Email Deliverability 101 

 November 30, 2022

By  HiFlyer

This ecommerce strategy article is an excerpt from our new book, The Ultimate Ecommerce Email & SMS Playbook. We’re diving into our ecommerce strategy chapter focused on the 7 Reasons Why Ecommerce Customers Leave Your Brand.

A user forgot their password? Send an email with reset instructions. A new product was just launched? Launch a new product email. Traffic on the site is slow this week? Send a roundup of the best-sellers to your mailing list. Companies send emails all the time.

Yet, according to the latest annual research from Return Path, only 85% of legit emails reach their final destination. This means that, on average, every 3 out of 20 users (or a whooping 15,000+ users on a one-million-member list) might abandon your platform, won’t know about that shiny new product, or fail to shop during a slow week, bringing revenue down.  

As great as your design, content, and creatives may be, if you can’t get the email delivered to the inbox, you won’t succeed at email marketing. ISPs care a lot about the credibility of your domain and IP address. Before any email is delivered, they’ll run a so-called ‘reputation check’ to evaluate if you’re likely to be sending unwanted messages or might have some nefarious motives for contacting your mailing lists. If they deem you do, your deliverability will likely suffer.

The topic of email deliverability is vast, and I’m not going to dive into every specific nuance of deliverability here. What I would recommend is that you use MX Toolbox to run a free deliverability check and see what that tells you about your email program. If there are indeed deliverability issues, enlist the help of your ESP or use MX Toolbox to solve them for you. 

What I do want to share, though, is how to ensure strong deliverability going forward. Here are some good deliverability rules to follow:

Focus on segmentation

A batch and blast approach is a sure-fire way to have deliverability issues. We have clients who’ve been sending to their full list in an effort to get subscribers who “may eventually want to buy,” which already sounds like a shot in the dark. We quickly walked them back from that approach, using the Pareto Principle as a guide. 

Segment out your list by engagement level, purchasing behavior, browsing behavior, and other signals that show a repeated willingness to hear from you. We’ll go into more segmentation concepts as I share our unique S.P.A.M. Strategy.

While buying mailing lists is an obvious no-no, you should also be careful about emailing people who didn’t give you explicit permission to do so. Just because someone joined one of your events a year ago or signed up a decade ago doesn’t mean they will appreciate being notified about your new product launch. 

These “dormant” subscribers are likely to mark your message as spam just to get it out of their inbox. Even a few such requests are enough to significantly harm the reputation of your domain and get you blocked on future mailings.

Make it super simple to unsubscribe.

We’ve had clients that have dreaded the unsubscribe so much that they simply never mail enough. So, having a super-easy method to unsubscribe might sound counterintuitive to certain brands. After all, you’ve spent time and money building your mailing list, so why would you let them go so easily now? 

Check your own inbox. Chances are you’re probably subscribed to some mailing lists (voluntarily or not) and hardly ever even open their emails. It could be that you signed up to access some marketing concept, sales funnel, or sampled a product that you have no need for now. We’ve all done that.

There are thousands of such people on your list, and if they don’t interact with you now, there’s a minimal chance they will in the future. If you make it hard for them to remove themselves from the list, sooner or later, they’ll hit ‘SPAM’ and quit anyway. What’s more, ISPs also look at whether people interact with your emails when assessing your reputation. If they never open them, it won’t help your cause.

Focus on opt-downs, not just opt-outs.

Subscribers might not necessarily want to unsubscribe from all your communication when they veer to the unsubscribe button. Chances are they’re just receiving too many emails or need a break, or simply are not in the market for your product right now. 

An email preference center with opt-in, opt-down, and opt-out options will help you manage your list hygiene. Some brands will even include options to subscribe to new arrivals or content emails over promotions. 

Some brands implement a “snooze” function that pauses emails for 30 days. A preference center is a great way to let users decide what they wish to receive and how often, giving them control of their experience. 

However, some brands elect to implement super-granular preference centers and drill down deeply into category, interest, location, and other types of email campaigns that users can select to receive. I’ll go on the record as saying this is a terrible idea. 

One client had a preference center with about 40 checkboxes of product preferences that they could opt-in to hear more about. Add in different communication cadence levels – such as a preference for one email a week or two a month – and the combinations get extremely cumbersome. From a customer point of view, a super granular preference center may look wonderful, but from an email execution perspective, it’s a train wreck. Here’s an example of a super-granular and cumbersome preference center:

Trying to segment out users who want to hear about pants but not shirts and only want one email a week leads to a super tiny segment and doesn’t add any lift to revenue. The sheer number of preference center combinations will cause your team to spend more time segmenting than actually mailing. In my experience, brands with a cumbersome preference center don’t really honor it due to time constraints from the email team.

The case for a simple preference center gets even stronger: customers rarely use the preference center anyway. In addition, if they do show an interest in a certain product and buy that product, their preference is outdated because the interest wanes; they’ve bought the product already, why do they need to hear about it anymore? 

We’ll discuss later in this book that there are better ways than a preference center to segment subscribers. Your preference center should contain no more than roughly five to seven options:

  • Subscribe to all emails
  • Subscribe to 1 email roundup a week
  • Subscribe to 1 email roundup a month
  • Subscribe to breaking news / new products
  • Snooze for thirty days
  • Unsubscribe

By having opt-down options, you’ll reduce the number of unsubscribes while also reducing the preference complexity your email team needs to adhere to. 

Clean your list of disengaged subscribers.

Letting people unsubscribe easily is not enough. You should also remove some contacts on your own, believe it or not. The obvious case is bounces. If your mailing software doesn’t automatically remove accounts that bounce, do it manually. Even several bounces from one campaign can cost you a serious chunk of the good reputation you’ve earned.

The top e-commerce ESPs like Klaviyo, Sailthru, and Bluecore offer detailed stats for each of your campaigns. You can easily check who opened your emails, who clicked on the links and how many times they did either. This lets you quickly determine who hasn’t been active for ages and is just decreasing the quality of your list. Remove such users periodically and focus on those that appreciate your content. 

Avoid spam traps and blacklists

Spam traps are fake email accounts set up by ISPs and placed in various locations around the web. While harvesting emails, bots also tend to add these addresses to their collections as they look no different than the real accounts bots are after. Send a single email to such an account, and your deliverability will immediately suffer. MX Toolbox has a free tool for checking if your domain has already ended up on one of the blacklists.

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