Article first published May 2015, updated June 2019.
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 learned 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Delete without open (BAD) – If your recipients take a glance at the sender and subject and then delete your campaign, this is seen as a negative signal.
- 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.
- 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 affect 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 the 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.
Moreover, 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 subscriber’s 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 subscriber’s 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 teamwork with our customers all day long to help them achieve that, so I got them to share some of their best practices.
Content is king
While some believe that content comes in second compared to deliverability, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is what your subscribers are coming to you for—quality content that is relevant to their needs.
Sure, the quality of your email lists and your subject lines all play an essential part in the overall strategy; however, it is the content that you are providing to them that matters most. Quality content means sending more than just promotional materials. In fact, email marketers should consider sprinkling in a variety of the following pieces of content throughout their content strategy:
- Support information such as case studies and success stories
- Event information
- Value-driven content such as infographics and industry studies
- People-focused content such as customer feedback and new hire bios
- Blogs, how-to’s, and product videos
The trick is to have a solid content strategy behind you, one that you can then implement into your email marketing strategy.
Refining your content strategy
Whether you are refining your content strategy or starting from scratch—having a solid plan is what will get your content seen by those who need it most.
1. Define your goals
Fail to plan, plan to fail—that’s just how it goes. What are you hoping to accomplish by creating and sharing your content? If you don’t have solid goals, then you’ll be flying blind. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you looking to spread awareness?
- Do you want your readers to take action?
- Do you want your content to increase overall conversions?
These are only a handful of questions you want to ask yourself during this process—the key is to get as detailed with your goals as possible.
2. Identify your audience
You can’t provide quality content to your audience if you don’t know who they are. Have a brainstorming session and ask yourself who the ideal audience member is. Just like with your goals, you want to get as detailed as you can with your visualization of your ideal reader. By the end of your session, you should be able to perfectly picture an individual and know what their pain points are that will be solved by your content.
3. Plan your content
This is where you start to really define what types of content your reader wants to receive in their inbox and how often.
Will newsletters suit them best? Alternatively, will content with animated GIFs and video clips be more their style?
Again, detail matters here. If you are sending out material that your ideal reader doesn’t find useful or interesting, then they are either going to mark your content as spam or simply stop opening your messages.
4. What does success look like & how will you measure it?
This is where truly understanding your analytics comes into play. Just like with your goal setting, you need to define what success looks like in terms of your preferred key performance indicators (KPIs). Ask yourself what your ideal numbers will look like for these KPIs:
- Open rate
- Click-through rate
- Bounce rate
- Unsubscribe rate
By knowing what your idea of success looks like, you’ll have solid benchmarks to compare your results to. Then you will know what needs to be improved on and when.
5. Test, finalize, and send
Always test before you send. Test your subject lines, your content, the types of content, and the overall design. Test it all, review the results, test again, redefine, and then send.
By conducting A/B tests, you’ll be able to understand better what it is your readers want to see from you. Once you’ve narrowed down to your most successful combinations, finalize your campaigns and begin sending them out.
Remember those KPIs we mentioned earlier? Remember to monitor those and keep redoing your campaigns as necessary to provide you with the results you want.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org as the reply-to address.
These kinds 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:
Seeing these kinds 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.
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.
Ready to take your email newsletter up a notch? Check out these 25 content ideas to help nourish customer loyalty while keeping your subscribers in the loop!