Editor’s note: This article was originally published on April 9th, 2020. It has been updated to reflect the most current data and insights.
Trying to get out of the spam folder can feel similar to trying to escape from quicksand—it takes a while, it feels impossible, and you’re not even really sure the best way to do it. But improving your email deliverability and getting out of the spam folder isn’t a lost cause.
You’ve created the most engaging popups. You’ve chosen the best email templates. You’ve tested the perfect balance of photos and text. Maybe you’re even using influencers to endorse your brand or promoting a social media contest. Yet, somehow, your recipients are still marking your emails as spam.
What is email deliverability and why does it matter?
Simply put, email deliverability is the ability to hit a recipient’s inbox.
In order to be a successful email marketer, you need to pay attention to the signals you’re getting from your audience (such as open rates, click rates, unsubscribes, bounces, mark as spam etc.) and adapt your sending strategy to elicit the highest levels of engagement.
If you’ve been emailing your customers for a while and aren’t seeing the results you’d like or notice that your communications keep ending up in the spam folder, there may be some foundational issues in your email marketing strategy that you can improve upon.
There are many factors that go into determining how emails are placed within a recipient’s inbox and they may differ between providers.
Gmail’s algorithm on determining whether an email is going to be placed in the recipient’s primary inbox differs from what Outlook relies on to make the same decision. To add to the uncertainty, neither you nor your email marketing platform has any insight into the specifics behind those algorithms.
You may ask, “Then how do I even know what to do?!” That’s a great question! There are a number of steps you can take to help you go from your customers’ spam folder to their primary inbox.
It’s actually fairly straightforward—it all comes down to engaged recipients.
If your audience is actively engaging with the content you’re sending them, inbox providers will pick up on that and continue to allow it into the inbox.
If recipients stop engaging, then inbox providers will start to question how keen your audience is to receive the content you’re sending them.
If there’s a significant lack of engagement, inbox providers will start to slot emails into the spam folder as all signs point to it no longer being relevant to recipients.
6 steps to improve email deliverability
No matter how you got into your current deliverability hole, the following steps should help you get your emails back in front of your customers’ eyes.
Step 1: Take another look at your opt-in process
Make sure you know where the emails in your lists are coming from. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with all the different signup form apps that are available, which means you want to ensure you’re keeping track of how people opt-in for your lists.
Can your customers opt-in at checkout? Is there an embedded or pop-up form on your homepage? What list do those forms submit to? More importantly, is it explicitly clear to the recipient that they are signing up to receive emails?
Tip: If this process is clear and a positive experience for the recipient, you will have more engaged contacts subscribing to your lists.
Step 2: Practice good list cleaning hygiene
A clear opt-in process makes maintaining a clean list easier, but the actual act of cleaning your list keeps your deliverability at its highest level.
It’s important to practice good list hygiene to ensure you’re not emailing contacts who are no longer engaged.
If you make an effort to clean out inactive contacts every six months, or more regularly if you’re seeing spam placement issues, you’ll be less likely to send to spam traps or other contacts who have lost interest in your content, both of which can contribute to degrading your sender reputation. Phasing out these stale contacts is called sunsetting.
Tip: If you have a list that you’re sending emails to, clean your lists at least once a month. As your list gets larger, consider doing this every couple of weeks.
Step 3: Identify your engaged customers
Just because a contact has subscribed to your list doesn’t necessarily mean they’re engaged—this is a common misconception.
If you already practice the steps above and are still experiencing deliverability issues, this could be your missing piece.
A prime example of this is when someone subscribes to a list because they are offered a coupon or discount to do so. Once they receive that initial email and get their code, they may never open another email from you again.
Similarly, while giveaway opportunities are great ways to build your list, sometimes shoppers might enter just to have their chance at winning with no real intention of interacting with your brand in the future.
Generally, brands end up in the spam folder because they’re not being thoughtful about their email sending program.
If you’re not taking the time to understand who you’re sending to and evaluating the signals your audience is sending to you in return, then your marketing strategies will not be as successful as they could be.
Top contributors to spam placement are:
Consistently sending emails to contacts who are chronically unengaged
A history of abuse and poor sending practices
Not properly warming new sending infrastructure elements
High bounce rates that cause ISPs to question list quality and subscriber acquisition methods
For your actual sends, creating a segment of engaged profiles will ensure only the most interested recipients are getting your emails.
Additionally, because these subscribers are more likely to open your emails, your average open rate will increase, which will help email providers identify your address as a legitimate source instead of spam.
There are two factors of engagement, positive and negative.
Positive engagement is opening, clicking, or forwarding an email.
Negative engagement is marking the email as spam.
What about unsubscribing? It depends. In the eyes of Gmail, an unsubscribe can actually be considered a positive engagement over marking the email as spam.
Unsubscribing is typically considered a healthy way for a subscriber to let the sender know they’re no longer interested—as long as you’re not seeing massive unsubscribe spikes.
Engagement will always have a relationship to a timeframe of recency.
Tip: If you’ve been seeing low open and click rates when sending to your full list, adjusting your sending habits to focus on more engaged subscribers will help drive those numbers back up.
Step 4: Monitor your email deliverability metrics
How long does it take to achieve good deliverability? What does good email deliverability even look like? For reference, this table will help you determine where your deliverability falls, or you can check out this deliverability performance guide:
Unique Open Rate Unique Click Rate Bounce Rate Unsubscribe Rate Spam Rate
Great 25% or more 2.5% or more Less than 0.4% Less than 0.2% Less than 0.05%
Proficient 15-25% 1.5-2.5% 0.4-0.8% 0.2-0.3% 0.05-0.08%
Room for Improvement 10-15% 1-1.5% 0.8-1.5% 0.3-0.7% 0.08-0.15%
Critical Less than 10% Less than 1% 1.5% or more 0.7% or more 0.15% or more
Regardless of whether you’re constantly hitting the spam folder at “critical” or “room for improvement” levels, getting to “proficient” or “great” could take upwards of three to four weeks (on average) and, in some cases, longer.
Tip: This may seem like a long time investment for your brand as you’re trying to acquire new customers, but the pay-off will be worth the wait.
Step 5: Make content adjustments (as needed)
You’ve been sending to your engaged customers now for three or four weeks. You’ve been monitoring your metrics. If you’ve seen your unique open rates increase over 15 percent and your unique click rates hit two percent—great job! You’re on the right track.
As these numbers go up, your bounce, unsubscribe, and spam rates should decline as a result (or be very low). Maybe you haven’t seen the improvement you’re looking for or still see room for improvement.
Content is one of the last pieces of the puzzle. But making sure your content is delivering the right message is really an ongoing process that began before your first send. Keeping your recipients engaged is a challenge and usually specific to your brand. At the end of the day, nobody knows your customers better than you.
Continue to A/B test your emails and test out different subject lines or content. Do your customers respond better to images or do they prefer text?
Tip: Always think about sending “wanted emails.” In other words, some email content might be great for a certain subset of your engaged audience, but not the entire segment.
Step 6: Use a dedicated domain (optional)
By adding a few CNAME records to your hosting provider, you can set up a dedicated sending domain.
Tip: This can be helpful in some instances, as it adds a layer of authentication to your domain. It tells ISPs that your emails should be sent from whatever platform you’re using, and they can trust that the email is authentic.
Email deliverability issues aren’t permanent
Finding that your emails have ended up in the spam folder is never ideal—it signals that you have work to do to make your messaging more targeted. But deliverability issues aren’t permanent. There are always changes you can make to get your brand back in your customers’ primary inboxes.
As marketers, we can be most helpful to our audience and the most successful in our goals and objectives when we’re creating and sending content that’s valuable to people.
It’s why things like segmentation and personalization work—because the more you can tailor your marketing to the individual and create authentic experiences, the stronger your relationship with your customers will be.