house deliverability and compliance team, and I’ve learnt that there’s this whole world of things that go into making sure your email campaigns land in people’s inbox.

In this post, I wanted to share with you what actually determines whether your email makes the inbox and what you can do to ensure your subscribers are receiving your campaigns.

What determines whether your email makes the inbox?

In the past, making the inbox and avoiding spam filters was largely about the content on your emails.

Spam filters used to look for little signals in your campaigns (the word free was a well known one) and then scoring your email based on how many of those ‘signals’ your email contained.

Get a low spam score, your email made the inbox. Get a high spam score, it bounced.

These days however, email providers like Gmail, Yahoo and Outlook have gotten a lot more advanced with their methods and now primarily use engagement factors (like opens, replies, etc) to determine whether your email makes the inbox or not.

At the recent Email Evolution Conference, the big email providers like Gmail and Outlook.com all outlined 7 key signals they use to determine engagement.

  1. Open (GOOD) – If a user frequently opens your campaigns, this is seen as a good signal that your campaigns aren’t spam and helps your emails make the inbox.
  2. Reply (GOOD) –  If people respond to your email campaigns (via reply email), this is seen as a good signal and helps improve your reputation with email providers.
  3. Move to Junk (BAD) – If people move your email to the Junk folder, this is considered a very strong, negative signal that your email campaigns aren’t worthy of the inbox.
  4. Not junk (GOOD) – If people move your email out of the Junk folder, this is considered a very strong, positive signal that your campaigns are relevant and worthy of making the inbox.
  5. Delete without open (BAD) –  If your recipients take a quick glance at the sender and subject and then delete your campaign, this is seen as a negative signal.
  6. Move to folder (GOOD) –  If your recipients move your emails into various folders in their inbox, the email providers take this as a sign they care about your emails and are more likely to continue delivering them to their inbox.
  7. Add to address book (GOOD) – If your recipients add your email address to their address book, the email providers take this as a sign that they care about receiving email from you and are more likely to continue delivering them to the inbox.

These signals have an effect on two key things:

  • Your reputation with the individual subscriber – If an individual subscriber is always opening your campaigns and moving them to folders, then you are going to build up a great reputation with that individual subscriber.
  • Your reputation with the email provider as a whole – If majority of your Gmail subscribers (for instance) are opening your campaigns and moving them to folders, then you are also going to build up a great reputation with Gmail as well.

And when it comes to deciding whether to deliver your email to the inbox or not, email providers like Gmail take both of these reputations into account.

So for instance, you could have a great reputation with an individual subscriber who always opens your campaigns, but if your reputation with Gmail (for instance) is poor because they see that most of their users are junking your campaigns, then not only won’t you make it into their inboxes, your super engaged subscribers might not get your campaigns either.

How can marketers ensure their email campaigns get delivered?

While at first it might seem email providers like Gmail and Outlook are working to keep your campaigns out of your subscribers inbox, they’re actually doing the opposite.

According to estimates, there are over 180 billion spam messages sent every single day.

The anti-spam teams at email providers are actually working to keep these emails out of your subscribers inbox, so that legitimate messages like yours have less to compete with for attention.

At the end of the day, companies like Google and Microsoft (owners of email providers like Gmail and Outlook) are huge email marketers as well, so they have a vested interest in making sure only legitimate email marketing campaigns make the inbox.

So how can you help prove to the email providers that your email is legitimate and not a spam message?

Our deliverability team work with our customers all day long to help them achieve that, so I got them to share some of their best practices:

Build a great email list

Rather than wasting your money buying or renting email lists, focus your efforts on building your own email list.

Lists that are built organically (through people opting-in to receive your emails) have open rates 5x higher than purchased or scraped lists and receive 4x fewer spam complaints.

These increased opens and reduced spam complaints send good signals to email providers, and help ensure your campaigns get delivered to all your recipients.

Building a permission-based email list isn’t hard either.

In our Guide to Building Your Email List, we outlined a 2-part formula you can use to build your email list:

Amazing Incentive + Prominent Subscribe Opportunities = A huge email list

By offering an amazing incentive (such as great content, exclusive discounts, etc) and having prominent subscribe opportunities that make it easy to join your list, you can build a high-quality email list that ensures your email campaigns get delivered to everyone.

Authenticate your emails

If you are using email marketing software like Campaign Monitor, you’ll have the option to authenticate your emails so that they are being sent from your own domain (i.e.yourbusiness.com) as opposed to the generic domains we maintain (I.e. cmail1.com)

Email providers like Gmail and Outlook take authenticated domains as a strong signal that you are a legitimate business sending legitimate email campaigns. Due to the way spam organisations operate, they generally don’t go through the authentication process so having an authenticated domain helps the email providers see you’re not a spammer.

If you’re a Campaign Monitor customer, then you can authenticate your domain by following the instructions here.

Doing so should help ensure your email campaigns make it into your recipients inbox and drive sales and revenue for your business.

Make sure your email campaigns are relevant and engaging

The final piece of the puzzle for marketers is ensuring that each email you send to your subscribers is both relevant and engaging.

Getting your emails into the inbox all comes down to your subscribers previous engagement with your campaigns, so it’s important that you are consistently sending relevant and engaging emails that are getting opened and engaged with.

Here are a few tips you can apply to your email marketing right away:

Use a familiar ‘From’ name

The ‘From’ name (along with the subject line) is one of the few things marketers have to leverage to get people to open their campaigns and subsequently send positive signals to email providers.

The key to success here is to use a ‘From’ name your subscribers will recognise.

For instance, if you were to sign up for our email newsletter would you expect to receive emails from Campaign Monitor or from Aaron Beashel? Given that you’ve signed up for these emails from the Campaign Monitor website, chances are it’s the earlier.

Alex Turnbull, the CEO of Groove, does a great job of this when sending email campaigns to Groove customers. You can see in the screenshot below that his name shows up as “Alex at Groove” in the from field.

The inclusion of the company name ensures people know exactly who this email is coming from, yet the inclusion of Alex’s first name adds a personal touch that makes people think the email is specifically for them and encourages them to open it.

Use segmentation

Rather than sending your email to your entire list, try segmenting your list and targeting the campaign to those who you know are going to be interested.

This campaign from Australian retailer The Iconic is a great example:

Although The Iconic also sells women’s clothing and I’m sure had countless new arrivals that week, they know I am a male so only send me information about the latest menswear.

This ensures the content of their campaign is relevant to me, and increases the chances I’ll open it and send positive signals back to my email provider that I want The Iconic’s email campaigns in my inbox.

Use a real reply-to address

One of the key signals email providers like Gmail and Outlook use to determine the validity of your emails is whether or not you have received responses to your campaigns in the past.

This makes sense. Nobody ever responds to spammers or to email they don’t care about, they simply ignore or delete it. So if you’re getting responses to your campaigns then it’s an obvious signal for email providers that these are legitimate emails people care about.

So when creating email campaigns, avoid using emails like noreply@yourcompany.com as the reply-to address.

These kind of email addresses tell people you are not interested in hearing from them, and reduce the amount of responses you get.

Instead use alternatives like:

  • hello@yourcompany.com
  • support@yourcompany.com
  • yourname@yourcompany.com

Seeing these kind of emails addresses encourages people to respond, and those responses are interpreted as positive signals by email providers that help improve your ability to land in the inbox.

In conclusion

While it might sometimes seem like email providers such as Gmail and Outlook are trying to prevent your campaigns from hitting the inbox, the truth is legitimate email campaigns from marketers like yourself are not at all a concern for them.

Instead, it’s the 180 billion spam messages that are being sent each day that they’re working to block.

So as long as you follow some of the tips in this post- such as building a proper email list, authenticating your domain and sending relevant campaigns – you should enjoy high deliverability rates and a great return from your email marketing efforts.

  • Rodi

    Took your advice and used a ‘real’ reply address, customercare@, instead of noreply@.

    Unfortunately during our next send (152k subscriber list) we received over 4k auto-reples and ‘out-of-office’ emails streaming into our client’s customer service department. They were not happy to say the least…

  • John Woodman

    I could not agree more about the quality of an email list. It’s like the old saying that a database is only as good as the info that’s inside it. Cut corners in others areas if you absolutely need to speed up your processes but never ever compromise the quality of your email list. This is not simply some spurious following on a social media – this is your direct line into your target customer base and it should be treated with respect.

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    HI Rodi, sorry to hear that. There are a couple of strategies you can use to handle bounces; to handle our list of 180k+ subscribers, we employ a couple of rules in Desk to ensure OoO’s and replies are handled gracefully. Hopefully something to think about for next time!

    Thank you for the reminder, John – sometimes you can forget that your email list is real people that you should go above-and-beyond to maintain a positive relationship with.

  • Jaina

    Authenticating email addresses and building a solid lists are great tips. You see a lot of pleas for help from newbies in email marketing forums asking why their open and click through rates are so low on purchased lists they’re sending their emails to. There’s still that notion, outside of email marketing, that the bigger list you have, the better. SO far from the truth. It’s down to us to educate why bigger is definitely not better here.

    Great list, guys!

  • Lemuel Carinote

    “Reply (GOOD) – If people respond to your email campaigns (via reply email), this is seen as a good signal and helps improve your reputation with email providers.”

    If replying to a different address that is set in “reply-to”.
    case 1: from (xxx@subdomain.company.com) and reply to: xxx@company.com
    case 2: from (marketing@company.com) and reply to: info@company.com

    – can you tell if it could be consider a good signal, and could help improve reputation?

  • Ros Hodgekiss

    @Jaina – thank you so much!
    @Lemuel – That’s a great question. I don’t think this has a spam penalty attached to it, however I would keep in mind that not all email clients support using a separate reply-to – here’s a little note on StackExchange regarding this. It’s certainly worth a shot, as long as you don’t use a no-reply@ address!

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