Industry Updates

US, Global inbox delivery rates increase slightly

2017-Deliverability-Benchmark_pdf2This time of year is a little like email Christmas, between the recent State of Email Deliverability from Litmus and now the Return Path 2017 Deliverability Benchmark Report landing on our proverbial doorstep. Last week Laura at Word to the Wise provided some great insight from the Litmus report, pointing to just how important list acquisition really is. I’d recommend checking it out in addition to downloading the report.

This week’s Return Path report also provides some interesting data as usual, but few surprises. Of note, the global inbox delivery rate rose 1% to an average of 80% for the year ending June 2017. This stat has remained fairly consistent since Return Path started generating this report a few years back, with fluctuations being fairly minor. What is a bit surprising is that with all the changes in the industry around user engagement and email filtering, this number remains so constant. However, while email marketing as a whole has seen inbox delivery rates hover around 80% the past few years, individual countries, industries, and specific senders typically see much wider swings depending on a number of factors.

In the US we still manage to lag behind the global average, managing a 77% inbox delivery rate. On the positive side, this is an increase of 4% over last year’s numbers but still comes in at the bottom of the list of countries referenced in the report (Canada and Australia tied for best with 90% inbox delivery). It’s also down 10 points from the high of 87% back in 2014. It also continues to be concerning that in the US, 16% of the mail that failed to reach the inbox was categorized as “Missing,” indicating it wasn’t delivered to either the inbox or the spam folder. Typically this means the message was rejected at the server gateway and bounced back to the sender.

If you’re in the Automotive, Insurance, or Technology industry, take heart! These three industries, typically among the worst in inbox delivery, all saw double-digit increases over the past year, with Insurance jumping 13 points to 89%. The question here: did the insurance industry really clean up its act, or did the current state of affairs prompt more people to start assessing their risk?

2017-Deliverability-Benchmark_pdf

As a reminder, all of this data came from Return Path clients – over 2 billion messages sent during the past year. These are marketers who are paying for RP services to help optimize delivery, so the data obviously excludes off-the-grid spammers and botnet operators. This means that for well-known brands and organizations, typically running opt-in campaigns, 1 out of every 5 emails still doesn’t reach the inbox. Could you use 20% more revenue, donations, or members? If you haven’t already, it’s time to start paying attention to deliverability.

– 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

Delivery Essentials

Spam filters change. Deal with it.

“But I didn’t change anything!”

courtesy http://shop.cnc-design.fi/
courtesy http://shop.cnc-design.fi/

We’ve all heard it (and maybe even said it). When your mail suddenly starts landing in the spam folder with one or more mailbox providers, the first response is often to point the finger at the mailbox provider or even your own Email Service Provider, since you just know nothing changed with your mailing program. However, even when you don’t think anything has changed, there are often many unseen factors that can make or break your email deliverability.

Sure, whether or not your mail reaches the inbox – or even gets rejected by the recipient – is often affected by things that are easy to see. Changes like sending to a new list, adding IP addresses or domains, or trying out all-new message content are easy to pinpoint when delivery issues arise. But they’re not the only factors that cause failures.

The performance of your mailings can change almost daily, and can be one of the biggest factors in how your mail gets delivered. User engagement, both positive and negative, plays a huge role in inbox rates. If users are opening your mail, moving it into the inbox or Primary tab, assigning a label, responding, etc., that positive engagement is more likely to improve your inbox delivery. If users ignore your message, move it to a bulk folder, or lodge a spam complaint, it could spell bulking or even rejection due to negative engagement.

You probably already know all of this, right? Every email blogger in the world has drilled engagement into your head. But don’t let your eyes gloss over just yet…

What you may not be considering is that these behavior patterns can change without any major change on your part. Maybe the offers in the past couple of emails haven’t been as appealing to your customers, so they’re not opening. Or your business is more seasonal, and engagement rates are lower due to the time of year. And what about other factors that may increase spam complaints, like general email fatigue around holiday seasons? All of these factors can affect where your message lands, though they may not be the most obvious at first glance.

But let’s assume for a minute that you’re right – absolutely nothing on your end has changed. Your open rates are identical, content is constant, and no seasonal malaise has taken hold. Even if true, that’s only one side of the coin. Mailbox providers, ISPs, and spam filter operators regularly change their filtering criteria, which could send your mail from inbox to spam folder at the flip of a switch. Some providers, like Gmail, are “smart” about these changes and base the adjustments on observed user behavior and complex algorithms. In fact, many of the factors that impact delivery at Gmail can change almost daily, based on mailing patterns.

At the same time, many providers make more arbitrary changes – based on observed data as well, but not quite as fluid as those at Gmail et al. These changes might include lowering a spam complaint threshold, or even turning on new spam trap addresses. Often the major blacklist providers like Spamhaus will monitor spam trap addresses for traffic before actually making them active spam traps. Even though you are mailing an address that wasn’t a spam trap yesterday, it might become one today.

As a sender, you simply need to take precautions to ensure your email program is resistant to these changes. If a small change in engagement or filtering criteria is enough to derail your inbox rates, then it’s likely you weren’t following best practices before the change. If you are getting clear permission, monitoring and targeting your most engaged contacts, and cleaning your list of outdated and dormant subscribers, you’re on the right track. But to get the most effective insurance against these changes, you should be watching engagement and list hygiene regularly. Check engagement quarterly or even monthly. Measure which types of content or sending frequency generate the most (and least) engagement.

Even so, there will be times that even those best practices are not enough to navigate the muddy waters of email delivery. Fortunately for you, there’s a whole segment of the industry who specialize in email delivery, privacy and compliance.

To misquote a famous tome, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, hire an expert.”

– BG

Industry Updates

Google Rolls Out ‘Gmail Postmaster Tools’ for Senders, Improved Spam Filters

Google Postmaster Tools

Many in the email industry have a love/hate relationship with Gmail: they love that their opt-in mail usually gets delivered to the inbox without any trouble, but they hate that there seems to be no help from the Gmail team for those times mail doesn’t make it to the inbox. However, an announcement on the Gmail blog today could prompt a change of heart from many senders.

Starting today, Gmail is rolling out a new feature called Gmail Postmaster Tools, which it says will allow senders to “analyze their email, including data on delivery errors, spam reports, and reputation.”  These tools, which are presumably the evolution of Google’s pilot FBL program of 2014, are designed to help senders “do better” at getting mail delivered to the Gmail inbox.

The Gmail team also announced that their spam filtering technologies are becoming even more advanced, including the use of an “artificial neural network” to identify spam that might seem like normal, wanted mail at a glance. In addition, they have made improvements in honoring individual preferences (I like newsletters but my friend doesn’t), as well as sniffing out well-spoofed phishing emails.

Keep your eyes on the WhatCounts blog for an upcoming post with more details on the Postmaster Tools and how they can help get your mail delivered where it belongs.

– BG

Industry Updates

Microsoft releases Outlook for iOS and Android, Google gives out Inbox invites

image

Yesterday, Microsoft announced the release of Outlook for iOS as as well as a preview version of Outlook for the Android operating system. This version of Outlook, which comes as Microsoft’s mobile version of Office leaves Preview stage, is clearly designed to compete with Gmail’s “email killer” app Inbox (currently in invite-only beta).

Not to be outdone, Google announced that guaranteed invites to Inbox, which sorts mail into categorized “bundles” like Promos, Travel, and Finance, would be available to anyone who asked between 12pm Thursday and 12pm Friday ET.

Google Inbox tweet

The new Outlook app certainly takes some cues from Gmail’s bundles, but creates only two categories of email: Focused and Other. Focused consists of the emails that Outlook believes are important to you, much like Gmail’s Priority Inbox (a precursor to the Inbox app). Users can determine future behavior by moving mail from Focused to Other, or vice versa, as needed.

Even though Google has been tossing out Inbox apps left and right, it’s still a beta product that has somewhat limited release – for now. With the release of the Outlook app for mobile, it’s likely that Google will speed up the rollout of Inbox to compete, which could have implications for senders in the form of decreased open rates for mail that is routed into one of the  predetermined bundles provided by Google and Microsoft. However, it’s also possible that, like Gmail’s Tabbed Inbox, users on mobile may find the categories actually help them read more of their email, by placing it into handy folders they can check at specified times.

It’s too early to say what impact this new breed of email apps will have on senders, but it’s certainly safe to say the mobile email space is changing rapidly. As compartmentalization of the inbox increases, timely, relevant emails will continue to represent senders’ best chance to cut through the increasingly noisy email space.

– Brad Gurley

Charlie Bucket and his golden ticket
Delivery Essentials

The Relentless Pursuit of the Inbox

If you’re reading this post, you most likely have a vested interest in email as a means of communication. If you’re like me, you’ve been incessantly refreshing your inbox since your address ended in “@aol.com” – or even before – and email likely plays a major role in your personal and/or professional life. You know that it’s not dead, despite what you might have heard…but it has evolved, and it continues to grow and change at a rapid pace.

Specifically, email deliverability has become far more complicated than it was even 5 years ago. With mailbox providers taking every step possible to minimize unwanted email, senders have found new challenges awaiting them at every turn. A small group of senders who were following “best of the best” practices have seen little impact from these changes, while a few others made quick modifications to get out ahead of the changes. But most senders have been left wondering how to deal with the shift in the industry that has revoked their golden ticket to the inbox.

The answer is deceptively simple: senders must adapt. Too many senders are looking for a quick fix or a way to succeed in spite of the ISPs and mailbox providers, but success is rarely found in these methods.

As senders, we must grow and change with the industry. What worked when your email program started in 2005 doesn’t fly under the heightened standards of 2015. You wouldn’t keep the same email creative for 10 years (hopefully), so why should your list management and delivery practices be any different?

Today, email engagement is key. An active, engaged user base has become more important than ever as more mailbox providers track user interaction with your messages and use this data to route mail. Instead of simply avoiding ‘spammy’ words and purchased lists, senders must now employ a more holistic approach to email – driving readers to engage, targeting those who engage most often, and cutting loose the dated, inactive, and unengaged subscribers that are killing their inbox rates.

That’s not an easy proposition for many senders, but this adaptation is vital to any successful email program. If you’re not sure where to start, then stick around! We’ll be sharing knowledge and insight on the the new best practices in upcoming posts.

Readers, what say you? Have you made changes in your email practices in response to the recent changes in the industry? If so, were they minor shifts or drastic disruptions?

– Brad Gurley