An Unapologetic Guide to Superior Email Deliverability in 2020
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Mailbox providers have been trying to sell you inbox zero; marketers want a way in; startups have been talking about its demise, but email continues to remain sought after. And study after study is showing how even the young are adopting it.
Can you imagine any of your social mediums without emails or any other mediums? Emails fundamentally have been a backbone of the social web but at the same time delivering them have been a tough nut to crack.
Email Delivery is seldom seen as a deep crisis, and no one terms email delivery as a problem unless their large chunk of emails starts bouncing off or land in spam!
And as we move onto the article don't think this as a yet another guide on email delivery! Yes, we have tried to cover the majority of best practices which are required to deliver your emails and how you can increase your inboxing rate. But more than that we have tried to explain you things in the most layman-ish way.
We will start this guide with helping you understand what really is a spam and how spam filters works! Post that we will provide you with a three-step process to ensure that you are following the email delivery hygiene. Once we are done with the hygiene, we will explain to you a 4-R Framework which is a must while you are creating any email campaign and finally ending the guide with a small case study!
So let's begin, shall we!
So What on Earth is this Email Spam?
You see, the first email was sent 47 years ago!
Since then, the internet became widely available and “electronic mail” made way for “e-mail” to now simply email. Email gave everyone—the cold callers or face-to-face marketers—an access to a marketing territory that was untapped. And as they began to advertise, the idea of spam emerged.
Over the years, the humble email has evolved through intelligent shifts such as A/B testing, segmentation, and proximity marketing, but spam has continued to remain its thorn. It impacts email inbox delivery—a nightmare for any marketer.
In a survey done in 2018/19, 35-40 percent email marketers said that inbox delivery is a challenge for them. The previous year, merely 25% had said it was. The 10% jump from the previous year is concerning. To ensure email delivery, now, the race is to push engaged content to the mailbox, and like spam, engaged is a debatable word.
But before we talk about engaged content, let's understand what spam is all about.
The Pesky Spam
To be fair, 90 percent of all emails are spam which get filtered by spam filters. These spam filters, today, are highly advanced, AI-based solutions. Google, for instance, employs multiple-levels of AI-based tests, from ML classifiers, rule-based, deep learning engines and other next-generation technologies, to weed out spam. But even if the filters are highly accurate—to the tune of 99.9% sometimes—a small number of good emails also get lost.
The relationship between spammers and mailbox providers’ spam filters is like our beloved childhood cartoon show of Tom and Jerry. Spammers are continually devising ways to evade the spam filters and spam filters are finding ways to catch them. The battle has been going on since the inception of email and is, in many ways, unavoidable.
But in this cat-and-mouse chase, the trap is also laid for those genuine brands or email marketers trying to communicate with their customers.
Often, the email marketer will emerge with the most novel technique to communicate but these techniques don’t operate in isolation; spammers, too, will try to emulate these strategies to infiltrate user inbox. And yet, spam is a subjective concept. As one person’s trash is another person’s gold, so is spam.
Then How is Spam Detected or Earmarked?
Say, I am sending 10,000 emails a day to 10,000 people. If 10 of those people mark it as spam, it’s a significant number for a mailbox provider to hike its eyebrows and mark it as spam. But if only five people mark it spam, that’s not a big number.
Perhaps the email wasn’t relevant to them and so those five people won’t receive that email again.
As discussed, spam is a subjective concept as often crucial communication from banks like GST invoices or account statements also get marked as spam. And so, there’s a threshold percentage. If you cross it, that’s when your inbox delivery will be affected.
But why do Mailbox Providers Enforce spam filters?
The email service providers, from Gmail or Yahoo or Hotmail, are in the business of providing a good email experience to the user. Their goal is to keep your inbox clutter-free and clean.
They want to deliver only those emails that you will see and interact with. If the email service provider keeps flooding your inbox with spam, you’re highly likely to question the veracity of the provider itself—and then move to others that would work better for you.
That’s exactly what happened when email first became popular. Two decades ago, spam filters weren’t all that mature. Many users would log on to their inbox to see hundreds of irrelevant emails bumping for their attention.
Many mailbox providers couldn’t handle the spam and they lost business to the emerging, more sophisticated players such as Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail.
We’ve come a long way since then but challenges persist.
Getting Rid of Spams and Achieve Superior Email Deliverability - The Way Ahead
We previously discussed how the idea of what is spam is debatable, and so is engagement. But everyone wants to send highly personalized, value-add emails which bring them returns.
Here, actionable engagement is judged by metrics such as how many people are reading the email, how much time they spend reading it, do they click on it, do they forward it, among others.
If a user doesn't even open the email or immediately marks it as spam and spends less time on it—it creates a negative metric for the sender. If several users respond similarly, the deliverability of that email is affected.
Clearly, spam is a big concern for marketers and one of the significant reasons for shrinking inbox. So what do we do about it and how do we stay out of the clutches of spam?
Now you will see various detailed guides which show on how you can avoid the spam traps and such, and I don't necessarily neglect them, but there is something better in the offering! As it is said, sometimes the solution of toughest problems lies in simple steps. And same goes for avoiding spam traps!
Maintaining an email list consists of three significant steps-
And if these three steps are performed properly, chances of you avoiding a spam trap increases significantly.
I) User Acquisition Done Right
To begin with, each brand must get a sign-up or an opt-in from the customer to ensure they’re targeting someone genuinely interested. If the user hasn’t signed up for your emails, you shouldn’t be targeting her/him.
A typical sign-up might wary: it could be a person manually entering their email address or an opt-in through a store purchase. Globally, the best-practice is to seek permission before sending any kind of email. While most western brands follow this thumb rule religiously, Asian brands are still evolving.
Don't be afraid of a double opt-in.
A double-opt-in or a method in which the brand or a company asks you to confirm your email is the preferred option of onboarding users.
But 95% brands don’t do it because this additional step reduces signups by 70%. This is a major drop for most companies, especially startups, who are aggressive about the acquisition.
A typical marketing strategy spend is focussed on getting more users. It’s why you always have better sign-up deals than deals to keep you using the service or product. And so, double-opt-in is an acquisition-barrier which deters most email marketers from trying it, even though it might be a better pursuit.
The problem with a single sign-up also is that a user can enter any email id without any repercussions.
II) User Retention
The second most crucial point is retention—how do you reach and retain the right users?
Here are three things that you can follow-
- First, when marketers try to reach out to sign-ups, they find that a considerable number of emails are invalid. They are either wrong email ids or it’s a spam-trap, or they’re simply irrelevant for the user they’ve gone to. Many times the marketer is trying to target genuine users but a number of roadblocks are preventing it. So what should be done?
- An email validation service such as (link to our partners here) can be used during signup to ensure that a valid email ID is entered. If not, it will prompt the user until the right email ID is entered.
- Another way is to Incentivise the new user to confirm the email ID. For example, confirm your email ID and get an additional 5% discount.
III) User Sunsetting
Many times users don’t engage with emails. Such unengaged users can be 'sunseted' from your database. When a user hasn’t interacted with your email for a long time, the mailbox provider will automatically start marking it as low priority.
When emails are marked low-priority, users might be prompted through a dialogue box and asked if they want to unsubscribe, or the emails will gradually end up in the spam folder. Once emails start going to the spam folder, even those interacting with the email might not get them in their inbox.
Before that happens, sunsetting users can allow you to take control. To enable user sunsetting, can choose a time period (a month or three) and if a user hasn’t engaged with the email for that long, s/he would be automatically unsubscribed and added to “sunset contact”.
But the goal must be to prevent user disengagement and sunsetting. Here’s where the Four Rs of effective email marketing and delivery come handy. Once the user is inside the system, the challenge is to identify user behavior and customize outreach accordingly.
Understanding every user at a micro-level is challenging for a brand. There might not be a defined move but there are directional ways to do it.
Quick Read: What is a Spam Trap? How to Avoid them?
The secret to Perfect Email Deliverability - The 4 - R Framework for Perfect Email Communication
A lot has been talked about Email Hygiene, maintaining a list or a good reputation. Now I don't say that those are unnecessary, but the content and context of emails make a lot of sense as well.
Any email campaign is only as good as the target audience they are trying to engage with, or should I say the right target audience! Getting things Right is the priority which brings us to our 4-R Framework.
Right Message to the Right Person, via a Right Channel at the Right Time!
Typically, marketers might not have the answers to all of this and might proceed with their hunch or intuition. You might know the user history, that he/she is browsing low to mid-range products, so emails of a similar budget or high-end products could be sent.
This is a form of personalisation where humans can define the rules but if your product catalogue has 20k products, newer ideas might need to employ: from machine learning, AI to others.
i) Right message
To convey the right message out there, here are two hacks that you can employ!
>Use Right Nudges
It’s important to constantly engage and nurture the user just the right amount with the right communication strategy. If there are no nudges, the user may forget and the affinity would vanish, and if there are too many—in an already crowded inbox—the user would unsubscribe, or worse, mark spam. The brand must know what the user has signed up for and what s/he is expecting.
> Behaviour mapping for a perfect message
Another way is to look at what would be the right message for the user is to understand their behaviour across properties. Not just your app but also your website, among other locations. So if a user logs on to your e-commerce app, it’s possible that they use it from time-to-time.
But if they log on from the website, they are probably website-first users and not as frequent shoppers. Multiple such signals could be observed like the last purchase or what the user is browsing on your website to then target them accordingly.
It’s a major faux pas when I am browsing electronics, and an ecommerce site sends me a promotional email and discount coupon for kitchen appliances.
In short, the objective of any email programme is to persuade the user in the direction in which the marketer wants them to go in.
ii) Right Time
News publishing might engage with its users every morning, e-commerce in the evening, but food delivery companies have to target users right before meal times. Reaching out to users at the right time is crucial. But one thing is the brand-controlled time, another is the time that the user prefers. Both these timings: the time when brands want to reach out and when users want to be reached (called send-time optimisation) must be carefully balanced.
iii) Right User
Now, what about the right user? Is there a right user? Yes, there is, and companies now use ML/AI to identify the right user for a particular campaign.
This could be based on understanding data and projections. It’s important for the marketer to ask if users will engage with the content. If 20-30 percent open this email, then yes. If you don’t know, then it’s best to target smaller groups. ML is also used to check what dataset of customers would be suitable for what kind of content.
While ML is a sophisticated process, smaller companies, too, can identify the right user for a campaign. Here’s a simple tip: pay attention to what the user is doing on the site, what he/she is browsing and manually design segments of right users or use advanced technologies accordingly.
A point of caution
Here, you can argue that more sophistication leads to more RoI but that’s not always true. When you aim for more sophistication, the cost of execution also goes up and that would diminish your RoI. After implementing it, the final revenue might be more but as would be the cost.
But as technologies advance, it’s highly likely that execution using ML-algorithms becomes cheaper. But for a marketer, it should be about balance as there are multiple technologies around. The question is what serves you.
From the Pepipost Repository
Now as promised we have a real insight for you, directly from the vault of Pepipost! This will help you a lot in understanding how important is targeting the right user across.
One of Pepipost’s customers is a small e-commerce player which sells its products on all major e-commerce sites. Last August, the brand used Pepipost's service to send 4-5 million emails and improved ROI by 4x.
This was without any sophistication. During the festive season, they spent fewer emails—about 2.5 million—and the ROI improved 10x.
There are multiple lessons here: In the second round, the eCommerce company, with the help of Pepipost, targeted the right customer, customised the message according to what they wanted, and sent emails at the right time.
When the company sent fewer emails in October, to target customers who were interacting, 80% got inboxed. Their expenditure also came down as they sent the email to fewer users. They also focussed on user behaviour, gender, and purchase history which is one of the key reasons why it was so successful.
In another instance, we worked with a brand and used ML and AI algorithms for end-to-end customisation. In cases where the level of customisation based on gender, location was complete, we got a 400% response. But if the ROI was 10x, cost was 2x, too. When the brand spent more on the campaign, it made 8 to 10 times more as well.
But there are also instances of sophistication not yielding results. In one instance, a brand wanted to work with buyers who buy today but stay dormant for the next 8-10 months. But the brand's email marketing efforts were only helping them break even and weren't lucrative.
Multiple reasons could lead to this: such as the nature of products, type of message, targeting, etc. If you know that the user won’t budge for the next eight months, you need something more lucrative to seduce them out of their shell.
At times like these, email service providers like Pepipost can offer email infrastructure and consultation. Still, the onus is on marketers to make sure that there is a sound direction and strategy.
iv) Right Channel
We've been discussing how the right message and content is important but what about whether email is the right channel? This, in some ways, brings us back to when the first email was sent 47 years ago.
Why has email survived and will it continue? There’s a mindset that email is not relevant anymore. Predominantly app-first companies think this. The comparison, in one way, is with push notifications.
Every year the demise of email is declared, and every year it’s resurrection is celebrated with jubilation. A recent Forester survey found that people check their email 6-8 times a day.
It’s also assumed that teenagers or younger adults are not concerned with email. But the truth is they are as attentive to email as they are on social media. This is because it’s their email addresses which enable their social networks.
Even as marketers and app-first companies are moving to mobile numbers for registrations, emails are not threatened. For starters, it's the most cost-effective way to communicate. Sending an SMS is costly. You could send 15-20 emails for the price in which you send 1 SMS.
Here, the final R or the question of whether email is the right channel comes in.
What about email vs ways of communication other than SMS?
Many companies want to communicate with push notifications alone. But when you only communicate via push notifications, you’re only communicating with those who have the app.
The communication can also be untimely, brief and neither nuanced nor rich like in an email. People appreciate this and it's why another survey says that more than 7 in 10 consumers prefer email as a channel. As brands understand that the reach of SMS and notification is limited, they see renewed value in email.
And despite the challenges in deliverability, ubiquity of spam, and the general overcrowded nature of the inbox, multiple Pepipost clients from Swiggy, Ola to Cleartrip are confident about the rewards of emails.
They see value in it and therefore, return to it, again and again. Just as users do, despite email reaching its 50th birthday.