Understanding Inbox Placement

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Email Marketing

email inboxClutter,” the new Microsoft-powered feature designed to move low priority messages out of your inbox, has officially been turned on for all Office 365 users. This resonates with several trends we have recognized such as the introduction of Google Inbox for a smarter inbox experience, and how engagement will continue to be the leading contributor to filtering decisions.

While marketers and experts still hold different opinions on whether these moves by the major ISPs (Internet service providers, such as Comcast, AT&T, AOL, etc.) will eventually hurt or help email deliverability, the trends are only going to accelerate and become more evident.

In permission-based email marketing the inbox placement rate (IPR) is a benchmark for deliverability that is used to determine what percentage of sent emails reach the intended subscriber’s inbox. Here’s a refreshing look at some of the major factors that influence sender reputation, which is a key determinate of inbox placement.

1. Engagement is a double-edged sword

email engagement is a mixed blessingAside from the well-known fact that inbox placement is largely determined based on subscriber behavior, we’ve learned from the Email Evolution Conference earlier this year what major ISPs actually consider as engagement.

Here’s the gist:

Positive signals:

  • Opening an email
  • Filing an email
  • Replying to an email
  • Moving a message from the spam folder to the inbox
  • Adding a sender to the address book

Negative signals:

  • Deleting a message without opening
  • Marking an email as spam

In short, the more positive actions and fewer negative actions ISPs see, the more often your emails will make it to the inboxes.

2. Spam complaints are too important to ignore

SPAMAnd too important to be buried in the first key point. According to Microsoft Outlook, the rate of spam complaints is one of the main contributors to deteriorated deliverability and sender reputation.  One reason: Spam complaints come from real people, not servers, so they are a more potent indicator that mail from this email sender is especially not wanted. Additionally, Outlook’s Smart Network Data Services (SNDS) suggests that senders should aim for a lower than 0.3% spam complaint rate (which is much more lenient than the general 0.1% industry standards recommend).

Also, it is worth noting that most people tend to mistake a campaign’s overall spam complaint rate for the complaint rate at a single domain.

As an example, let’s say you send a campaign to 10,000 email recipients, and your overall spam complaint rate is .05%. If, when you look into this, you see that all five complaints come from the same domain (e.g. Comcast), then there may be an issue.

One of the factors determining whether this is potentially a problem is the volume of people you mail to at the Comcast domain. If it’s a high number, then those five complaint represent a small percentage, and it (probably) won’t matter as much. The story might turn out differently if you don’t mail to that many people at this domain, and those five complaints are a significant percentage (remember, the industry standard is .1%).  In that situation, Comcast could (at least theoretically) notice those spam complaints and perhaps downgrade your reputation – which could potentially affect your deliverability to anyone at the Comcast domain.

NB: Complaint rate thresholds are determined by individual domains, and may exceed the industry standard.

3. There’s no reason not to authenticate your email

It doesn’t hurt (and it is a major help) to set up DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) and SPF (Sender Policy Framework) authentication. They are foundational and prove to servers (that require these records for incoming email) that you are who you say you are. Major ISPs and large corporate email servers have been using authentication for years to mitigate email abuse. DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance), on the other hand, is an emerging industry standard that builds on top of DKIM and SPF to provide finer control and enhanced security for both recipients and senders.

4. Content is important but there can only be one king

While content still remains a factor in filtering decisions, it carries less weight nowadays and is usually a lower-priority item on the list. Unless your content is ridiculously spammy, it’s not often a sufficient reason for ISPs to block your email.

Let the shotgun marketing approach be a thing of the past and start implementing tactics such as list segmentation and message personalization to maintain an accurate and healthy list, and grow positive user engagement.

At the end of the day, your audience is the king.

simple crown

5. The mysterious, multi-source, variable “reputation” is the ultimate decider

Besides Return Path’s publicly available Sender Score reputation system, ISPs also calculate and maintain their own evaluations ofBest Practices in Email Deliverability reputation for each sending IP or domain based on the factors aforementioned. Those independent reputation systems are usually not accessible to general users, but there’s one thing we can be sure of, and that is – the better your reputation, the better your chances of making it to the inbox.

May we suggest? Act-On’s free Best Practices in Email Deliverability is a practical guide to improving your email reputation  –  and your results. Get it now!