Delivery Essentials

Know your Role: Why you should avoid role addresses

dicerole I’ve had a lot of discussions with clients who have (or should have) concerns about the role addresses in their lists. Most discussions revolve around the presence of these addresses in the subscriber database and why Real Magnet prevents them from being loaded by default.

To provide some context, let’s clarify what we call “role addresses.” They’re typically defined as any address that is assigned not to a specific individual, but instead to a role within an organization. These addresses include, but are not limited to:

  • sales@
  • info@
  • admin@
  • hostmaster@
  • abuse@

…and the list goes on and on. There is no definitive list of role address prefixes, because domain admins can set up role addresses for literally anything. However, there are really just a couple dozen role addresses that are most commonly seen, including those examples above.

Even when these addresses are provided via a clear opt-in method, they are still more likely to cause delivery issues. As a result most providers block them from being imported into email lists. In fact, some ESPs have reported that role addresses are 2-3 times more likely to unsubscribe or bounce than non-role addresses, and lists containing high numbers of role addresses typically see sharp declines in engagement.

So what’s the big deal? Why exactly are role addresses problematic? Most (but not all) of the problems with role addresses hinge on the fact they often route mail to a group of people instead of a single contact. Let’s look at some of the biggest concerns:

  1. Permission is often impossible to confirm. With multiple recipients at the same email address, opt-ins are murky at best. Let’s say you get an opt-in request from sales@example.com, which includes everyone on the Sales team at that domain. That request was made by only one of the people who actually receives those mailings. Even with a confirmed opt-in, it’s possible that the other recipients of that address do not want to receive your mailings. They are more likely to report the message as spam or unsubscribe, which brings us to…
  2. Unsubscribes get applied too broadly or reversed too easily. With a role address, one of the recipients of the message may choose to unsubscribe even while others want to continue receiving your mailings. If you use an unsubscribe method that is linked to a custom recipient ID (as most ESPs provide), that person will be unsubscribing the group instead of just his own address.In addition, recipients often send an email request to unsubscribe (or report spam). This email will likely originate not from the role address, but from their personal address that actually receives the mail. If the recipient fails to include message headers or the headers have been distorted by their email client, it is sometimes tough to know what address actually received the mailing. The personal email address may be added to a suppression list, but the recipient will continue to receive your mailings.
  3. Roles (and the people who fill them) change regularly. Let’s say you have a role address that directs to a team of employees, and let’s also say that each of those employees has made it clear they want to receive your emails. Great! Now what happens when a new person joins that team? Or a member of another department is added to that role address group to be kept abreast of team-related emails? To avoid all issues, you’d have to get a new consent each time someone new joins that address. That’s certainly possible, but not really practical and nearly impossible to track.
  4. Bounces are more difficult to process. If one of the recipients of your email leaves the organization and their address goes dark, there’s a chance the bounce response never reaches you (depending how the org handles bounces and routing). But even if you do receive the bounceback, you may not know how to process it. The address returning the bounce will not be the one that’s in your mailing list, which will cause most automated bounce handling to choke. If you continue to send to invalid addresses domains may block all your mail or, even worse, one of those addresses may roll over into a spam trap and get you blacklisted.

Now that you know the problems with role addresses, how do you avoid these issues? If you’re building a new list, you should require that recipients enter a non-role address. There are a couple of ways to do this depending on your technical resources. The most effective method is to implement real-time address checks that will reject role address submissions, but this also requires the most technical overhead. Many senders choose instead to simply inform their subscribers that role addresses cannot be used. Then, those addresses will be discarded upon list import and will not receive email.

For senders who already have a list containing role addresses, the next steps may be a bit less clear. If your list contains only a few of these addresses, it may be best to reach out to the individuals to ask them to provide a different address. This can be accomplished through a one-to-one email, phone call, or even a face-to-face conversation.

When you have a larger number of role addresses, we typically recommend sending a bulk campaign asking these recipients to update their information. Most senders do this via email (outside their ESP in many cases) or a postcard encouraging users to update their preferences to continue receiving mail.

Typically, recipients who want your emails will be willing to update their information. However, if you have some recipients who can only use a role address, many ESPs will evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether or not those addresses can be allowed in your list.

– BG

Delivery Essentials

Is my ESP lying to me?

Collodi_PinocchioIf you use an email service provider, you most likely have tracking reports that tell you the disposition of each message you send. These reports usually indicate the message falls into the broad categories of “delivered” or “bounced“. While many ESPs use more detailed categories, you just want to see if your email made it to the recipient or not…right?

Of course. So what happens when you send out that nice shiny new email and you get a response rate far lower than what you were expecting? Naturally, you check in with some of your best recipients to make sure they got the message. Your tracking shows delivered, but when you reach out they say they didn’t see the message at all. Not in the inbox. Not in the spam folder. Not even in quarantine…now what?

Why is your ESP telling you the message was delivered when it clearly wasn’t?

To answer this common question, let’s dive a bit deeper into what that “delivered” status really means.

When you hit the Send button at your ESP, your mail server will attempt to hand off your message to the mail servers for each recipient. The initial contact between the sending mail server (your ESP) and the receiving mail server (your recipient’s email provider) is often referred to as the “handshake.”

At the time of this handshake, the ESP server will attempt to hand off the message to the receiving server. When this happens, there are a few potential outcomes:

  1. The receiving mail server rejects the message due to the address not existing, the sender being blocked, or other errors considered permanent. These are hard bounces, and usually the receiving server returns a code in the format 5xy, where x and y are additional digits that indicate the specific type of hard bounce. This error typically causes a bounced status in your ESP reporting.
  2. The receiving mail server returns a temporary bounce or deferral. These bounces indicate the mail cannot be delivered at this time, but the sending server should try again later. These are soft bounces, and are typically accompanied by a 4xy error code. These can generate a bounced status in your ESP reporting if the subsequent delivery attempts are not successful. If the later sends do make it through, these will show as delivered. 
  3. The receiving mail server accepts the message for delivery. This is considered a successful delivery, and is accompanied by the code 250 OK. These are reported by your ESP as delivered. 

Once this handoff takes place, the sending server (your ESP) has no further visibility into the delivery of the message. There could be additional spam filters in place after the message is accepted, or individual user settings could cause the message not to be delivered, with no further notification to the sender.

While it’s not extremely common, even major ISPs have been known to have messages “dropped on the floor” if the sender’s reputation is not up to their standards. This is the (highly technical) term for a message that is accepted by the receiving server, but then essentially disappears. It’s not returned to the sender, but it’s also not delivered to the recipient’s inbox or spam folder. It’s simply deleted.

So how do you find out what really happened?

That can be the tricky part. Since the information is not shared with the sender or ESP, the only way to find out for sure what happened to one of these messages is to check the mail logs for the receiving server. In most cases, this will require working with IT staff on the recipient’s side who can search for the message(s) in question and provide a definitive answer on what happened to the message and why.

If the recipient’s IT team isn’t an option, you can also check the content of your message, as well as the reputation of your domain and the domains of any links within the message body. In many cases the initial handoff looks primarily at the reputation of the mail server (IP address), while the subsequent filters can include message content, link URLs, domain reputation, and other factors.

Check out the Resources page for links to some of the most popular reputation tools, and feel free to comment with any additional questions.

– BG