Five deliverability top 5s

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Essentially all of the things included in this Guide are what you as an email marketer should strive for anyway.  We hope that this more definitive explanation may help motivate you to focus more on the recipient experience and better enable your own hard work to excel and achieve its potential.

This is the final draft, the full polished version is available on the Resources and Community pages as a guide and the backbone of a full webinar with Q&A session.

“Your deliverability is decided by your recipients’ reaction to your emails.” – Andy Thorpe 2010



5 ways to get junked by recipients and how you can avoid it

There are lots of reasons why people might hit the spam button on your email marketing campaigns but most of them only happen to cold emails where you have little or no rapport with the recipient. If you have high engagement, getting junked is far less likely.

Here are five reasons why people may hit the junk button and some suggestions on how to avoid them.

  1. Get their name wrong with your personalisation 

    People don’t like it if you get it wrong, if you are using personalisation in your emails: test, test, and test again. If you have any doubts, then leave it out.If you have a decent rapport with your lists you should not need a lot of personalisation anyway, your brand name is enough.  For example I don’t need Amazon to address me by name, I know who they are and I know they know who I am, I don’t need them to include my name in the email in order to spend money with them.

    If you want to make sure you get it right, allow your recipients to add it and change it themselves using preference centres and profiles.

  2. Pretend a cold email is not a cold email 

    When sending an email to people who you have little rapport with, be mindful and work more on increasing that rapport and engagement through a good recipient experience, rather than rushing them to spend money. Think of it as converting strangers to prospects before customers.If they decide they don’t want your emails, they are more likely to hit spam rather than unsubscribe if you have presumed a rapport that doesn’t exist.

  3. Be dishonest in the subject line or from name to get the open 

    If you write “Win an Ipad” in your subject line and then don’t give them the chance to win an Ipad in the email, people will probably think its junk because you lied. Don’t lie to get the open, recipients will dislike you.This is obviously not a common occurrence but remember that people tend to make a lot of noise when it happens.

    There is however an exception; where you have an engaged list and you go for a novelty subject, that may not completely reflect the content of the email but the humorous undertones coupled with the rapport you have with your list can improve opens once in a while.
    For instance: tell the first line of a joke that relates of sets the scene for the angle of the email. It may not describe the contents of the email but it will convey the tone, as long as you continue it through the email.
    It also helps to add context and finish the joke, so to speak. Maybe even invite replies or link to a discussion on your website or Facebook fan page.

    In short, go out of your way to ensure a consistency and relevance through out while focussing on the recipients’ experience being a good one and preferably a ‘remarkable‘ one.

  4. Make an email that recipients are unable to read 

    It may sound obvious but if you haven’t tested your email and just paste in a web page, it is unlikely that it will appear as you expect at the other end.  If a recipient cannot understand your email, or even who it is from, they will just think it is junk and treat it as such.Any useful email marketing company will have lots of testing features, from the ability to send free emails to various different test addresses to see how they render, to an html content check, to full Inbox Previews. Make sure you have a good testing process to follow with every email you send. And make sure the last thing you do is send a full delivery to a small list of your own addresses and click every link to ensure you have done all you can to synthesise the campaign to your main list.

  5. Assuming permission 

    If someone gives you their address in the process of a transaction, on a business card or via LinkedIn, this does not mean that they want to be on a list, be it yours or anyone else’s. Their spam button is their weapon against unsolicited emails and ISPs make them more powerful everyday.There have been various published studies, discussions and lawsuits where people have stayed within the letter of the law but recipients have rebelled in bulk and a sender has found themselves blocked and/or the brand has gotten into trouble.

    While the law may state that the soft-opt-in gives senders a bit more leeway than a confirmed opt-in, recipients are not fond of it and subsequently nor are ISPs.


Ensure that the way people get on your list is an obvious and good experience for them and you will have engaged subscribers who can deliver revenue:  “The value of your email marketing list is decided by the opt-in experience“.


Additional Resources and links from this guide

Links to articles about a recent campaign where the addresses used in an email campaign were collected using a person’s connections on LinkedIn

LinkedIn: A list-building opportunity?

New fun with a spamming scumbag

Amendment is futile

Definition of soft opt in from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office

The value of your email marketing list is decided by the opt-in experience




5 ways to get junked by a filter and how to avoid it

So much of an email marketer’s time is taken up making sure that emails don’t end up in the junk folder. Most content filters are based around what spammers do, from the content structure to the words used to the entire mime structure.  Any decent email marketing service provider will have a spam checking tool built in, using at least Spam Assassin, to test how likely it is that your message will be confused with spam, based on the content.  There are also dedicated services like Litmus, Email on Acid and of course the giant Return Path toolset which will do the same thing.

Here’s my top five ways to get junked by a filter and tips on how to avoid it happening to you:

  1. Get marked as spam & hit hard bounces a lotWhether you are obeying only the letter of the law or just not giving your recipients a good experience, every time someone hits the spam button your reputation goes down a bit and your from address and/or domain can easily find it’s way onto one or more of many blocklists. These lists are checked by inbox filters and if any part of your email is featured on a list, off to the junk folder it will go.

    So your deliverability is decided on by recipient reactions to your emails in many cases. Do your best to ensure a good recipient experience and you can avoid the complaints.

    This point in particular will be explored in more detail further down in this guide.


  1. No plain text versionBefore sending out an email you go through the rigorous process of testing your HTML rendering and appearance in different inboxes, getting sign-off from managements etc, by the end of it you just need to get the email out in time. Then you see your open rates are lower than you expected so you go back and find you forgot the plain text version. Not having a plain text version will easily get your messages mixed up with spam; making it very likely that your email will get junked.

    Any decent email marketing service provider will include a spam checker that includes at least Spam Assassin and this will warn you if you do not have a plain text version.

  2. Giant image and no text 

    Because spammers have tried to put their spammy content into images, so that junk filters can’t read the keywords, if you have one big image and little or no text, your emails are far more likely to get confused for spam and find themselves in the junk folder. The general rule is try to keep your image:text ratio to 60:40 in favour of text, to avoid being junked.

  3. Spammy words in the subject line and content 

    The oldest way of filtering spam is picking out spammy keywords. If you use any of these in your content or subject lines, the inbox’s filter will think your email is one of those old school spam emails and send it to the junk folder. Normally it is a combination of two words rather than just one spammy word.
    For example and email that has the word ‘Guarantee’ in it with an exclamation mark at the end will thrown a warning but without it, it won’t.
    If you have the word ‘enlargement in the email or the word ‘breast’  in the email you don’t have a problem but put the two together ‘breast enlargement’  and you get a warning and a score because your content is about enlarging body parts. It doesn’t work with all body parts, only the obvious ones.

Again, much of this gets picked up by Spam Assassin, but not all, so testing to a personal address you have with each domain you might send to is a good idea and help you test inbox placement.

  1. Get accused of phishingGoing phishing (scamming) without even realising is easier than you might think. Inbox filters look for URLS in your content, i.e. words that start with http:// and/or www. And they will then try and make them clickable because they are probably a link. If the text is already a link, the filter will compare the link destination with the text. If they are not the same, your email be accused of phishing and often get sent to the junk folder.

You may have seen a pattern in my offered solutions here, but just to remove any ambiguity, the moral of the story is to test, test, test, refine & repeat.

Additional Resources and links from this guide:

Have you gone Phishing without realising?

Why do big image emails get through?



Top 5 ways ISPs measure your reputation

Reputation is how many of the ISPs (Internet Service Providers) decide how many and quickly one sender can send to each ISP per hour, per day etc. The lesser the reputation the less emails you can send. If you exceed the allowed volume speed ISPs can start ‘deferring’ your emails. This is a kind of soft bounce, with the intention that the sender resend later when there is less traffic. Unfortunately ISPs will never tell you what your allowance is, but the allowance is also dynamic based on your reputation and how much traffic the ISP is getting at the time too.

Here are five main variables that ISPs use to identify a sender, many using more than one or all in unison.  By familiarising yourself with these variables you can be more savvy when building and sending your email marketing campaigns.

  1. IP addressThis is the unique address of the box that is physically (or virtually) sending your emails. This is the oldest way that ISPs and spam protection agencies have blocked real spammers. The IP address is currently the most common and popular way to measure reputation of senders.
  2. DomainAs well as having various domain block lists, that look at the domain in your emails, domains in your links and image paths, some ISPs also assign a reputation to the domain to help them identify brands.
    For example: URIBL hosts a list which can assign a grey of a blocklisting to a domain in emails that are very frequently marked as spam in a short period of time. Grey means that the permission is not always double-optin.
    Microsoft have recently announced behavioural metrics by recipients to help decide on a senders reputation. The specifics are covered in more detail inn the next section of this guide.

    Whilst not used fully for reputation yet, it is expected that Domain Keys and DKIM will be used for domain reputation monitoring in the future. Don’t panic – your email marketing service provider should be able to look after that all for you!

    The current ways that IP address names are structured will cause the internet to run out of them. A new way will be introduced but this will negate the effects of IP reputation and a lot of measurement will move over to domain reputation.

  3. Address PrefixThis is the bit to the left of the @ sign in your address (often known as the ‘from name’ or the ‘friendly from.’)

    ISPs who use this measurement are mainly Yahoo (and BTinternet). The reputation can mean that certain words to the left of the @ sign have more trouble getting delivered than others depending on how other emails using the same from name have been reacted to for example? If your prefix is something that is commonly used by emails with high complaint rates, eg: ‘cheapoffers’ as an obvious yet unprovable suggestion, it may take longer for your inbox placement to achieve it’s full potential.

The prefix is often called ‘from name’  which is easily confused with the ‘friendly from name’ which many people call the ‘from name’.  This is mainly an and American / English difference.

This is really new and only exists to help Yahoo separate different types of email from one sender and also see patterns across multiple senders’ email channels.

Prefixes to avoid are addresses like ‘no-reply’ which is quite an alienating, one way prefix and is only really acceptable on transaction receipts or notifications from online software. Make your prefixes friendly, inviting, accurate and relevant.

  1.  From AddressThis is the full email address. This is normally used for one kind of campaign from one brand. While this can mean that your newsletters’ deliverability is less affected by your acquisition emails, it also means that one address can quickly get blocked – which is why IPSs measure on  it.

    This is also the address that is blocklisted by recipients’ own inboxes /email clients when they hit the spam button.

  2. IP Range 

    This is a far, far lesser than any other form of measurement but does have a tiny influence. IP addresses live in ranges, some high-end servers can assign a reputation to a range of IPs and use that when assigning a reputation to a single IP. Just to reiterate, this is a very low level priority, essentially If other parts of the reputation are particularly poor this could be the nail in the coffin but would be the defining variable.



Top 5 ways to ruin your reputation and how to avoid this

In order to protect the deliverability of email that is consistently wanted and to avoid these getting over crowded by email that is not consistently or ever wanted, more and more ISPs have started using engagement to decide where an email will land in each of their recipients’ inboxes. Each measured reaction by the ISP will not only decide where your email will go for that recipient but will also affect the senders’ global reputation and subsequent deliverability at the ISP.

Here are my top five ways of damaging your reputation and what you should monitor and look to avoid.

  1. Getting marked as spamThe obvious one. People hitting the spam button are essentially complaining about the email, so of course it will do you an injury getting marked as this.

    The decision made by the recipient to hit that spam button is based on the recipient experience of that email and their existing rapport with your brand. If you have a good rapport and consistent engagement, you can get away with the rare, occasional poor experience. If you have little or no rapport, and their experience is poor, they might hit spam without even opening the email.

    Ways to avoid being marked as spam include:

    1. If you use personalisation the make sure you get there name right
    2. If your email is a cold email then it’s a cold email, don’t try and highlight a rapport which is simply not there
    3. Not being dishonest in the subject line or from name to get the open
    4. Make an email that is unreadable
    5. Assuming permission

All of which are covered in 5 Ways to get Junked by Recipients chapter of this Guide.

  1.  Hard bouncesMany people do not know about or believe this point:  Every time you send to a hard bounce it is a bad thing.

    The reason why sending to hard bounces is a bad thing is because spammers and list owners won’t suppress hard bounces so good marketers have to. ISPs expect that if people want your emails, they will give you the address they intend to keep for a long time. A sender which gets a lot of hard bounces consistently could not be sending to emails which people want if the addresses they have on their list, doesn’t exist.

    A good email marketing service provider will suppress any hard bounces, so each dead address will only hard bounce once but the list you send to should not contain many dead addresses if you have collected the addresses well.

    Hard bounces occur the most often from lists purchased from less than honest list brokers and very old lists. If you find an old list in your company and you want to try and email to it, be very careful and phone your email marketing service provider, they will help you stay out of any trouble you may encounter through hard bounces and spam traps.

  2.  Spam trapSpam traps are there to catch people who scrape addresses from the web and list brokers who don’t suppress bounces in order to maximise profits. The big ISPs regularly close down old accounts, they then let them hard bounce for a few months and then re-open as a spam trap. Hitting one spam trap is worse than a bounce or a spam complaint.

    Most ISPs will at least temporarily block you if you hit two in a day, some can block an entire hosting centre, which could get you kicked out of your email marketing service provider or web-host all together.

    It is a very good idea to protect yourself long term by keeping a record of the date of when you collected an address and preferably the date of their last interaction with you. This way, if you ever need to wake up an old list, you have enough information to help avoid hitting spam traps. It’s rarely a good idea to try to wake up any consumer addresses over 9 months old but if this is something you really want to do then make sure you contact your email marketing service provider before you do.

  3.  Email people who have previously marked you as spamEvery time a recipient marks your email as spam, the idea is that all future emails from that address should go to their junk folder because they have stated that they do not want them anymore. ISPs don’t like that because they have to process unwanted emails and so to deal with them they create feedback loops. Any decent email marketing service provider should be on all available feedback loops, subsequently someone marking emails as spam get sent back to the email marketing service provider who opts them out and saves your reputation.
  4. Send faster than your reputation will allowThe reputation that you as a sender is assigned by an ISP will decide how many and how quickly you can send emails to each ISP (mainly the big 4: Microsoft, Yahoo, Gmail & AOL) per hour, per day before they start getting ‘deferred’ (soft bounced) to be tried again later.

    The idea is that the ISPs want to prioritise and ensure delivery of the emails that are wanted. Over 80% of emails are spam but about 20% might not be, so they need a way of ensuring their systems can deliver the emails, prioritising the known good ones.

    Senders are allocated a volume and speed based on their reputation and once that threshold is hit the ISPs will defer the emails back to the sender as a soft bounce who will then keep retrying so that the email does get delivered, eventually.

  5. If you very rarely get complaints and hard bounces and people interact with your emails all of the time, you should never have to be concerned by this.  High volume senders who do get a few complaints should try sending in smaller chunks over a few days, rather than the popular weekly or monthly giant send at full speed. If your email marketing service provider allows it, try to control the speed of release too.It is vital that you focus your attentions on your recipients’ experience of your emails and their rapport with your brand, then work as hard as you can to ensure your recipients are not inclined to hit the spam button.

Top 5 ways to improve your reputation

In order to protect the deliverability of email that is consistently wanted and to avoid these getting cluttered and over crowded by email that is never wanted, more and more ISPs have started using engagement to decide where an email will land in each of their recipients’ inboxes. Each measured reaction by the ISP will not only decide where your email will go for that recipient but will also affect the sender’s global reputation and subsequently deliverability at the ISP.

Here are my top five ways of maintaining and improving your reputation and what you should monitor and look to increase.

  1. 1.       Clicks 

    One of the most obvious actions of engagement. Someone clicking through from your email is an obvious sign of a positive action. Even the view in a browser link can help. Some marketers like to put a lot of links in their emails to maximise on the possibility, if you do this please ensure it does not over power the recipient. Email marketing newsletters tend to have quite a few links already. Popular options for primarily single call to action emails, like events, include:

  • Adding additional menu type link further down the email in the footer
  • Breaking the content into three parts (rows),
    • Quick convert: making it easy for people to open the email and click through;
    • Elaboration: just under the quick convert section add something like a bulleted list of benefits to help convince those who need a bit more to click through
    • The full blurb: a more details explanation of the benefits of converting
  1. 2.       Added to safe list 

    It’s popular to ask to be added to the safe list or address book in the preheader of an email. This will tell the hosting ISP that the sender is a contact with wanted content, so less filtering will be done on the email’s content and in some places the images can be automatically loaded. This is definitely a positive for a sender’s reputation.

  2. 3.       Replies 

    People replying to emails tend to signify that a conversation is taking place. ISPs and postmasters will always prioritise one to one emails between individuals, most of which will pay their wages, over an external senders’ bulk email. Replies will happen all of the time between them so they are definitely good for you. Gmail was trialling automatically loading all images from sender who the recipient has replied to twice and I have not read anything to say that they have turned it off.

  3. Opens over time 

    The thinking behind this is comparing how many emails have been opened over time in comparison to how many have been sent. With the idea being that senders with a high number getting a better reputation. Recently some ISPs have stated with that this method was more trouble than it is worth and have given up.

  4. Marked as not junk 

    People moving emails from the junk folder into their inbox is the biggest gesture that recipients can make to improve reputation for a sender. Normally if the message has gone to junk, the reputation is pretty bad already. However, this is not the end of the World, your sign-up process should include information on who the double-optin/welcome email will be coming from and even the subject line. This way the momentum from the engagement of opt-in should provide enough motivation for a new sign-up to go and look in their junk folder if you are not placed into the inbox straight away. At the same time ask to be added to the safe-list so it does not happen again. This information can be in the sign-up landing page, the double-optin/welcome email and the landing page from the double opt-in conversion link click.