Skimping on deliverability spend? You’re hurting your email program
Don't make the mistake of cutting corners on deliverability. Columnist Jose Cebrian says budgeting wisely on deliverability services and technology will boost both your email program and your revenue.
For various reasons, companies are increasingly choosing to handle their email production in-house or through agencies versus having the services arm of a technology company handle this work. Done correctly, any of these can be viable options. Regardless of your choice, make sure you budget sufficiently for deliverability. Failure to invest adequately in the required technology and services can have a detrimental impact on your results.
Let’s say you make $15 million a year from your email program, based on last-click attribution. What is the revenue impact of 10 percent lower inbox placement, or even a week of blocks? Doing simple straight-line math, it’s arguably $1.5 million (10 percent of $15M), or $288,000 ($15M/52).
Of course, there are always nuances and shifts between mailbox providers — one is blocked for a couple of days, then another and so on. The point remains: Deliverability has a direct correlation to effectiveness of your email program and your revenue.
You need to protect your program. The best strategy and creative doesn’t mean anything if you can’t get to the inbox.
For some, this is old hat. However, I’m always surprised at how little companies spend on this service. I don’t know if it’s because they expect it to be included with the technology purchase or because it seems too easy to need to call in a specialist. But having been in this business for a long time, I know that if your email program is important to you, this is a key line item in your email marketing budget.
You’ll know it too, when something happens — like an ESP migration that can’t seem to get you back to your previous level of success, low inbox placement at Gmail for an ongoing program or blocks at corporate domains. You need people and technology.
Whether you hire an outside consultant, pay for an increased level of service from your ESP (email service provider), hire an in-house manager or use your agency, you need someone who knows your program and is watching out for it. They need to be ingrained in your program goals and understand your acquisition objectives and specific campaign tactics.
But more than just knowing all that, they need a seat at the strategic planning table to infuse their knowledge into campaign selection as well as sequencing. The deliverability world changes more often than most people think, and you need someone who is deeply knowledgeable about those external forces and how they might impact your business.
If you’re only using your deliverability resources when you are in trouble, you’re definitely not making the most out of your program, since it was likely a slow decline that could have been stopped with earlier intervention.
As noted above, the deliverability resource needs to be clear on your goals. Deliverability is a black-and-white issue — the goal is either 100 percent inbox placement or a “high” reputation at Gmail.
These are good goals, but as a business, you might be willing to have 95 percent inbox placement if that meant you could increase your audience size and make more money. If the only goal is 100 percent inbox placement, then I suspect your segmentation strategy is too conservative — leaving money on the table.
When your deliverability resource is aligned to your goals, they will be more willing to come up with creative strategies to improve the outcomes of your program. And they should provide you with a regular dashboard of what’s going on in your program from a deliverability perspective with recommendations that are relevant to your goals.
Crafting tailored and valuable deliverability recommendations requires triangulating information from many different systems.
You should be able to look at your campaign and your program by domain within your ESP reporting tool. This is a basic functionality. This is the first place to start, and if email is a primary part of your job, it usually doesn’t require specialized knowledge.
You’re looking at open rates by domain to understand if overall campaign engagement is on track, high or low. You’re researching whether a particular domain (e.g., AOL) is underperforming, and if so, whether there was an elevated bounce rate at that domain, which may indicate a temporary block. If not, maybe there is junk foldering happening. This is a good approach for evaluating what happened in the past.
A more real-time assessment is likely done by your ESP. Alerts can be triggered if mail flow is slowing or building up at certain domains to indicate that your campaign is encountering issues. There isn’t a lot to do at this point, other than possibly pause the campaign to let mail volume return to proper flow.
Mailbox provider tools
Most of the major mailbox providers have specific tools you can use to understand how they view your IP address and domain reputation. Your reputation is based on your past sending behavior and impacts how the mailbox providers receive your mail, the amount of mail they will let in, and where the mail will go — inbox or junk.
If you’re not regularly watching these items, you should. And you should have a plan to improve them based on your goals.
Inbox placement tools
Inbox placement is ultimately determined at an individual person level at a mailbox provider. Measuring that dynamic is impossible for marketers, so we use a proxy to determine inbox placement.
There are two prevailing methods to estimate inbox placement. In all cases (that I am aware of), these are paid services that are worth the expenditure. You don’t need to do this on every campaign, but it’s helpful to triangulate these data with your other sources of information.
The seed-based method has been around the longest. Basically, the service provider has inboxes at several mailbox providers. You send emails to these inboxes — either on a regular basis, independent of email campaigns, or during the course of a specific campaign. The service provides you information about where the messages landed at an individual mailbox provider (inbox or junk) — or if they didn’t arrive at all.
This information can be used to make decisions about upcoming campaigns or understand the impact of these numbers on your open and conversion rates for affected mailbox providers. Seeding is generally a good indicator of inbox placement and can be especially helpful if you’re sending to a global audience where dozens of mailbox providers may be involved.
The downside to the seed-based method is that they are unmanned inboxes and, therefore, do not open or click. Without engagement at the mailbox level, it’s possible that the mail will be put into junk, thus giving an inaccurate read. And with smaller lists (think pharma), the number of seeds could impact overall reputation.
A couple of deliverability information providers have panels comprising millions of people into whose inboxes they can see. Essentially, they watch where mail goes (junk or inbox) at the individual mailbox level (for their panel members only) and then report back what they see for your emails.
The upside of this approach is that they are real mailboxes and, therefore, represent actual user behavior. A few potential downsides include aspects such as panel reach (is there enough scale in your program to get a good read?), panel makeup (do the panel members represent your key customers?), and the fact that panels tell you what happened, not what may happen.
Seeds vs. panels
Which is better? The short answer: both. My recommendation is to use both seeds and panels to triangulate the information, especially if you have a large program. Some deliverability providers even combine the data to show seed-based data, along with a view of how many of their panels were touched by your email, so you can evaluate the importance of that panel data.
For many companies, email is an important channel. But if you aren’t actively managing deliverability, it’s highly likely you’re leaving money on the table. Spending wisely on deliverability services and technology will allow you to craft a strategy that meets your needs, balancing inbox placement with audience size and actual engagement to strengthen your KPIs.
Without a deliverability management strategy, you will use cookie-cutter “best practices.” And in today’s changing world, that could either be too conservative or risky if you’re not taking into account the nuances of the individual mailbox providers and your existing sending reputation with each of them.