If you're running a business, you need an email list. And you need to send great emails, obviously. But if those great emails aren’t making it to people’s inboxes, then what's the point?
If you’ve been putting a lot of hard work into your email marketing but not seeing the results you want, then maybe your email deliverability could use some help. I’m going to share the four key factors that will help make sure more of your emails stay out of spam and land in the inbox.
And if you don’t have an email list yet, this will set you up for success right from the start!
The Four Pillars of Email Deliverability
When it comes to email, it’s all about deliverability. What is email deliverability? The simple definition is the likelihood that your emails are going to end up where you intend—into people's inboxes where they'll actually read them.
You can have the fanciest automations, the best copy, the best upsells, downsells, follow-ups… But if nobody's getting those emails in their inbox, then it's all for nothing.
This is where you’re up against the algorithms of the email giants that control more than 50 percent of the world’s inboxes: Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!. You've got to understand what they're looking for—and play by their rules.
The good news is that it's not that difficult to stay on the good side of the algorithms. Anyone can avoid the spam folder as long as they follow a few key guidelines.
There are four main pillars of email deliverability, and they form the acronym RACE:
Pat and email deliverability expert Adrian Savage covered these four pillars in depth in SPI Podcast session 498:
In business, as in everything, reputation matters. If you've got a lousy reputation, no one's going to want to listen to you.
When it comes to email marketing, you need to focus on what’s known as your sending reputation.
You see, the big mailbox providers are monitoring the emails you're sending, and most importantly, how people are reacting to them.
The more they see people marking your emails as spam or ignoring or deleting them, the more they're going to mark down your sending reputation. And they’re more likely to send your emails right to the spam folder.
That's the simple version, but it means that everything you do with your email marketing has to be focused on preserving and improving your sending reputation.
How to Improve Your Sending Reputation
So what can you do to improve and maintain your reputation with the big email services?
First, use common sense. If you feel like you’re gaming the system, you probably are—and you’re eventually going to get found out.
A (not so) great example is downloading lists of email addresses from the internet.
The only legitimate way to get ahead now with your email list is to send emails only to people who have specifically asked you to contact them.
If you buy a list and start emailing people who haven't given you permission, you're much more likely to get spam complaints, which will hurt your sending reputation.
And what’s the only definition of spam that matters in the eyes of the mailbox providers? Whatever the recipient thinks it is.
There are also businesses out there, like Spamhaus and Cloudmark, that operate email addresses called spam traps. If you send an email to a spam trap address, then you may be added to blocklists that tell the world you’re a low-reputation sender.
If you do decide to buy a list of addresses for some reason, make sure you really trust the person providing the data—it’s much better to control it yourself.
Next, you’ll want to clean your email list regularly. That way, you'll avoid hitting what's called a recycled spam trap.
Here’s how that works.
Suppose 10 years ago you had a Hotmail address that you’d stopped using, and Microsoft canceled your account. For the next few months, if anyone tried to email you, they'd receive an error saying the mailbox didn’t exist. But a few months later, Microsoft might reopen that address and repurpose it to catch senders who weren’t looking after the hygiene of their email list.
Send enough emails to spam trap addresses, and you’ll end up on a blocklist.
So, only send emails to people who have said they want to hear from you, and keep your email list clean so you don’t get caught in recycled spam traps.
Authentication is the second crucial piece of improving your email deliverability.
It’s all about telling the world that you’re sending legitimate emails.
You’ve probably received spam from someone spoofing an email address that isn’t theirs. It’s relatively easy to spoof an address you don’t own—what’s not so easy is to authenticate one.
Authentication is what sets you apart from the spammers, and there are two steps you need to take to authenticate your email address.
The good thing is, this is usually a one-time thing you do when you're setting up your email platform.
The two authentication steps involve a couple of acronyms.
Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM)
The first one is domain keys identified mail, or DKIM. This is how you get your email platform to digitally sign every email that you send.
You’ll need to look at your platform to determine how exactly to configure DKIM, because they all do it slightly differently. If you’re stuck, then find someone who can help you, because it is probably the most important single thing that will make the difference between hitting the spam folder and hitting the inbox.
Here’s guidance on setting up DKIM with some of the most popular email service providers (ESPs):
Sender Policy Framework (SPF)
The second side of authentication is something called sender policy framework, or SPF.
SPF helps identify which mail servers are allowed to send email on behalf of your domain. This communicates which platforms you trust to send emails on your behalf, which can reduce the incidence of email spoofing—people pretending to send mail as you. Like DKIM, it’s a one-time thing, but crucial.
Doing those two things—setting up your SPF and DKIM settings—is going to make a huge difference in deliverability. And don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it.
Here’s guidance on setting up SPF with the popular ESPs:
In the recent past, it was relatively easy to avoid the spam folder by being careful about the content in your emails: don’t use swear words, don’t mention Viagra, and don’t mention “free.”
Today’s spam filters are much more sophisticated, and the big email providers use a ton of artificial intelligence to figure out what’s junk and what’s legit.
In 2005, you might have gotten away with writing “free” as “fr.e–e” in an email, but today that’s a one-way ticket to the spam folder.
Making it to the inbox in 2022 is a lot more about being authentic with your email content. Here, another acronym comes in handy: WILF, which stands for:
Words are important, obviously. And when it comes to email deliverability, it means writing emails the way you’d have a conversation with someone.
Write like yourself. The more your emails sound like they’ve been coming from you, the more authentic it sounds, the more likely those big sophisticated algorithms are going to recognize it as authentic.
In most cases, shorter is also better. Don't cut it down at the expense of not getting your message across, but don’t waffle unnecessarily. Because, let's face it, people's attention spans are getting shorter.
At the same time, don’t stress too much about content either. There are no hard and fast rules here, and you don't want to follow a rule at the risk of ruining your message.
You can always send a few test emails and see what happens. Just remember, however, that email has evolved, and no two people have exactly the same email experience anymore. The same email might end up in Spongebob's inbox and Squidward's spam folder.
But you can still learn some things by looking at the big picture of what you’re sending over time. If you notice that emails written a certain way are getting delivered more often than others, use that as a data point to guide how to craft your email content going forward.
Images and Links
Here’s where things get even more interesting. To include images or not include images in your emails? And what about links? One? None? Many?
First, remember that there are exceptions to every rule. But in general—and testing bears this out—the more images you've got in an email, the more likely it’s headed to the junk folder. And the same goes for the number of links.
One of the quickest ways for an email to be viewed as a promotion by Google is if it has a graphical banner at the top, because that makes it look like a promo. So just cut to the chase with your message.
If you need images in the middle of the email to reinforce or illustrate things, that's a different story. But only include them if they're going to actually add value, not just for the sake of it. If you can manage three or fewer images in total, perfect.
It’s the same with links: the more you use, the more your email looks like a promotion. One of the biggest mistakes people make is using a bunch of little social media icons in their email signature. Before you know it, you’ve got five additional images with links in your email, you're in the promotions tab.
When it comes to links, also be careful about linking to websites you don't control. You can't always be certain whether the domain you’re linking to has a good domain reputation or not. It’s much better to only link to content that you're in control of—like the stuff on your own website.
Finally, there’s frequency. The more frequently you send emails to the people who want to receive them, the better you're going to do. In the good old days, it was sufficient to send an email newsletter out once a month, but these days, mailbox providers are looking for consistency and engagement (which we'll talk about in a second).
The more frequently you send emails to the people that want to read them, the better it's going to look for your engagement. If you're sending out an email three times a week, then you're a lot more likely to reach more of your audience more quickly than if you're sending one email a month.
That doesn’t mean you need to send an email every day—if you can, then great, if you've got enough to talk about—but the more frequently you can share some really cool value, the more people are going to love you, and more importantly, the more the mailbox providers will love you as well.
While authentication is something you set up once and pretty much forget, engagement is something you need to pay attention to on an ongoing basis.
By engagement we're talking about, are people reading your emails? Are they opening them? Are they clicking the links? Are they actually reading them properly? Or are they just deleting it without reading?
One of the worst ways to hurt your engagement is when you send something out, it lands in the spam folder, and no one rescues it.
When someone signs up to your email list for the first time, that may be the only chance you've got to keep your emails out of their spam folder. So direct them to a thank-you page that instructs them to check the spam folder for your first email and move it to their inbox if need be. If they don't, they may never see another email from you in their inbox again.
That's the most important thing.
The other is maximizing the number of people engaging by improving your open rates. Here’s where it’s important to clean your email list regularly, so you’re only sending email to the people who are likely to read it.
It can be scary to clean your email list regularly—because it means deleting people from your list—but it’s absolutely a great thing to do for your email engagement, and for the health of your email list.
Why? It will show Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! that what you’re sending is of greater interest to your subscribers. The higher they see your open rate, the more likely they are to increase your domain reputation. The better your reputation, guess what? The next email you send is more likely to land in the inbox. It’s a virtuous cycle.
More Email Marketing Resources to Improve Deliverability and More
If you’re just getting started building your email list, the best time to start thinking about and implementing these email deliverability best practices is now.
And if you’ve had a list for a while and things have gotten stagnant, the best time to start is… also now.
If you need more support with your email marketing, you’re in the right place! Here are a few more resources to help you build an audience and create more revenue with a robust email marketing practice:
- SPI 498: Step by Step: How to Make Sure Emails Don't End Up in Spam with Adrian Savage (a deeper dive on the concepts in this post!)
- Our three-part guide to cleaning your email list with ConvertKit: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
- Email Marketing Cheat Sheet
- What is Email Marketing + Best Practices and SPI How-to Guide
- Our Email Marketing Magic Course