Author: Katherine Beaumont

Bouncing: Don’t Limit Success to Delivery

When it comes to delivering messages to the inbox, senders are always aiming for 100%. Unfortunately, the nature of email itself makes a 100% delivery rate nearly impossible—something the Deliverability Operations team often reiterates when we discuss healthy thresholds with our senders.

There are many reasons why messages will bounce back rather than successfully deliver. Hard bounces indicate an invalid address, or an address that no longer exists, but soft bounces cover a much wider range of issues—not all of which are always the sender’s fault.

So if some amount of bouncing or undelivered mail is a guarantee, how much is too much, and what is considered business as usual? Here are some thresholds to keep top of mind:

Hard Bounces Should Not Exceed 2%

A hard bounce will only be returned when a sender attempts to deliver to an address that is invalid or no longer exists. As such, hard bounce rate is a key metric to gain insight into the health of a list and assess whether it is active and up-to-date. In general, hard bounce rates should never account for more than 2% of a sender’s overall bounce rate. Even at a low threshold, crossing this volume will lead to reputation issues in the eyes of ISPs.

Overall Bounces Should Not Exceed 5%

Overall bounces rate includes both hard and soft bounces. Anything from a temporary hosting issue on the ISP’s side, to a recipient with a full inbox who is unable to accept mail, can be returned as a soft bounce. These temporary issues are expected from time to time, however, exceeding the recommended threshold could indicate a block or reputation issue is at play.

Although addresses will bounce from time to time for reasons outside of your control, this should not be taken as a get out of jail free card, or as an excuse to justify significant bouncing in your reporting. Keep in mind that any bounce rate that crosses the thresholds set above can trigger reputation issues at ISPs. As all senders know, this will only lead to exponential delivery issues if not addressed.

But it’s also important to consider the limitations of basing deliverability health on “delivered” rates exclusively. A message may be successfully delivered to an ISP, but sent to the spam folder rather than the inbox. Would you consider that a benchmark for deliverability success if no distinction is made?

When it comes to deliverability, consider the big picture. Don’t limit your outlook to messages delivered. Dig deeper and always take into account the engagement of your users with those delivered messages—including negative engagement metrics like spam complaints when available. But if you have to focus on delivery, know that some bouncing will always be outside of your control.

To be a mobile marketing rockstar, you have to give your customers a seamless experience. Considering that 40% of emails are opened on mobile devices, our Mobile Email Guide is here to help improve the mobile marketing experience.

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The Customer Is Always Right: Email Marketing Spam Edition

As a member of the Deliverability Operations team, I can tell you that we spend a lot of time discussing the importance of list hygiene and good mailing practices with our senders.

Typically, this covers everything from ensuring recommended customer acquisition practices are in place, engagement-based segmentation is utilized to monitor for inactivity, and that customers are appropriately removed from mailing lists as activity lapses or unsubscribe requests are received.

The purpose behind these conversations is always the same: to highlight the importance of maintaining brand reputation in the eyes of ISPs, and ensuring that messages continue to get delivered to the inbox. A key component to achieving this is making sure customers themselves do not perceive the messages they receive as spam.

While there are official regulations such as the CAN-SPAM Act in place that make clear determinations when it comes to spam, it is also important for senders to keep in mind that “spam” is increasingly in the eye of email recipients themselves. And as far as an ISP is concerned, the recipient is always right.

So What Counts As "Spam"?

If a customer receives emails that they feel do not apply to them, that they were not expecting to receive in the first place, or even that they simply do not wish to receive any more (regardless of being properly opted in), they may mark the message as “spam” in their inbox.

This triggers a spam complaint to the ISP hosting their mailbox, and can impact reputation to that entire network—even in very small values. This is yet another reason why maintaining best practices is critical to avoid negative customer engagements and maintain inbox placement.

How Do ISPs Use This Data?

Even more critical however, is that ISPs themselves use customer evaluations of the communications they receive to inform their own filtering mechanisms. Recently, Microsoft detailed this strategy within their own Spam Fighters program. For the uninitiated, Spam Fighters essentially works by surveying a randomly selected portion of Outlook users.

In order for Microsoft’s filters to work successfully, they need to identify both good, and bad mail. What better way to inform their machine learning than by asking their users themselves? The question placed to the selected users who volunteer to participate is simple:

Is this spam? Or non-spam?

This binary statement highlights the importance of customer perception to senders. While there are other factors that contribute to a message ultimately being flagged as spam (authentication, attachments, sending IP, etc.), how the message comes across in the inbox cannot be underestimated. So put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

A positive customer experience with relevant content going only to engaged users is the best way to ensure you don’t become another example in the “spam” category.

While we're on the subject of email marketing, how confident are you that your emails are contributing to a positive customer experience on mobile? If your subscribers are dealing with poor formatting, long load times, and unresponsive links, you're losing their attention. Download our Mobile Email Guide to learn how to fix and prevent these problems. 

Mobile Email Guide

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Closing the Gaps in Point of Sale Address Collection

Chief among top concerns for marketers is email list size and the never-ending task of growing that list. Unfortunately, this issue is often considered with little thought as to how acquisition strategies can impact email deliverability. A particularly popular method for retail marketers is “point of sale” or “in-store” address collection at the point of purchase. It is also one of the riskiest methods for your deliverability health.

The standard point of sale strategy should be simple: a customer checks out at the register, provides their email address for an e-receipt or promotional offer, is asked to confirm that the spelling of said address is correct, and is then opted into communications for that brand AFTER receiving a confirm opt-in message triggered immediately. However, if not done correctly this method presents multiple opportunities for failure points that could lead to reputation issues for senders, including:

  • Customer intentionally provides a false address, or a “ghost address,” for promotional mail only
  • Customer inadvertently provides an incorrect address via misspellings, etc.
  • Customer does not realize the scope of messaging they are opting into at the time, prompting a negative experience and spam complaints down the road

For all of the above, senders place themselves at high risk for uploading inactive contacts into their list, uploading inaccurate contacts that will drive bounce rates and potential spam trap hits, and driving overall spam complaint spikes on campaigns sent to recipients who did not anticipate further communications. As a result, the point of sale address collection presents a pain point for both the sender seeking growth and the overall customer experience of those who feel bombarded in the inbox.

 Even with the best of intentions, consumers have short attention spans. If they do knowingly sign up for communications in the moment, they may forget about this later—particularly if they do not receive a timely confirmation. This gap in the customer’s expectations for the mail they will receive becomes particularly problematic with in-store acquisition techniques that do not involve a check-out or actual purchase, including:

  • Offline “list-building” apps where customers input their information into a tablet, or even a traditional pen and paper sign-up sheet for customers to handwrite addresses
  • “Text-to-join” signage that offers customers sales or promotional offers by texting their information to collect via email
  • In-store wifi access form walls that require an email address in order to log on

In each of these instances, setting customer expectations is vital. The most critical thing a sender should do upon receiving a new customer’s email address is sending them a confirmation message prompting further action if they wish to receive communications. In situations where customers may only be after offers, wifi access, or even simple e-receipts, senders are simply not completing their due diligence to ensure they are bringing good contacts into their list. It’s important to remember that quality trumps quantity and shortcuts could have real ramifications for your performance overall.

Are you trying to choose the right Martech stack for your business? Download the Guide To Building Your Technology Stack for information on how to spend more time innovating, and less time integrating. 

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Ghosts of Past Email Signups Driving Down Inbox Placement

Promotional offers, discounts, and coupons are enticing carrots for subscribers, and can drive high sign up rates with the promise of a ‘good deal.’ But what happens if that incentive is the only reason a subscriber signs up for your messaging? And worse yet, what if that individual is using a “ghost” email account reserved exclusively for such promos? The chances would then be good that the user never intends to engage with your content again.

Ghost of a Chance

“Ghosting” is an issue affecting more and more marketers as users opt into brand communications only to disappear from engagement metrics after an offer is claimed. Recently, a report by the U.K.-based Direct Marketing Association (DMA) shed significant insight into this phenomenon and the email practices of everyday subscribers. It found that among those surveyed, “almost half (45%) of consumers [admitted to having] ‘ghost’ [email] accounts that are active but no longer used.”

When applied to the whole, this would translate to at least 19.5 million ghost accounts in the UK alone. The same study also corroborated the fact that the top reason consumers share their email with a brand is to receive money off discounts. It’s not hard to see an emerging pattern in consumer behavior. Subscribers are increasingly dedicating a secondary email address to process their promotional sign ups, in order to receive benefits while avoiding future communications in their primary inbox.

As a result, you can bet a portion of your list fits the bill of only opting in to receive an initial offer and going dormant. The question then becomes, how do you keep this portion of your audience from dragging down your reputation? Because if left unchecked, the negative engagement metrics of these “ghost” users will impact your sender reputation in the eyes of ISPs.

And if reputation dips low enough, it will even prevent active subscribers in your list from receiving your content in their inboxes. This is why it is essential that all marketers have a strategy to quickly identify this segment of the audience, and remove them before any damage is done.

Targeting Unengaged Users

“Ghost” accounts will not provide any open or click data for you to segment off of. Applying standard open/click engagement criteria on all of the campaigns that you launch (i.e., only mailing to those who have opened or clicked a campaign within the last ‘x’ months) will easily ensure your contacts are valid, active, and up-to-date. Any address that does not fit these criteria (including “ghosts” who never re-engaged in the first place) will be eliminated. As a best practice, this engagement-based segmentation should always be applied to campaigns.

Re-Engage Lapsed Users, and Adjust Volume

And yet just eliminating sending to users who do not open and/or click is not enough. Eventually inactive accounts can become invalidated or even converted to spam traps by ISPs. It is a critical component of list hygiene that these users are also eventually removed from your contacts list entirely. When a customer lapses (i.e., does not open or click for ‘x’ months) you can deploy a re-engagement campaign to gauge their interest and entice them back to your active user base.

However, subscribers who still do not engage at this point should be sent mail less often—weekly instead of daily, monthly instead of weekly, etc. This removes the likelihood of flooding subscribers with content that they have demonstrated they do not wish to engage with—even when presented with the opportunity to do so. It also greatly reduces the volume of mail you are likely to send to any “ghosts” on your list.

Re-Permission and Remove

But eventually you need to pull the trigger and delete inactive users from your list. If re-engagement campaigns and reduced volume of sending does not entice a subscriber to return, you can offer one last pass for an opt-in via a re-permission campaign. This type of campaign confirms that the user wishes to stay subscribed, and requires an action on their part to do so. If they click to confirm, they can remain opted in. If they do not, the address should be removed and no longer contacted.

Modern Marketers must orchestrate and deliver marketing messages that are relevant to individual preferences and behavior. Getting email delivered to the inbox is critical to this process. 

Download Email Deliverability: Guide for Modern Marketers to find out how to achieve email deliverability that really delivers. 

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How Unsubscribe Requests Can Affect Customer Experience

“What can I do to reduce unsubscribes?”

It’s a tough subject for many marketers. Email remains one of the best ways to communicate with consumers directly, but the effectiveness of the channel is contingent upon maintaining deliverability health to ensure messages get to the inbox. A critical component of this is letting customers opt-out on their own terms—as quickly and easily as possible.

Many senders depend on the size of their list to drive everything from internal budgeting conversations to department revenues—but the reputation damage inflicted by improperly permissioned contacts far outweighs the benefits of inflated subscriber numbers.

Direct Reflection of a Brand

Keep in mind that a customer’s experience with email communication is a direct reflection of that brand. When a customer submits an unsubscribe request, it’s just that – a definitive request to no longer receive communications from that brand. It is not an opportunity to up-sell or re-engage.

Marketers must respect and honor these opt out requests and remove them from communications moving forward. If this is not followed negative engagement and spam complaints will increase, and soon mail intended for a senders’ best subscribers will be impacted – going to spam, or being blocked out right.

And yet we still hear the question, is it ever appropriate to ask a consumer to confirm their request to unsubscribe? What about implementing messaging along the lines of:

We hate to see you go!”


 “Are you SURE you want to leave? Great offers are coming your way!”

The Long and Short of It

The long and short answer to this strategy is the same: NO. This is not appropriate and will cause more harm than good. Sending this type of messaging after receiving an unsubscribe request is not only damaging to your brand, it is likely a violation of CAN-SPAM as well.

While a confirm opt in is designed to protect sender reputation by ensuring the engagement and interest of a subscriber, a confirm opt out will do the opposite: alienate customers with additional messaging, driving up negative performance metrics in the form of spam complaints.

In short, it is in a sender’s best interest to make the opt out process as painless as possible. But don’t take my word for it. The industry itself is working towards better solutions for their users with the recent iOS10 release adding to the ranks of Gmail and other providers that support list-unsubscribe for senders – another best practice recommendation of our team.

In a world where “spam” is in the eye of the email-holder, easy opt outs are the best way to support a positive customer experience and protect a brand’s image.

The CX is Broken

Much of the customer experience is broken because the marketing experience is broken. But it’s not marketing’s fault. With legacy technology, marketers only get a distorted view of the customer because data silos cannot be shared across channels.

Download Customer Experience Simplified to discover how to provide customer experiences that are managed as carefully as the product, the price, and the promotion of the marketing mix.

The Importance of Post-Holiday Email Relief

The 2016 holiday mailing season may be behind marketers, but many top brands show no sign of backing down from sky high email volumes heading into the New Year. If a marketing team is forced to face the reality of not matching or surpassing their revenue goals, they may opt to continue churning out messages—hoping to recoup their losses.

Why is this problematic? Surveys show 50% of consumers already receive nine or more emails from retailers each week, and 37% of those individuals don’t open any of them. The OMC Deliverability Operations team averaged holiday inbox rates for Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the December holiday period via EDataSource, and corroborated these findings with up to 23% of mail going to directly to spam and delete rates as high as 30% across major industries: 

This reinforces what we’ve said all along: Sending more mail does not always lead to more revenue, but it can result in inflated metrics that are deceiving. Maintaining reliable insight into sender reputation and deliverability health is critical for any marketer. Adhering to best practices – including limiting mailings to only the most engaged subscribers on a given list – is a key component of that strategy.

The big picture here is that subscribers are finding no relief from their inboxes as senders continue to dig deep into their lists. As a result, marketers find themselves in an ongoing dilemma. Even with sales revenue on the line, the more unwanted mail recipients receive, the more likely they are to flag it as spam, ignore it, or delete it outright. In turn, senders will experience reputation issues, bulking, and potential blocking or black listings. 

Avoid Temptation 

So while it may be tempting to keep the floodgates open and continue blasting an entire mailing list, performance and sending reputation alike will ultimately be bolstered by keeping campaigns trimmed and efficient rather than bloated by inactive recipients. Most importantly, succumbing to poor mailing practices in the hopes of a short-term sales boost will not outweigh the long-term effects of reputation damage in the eyes of major ISPs. 

Here are some strategies for getting to the inbox and engaging your customers without putting their inbox on blast:

  • Personalization – Subscribers want messages that are tailored to their interests and needs. Keep the message personal, and the content relevant with the individual consumer in mind, rather than the audience as a whole.
  • Segmentation – Don’t flood your mailing list with inactive members of your audience. Strict open and click criteria should be applied to every campaign launched, to ensure recipients are active and up-to-date. Inactive segments of your list bring down reputation through negative engagement, hard bounces, trap hits, and spam complaints.
  • Engagement and Re-Engagement – Keep safeguards in place to engage, and re-engage your contacts before they become inactive. Deploy regular re-engagement campaigns as subscriber activity lapses – particularly during high volume mailing periods – and always provide them the option to no longer receive messages from you. An unsubscribe is better than a spam complaint any day in the eyes of major ISPs, and will protect your reputation overall.
  • Consumer Preferences – Allow the subscriber to dictate the terms in which they receive communications from you whether that is monthly, weekly, or only for special events, offers. Etc.
Achieve Deliverability That Really Delivers

Modern Marketers must orchestrate and deliver marketing messages that are relevant to individual preferences and behavior. Getting email delivered to the inbox is critical to this process. Download download Email Deliverability: Guide For Modern Marketers to learn more. 

Interpreting Email Metrics During the Holidays

The holiday season is officially here and with revenue on the line, many marketers will increase their outbound campaign volumes to meet the shopping demands of their customers—and with good reason.

The National Retail Federation now expects sales in November and December to increase 3.6% to $655.8 billion this year, but sending more mail does not necessarily mean taking home a bigger slice of the pie. As increased volumes of email are deployed by senders, there are the critical metrics to keep in mind to ensure deliverability health is not skewed by inflated sending.

Over the last few years, our Deliverability Team has consistently seen November and December to be the highest mailing months in terms of overall volume for our customers, and this year is no different:

By sending higher frequencies of mail to engaged customers, senders are spreading the same opportunity for campaign engagement (email opens and clicks) across a higher volume of communications. As such, it is possible that open rates or click-through rates will fall during this time—though aggregate engagement levels remain the same.

This may seem counterintuitive to some, but it is important to monitor changes on a per customer basis, in addition to a per campaign basis to ensure continued engagement. Senders need to see the full picture of their performance, and not skew reports with inflated numbers.

Of course, this is all under the assumption that frequency of mail is accountable for the increase in sending, rather than marketers mailing to larger, unengaged segments of their lists. It’s important to remember that the holidays are not a free pass to target older audiences, or roll the dice by mailing out to an entire list.

In fact, the opposite is true. In addition to blacklists like Spamhaus growing more sensitive to malicious sending during this period, many ISPs have also tightened levels of spam filtering and blocking to combat the extreme levels of email volume sent at this peak.

So how is a marketer to know if they are seeing a drop in metrics caused by spam placement rather than the effects of higher frequencies of mail during the holidays? By utilizing strict engagement-based segmentation rules on all sending, and following best practices. Period. Like any other time of year, senders should only target their most engaged users, and implement acquisition strategies to prevent bad data from entering lists in the first place.

Finally, it is also not unusual that higher volumes of mail lead to lower hard bounce rates overall. Again, this is not necessarily a good thing. If senders are opening up their lists, invalid contacts have a higher likelihood of being processed early on in the sending process. This can lead to lasting reputation impact throughout holiday mailing and beyond including bulking, blocking, and blacklisting, and should likewise be monitored closely.

So what should senders do?

  • Maintain engagement-based segmentation thresholds on all launches. (Don’t pour inactive addresses into the subscriber pool!)
  • Implement confirmed opt-in on subscriber acquisition channels. (Don’t message contacts without explicit consent, and take the time to correctly set expectations with your users!)
  • Monitor lapsing subscribers during periods of high volume, and deploy re-engagement campaigns to reduce fatigue.

The holiday season is well underway. Act now if you want to get your emails into the inbox by downloading the Email Deliverability: Guide for Modern Marketers

Happy Holidays! 

Email Deliverability: Guide for Modern Marketers