Use this guide to ensure your emails reach your prospects by adhering to best practices around authentication and sender reputation, monitoring and cleanliness, and engagement.
Table of Contents
- List Source
- New Domain Address Warming
- Review Bounces
- Monitoring Blacklists
- Follow the Rules - CAN-SPAM, CASL, GDPR & CCPA
What is Email Deliverability?
As we move further into the era of technology, email has become the primary source of professional communication. As a result, bad actors are doing whatever it takes to get you to view their emails. How many members of the Nigerian royal family have contacted you to transfer their fortune to your bank account?
In response to more frequent attempts to phish, hack, and send spam, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are doing everything they can to protect their customers from potentially unsolicited email, including blocking bulk email sends from new domains and IPs. It’s important to remember that ISPs are always looking to protect their investors and their users.
Because you’re sending emails to reach out to your prospects, these new measures have a direct impact on your ability to have legitimate emails delivered to the inbox.
Ultimately it is the practices of your company, and your engagement strategy, that determines deliverability. There are three primary categories which, when combined, affect your ability to connect with your prospects:
- Authentication & Sender Reputation
- Monitoring & Cleanliness
This guide will dive deep into each category, from behind-the-scenes activity to review how you engage with prospects.
|Important Note on Increased Provider Stringency|
Google and Yahoo are aiming to reduce spam emails and improve email security for their users by enforcing strict new requirements on bulk senders of email beginning in early 2024. Other providers are expected to follow suit thereafter.
All organizations that send commercial email (including Outreach customers) must take action to ensure compliance with these new requirements. Please prioritize reviewing and applying our detailed guidance on these Bulk Email Sender Requirements.
Starting February 1, 2024, if a bulk-sending organization has an abuse complaint rate of 0.3% or higher, Google and Yahoo will automatically block all messages coming from that organization.
There are 3 key areas to focus on in order to be seen as a legitimate sender: Authentication, Unsubscribe Links, and Spam Rate Threshold. Learn more at the link above, in addition to reviewing this page.
Email authentication is a technical standard that lets you verify that you are who you say you are so you aren’t flagged as spam or a spoof (someone phishing for personal information). Without email authentication, bad actors can change their email addresses to make it appear as though they’re sending from a legitimate sender (you) and copy the branding to try and steal personal information.
Email authentication is put in place by your IT team. They’ll configure your mail servers such that when an email is received by your prospect, their email server can check the message you sent and compare it to the rules put in place by your IT team. Gmail and Microsoft usually set up these policies for you when your mailbox is configured, but it’s good to check before you start sending a large number of emails. If you’re using Exchange, your IT team manages your on-premise server, so you’ll need to work with them ensure you have SPF and DKIM set up prior to sending mailings.
Email Authentication is created through three standards: SPF, DKIM, and DMARC.
DKIM (Domain Keys Identified Mail) is an authentication protocol that’s used by email receivers/
domains to determine if the sender is really who they say they are. The domain key is a specialized key that can be used only by one particular sender. As a result, it goes a long way to reassure your prospect’s mailbox that your message is legitimate, and not a fake. This will contribute positively toward your anti-spam score.
SPF (Sender Policy Framework) is closely tied to DKIM. It’s an email validation system that’s designed to prevent email spam and to authenticate senders. SPF looks at the sender IP address and checks to ensure that the mail is coming from an authenticated and verified sender. If an email comes from somewhere that isn’t listed in the SPF record, the incoming server can assume it was spoofed or otherwise illegitimate and reject it as spam.
DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance) is another email authentication protocol that allows senders and receivers to report domains that may be sending fraudulent mail. DMARC policies let the sender indicate that their messages are authenticated with SPF and DKIM, and can give instructions on what to do in the event that the sender is not verified (send to spam, reject the email entirely, etc.).
What can you do?
DKIM and SPF should be a standard part of your basic technical setup requirements; DMARC can be
considered an additional option. Reach out to your IT team to verify that SPF, DKIM, and DMARC have
been set up. If not, encourage them to authenticate your email. Learn more about engaging these protocols here.
Receiving permission to deliver emails can improve your overall engagement and deliverability. This is commonly known as “opting-in.” Opt-ins are either implicit or express consent to engage with an individual prospect; the individual may belong to a company that is already a customer, or perhaps they filled out a form to sign up for a webinar. Sending emails to prospects that have granted you permission will result in stronger engagement (opens, clicks, replies). This benefits your sender reputation because engagement is the number one factor email providers look at when determining inbox placements.
This isn’t to say that cold emails are bad, they simply require extra care. Researching and personalizing mail campaigns, and sharing relevant content with prospects that have not implicitly or explicitly opted in, will help ensure they don’t click the “this is spam” button. Remember, ISPs watch how their customers interact with every email. If they notice that a lot of people mark your email as spam, they’ll start sending our emails directly to the junk folder.
What can you do?
Don’t buy lists of prospects, which are likely filled with spam traps, bad data, and contain names and emails of individuals who have not given you implicit or express permission to contact them. It’s less likely prospects will engage with your email if they have not, in some form, asked for the content you’re sending them.
If you are prospecting to unengaged users, consider using LinkedIn to create the initial point of contact build trust with your prospect before suggesting moving over to email. Once you’ve added them to an mail campaign, make sure you target specific personas and take the time to research and personalize your emails (and include an unsubscribe link if sending emails in bulk!).
Your ability to get email delivered is directly tied to your reputation as an email sender, which has become more important as spammers adopt more strategic ways to appear as legitimate senders. Your sender reputation is a measurement of your email practices and how trustworthy your IPs and domains are according to ISPs and spam filters. The stronger your reputation, the more likely it is that you’ll land in the inbox. Sender reputation is determined by evaluating a few key characteristics:
How many emails from your IP address land in a prospect’s inbox, but are then marked as spam and deleted?
Do you have a high number of complaints relative to the number of emails you send? Your aim is to send a reasonable number of emails and limit the amount of complaints.
How does your IP address compare to others? Are any listed on external blacklists? Your goal is to have an IP address that is not listed on external blacklists and ranked higher than other IP addresses that are being monitored.
How many of your emails bounce compared to others?
When an email is sent to a prospect, the sender reputation is considered by the mailbox and filtered into the inbox, the spam folder, or rejected entirely. This decision is based on the prospect’s mailbox configuration, which is often controlled by their IT teams. For example, some companies will reject all mail with a sender reputation beneath a specified threshold, while others may whitelist IP addresses with Sender Scores above a certain threshold.
In addition, your sender reputation may be used to throttle deliveries from an IP address to an inbox. IP addresses with higher reputations may be permitted to send more messages to an inbox than IP addresses with low reputations.
What can you do?
There are lots of online resources that let you measure your sender reputation. Engage with one of these resources to monitor your sender reputation. If you aren’t happy with the result, make adjustments to your email strategies and campaigns.
Cleanliness & Monitoring
There are inherent risks to deliverability when sending content to purchased email addresses. In general, purchased lists contain names and email addresses of prospects that have not opted-in to your email communication, which, as we explained above, may cause negative interactions with your emails.
In addition, purchased lists may also include spam traps, which are fraud management tools used by ISPs and blacklists to identify bad actors. Spam traps are never obvious. That’s why they’re called traps! Some ISPs and blacklists plant realistic email addresses that have never been used or opted into a mailing list. Regardless, getting caught by a spam trap can cause a headache, with consequences ranging from a temporary block on your domain, IP pool re-assignment, and ultimately less access to inboxes. Purchasing lists will damage your sender reputation, and potentially add your domain to a blacklist, which are notoriously difficult to get off of.
What can you do?
Build your own email lists or scrub email lists using a reputable list hygiene provider. This will help ensure that the list you’re using contains valid email addresses that do not pose a reputation threat. If you do purchase lists, make sure you verify the data before trusting the source where the data was purchased. You should not assume that the data provider you use follows email hygiene best practices. It is your domain reputation that will be affected by sending to bad emails.
New Domain Address Warming
Think of using a new domain like starting a car in the middle of winter. Before you get into your car, you probably want to warm it up for a few minutes. Warming your car helps you scrape the ice off of your windshield, allows the engine to reach the optimal operating temperature, and keeps you warm on your commute. In a similar vein, you need to warm up your new domain to encourage deliverability. ISPs pay attention to your activities, and are suspicious of new domains with high send volumes. Warming up your domain let’s you establish your identity and gain the trust of your ISP, which has a positive effect on your sender reputation and overall deliverability.
Your company’s domain will transcend the email platform you use. That is, you’ll likely take your domain name when you leave an email provider, like transitioning from Gmail to Office 365, but not the actual IP address. For that reason, email providers tend to attribute more degrees of reputation to the domain and look for other possible “spammy” trends.
What can you do?
Before taking action, you should review the following with your IT team:
- How old is your domain? Every domain has its own reputation, and the reputation the domain is assigned is dependent on many factors, one of which is age. Spam filters check a domain’s age. When it’s younger than a month, they will mark it as suspicious by default; when you send messages from a suspicious domain, your messages are treated as suspicious too. We recommend using a domain that is more than six months old.
- What does your sending history look like? If your domain was used in the past for email marketing, or had a historically poor reputation, you won’t want to use this domain for your outreach.
- What Domain is your IT Team using for DKIM? If possible, we recommend your IT team use subdomains when signing DKIM. It helps sustain better reputation on the top level, since marketing and sales emails send higher volumes of email and, as a result, receive more complaints.
When you’ve reviewed the last section, you’re ready to ramp up your domain. This is a two-step process: Slowly ramping up the number of email deliveries and actively monitoring email engagement.
- Ramp up Email Sends - Once you have a new domain address, you need to slowly re-introduce yourself to sending email campaigns. The warming process should take close to 30 days, but will vary depending on your volume, frequency of emails sent, and the quality of your prospect list. This means sending emails from the new domain in smaller volumes, using a targeted and engaged segment of your database, and gradually increasing the volume. Each day, increase the volume until you’re back to your regular email send rate, doubling your send volume every three or four days.
- Monitor your Campaigns - Gradually increasing email volume is only part of warming up your domain. The other piece to consider is the content of the emails you’re sending, and what engagement with those emails looks like. Are you sending emails that aren’t being opened and clicked? Have you reached your average reply rate? The higher the engagement with your emails, the better your credibility with your ISP.
Don’t worry if the first week of sending from your new domain doesn’t seem to be landing your emails in the inbox. Since you don’t have a sender history on your new domain, it’s natural for your emails to appear to end up in spam. In addition, some email providers deliver a portion of the emails you’re sending to the spam folder to see if your prospects save it and mark it as “not spam”. Your email provider sees this as a good indication that you’re a legitimate sender.
You will receive bounced email notifications when you send an email and it is denied entrance to your
prospect’s email server. There are two primary bounce types: hard bounces and soft bounces.
You can identify the bounce type by reading the bounce message sent to your inbox by the prospect’s server. The message attached to the email will vary, since they are created and managed by each company’s IT team. However, the bounce number will indicate the type of bounce you’ve received: 5.x.x errors are hard bounces and 4.x.x are soft bounces.
Hard bounces mean the email address no longer exists, or never existed at all. All other reasons an email would bounce are considered soft bounces. Soft bounces are most frequently received because your prospect’s email server is down, their mailbox is full, etc. ISPs are looking for IPs that have a lot of hard bounces. A clean email list has about or under a 1% bounce rate. Any more than that, it becomes more visible to email filters that you’re sending emails to stale email addresses. If you hit more than 5%, we recommend finding a list validation service to review your emails prior to sending them any messages. If more than 10% of your emails receive a hard bounce error, the ISP will start to block your emails.
What can you do?
Review bounce messages you receive to determine if they’re hard, soft, or synchronous bounces. Remove hard bounces from your email campaign and try to keep bounces under 5% for soft and under 1% for hard bounces for every email campaign.
If you send a large volume of emails, you can use Postmaster Tools to see if customers and prospects are marking your emails as spam, why your emails might not be delivered, if your emails are being sent securely, and whether you’re following your email provider’s best practices. The availability of tools will vary based on your email provider.
Blacklists are lists of domain names or IP addresses of identified “spammers” that are compiled into a list for email servers to reference. If an email server sees your domain name or IP address on a blacklist, they’ll block your emails, and your prospects may never know you were trying to contact them.
Think of your domain and IP address as a return address on the envelope of a letter. Every email that you send has your return address (IP address and domain) logged. Mail servers can check the return address against a number of public and private blacklists. If it sees your return address on one or more of these lists, your email will likely end up in Joe’s junk folder, or rejected all together.
What can you do?
Follow email best practices to keep your sender reputation high. Make sure you monitor blacklists so you know if your IP address and domain end up on a list, even if by mistake. There are a number of tools that you can use to check your IP and domain against well-known blacklists. If you are blacklisted, you’ll need to submit a request to the blacklist to have your IP address and domain removed. This is done by applying for a “delisting” from the specific blacklist in question, usually completed on the blacklists’ websites. If there is no delisting option, there may be a timer associated with the blacklist, which removes your email after a certain amount of time has passed, the email traffic slows, or complaints drop.
Follow the Rules: CAN-SPAM, CASL, GDPR & CCPA
Data privacy is a big topic as governments begin to understand the wide scope of ways data can be used to persuade consumers. As a result, laws are being passed that give individuals the right to opt out of email communication and have their data deleted. There are significant consequences for violating these regulations, including a 4% fine on your ARR for violating the terms of GDPR.
What can you do?
Make sure you understand the laws in your country, and the rights of individuals in foreign countries (especially the European Union). For CAN-SPAM, this might mean including your company’s address and an unsubscribe link in all of your emails. For GDPR, you’ll need to ensure that the individuals you are emailing have opted into your communication. By complying to the appropriate regulations, you’ll limit the number of complaints against your domain, helping ensure your emails land where you want them - in the inbox.
Know Your Audience - Relevance, Frequency & Content Review
The way prospects engage with your content is a good indicator of whether or not...
- your emails are landing in your prospects’ inboxes.
- the emails you’re sending are being well-received by your prospects. Low open rates, click rates, and reply rates are a clear signal to your ISP that your prospects aren’t engaged, which can factor into the deliverability of future emails.
What can you do?
Pay attention to your engagement metrics (emails, clicks, and replies). Engagement-based metrics measure how your prospects are interacting with your content. If you notice your metrics are lower than usual, make adjustments to the content and subject lines of your email to improve engagement and limit negative interactions. A/B testing subject lines and email copy can help determine what’s working best for your goals. If you see a decline in opens, clicks, and replies, make adjustments. This may mean adjusting the cadence you send emails, when you send your emails (morning vs. afternoon), or considering retiring content that you’ve used in the past for fresher material.
Target your campaigns to the persona that you’re engaging with. For example, a CEO likely won’t be as
interested in setting up a swag store as a customer marketing manager. By shaping your campaigns to
meet the needs of your buyer, you’ll encourage stronger engagement.
Consider the volume of emails you’re sending to your prospects. Rather than sending an email blast to all of your customers, consider creating a funnel that allows a certain number of emails to send per campaign per day. This ensures your follow-up tasks don’t become uncontrollable and prevents your prospects from becoming fatigued, making them more likely to complain about your emails and mark them as spam.
In email, there are two different categories that define the type of email you’re sending to your prospects: transactional/operational and promotional.
Transactional/operational email is email content that helps facilitate an agreed-upon transaction, or provides updates to a prospect about an ongoing transaction. These emails may include password reset emails, contract redline updates, a purchase receipt, and notifications. These are emails that provide a prospect with information they’ve requested, and are probably sent individually, rather than as part of an email campaign. In general, transactional/operational emails contain information that the prospect has specifically requested.
Alternatively, promotional emails are defined as a message whose primary purpose it to advertise or promote a commercial product or service. This can include sales emails, product announcements, newsletters, and re-engagement emails. The goal of promotional emails is to encourage the prospect to take an action in your favor, such as purchasing your product, downloading your content, or attending an event. Promotional emails are subject to certain legal requirements, such as the CAN-SPAM Act, CASL, and GDPR. Part of these requirements, and a best practice to maintain your sender reputation, is to include an unsubscribe or opt-out link.
What can you do?
Unsubscribe links are a mechanism for your prospects to tell you that they know longer wish to receive emails from you. By providing an unsubscribe link, you’re ensuring that you do not continue to contact prospects that have specifically requested that you stop. Similarly, by including a clear and easy-to-use unsubscribe link, you’ll limit the number of prospects that complain to your ISP and mark your email as spam.
Email deliverability is a complex subject, but boils down to one big theme: ISPs are always looking out for the best interest of their customers. Their goal is to make sure relevant emails land in their customers’ inboxes, while unwanted emails are sent to spam folders or are rejected entirely.
While there are a number of items to consider when reviewing your deliverability metrics, your sender reputation should be of the primary importance. Knowing where your sender reputation stands is the biggest indicator of whether or not your emails will land in the inbox. If your reputation is lower than you would like, you can make proactive adjustments to your emails, practices, and email systems to improve the chances that you land in the inbox.
By constantly reviewing the three categories outlined in this document—authentication and sender reputation, monitoring and cleanliness, and engagement—you’ll maintain control of your email deliverability.