The Heart of Email Marketing: Reputation and Deliverability

Did you know that there are three times as many email accounts as Facebook and Twitter combined? Email is so important to businesses that MarketingSherpa’s Best Practices in Email Handbook says, “…email, along with search and an effective website, is at the heart of online marketing.”

Email is greener, more measurable, more preferred by consumers, gets better response rates than social media and is the first and most frequent thing people check.

In today’s environment, reputation and deliverability are the key to email marketing success.

Aside from optimizing frequency, how can you ensure your emails are highly reputably and reliably delivered?

List Hygiene

Let’s say you have a range of email addresses. Some are very active and always click through the links in your emails, interacting with offers on your site. Other addresses have not opened an email in over six months.

From an email hygiene standpoint, you’re not going to want to continue sending emails to the latter group. They’re just going to drag your deliverability scores down. Quality trumps quantity here. You’d rather have a smaller list of people who are actively engaged and participate than a larger group of people who do not participate. Sending emails to only engaged people and simply dropping your unengaged list will improve your email reputation with email service providers (ESP) and internet service providers (ISP).

In addition to your unsubscribes you’ll want to do business specific suppressions. Depending on the type of email you may only want to target recently active email addresses. Or perhaps you’ll only want to target the three to six month active addresses. These are the people who have been active, but not recently.

Buying or Renting Lists

According to Search Engine Watch’s Email Marketing 101, one can build a list from scratch by buying or renting lists from “specialist providers.” This is an absolute no-no.

Let’s say a company buys an email list and hits a whole bunch of spam traps. High level ESPs will not partner with you because running into spam traps affects their clients’ ability to effectively deliver emails.

Double Opt-Ins and Single Opt-Outs

DOI is the holy grail of email marketing. You want someone to signal, “Yes, I performed this action,” and “Yes, I want to receive your emails.” These users make your list very reputable and highly deliverable.

Under CAN-SPAM, a commercial email must provide a space to opt-out of receiving the message. Don’t make it hassle to unsubscribe. Once they click the unsubscribe link, don’t be afraid to get a little creative in your opt-out message. The page I landed on after unsubscribing to Google Offers almost made me resubscribe right away.

Single Opt-Out from Google Offers
Single Opt-Out from Google Offers

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Baked Beans and Spam

Aside from having a clean email list filled with double opt-in subscribers, the most important thing that companies can do to ensure reliability and deliverability is to avoid sending emails that look like spam to ESPs or recipients. If enough people report a sender for sending spammy emails, ESPs and ISPs will blacklist that sender, preventing them from reaching their audience and growing their revenue.

The subject line is the first thing that readers see, so it’s important to make it as attractive as possible. According to Jay Baer, 69% of email recipients report email as spam based solely on the subject line.

Free services like Gmail and Yahoo! have especially aggressive bulking mechanisms and spam algorithms that throttle and kill even slightly suspicious emails. For example, ESPs design filters to catch spammy phrases like “Hot Deal” or “Big Sale” in the subject line. The Action Mailing List blog states, “Words like Free, Win, Cash, Contest etc. have become real problems for guaranteeing email deliverability.”

The more spam complaints an ESP receives about you from its users, the harder it will be to deliver emails. At some point, even your engaged members will stop receiving your offers.

The best practice is to scrub your list on every single send. To be CAN-SPAM compliant, someone who unsubscribes from your list must be pulled within 48 hours or you can be fined per occurrence which can cost you tens of thousands of dollars.

Inbox Placement Rate

Email Deliverability Research
Source: Return Path – Email Deliverability Research

Dirty lists and spammy emails are only part of the problem. Sometimes, even your highly relevant and targeted emails sent to subscribers who completed a double opt in process may not actually see your email. This is known as the inbox placement rate problem. Typically, email marketers define success based on the acceptance rate which is the total amount of emails successfully delivered to the server divided by the total amount of emails deployed.

According to Return Path, the global leader in email intelligence, almost 20 percent of emails do not land in the intended inbox. A large part of that 20 percent isn’t necessarily spam. Those may be legitimate emails that get bulked or thrown into the Junk folder.

By focusing on improving the inbox placement rate and not simply the bounce or acceptance rate, you can improve your open and click-through rates too.

It’s About Mobility

Email has to be mobile optimized which means using responsive design. Email marketers need to know what device their emails are being opened on. According to this recent Econsultancy article, 41 percent of emails are now opened up on mobile platforms. This number represents a 13 percent increase from a similar article published last year.

The general advice is that an email should be under 700 pixels in width and not use an image map; just simple gifs or jpegs with no animation. Load times increase with more jpegs and animations in the email. The higher the load time, the lower the click-through rate.


An email list comprised of double opt-in subscribers plus emails that are optimized for mobile devices equals a high reputation and deliverability.

Matt Train contributed to this blog post.