In late February Return Path released the 2017 installment of their annual Deliverability Benchmark Report, which tallies inbox and spam folder rates by country and industry. Each year the data is generated by monitoring more than 2 billion consumer emails to identify trends and averages for each region and industry segment.
The data, compiled between June 2016 and June 2017, shows little change overall from last year’s report. On average, around 20% of mail worldwide never reaches the inbox, with the majority of that – 70% – rejected at the server gateway (bounced). As in years past, the US falls short of that average: just 77% of mail made it to the the inbox. The good news for US senders is that this represents an increase of around 4% from ’15-16 numbers.
Around the world, Canada and Australia tied for the highest inbox rates, with 90% of mail in those countries reaching the inbox. The merits of Canada’s Anti-Spam Law may be disputed, but it certainly seems to have had a positive impact on inbox placement there. Prior to the law taking effect in 2014, inbox rates in Canada dipped as low as 79% – but they have hovered around 90% since then. CASL certainly isn’t guaranteed to be the cause, but it’s a good bet there’s some correlation there.
Results by industry
The breakdown of inbox rates by industry uncovered a couple of interesting trends. Among the 16 industries tracked, none averaged below 76% inbox rate on the year. The Automotive industry, previously in last place with 66%, now edges out the Nonprofit/Education/Government sector by a point at 77%. Meanwhile the Insurance industry, perennially at the low end of the spectrum, saw a 13-point jump to 89%. Apparel, Electronics, and Home Improvement all saw decreases but remained at 85% or above, while Finance took the top spot with 94% of their mail reaching the inbox.
Last month Al Iverson at Spam Resource, along with Engadget and XDA developers, reported on a new feature of Google’s Inbox that prompts recipients to unsubscribe from mailings they don’t open. The card, which appears at the top of the interface, calls out mailings categorized as Promotions that the user hasn’t opened in the past 30 days and provides the option to unsubscribe or not, all with a single click.
Introduced in 2014, Inbox is Google’s next-gen email client. The app takes Gmail’s concept of the Tabbed Inbox to the next level, bundling messages by type and showing cards based on data found in emails – receipts for purchases, travel arrangements, and event tickets, for example. At the time of Al’s post the feature was live on the web and Android versions of Inbox, but I can confirm it has now arrived in the iOS version as well.
According to Litmus, Gmail accounts for roughly 26% of all email opens – second only to Apple’s iOS mail client. This doesn’t indicate what percentage of those openers use Inbox as opposed to traditional Gmail, but Google has previously indicated that Inbox has a significant number of users and in 2016 noted that 10% of all email replies on mobile came from the Smart Reply feature found within Inbox.
Google continues to innovate in finding ways to prioritize mail its users want and get rid of mail they don’t. Does your email strategy reflect that? If your sending patterns and list management foster engagement and interaction, you’re likely to see less of an impact from a change like this. Alternatively, if you’re still holding on to the “batch and blast” mindset, you may not be so lucky.
This 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 Reportlanding 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?
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.
If 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:
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.
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.
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.
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 performanceof 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.”
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.
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.
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.