The Fifth Age of Email Deliverability
The feedback mechanisms, controls, and algorithms that inbox providers use to decide whether to block, junk, or deliver email messages to their users continues to evolve. Since the 1990s, there have been five ages of email deliverability, each of which was ushered in by the arrival of a major change:
In the First Age of Email Deliverability, there were no rules and few if any consequences for bad behavior. Email users were more or less at the mercy of senders, some of whom scraped, bought, and sold email addresses and didn’t always honor unsubscribes.
In the Second Age of Email Deliverability, inbox providers armed their users with the “report spam” button, which allowed them to block future emails from offending senders. Moreover, senders who had complaint rates that were too high saw their emails junked or blocked across entire mailbox providers. As a consequence, senders bloated their lists with inactive subscribers who didn’t complain, but didn’t do anything else either.
In the Third Age of Email Deliverability, inbox providers expanded their filtering algorithms to go beyond the negative signals of spam complaints and include positive signals of engagement, such as opens, clicks, and foldering. Because of that change, now email subscribers not only have to tolerate marketers’ emails, but at least occasionally engage with them.
As a consequence, marketers can no longer bloat their email lists with inactive subscribers to lower their spam complaint rates. This algorithm change was the beginning of a focus on quality over quantity in regards to list management—although senders with bad reputations could still warm up a new IP address to start with a clean reputation again.
In the Fourth Age of Email Deliverability, inbox providers attached sender reputations not just to brands’ sending IP addresses, but also to their domains. Because of this change, it’s now impossible for a brand to run away from a bad sender reputation. Brands that get into deliverability trouble have no choice but to clean up their act.
More than ever, it’s now advantageous to actively monitor your inbox placement and watch out for the warning signs of potential deliverability problems ahead, so expensive and distracting problems can be avoided in the first place.
The Fifth Age of Email Deliverability
The age that we’re in now is characterized by lower visibility into engagement because of privacy features by inbox providers—chiefly, Apple. The importance of positive engagement, the innovation that ushered in the Third Age, hasn’t been diminished. However, because of Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection obscuring opens, which have been the primary signal of engagement, it has become significantly more difficult to determine which of your subscribers are actively engaged and therefore safe to mail.
Just as with past transitions, the transition into the Fifth Age requires email marketers to adapt their practices. While there are many potential adjustments, here are the four most important ones to make in order to continue to successfully manage your deliverability.
1. Use Two Paths to Qualify Subscribers
There are now two distinct paths for qualifying subscribers as safe to mail—one for your MPP users and one for non-MPP users. For the latter, the traditional practice of looking for opens and clicks over the past X months is still the best approach. However, for MPP users, brands will need to fill the gaping void caused by the loss of open signals. There are three ways to do this.
First, brands will need to lean on email clicks more extensively (more on that in a moment). The good news here is that, in working with our clients, we’ve found that a click is roughly twice as powerful as an open in qualifying a subscriber as safe to mail. So, if you could safely email your subscribers for 6 months after their last open, then you’d probably be able to email them up to 12 months after their last click.
Second, brands need to make fuller use of omnichannel behaviors to qualify an email address as safe to mail. Here at Oracle Marketing Consulting, we’ve found that purchases are particularly strong signals that can be used to qualify a subscriber. However, their activity on your website and in your app—as well as engagement with your SMS, mobile push, browser push, loyalty and other marketing channels—can also be qualifiers, although they’re much weaker ones.
Gaining that level of visibility into customer activity will require significant technological investments for many brands, with customer data platforms (CDPs) playing a key role.
And third, placing inactive MPP users into a special reengagement program. If you’re still seeing auto-generated opens from an otherwise inactive subscriber, it means your emails are still being delivered to their inbox and not to their spam folder (yet). While their inactivity is a risk, the fact that you’re still reaching their inbox is an opportunity.
You can seize that opportunity while acknowledging that risk by sending this segment only a small portion of your email campaigns—like one out of every four. By only sending them those campaigns that you anticipate being the most compelling and successful, you can maximize the chance of getting a click while minimizing the impact of these subscribers on your overall engagement rate. For instance, if you are a retailer, you’d send them your sale announcement email, but not the reminders or the “sale ends today” campaign.
Over time, you’ll learn how long you can afford to keep inactive MPP users in this reengagement program before they begin to hurt your deliverability and you’re forced to re-permission them or suppress them from future email campaigns.
2. Encourage More Clicks
With opens plunging in value, clicks have become more critical than ever. So, marketers need to encourage more clicks by:
- Creating stronger onboarding, including making greater use of welcome email series
- Using more non-promotional CTAs, including polls, educational content, and social content
- Pairing high-consideration CTAs (e.g., Book now) with low-consideration CTAs (e.g., Explore destination)
- Optimizing their calls-to-action by reviewing performance and A/B testing alternatives
- Focusing on above-the-fold real estate in your emails
- Exploring ways to gamify click activity, such as rewarding subscribers with a bigger discount if they’ve clicked in the past month
All of those are ways to get more clicks post-signup, but the signup process offers its own opportunity to get an early click…
3. Use DOI More Extensively
Many brands have shied away from using double opt-in (DOI), fearing it would slow their list growth. Today, it’s more valuable than ever to get a click at the very start of an email relationship. Having that click allows you to send to new subscribers with confidence, secure in the knowledge that this is a genuine person who’s genuinely interested in receiving your campaigns.
Brands should reconsider whether they should use DOI on more of their subscriber acquisition sources, especially for riskier sources, such as sweepstakes and co-registrations.
4. Do More Re-permissioning
Similarly, there’s also increased value from getting a click from a re-permission campaign, which are sent to chronically inactive subscribers with the goal of having them reaffirm their permission with a click. With opens obscured for many of your subscribers, you’re likely to find that you have considerably more subscribers who appear to be chronically inactive, but are actually opening at least occasionally.
For that reason, re-permission campaigns are likely to see increased click rates going forward, although they will still be very low. That said, it’s critical not to judge the success of re-permission campaigns by their re-permission rate. Instead, measure all of the value generated by the average subscriber after they re-permission. That’s all the value you would have lost had you not bothered with setting up a re-permission campaign.
In the Fifth Age of Email Deliverability, the challenge for marketers is to be more thoughtful and holistic in their management of their subscribers and more customer-centric in their overall approach to engagement. Those shifts won’t be easy, but they’re what’s necessary to avoid deliverability disaster in this new age.