Frequently Asked Questions about Email Deliverability
Ensuring high levels of deliverability is the cornerstone of every successful email marketing campaign. What can you do to make sure your email messages arrive in the inbox, and how can you prevent spam complaints from your audiences? We recently hosted a webinar highlighting deliverability basics and best practices for email success. During the event, audience members had quite a few questions that covered a variety of extremely important topics. We’re sharing them here with our readers to provide an in-depth look at some of the most pressing deliverability issues facing email marketers today.
We’ve divided the questions into five categories: infrastructure, reputation, legal issues, best practices, and resources. And if you have any questions or concerns about the deliverability of your email, please be sure to let us know in the comments.
Q: What does DKIM mean? What is SPF?
A: DKIM stands for domain keys identified mail and SPF stands for sender policy framework. These are both forms of authentication that Act-On recommends you sign your emails with. They tell Internet service providers (such as Yahoo and Gmail) and global receivers (such as private corporate business domains) that you have given a third party (such as Act-On) permission to send mail on your behalf.
Q: What is RFC?
A: RFC stands for request for comments. It is a publication of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Society, the principal technical development and standards-setting bodies for the internet. Memos in the RFC document series contain technical and organizational notes about the Internet. They cover many aspects of computer networking, including protocols, procedures, programs, and concepts, as well as meeting notes, opinions, and sometimes humor. The various different RFC pages can be found here.
Q: How do you get on a dedicated IP address to send your email messages?
A: Reach out to your Act-On sales rep (RSM) or customer success rep (CSM) and request a dedicated IP. They’ll set up a call with the deliverability team to help you through the set-up process.
Q: Do you integrate with inbox monitoring tools? Or is it a separate service we should run our emails through before we send via Act-On?
A: Act-On partners with 250ok. If you’re on a dedicated IP, we provide you a seed list to send to (with your other sends) to see what percentage makes it to the inbox versus the spam folder. This feature is not integrated into Act-On at this time; our deliverability team runs a report for you and gives you the results.
Q: What is a spam trap?
A: Many webmail providers and spam filtering organizations take unused or abandoned email addresses (or B2B domains) and convert them into spam traps. A spam trap is an email address used to lure spam, so the spam can be identified, then added to a blacklist or other blocking mechanism. In theory, a spam trap is an address that has never signed up for any commercial email whatsoever, so any mail it receives is considered spam.
Q: In Act-On, is there a way to see if the emails arrive in the inbox vs. being delivered to the domain but not to the inbox? We typically just look at opens/clicks to determine a delivery rate.
A: At this time, there is no way to view this information in the platform itself. If you are using a dedicated IP and have the support package, this service is part of it. It includes a seed list that you would send to on a regular basis. We partner with 250ok, an email reputation provider, to provide you with a separate report outside of the Act-On application.
Q: I had a customer contact me to say that our emails are being blocked. The customer knows we are sending, their address is real, but we’re still being blocked. What should I do?
A: Make sure you are authenticated with DKIM/SPF. If you know the customer well, ask them to whitelist you. If you have done all of this and are still having issues, open a ticket with your CSM and we can work toward a resolution.
Q: How do I find out which protocol is blocking my emails?
A: To see if your domain or IP (associated with your website) is blacklisted, go to MxToolbox and do a blacklist check. If it is listed, follow the steps for delisting. If it is not listed, then probably something else is causing your message to bounce – possibly your content, or images, or links, or spam complaints you’ve gotten.
Also: Look in your Act-On campaign reports. If you are finding a lot of soft bounces (more than 10%) then you should open a support ticket and/or reach out to your CSM for help. If you are on a shared IP pool, blocks can happen at the IP level due to other senders. We’d need to further investigate to understand whether a block is due to your actions, or to someone else’s.
Q: How do I fix my emails so they are not incorrectly labeled as spam?
A: ISPs have private algorithms updating almost hourly, therefore you have to keep adapting. Check your content and review your best practices list to ensure that you’re in compliance with the factors you know can cause trouble.
The single best thing is to have recipients take the action of adding you to their safe sender list. This is the highest form of engagement and can usually eliminate your email getting labeled incorrectly. Another option is to segment engaged versus unengaged recipients. Then send to the engaged recipients first, wait one or two hours and then send to the unengaged recipients.
Q: What is the best way to monitor our sending reputation?
A: The best way to monitor your reputation (domain and website IP) is to sign up with MxToolbox. It’s free to set up for one domain or IP and they will send you weekly reports so you stay up to speed on issues. You can also get a free SenderScore account to monitor on a regular basis. SenderBase is also free and you can check your overall reputation there as well.
Q: Once a reputation is damaged, is it reparable?
If you are wondering what your reputation is or if it is harmed, we do offer Reputation Audits to provide a full view. There are many factors that have an impact on your reputation. Some you can see; others are assigned by an ISP, and you won’t be able to see them. Business domains may have others you cannot see.
Q: I know we can’t remove spam complaints from our database, but are there any actions we can take to address those spam complaints with the Internet service providers so we can improve our reputation?
A: The best way to reduce spam complaints is to move your “unsubscribe” from the footer of the email to the pre-header of the email (next to the “View This in a Browser”). It will lower the number of spam complaints, which in turn helps your reputation.
Keep in mind also that ISPs also place a lot of weight on subscriber engagement to determine sender reputation. This means you need a strategy for retiring or removing older addresses that are no longer actively opening or clicking – before they start to hurt the deliverability of your active subscribers. Delivering more personalized content will also improve the chance that recipients will open your next email.
To find out what Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and other email receivers think of your email-marketing program, visit SenderScore.org. At this site, you get free access to data the ISPs and other email receivers use to decide whether to accept or reject your emails. You simply input a domain or IP address and, in return, you’ll get a score from 1 to 100 (with 100 being the best). With this score, you’ll know whether you need to continue following best email practices to protect your high score, or take action to improve your reputation.
Q: Do these tips work when dealing with the public sector?
A: Yes, they absolutely do. However, companies sending to the public sector (business-to-government, or B2G) should absolutely be on a dedicated IP. The public sector has some of the strongest filters out there (which makes sense), but if you’re not on a dedicated IP you have a higher risk of not getting through their filters.
Q: What are CAN-SPAM and CASL?
CAN-SPAM is the acronym for a US law, the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act of 2003. This established the US’ first national standards for the sending of commercial email and requires the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce its provisions.
Canada’s Anti-Spam Law (CASL) applies to all electronic messages (e.g. email, texts) that organizations send in connection with a “commercial activity.” Its key feature requires Canadian and global organizations that send commercial electronic messages (CEMs) within, from or to Canada to receive consent from recipients before sending messages. It is considered to be one of the toughest laws of its kind in the world, and it mandates that company officers and directors personally liable for infractions. Transactional electronic messages do not fall under the same rules.
There are two types of consent under CASL:
- Consent is “express” when a person clearly agrees to receive commercial electronic messages, either orally or in writing. Written consent can be electronic, and it does not expire.
- Consent can be “implicit” in many ways: Under CASL, if people conspicuously publish their address or give it to you; if you already have an existing business relationship, and so on. The “existing business relationship” that was established before CASL became law persists for a few years and then expires.
CASL also provides a partial exemption for third-party referral messages that will allow businesses to send one single message to obtain consent for future messages.
Q: How does the spam law work if you are provided someone’s email address from a co-worker?
A: Under CAN-SPAM, as long as you include a well-labeled unsubscribe link, you are within your rights to mail to them. But it’s a very good practice to put them into an opt-in campaign to try to gain their consent. Under CASL, it is illegal to email to the email address, as you have neither implied – nor expressed – consent.
Q: Are current contacts “grandfathered” into CASL implied consent?
A: According to CASL, if you obtained the email address before July 1, 2014, then they have implied consent. Any email address obtained on or after July 1, 2014 must have express consent.
Q: What’s considered best practice for getting consent from someone opting into your email list? A check box on the opt-in form? A follow-up email with a consent link?
A: You can have a checkbox in the form. For CAN-SPAM it can be pre-checked.
Under CASL it cannot be pre-checked; the recipient must take a specific action to tell you what they want to receive. Also under CASL, because the recipient is taking the action of opting into your emails, you can send them a follow-up email confirming their consent with a verification link (confirmed opt-in), as it is a transactional message.
Q: Regarding email opt-in and CASL, does Act-On offer an email template that allows recipients to opt into future emails via a button in the email, and will it build/track an opt-in list for me?
A: Act-On can share with you several examples of what some of our clients are doing to gain consent. You will need to reach out to your CSM to get them. These are not pre-built email templates, rather just examples.
Q: What is the best format to use for the “safe sender” address book requests? Can you share some examples of the Add to Address Book language you recommend?
A: The language we typically give to clients is very generic, such as “To ensure you continue to receive our emails in your inbox, please add <from address> to your safe sender list.” Here’s what one looks like that also uses the pre-header of the message well:
If you send to Gmail email addresses, the language needs to address a tabbed inbox. We suggest: “To get our emails in your Primary tab, drag one of our emails from the tab we are currently showing up into your Primary tab, and click ‘Yes.”
Q: Should I use my own name in the Sender field?
A: We recommend that you use your personal name in the “From” address field if you have a relationship of some kind with the receiver. If the personal relationship doesn’t exist, we recommend that you keep the email address generic but use the Display Name (before the email address in the “From” field) to use your name, like this:
From: Jane Doe (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Q: What about using multiple “From” names?
If multiple “From” addresses are used and the email receiver has added one to their safe sender list but not the others, you lose the chance to get all email to the inbox. That said, the safe sender imprimatur is attached to the email address, not the name. So you could use different names and still be delivered to inbox – if the address is the same.
From: Jane Doe (email@example.com)
From: John Day, VP (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Q: Does it matter if the “Reply To” address is different from the “Send” address?
A: No, it does not matter that these two are different. What does matter is that the “From” address domain be set up with DKIM and SPF. You might have good reasons to have the “From” and “Reply To” be different (or not), but deliverability isn’t going to be one of them.
Q: What is a preheader?
A: A preheader is the text following the subject line (where you sometimes see copy such as, “View this message in a browser”) when an email is previewed. It’s one of the first three items a subscriber sees when viewing an email, along with the sending address and the subject line. The pre-header can be used to add value to the subject line; for instance, you could ask customers to add you to their safe sender list or add an extra promotion.
Q: What is a seed list?
A seed list is subset of email addresses that you send an email to before you send the email out to everyone on a list. This lets you test email delivery and appearance across different email clients and devices.
Q: What are the basics of a re-engagement campaign?
A: We typically recommend a series of three to five emails that let your recipients know you miss them and want them to come back. If you send just one email, you could miss out on some recipients re-engaging.
- We recommend starting with a “We Miss You!” message that entices them to take an action and gives them an emotional reason to do so. Tell them what they’ll miss.
- In the next email, introduce a strong incentive (promotion, best performing whitepaper, etc.) to get them to come back.
- The final email in the series should be something like “We respect that you no longer want to receive our emails. This is the last email you will receive from us, unless you change your mind and click here.”
The point is to give them several chances to re-engage with you, but also let them know you understand that they might not want to receive your emails, and you respect their wishes.
Q: What is the best way to ensure that the people who download eBooks or white papers are opted-in correctly to your email lists?
A: Consider setting up a subscription management center where people can choose the type of communications they want to receive and the frequency, rather than having you choose for them. You can move people to this option in a welcome series of messages. Or, when someone clicks the opt-out button, you can provide the option for them to choose a content channel, or choose a weekly summary, or just notices of offers, etc. Your CSM can help you implement this.
Q: Are there any videos on the different features available?
Yes. Visit the Act-On University through your account to see all the resources we have on the various features. There is a section of self-paced videos as well.
Q: Do you have relevant documentation on email best practice and laws for different regions, say the Netherlands?
A: This presentation, Online Privacy Law in the Netherlands, should give you some of the information you need. Here is what we typically provide clients requesting information about laws in various countries:
The art of successful email marketing depends first and last upon proactive deliverability management.