With more than ten years of deliverability expertise at numerous companies throughout the United States, Real Magnet’s Sr. Director of Deliverability, John Bollinger, has been able to support e-marketers in their quest to make it into as many inboxes as possible.

Real Magnet’s marketing team recently had a chance to sit down with John and ask him for his insights regarding email deliverability issues that are currently impacting companies and individuals. Below is Part I of our interview.

What do you think is the number one challenge for marketers regarding deliverability?

The biggest challenge over all is that many marketers are still clinging to an old-school print mail mentality: send out as much as you can of mostly the same thing and get a certain % of return on that. But email marketing is different because reaching the inbox has a whole bunch of filters, heuristics from the ISPs and even local server levels that prevent delivery from happening.

How is that impacting deliverability as a whole?

There has been a focus change in the email world in the last year or so at the major ISPs. They have been focusing more on engagement as a factor of deliverability. All of the old rules still apply regarding content, complaint rates and things like that, but now they’re really looking at the engagement level: if someone is not opening a message or they’re deleting it before they’re opening it; if they’re opening and reading it and how long they’re reading it; if they’re clicking on a link; if they’re moving things from their junk mail folder into the inbox. These are all the positive things that ISPs now bring into play to distinguish between a valid sender and what they consider to be a spammer. The more marketers can be specific and relevant to that particular subscriber, the more likely they’ll be able to continue deliverability to that recipient.

So what are ISPs currently doing when emails are continually going into a recipient’s inbox but they’re not being opened?

Well, the likelihood that they will continue going to the inbox will diminish. At the major ISPs like Gmail, AOL, Yahoo! etc., if you send an email to somebody, even if up until now your reputation was good and you were reaching the inbox most of the time, you might begin to see a downturn in inbox deliverability. If that particular recipient hasn’t opened your emails in a while, or they open it, look at it, and quickly delete it, things like that are being recorded behind the scenes by the ISPs so that the levels of engagement are compared against everything else. If those positive things that I mentioned before like opens and clicks aren’t enough to overcome any negative aspects that the ISPs are seeing, they may begin to filter your emails into the junk mail folder to see if the recipient has any interest in them. They’re more likely to err on the side of their subscribers and put your emails in the junk mail folder to find out if the user cares or not, rather than delivering the emails to the inbox. If they find that the recipient moves the emails to their inbox and otherwise engages with the message, they’re more likely to keep the messages going to the inbox. If not, they’ll keep going to junk mail.

What kind of impact does relevant content have on how ISPs interpret the validity of a company’s emails?

Each individual email can have an impact on your sender reputation not only from a more global level, but now on an individual subscriber level as well. For example, it’s nothing new that if someone signs up at a hardware site because they’re interested in power tools — we’ll call him Tom — and Tom starts getting emails from someone who sells clothing, that’s not going to be relevant to what he signed up for and he is more likely to mark that message as spam. But there has been a shift in how the ISPs look at engagement; not only are they looking at something obvious like the above scenario, they are tracking more specifically how the individual recipient responds to all the emails they receive from this company.  

Continuing with our example, if Tom is only really interested in power tools and he receives emails that are promoting general hardware or hand tools and he’s not engaging, the ISP may now route his mail to the junk folder, but other more engaged subscribers will get mail in the inbox. The old rules still apply however, if there are low overall engagement rates for the majority of recipients at that ISP who receive emails from this hardware site, the ISP may route all or most of the email from that company’s IP address to the ISP’s junk folder. Bottom line, relevancy was important in the past to avoid complaints, but it’s now even more important in order to increase engagement since the ISPs are using engagement itself to determine inbox or junk folder placement.

So it’s in the best interest of marketers to look at how Tom has previously clicked on links to power tools and/or has purchased power tools in the past, and use that information to customize the messages they send to Tom so that he receives only emails that are relevant to him. This same logic should be applied to each individual subscriber. This type of relevancy can be accomplished through segmentation or sending rules combined with dynamic content.

What are some other things marketers can do to make their content more relevant?

With the many contact points that marketers have available to them now through social media, there is a lot of information that can be tracked and associated with each subscriber. Utilizing this information along with information derived from opens and clicks, preference centers, surveys, etc., and using a template that serves dynamic content based on that information can make each message very relevant to each subscriber. When you send one of these more dynamic emails with the different parts being more related to the recipient preferences, the recipients are more likely to become engaged with your email. As a result of that, the inbox percentage rates are going to go up and the reputation of that IP address will be better with the ISPs.

Is there a potential for companies to be blacklisted simply because they have so many emails being sent from their IP address that are going into an ISP’s junk mail?

It is possible, but if you’re doing the right things and engagement is still low, it is unlikely you will be blacklisted. Blacklisting generally happens because you’re sending to lists you didn’t develop yourself through opt-ins, or you’re sending to spam traps – those addresses that have been specifically put out there to identify mailers that buy or rent lists or otherwise do not develop their own lists. From a deliverability standpoint, it is never a good idea to rent or buy a list. Your sending reputation will suffer and you will more than likely end up in the junk folder at best or end up on a blacklist where it is much more difficult to repair your reputation.

Stay tuned for Part II of this interview.