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Fighting for the Inbox: Clearing the Air on Deliverability

Article by John Landsman

Many of us think about sophisticated audience and message optimization as the primary factors driving marketing email performance.  Those factors are indeed important; yet none of them drives any response — or revenue — if the marketer’s message can’t reach the customer’s inbox.

We believe that the minimum standard of acceptable inbox performance is 90% deliverability.  Routinely, the best-managed email programs we see show inbox placement at 95% and better.  But there are well-known brands whose deliverability runs well-below 90%, and also times when even the best inbox performers go off the rails.

And therein lies the tale.  Inbox optimization presents a special set of complexities, requiring expertise to measure, report, understand and manage.  Marketers can access this expertise through their ESPs, or through other service providers in the email space.

The industry’s thinking on this subject has evolved and sharpened dramatically in the past few years, with enhanced understanding of deliverability dynamics, and new players disrupting the deliverability vendor mix with new products and services.  The status quo — with one major player promoting one point of view — has definitely been challenged.

We’re one of those challengers.  Here’s our point of view.

Accurate inbox reporting is critical. You can’t fix what’s wrong, if you don’t know there’s a problem or understand what’s causing it.  Ours is panel-based reporting, reflecting a larger, more statistically representative audience base than than the seeds which have long formed the basis of artificial audiences used in typical inbox performance monitoring.  We frequently alert clients to inbox issues they hadn’t previously seen with their seed-based reporting.   Panel-based reporting also includes information sufficiently granular to support diagnosis and remediation of inbox issues that are identified.

  • Managing the gatekeepers: Internet service providers (ISPs) control access to consumer inboxes.  Their methods for imposing spam filters vary by ISP and are far from transparent.  But we professionals do know the elements of best practice required for inbox access.  And we also know that mailers who faithfully observe these best practices consistently drive strong inbox performance.
  • Buying admission: The email industry has spawned a number of services by which mailers can acquire what’s typically billed as an official stamp of approval, allowing messages anointed as trusted to pass through spam filters.  Depending on vendor, these whitelist-type services carry names that are often variations on words like “certify/certification.”  Ours is called “Reputable Sender Accreditation.” Qualifying for these designations requires meeting a rigorous set of standards regarding the program’s mailing infrastructure, policies and practices, and domain and IP performance.  These services can be useful, but email marketers need to buy them with a clear understanding of what they will and won’t do.
    • They do not reflect all ISPs. Gmail does not participate in these whitelisting services, and Gmail represents at least half of worldwide email activity.  To the extent that the emailer’s audience substantially reflects Gmail activity, there is no such protection for that messaging.
    • They do not necessarily address audience engagement, which has become critical factor in some spam filtering protocols, especially Gmail’s. Mailing to audience segments which have been email inactive for more than 60-90 days often creates inbox problems, regardless of any official designation of a mailer’s strong reputation.
    • Bottom-line?  Although buying an officially designated reputation as a “good” mailer may bring peace of mind, that’s not what get you to the inbox.  What gets you to the inbox are the same best practices that got you to the good reputation, along with responsible audience acquisition and contact management practices.
    • And it shows in the numbers. We frequently see cases where “certified” mailers experience inbox performance issues.  For example, we know that approximately 20% of email campaigns with Return Path certification drive less than 90% deliverability.  And we have not seen evidence, among populations of comparable brands, that mailers with certification drive better overall inbox performance than brands without certification.

Getting time/revenue-sensitive marketing email to consumer inboxes is not a game for amateurs.  It requires hands-on, expert management; strong, real-time data; and consistent application of audience, messaging and sending best practices.  Purchasing the imprimatur of accreditation or certification may be icing on the cake, but it alone is no guarantee of safe outcomes.  That’s a little like buying an auto insurance policy with a “safe-driver” discount, and expecting it to prevent an accident.