Future of deliverability: 1. The role of user interaction

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delivered emailThe growing number of specialist deliverability services and consultants is no coincidence. Email deliverability is a tough topic to stay on top of.

Those managing incoming email (ISPs, webmail services, software manufacturers etc.) are constantly modifying how they sort those messages so that bad email is kept out of each user’s inbox.

That’s a good thing. But what makes a “good” email? Just where is deliverability heading? What do marketers need to plan for?

Four deliverability experts kindly shared their understanding with me for a series of posts covering the biggest trends in deliverability and what they mean for marketers.

This first part looks at the role of user interaction (engagement).

[If you're not familiar with the basic terminology in deliverability, don't worry: here's a simple glossary.]

User interaction and reputation

We know that ISPs and others are using sender reputation to help determine whether an email deserves delivery to, for example, the inbox or the “junk” folder.

Various factors get taken into account when building a reputation for a particular sender (usually defined as a source IP address) and one focus is the number of spam complaints received.

A spam complaint is the classic example of an engagement metric or user interaction contributing to sender reputation.

By clicking on a “report this as spam” button, the user is making a statement about the perceived value of the sender’s emails. These statements then flow into the calculation of reputation.

But spam reports are not the only example.

Increasingly, the likes of Yahoo! Mail and others are looking at all sorts of positive and negative user interactions to build up their overall picture of your sender reputation.


George Bilbrey (President) and Tom Sather (Professional Services Director) of Return Path offer three examples that one or more top ISPs are already using:

  • Do users open messages from the IP/domain?
  • Do users click on links coming from the IP/domain?
  • Do users mark wanted email that appears in the spam folder as “not spam”?

They add:

“Another technique to measure engagement is to create a large panel of trusted users…The users are given a sample of their messages and asked to vote each as spam or not spam. This technique is most notably used by Microsoft.”

Bilbrey and Sather note that the “this is not spam” metric has been in use for over three years:

“It’s the primary way that many ISPs get a feel for whether they are making a mistake in placing a message in a junk/bulk folder. Most of the large ISPs that have built their own reputation systems are looking at this.”

Will this approach see wider application?

So, is this engagement approach to email filtering likely to spread?

Yes, says Jeremy Saibil, Director of Deliverability at Campaigner. He continues:

“In fact, it already has been happening on a broad basis…ISPs have and will always leverage this type of information to help serve their clients better.

Deirdre Baird, President & CEO of Pivotal Veracity adds:

“…top ISPs that often account for 50% to 75% of B2C marketers’ lists such as Yahoo, AOL and Hotmail are measuring engagement (clicks, forwards) and disengagement (persistent ignoring) in overall and individual-level folder placement decisions.” (my emphasis)

But what about smaller or regional ISPs without the resources of a Microsoft? Are they applying engagement metrics, too?

Chris Wheeler, Director of Deliverability at Bronto says once the big players prove the usefulness of the approach, others will follow:

“Just as in the past with Feedback Loops and authentication, a wait and see approach by the smaller ISPs is usually the way programs become more widespread.”

Bilbrey and Sather agree:

“Smaller ISPs don’t really have the power to do it right now. But even some second-tier ISPs are starting to experiment with less sophisticated versions. So we expect to see a lot more of this in the coming years.”

Should you worry?

The growing importance of engagement metrics in determining your delivery success makes you even more accountable to your subscribers. Wheeler tells us:

“The interesting thing here is that senders, once again like with the TiS (This is Spam) button, will be at the mercy of their recipients. If marketers send email that is received well and opened and/or clicked on, their good deliverability will reflect this.”

He continues:

“It really puts the onus on the creative and marketing strategy to capture recipient engagement. If you send email out that doesn’t generate complaints, that has been sufficient up to this point. Moving forward, you’ll have to actually drive your recipients to action as well.”

But surely any half-decent email list should easily meet the engagement criteria that might be used by ISPs? Not so, say our experts.

Baird warns:

“Although marketers may make all the necessary technical configurations to their outbound mail stream, mailing practices such as over-mailing may cause list fatigue that will lead to an erosion of engagement and ultimately cause messages to be placed in the spam folder…”

And Bilbrey and Sather note:

“Too many marketers are still satisfied with relatively low response rates. If they have a big enough list they can make the math work even at very low click rates. But that is now starting to have a deliverability penalty.”

…and they cite the example of a top online insurance company:

“They aren’t scraping email addresses off bathroom stalls. The frequency is fine. They are even doing lifecycle segmentation to get the right messages to the right recipients. All way more than many marketers do, frankly. But they are struggling to get to the inbox at AOL and Yahoo! because of their engagement metrics.” (my emphasis)

Ultimately, it’s down to the quality of your email marketing and actively managing those engagement metrics. Saibil says:

“I’d expect that anyone running a decent email marketing program would be very well versed in these metrics. Most likely they are already proactively adjusting their programs should positive interaction metrics drop off.”

And he has a tip for us:

“…one of the most important deliverability tips I preach is ensuring you have consistent visibility of your own campaign stats, ensuring you have a baseline for measuring both positive and negative engagement metrics.”

It’s not all or nothing

Baird also warns that the use of engagement in sender reputation gives ISPs the information they need to direct emails on a recipient-by-recipient basis:

“In the past, if you had a good reputation based on low spam complaints, good list hygiene, and a few other metrics, you could count on inbox delivery. Now, you can have all those things in place, and may have a high delivery rate, but a portion of your list – the disengaged customers – will not be receiving your mail in their inboxes like everyone else is.”

“The most important thing to keep in mind here is that even if a marketer has a great email program, stellar reputation and “will pass”, the individual’s explicit and implicit preferences will still take precedence over which folder your mail is routed to.” (my emphasis)

There’s a positive flip side to that of course, as Baird explains:

“…if a lot of your mail is being sent to the spam folder, an individual’s positive engagement with your messages will override your reputation elsewhere and ensure your messages are routed to that individual’s inbox.”

The key takeaway is this:

Acceptable response rates in the past (from a profit perspective) may not be sufficient in the future: engagement becomes a goal in its own right, thanks to its impact on customer behavior and deliverability.

Part 2: The role of authentication

Still to come: domain-based reputation, reputation and B2B lists, certification, and great links for further reading. Stay tuned…

Find related articles:

Permalink | October 16th, 2009 | 12 Comments »
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12 comments on “Future of deliverability: 1. The role of user interaction”

  1. KeepersAcc says:

    Great blog, really informative. I also have a blog that is based on email marketing and social networking. Link is http://www.keepersacc.wordpress.com Please have a look

  2. Consumer Mailing Lists says:

    Wow, very informative article, thanks for sharing. I have bookmarked your blog because I know I will be using it in the future, thanks,

  3. lentraide says:

    This is great and very useful information! Thanks, waiting for parts 2, 3, 4…

  4. Mark Brownlow says:

    Thanks all: parts 2 and 3 coming this week…

  5. WhitelistNow says:

    Hi Mark,

    Informative post. Towards the end, you quote:

    "… the individual's explicit and implicit preferences will still take precedence over which folder your mail is routed to."

    Does this include being added to the recipient's address book or contacts?

    Looking forward to the next part in this series.

  6. Mark Brownlow says:

    My understanding is that, for example, adding senders to a safe sender list or marking their email as "not spam" increasingly overrides the "default" folder placement for an email. So if a mail is typically sent to the junk folder, it goes instead to the inbox of those recipients who have interacted positively with that sender's email in the past (the definition of that interaction depends on the service in question).

  7. Vince says:

    Hi Mark,
    Great blog, thanks for this information.
    Do you know if ISPs have released any ball-park figures of what they will see as acceptable open / click rates? I don't mean anything too specific, but are we talking about aiming for a 90%/25% open/click rate respectively, or 10%/0.1%?
    I doubt they'll be releasing specifics, but if we know where the goalposts are moving towards that would be a start.
    Looking forward to the rest of the series

  8. Mark Brownlow says:

    Hi Vince (and thanks for the Tweet!). I'm not aware of any specific figures. I don't expect them to release any. Or necessarily have any: my understanding is that in terms of overall delivery impacts, specific engagement metrics are one factor in many, so the "required" levels of engagement will presumebly vary according to how well you do on other factors.

    In terms of individual recipients, I'm unfortunately not privy to the info. But if I was Yahoo, I'd begin generating my own benchmarks and then junk email to recipients whose interaction with that sender's email is X% beow average.

    I'm also not sure how well developed the engagement approach already is as we speak.

    Maybe some experts will jump in and enlighten us / correct me?

  9. Rene says:

    just wanna say thank you for gathering and sharing all the info – great series!

  10. Mark Brownlow says:

    Thanks Rene – regular reader of your blog BTW. Keep up the good stuff.

  11. email marketing expert says:

    Another good BTW post. Sure gonna read all the parts. Keep posting

    Sean Miller

  12. Jamie Peters says:

    Great post – thanks for sharing