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Article first published in May 2014, updated June 2019

Email marketers know just how vital email campaigns can be for their overall marketing strategy. However, while many are focusing on growing their email list, they aren’t putting the necessary focus on increasing their overall engagement.

So, what is engagement when it comes to email marketing? It’s getting the reader to open your email, click on a link, or complete a specific CTA. Increasing your overall engagement takes strategy.

In order to get a better idea on this topic, we sat down with Gmail’s anti-spam team, and this is what they had to say.

In 2014, we sat down with Gmail’s anti-spam team, and this is what they had to say

When it comes to why campaigns get marked as spam, most ISPs are regarded as “black boxes.” But, recently, Gmail’s Anti-Spam Team bucked that trend by demystifying much of what they’re doing behind the scenes. I’ve summarized the key points from our discussion to help emailers improve their chances at inbox placement, as well as get the inside story on how spam filtering works.

Keeping in mind that ISPs very rarely discuss how they operate, so it was an honor to be invited to talk with Sri Somanchi on Gmail’s Anti-Spam Team, on behalf of the ESPC, a group comprised of many of the most popular email service providers. While Sri was understandably mum on many of the technical aspects of Gmail’s operations, he did have some great advice on how to keep our campaigns out of the Spam folder. To start things off, we asked:

Why do emails get sent to the Spam folder?

So you’ve just sent an email campaign and are about to kick back with your favorite beverage, when you receive a message from a subscriber…Letting you know that your campaign has gone into Gmail’s Spam folder. Regardless of whether you have 5 or 5,000 subscribers using this webmail client, such an event can be a perplexing experience.

How does Gmail spam filter work?

On Gmail’s end, Sri revealed that there are literally hundreds of signals to decide whether an email should go to the Inbox or the Spam folder. The importance of any given signal is dynamic and determined on complex algorithms. In essence, it means that one factor or another isn’t likely to bin an entire campaign and there’s no point in obsessing over any one element. “Think of how you can make the user love your mails rather than how to land in the Inbox,” was Sri’s basic advice on the subject, essentially stating that, if the user likes your mail, the spam filter shouldn’t stop it from getting to the Inbox.

The takeaway here is that we shouldn’t simply lay the blame on, say, a couple of lines of copy when campaigns go south and we should, instead, take a more holistic view towards improving our email programs. It’s therefore better to focus on why a user might have marked an email as spam and NOT why the spam filter didn’t put you in the Inbox.

Helpfully, Sri highlighted two things in particular which can make or break your campaign sends.

What can I do to improve inbox placement?

Not wanting to leave anyone hanging, we discussed the most important things that senders should focus on to stay out of spam. Sri revealed that Gmail takes email engagement very seriously. While Sri wouldn’t go into details behind how Gmail classifies a message, it’s evident he and the Gmail Anti-Spam team want to see evidence that your recipients love or, at the very least, want your messages, for them to reach the inbox.

How do I increase Gmail engagement?

As marketers, we look at metrics such as opens, reopens, replies, forwards, and other positive interactions. These interactions generally give an indication the recipient is happy with the content, and this, in turn, reduces the probability of your message being marked as spam. Sri did say that, if users don’t mark something as spam, there’s little reason for filters to flag future emails. Also, ensuring that the engagement levels are high will lead to users moving mails accidentally misclassified by Gmail back to Inbox, which will help their systems to learn and correct themselves.

The implication for senders like ourselves is that we have to focus on designing campaigns that recipients love and engage with. One thing that you could do is to feature strong CTAs or ask subscribers to reply directly if they’d like to get in touch with you.

The second piece of advice was quite unique: While a frequent sending pattern might be tolerated initially, eventually, recipients will tire of the frequency.

Based on Sri’s experience, we learned sending frequency, at times, is the biggest reason for users being turned off by your email program. If you don’t adopt engagement-based sending, a frequent sending pattern might be tolerated initially but, eventually, recipients will tire of the frequency and start marking your mail as spam.

Engagement and frequency aside, setting up email authentication was also noted as being important for email marketers. If you use a custom domain, managing your own authentication by adding DKIM records to your DNS is essential (we authenticate emails sent from your account by default). A willingness to work with email service providers to resolve any deliverability issues was also highlighted, whether these are reported internally or via third-parties, such as Gmail’s Feedback Loop. All these factors go to show that, while content’s commonly looked at as the trigger for spam complaints, it’s just one of many things that may factor in some way as to whether your campaigns should get placed in the inbox.

What you should know for 2019

Why email engagement should matter to marketers

Email marketing is more than simply creating the most massive list of subscribers. It’s more than sending out that beautiful email or well-crafted campaign.

All of those things mean nothing if your readers aren’t engaging with those emails. Sri already discussed what the team at Google had to say on the subject, and now it’s time to talk about implementation.

So how do you get your customers to start engaging more with your newsletters? There are a few key components to your email that you should focus on:

  • Subject and preheader text
  • Message and copy
  • CTAs

Subject and preheader text

The subject and preheader text is the very first piece of your email that’ll be seen by readers, and this is the make or break moment. If the subject line isn’t enticing enough for readers to want to click on it and learn more, then the email is headed for the trash file or, worse, the spam file.

Take this example from WordPress:

Take this example from WordPress:

Source: Gmail

The subject of their email is “How to create shareable content for your website.” The reader is instantly pulled in because the subject line is addressing a common pain-point for website owners. The preheader text “What type of content gets the most shares?” delivers that final blow that’ll make the reader want to open the email to find the answer.

Message and copy

You’ve got the reader to open the email, but the engagement shouldn’t stop there. Now you’ll want to provide them with valuable and relevant copy. Make sure you’re addressing the material that you brought up in the subject line and preheader text.

CTA

The copy should be crafted in a way that leads the reader to a very specific call to action. What is it you want them to do? Better yet, are you directing them to something they want to do? Will it benefit them? In order to keep the engagement process going, it better.

Wrap up

A huge thanks to Sri and Gmail’s Anti-Spam Team for being so open about Gmail’s approach to combating spam and abuse, as well as how legitimate senders can stay in the clear.

For more on how junk mail filtering works and what you can do to improve your campaigns, take a look at our Guide to Landing in the Inbox.

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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