When it comes to email marketing, what do you think are the biggest challenges marketers face?
Some would say audience engagement, while others might say growing the subscriber base. Yet, a lot of marketers gloss over a key performance indicator—email deliverability. It’s the overall ability of your emails to land in the audience’s inbox, instead of the promotions tab or worse, the spam folder.
Email deliverability focuses on the sender’s reputation and authenticity to determine the placement of the emails. But, here’s the shocker—only 84.2% of emails reached inboxes as of April 2022. For every 100 emails marketers sent, almost 16 didn’t reach the audience at all.
In an increasingly crowded inbox of 2022, being visible is the first step. You can’t measure your open rate, conversion rate, click-through rate, or any other metric when there’s no email for readers to engage with.
If you’re struggling with email deliverability of late, this is for you. We’ll go over 11 best practices that will help you land your emails in the folder you want, consistently.
1. Set up your DKIM, DMARC, and SPF before sending emails
First, the technical due diligence. Authentication plays a big part in email deliverability and email service providers won’t allow your email to go through if they’re not convinced of the email’s credibility. To properly authenticate your emails, set up protocols such as SPF, DKIM, and DMARC.
Sender Policy Framework (SPF) checks the servers approved by a domain to send emails and verifies that an approved server has indeed sent the email on the behalf of the domain.
ESPs analyze the SPF record in the domain name system (DNS) to block servers that pretend to send emails from your domain. If you don’t have an SPF record set up, an ESP might not allow your emails to go through.
To set up SPF, collect all the IP addresses and mail servers you want to send the emails from. Now define your SPF. Start with v=spf1 (version 1), “include” third parties and all the IP addresses. Conclude with either -all tag for hard SPF fail or ~all tag for soft SPF fail. Once you’re done, publish the SPF record to DNS and test it.
Here’s what Shopify’s SPF record looks like:
Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM) validates the ownership of the email while it’s in transit. Here’s how it works: a DKIM signature header is assigned to an email, encrypted by DKIM keys. If the recipient server can verify the private DKIM key with the public DKIM key available in the DNS, then it’ll allow the email to go through.
To set up DKIM, first list down all the sending domains. Next, install a DKIM package compatible with your email server and create public and private DKIM keys with a free DKIM wizard. Publish the public DKIM keys in DNS TXT and save the private key. Now configure your email server and test DKIM records. And you’re all set!
Neither SPF nor DKIM alone is good enough to verify email authenticity. Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) is a security protocol that combines both features and uses DNS records to verify emails.
To set up DMARC, use the Global Cyber Alliance’s DMARC set-up tool to check your domain. Follow the on-screen steps to get your DMARC TXT record. Now log into the DNS dashboard of your domain and add “_dmarc” in the host box and add the record in the TXT value box. Now save and validate your DMARC record.
Here’s what Shopify’s DMARC looks like:
Since all of these protocols use accessible DNS records, all the major email service providers can authenticate your emails. However, these protocols are so fundamental to email marketing that a lot of companies ignore them while setting up their campaigns. If you’re struggling to deliver emails, make sure you have all the security protocols set up. Google Workspace has a detailed guide on the setups and you can use deliverability tools such as MXToolbox or MailTester.
2. Warm up your email address
You have set up a shiny new email address and built a strong email list. The only step left now is to blast cold emails to everyone, right? Except—that’s how spammers work. Authentication alone won’t improve email deliverability if you have a poor sender reputation.
ESPs treat new email addresses with suspicion in order to protect the recipients. You have to assume the responsibility of building a reputation over time, especially if your email address is hosted on a new domain. Warm up your email address by starting with a consistent volume of emails and slowly increasing the volume over the weeks. Generally, it takes around 2 months to establish a sending pattern, which the ESPs use to determine your reputation.
Apart from building a sending history, you can subscribe to a few email newsletters and use the new email address to continue conversations in pre-existing email threads to speed up the process.
3. Make sure to periodically clean your email lists
People often change their companies or job titles and forget to update their emails. They also open new accounts all the time and stop checking old inboxes. If you are emailing addresses that don’t exist anymore, you’re harming your domain reputation.
One way to stop sending emails to invalid addresses is by using an email verifying tool. You can individually verify each address or run bulk verifications to see how many addresses in your list are able to receive your emails. This way, you not only keep your email list clean and fresh but also save your domain reputation. Here’s how it looks with Hunter’s email verifier:
4. Add a clear unsubscribe option
Allowing subscribers to leave your email campaign may sound counterproductive, but the unsubscribe link is actually your friend. Here’s why adding the unsubscribe button is important: if a subscriber doesn’t want to receive your emails, you can’t make them keep reading your weekly newsletters. If they don’t see the option to opt out of your campaign, they will end up marking you as spam. More spam complaints mean a poorer sender reputation. And poorer sender reputation means—you guessed it right—poor email deliverability in the future.
The unsubscribe button allows you to focus on what’s more important in email marketing—having a better email list than a bigger one. On top of that, it also saves you from legal troubles. GDPR and CASL mandate an easy opt-out process, the lack of which can draw millions of fines to companies. Sketch, a design studio, includes a distinct unsubscribe option along with their contact details in the footer of their emails:
5. Avoid spam words in your email copy
It’s almost a given at this stage, but you’d be surprised to see how many email marketers still fail to avoid spam words in their emails. ESPs have grown smarter and stricter in detecting spam words and, even if you don’t intend to, you might trigger spam filters just by mentioning specific words.
Generally, spammers use words that fall under three main categories: needy or emotionally manipulative, completely irrelevant, and sensational or clickbaity.
Words like “act now”, “please read”, “guaranteed”, “win big”, “free”, “credit card”, and variations of currency symbols without proper contexts can trigger the spam filters.
It’s crucial to contextualize phrases in email copy and personalize each email to show that you have put effort to come across as a genuine sender. If you want to stay away from words that can single-handedly drive your email deliverability to the ground, HubSpot has a comprehensive list of spam triggers you can check out.
Here’s an example of spam email everyone should stay away from:
6. Use short yet personalized subject lines and openers
The subject line is the first thing the recipient notices, along with the sender’s address. It’s one of the biggest factors behind the success of email campaigns. How big? 47% of recipients decide to open emails based on the subject line alone. A strong subject line means more opens, more opens lead to better engagement, and engagement leads to improved email deliverability.
When it comes to subject lines, here are some best practices you must follow:
- Use a short subject line. Keep it between 3-8 words or under 60 characters to see optimum results.
- Make your subject line precise and relevant. Talk about the central pain point your email is trying to solve and demonstrate the value right in the beginning.
- Personalize each subject line. Context is everything in emails so you should use lines that invoke curiosity, but don’t forget to experiment with word combinations and emojis to stand out.
- Avoid exaggerations. Clickbaity subject lines that fly under the radar of spam police may get you a few extra opens, but the recipients will eventually mark you as spam for being misleading.
Good subject lines look like this:
- Dan, how do you segment customers? (Personalised cold email)
- Checking in, still interested in that demo? (Follow-up email)
- Put [product] in front of 230k+ readers (Value loaded cold email)
Subject lines that will take you to the spam folder:
- Free credit card—apply now! (Wrong type of urgency)
- Enable your dream with [product] (Irrelevant and vague)
- 50% off if you open it right away (A bad incentive to open an email)
7. Track & manage email bounces
Email deliverability is a comprehensive metric that considers a lot of signals, including bounce rate. Hard bounces are permanent failures that occur when the recipient address is invalid or the ESP marks you as a spammer. Soft bounces are temporary glitches such as email timeouts, a full inbox, or emails larger than usual. If your emails are bouncing frequently, the deliverability and performance of your campaign will suffer.
To keep your email bounce rate below 2%, track the repeated offenders and remove the hard bounced addresses from your list. Maintain a regular email schedule and A/B test emails to see what works best. If left unmonitored, bounce rate issues can creep up quickly, pulling down your campaign’s KPIs.
8. Avoid sending emails from personal email addresses
Just like the subject line, the sender’s address is a dead giveaway for email recipients and spam filters. If you’re using a personal email address for business communication, you’re going to struggle with email deliverability.
For instance, if you’re working at Netflix, you should send your emails from @netflix.com. A customer would be much more inclined to open a billing issue-related email from an official Netflix address than an email coming from [email protected]. The more trustworthy and credible you appear to both the system and the recipient, the better your email deliverability will be.
9. Implement double opt-in
Having a double opt-in doesn’t help your deliverability directly, but in the long run, it does play an important role. A double opt-in adds an extra layer to verify the addresses that are signing up for your emails. Extra steps mean extra efforts, which helps you filter out the low-quality spammers from your list.
The confirmation email can also act as a soft welcome email that helps you start things on the right note. Apart from being one of the best practices to avoid hard bounces, double opt-ins are mandated by GDPR and CASL. As a result, you don’t only stay compliant but also end up with a highly engaging email list, which improves email deliverability. Here’s a great example of a double opt-in email done right:
10. Write a personalized email copy
Email personalization is the beating heart of successful email campaigns, strong ROI, and improved deliverability. To write a personalized email copy, start by researching your recipients:
- What are they struggling with?
- What do they want to achieve?
- Where does your offer fit into their lives or systems?
Note down all the objections, triggers, and prospective solutions before writing an email.
Start your email body with a relevant anecdote to hook their attention and explain where you’re coming from. Nurture the challenges and solutions to finally position your product or service.
Create an email copy that speaks about them, their issues, aspirations, and roadblocks. The less it’s about you, the better. You also must segment your email list to target users more precisely.
The entire email copy should have an emotional cadence, lots of white spaces, simple paragraphs, and if it’s a cold email, a short body. Your email must always have one relevant goal, which should be integrated within a single call to action.
Too many asks, and you’re discouraging the reader to take affirmative action. The more personalized your copy is, the better it is for engagement and deliverability.
Here’s a great example of Applebee’s personalized emails for the consumers:
11. Avoid URL shorteners, attachments & excessive images
Emails with heavy visuals can lead to soft bounces. More images require more time to load and—considering mailboxes have storage limits—it’s counterintuitive to your campaign.
A lot of ESPs deactivate image loading by default as well, which can completely break image-based emails. If you scroll back up, you can see how image-based spam emails look broken when autoloading is turned off.
Emails that include URL shorteners and attachments can also trigger spam filters. URL shorteners are often (mis)used by spammers to hide shady links, and unverified attachments are scams as old as time. Avoid all these risky elements if you can.
Focus more on text emails and spice up the email body with occasional images. Embed only relevant links and avoid including attachments altogether if possible.
Land in that inbox
Since email deliverability considers almost all email marketing factors, it’s a good practice to make deliverability one of your top priorities. By following the 11 steps we’ve mentioned above, you’ll be able to improve the overall performance of your emails.
Antonio Gabric is an outreach manager at Hunter. He is passionate about testing different outreach tactics and sharing results with the community. When he is not connecting with industry leaders you can find him on his motorbike exploring off-the-beaten paths around the world.