Have you ever been anxiously awaiting an email from someone, only to find out it went into your spam folder? When this happens to someone’s email you wanted to receive it’s annoying…but when you’re the sender and your marketing messages get this treatment, it can turn a responsive audience into a black hole - never getting your message in front of the group you worked so hard to recruit.
The subject of email delivery isn’t one most people pay much attention to, because they feel that it works the same way as any communication: you make a call, you send a letter, you send an email. Technology, after all, is supposed to make things easier.
The problem is that the bad actors in the world have leveraged that assumption to turn email into the world’s biggest scam tool - and you are paying the price for it.
There was a time when email was a joy to use. The spam folder didn’t exist, and any message you sent went straight to the intended inbox. Filters were almost nonexistent and you’d be lucky to get a few messages in a day - all from people you wanted to hear from.
As email became mainstream, it became not only a great marketing vehicle, but also a way for crooks and scammers to invade your inbox with promises of fortunes from far off royalty and easy delivery of malware. Today it is the number one way ransomware, malware and phishing are delivered to end users, and the next worst offender isn’t even close.
In response, email providers had no choice but to build more controls and hurdles to go through, lest their systems become overrun by so much junk that it became unusable. Some might argue we passed that mark years ago.
As a result, email providers are constantly changing the rules of the game to combat spam. Much like search companies changing the rules of SEO to try to get the best content for searches - email companies go through the same exercise to ensure only legitimate messages get delivered. It’s a constant battle, and their filters are a secret to most people.
Email providers are asking three questions when doing their analysis:
I’ll go through each of those questions now. While the example used here is Gmail, every provider you run into will do a similar exercise to get the right messages delivered to your inbox.
Did it come from a legitimate sender?
On a superficial level, the email provider will check whether the message came from a system that belongs to the sender’s domain, as that is one way people spoof emails from others. When you hear about SPF, DMARC or DKIM - these are DNS records put in place to notify providers that you are the sender.
This base layer is where a lot of your delivery statistics come from. What most people don’t realize is that with email, when it says “delivered” it doesn’t mean it is sitting in the user’s inbox. It just means it wasn’t rejected by the target mail server. What they do with it from there is in their world, and they won’t tell you what happened.
On top of that, there are also whole ecosystems that were created to identify bad servers and track the sender’s reputation. Send too many emails from a new IP, have too many spam complaints or send to a fake, spam-detecting email address - and that IP will be flagged as a spam sender. Getting that designation removed can take weeks and hours of documentation, if it’s possible at all.
Get on one of these lists and your mail might still be delivered, but more than likely it will end up in the user’s spam folder. Unfortunately, unless you’re on lists that notify you of this, you’ll never know it happened.
Once your message is delivered, the system asks…
Does the content look like a legitimate email?
The second layer of analysis used looks at the content of messages. Everything from the ratio of graphics to text (emails only utilizing images are a red flag), to the subject line and links used in the message, are analyzed to see if the content looks right.
This is why you see subject lines which break up words like “free” or purposely misspell words, to try to game this analysis. Attachments are scanned, text is compared to known “spammy” patterns, and links are checked for known malware patterns.
If there are enough suspicious items in an email, it gets flagged as spam - and once that happens, your reputation with that provider starts to decline. From then on, it’s an uphill battle to get your message delivered.
So, now we’ve covered what “delivered” means, and the various hoops your message has to go through to actually be delivered. A few years ago, Google decided that all those hurdles were not enough. Gmail then introduced the auto-filter tabs to essentially create levels of email that could render even valid emails unseen.
Unless you turned the auto-filters off, when Google flagged incoming mail as Social, Promotions, Updates or Forums, they would auto filter those emails to specific tabs - and skip the inbox altogether. This had a disastrous impact on email responsiveness because many users never looked in those tabs for new messages.
But this was only the start of asking the question Google was really getting at:
Does the user actually want it?
Recently, Google has done even more to track intent of the users and use that to flag unsolicited email. We’ve all heard that double optin is the preferred method to add a user to an email list. With most email service providers, when importing your addresses, they will ask you if recipients on your list are double optin, but have no way of confirming that.
One of the ways Google is reportedly tracking this is by looking at the first email someone receives from a sender. If the user clicks on a link from that FIRST email, they consider it a double optin from Google’s point of view.
If this is true, it is a huge potential issue for all those senders that don’t enforce double optin. If Google decides you don’t comply, they can now look at all your emails as unsolicited, essentially locking you out of over 40% of email deliveries.
The good news is this first email doesn’t have to be the standard optin message. It just has to be something you get a user to click on that moves them into the realm of active. Getting creative on this part can signal that the user actually wants that email.
One pattern I’ve noticed in my personal Gmail is that over time they track whether I open from a specific sender. I’m on a lot of lists, and I tend to either “mark as read” or delete emails that I’m not interested in reading to manage my inbox. If I do this for a period of time, Google starts to flag ALL emails from that sender as spam.
This shows that Google is trying to isolate bad emails wherever they can. If they’re able to do it, the other big players will follow them to make it standard practice. Getting ahead of these trends ensures your emails get the treatment they deserve.
This is where you come in. By creating emails that your subscribers want to read you not only bump up your engagement stats, but also signal to google that your emails are legitimate and wanted. It’s no longer about just sending as much email as you can, it’s more about the quality of the messages you send.
Hopefully this background helps you understand what’s happening behind the scenes that may affect your email marketing campaigns.