Email Deliverability

We grazed the subject of email deliverability when we talked about unsubscribers in a previous post. While we try not to smother our clients with details about what we do, it is helpful when clients understand a bit about why we do things in certain ways rather than leaving them in the dark and having to simply trust that we know what we’re doing. One of the really big factors guiding how we create marketing emails is deliverability: making sure your marketing emails get to your prospects.

Guardians of the gate

My first experience with the internet, before the days of the World Wide Web, was a mixture of remarkable access to forward-thinking people on bulletin boards and, of course, spam. Spam, everywhere, spam.

You may think there are only two places an email can go:

  1. Your inbox
  2. Your spam folder

Before an email gets to your computer to be sorted into either of those places, though, it must pass by a few rounds of gatekeepers which have developed over time to improve our chances of actually seeing the messages we want and need among the junk. For instance, your Internet Service Provider is probably doing a bit of work, weeding out the worst offenders. If you’ve got a company account with an organization of any notable size, there’s a good chance your email is filtered through another third-party organization which tracks the inbox nasties wherever they go and keeps them from reaching you (or overwhelming your servers).

My point is, there are several rounds of gatekeepers your marketing email must pass in order to reach a prospect. From the agency perspective, we have to ensure that you don’t just have a missive you like, but one which will make it through.

Maintaining an image

Looking slick is important. The slickest thing, from a design perspective, would be to make your whole email one big image, leaving us free to play with text as we see fit. Changing layout, integrating copy with images; there’s no end to the fun we could have.

The only catch would be getting your slick email to reach its destination. For a human like myself and, presumably, you, these emails would look great. To a spam filter, a single image is a huge problem. There could be anything in that image, and there’s a good chance that one of the aforementioned gatekeepers will assume it’s spam.

An email with too many images is also a red flag for filtering systems. Don’t even get me started on emails with attachments.

The best chance of getting through is an email which only contains text. The problem with that, of course, is it makes almost no impression. We’re stuck treading the fine line of scannable text and visual elements that will pass the smell test for filters and be eye-catching for humans.


Good copy is tough by any measure. To add a little extra kick, we try to make sure that nothing we write is going to get your email banished to purgatory. Many of the bad words are fairly obvious. You should already be loath to send out anything that leads with “50% off”, “free” or “work from home earning $2500 a month”. But beyond the obvious, words, there are a slew of lesser offenders that are dependent on context (because AI is getting better at grammar than humans are).

The thing I find interesting is, the copy that makes you suspicious to filtering systems, also kind of sounds dodgy when a human reads it.

Honeypots, spam traps & bounces, oh my!

Just like in business, a lot rides on your reputation. If you continually break rules, that info will flow from one blacklist to another. It may sound paranoid to suggest “they’re watching” but it’s true.

Many of the third-party filtering organizations I talked about earlier will create what is called a honeypot. This is an email address which is attached to no-one. Nobody sends from it, nobody reads it. What’s the point? If there’s no traffic, you won’t see it, right? True, but bots which scour the internet see it. They’re looking for addresses to collect into lists, which they can then sell to spammers. Should you email to one of these honeypot addresses, you will be marked as spam by the organization that set the honeypot and be blacklisted from any companies they service.

Pure spam traps are very much like a honeypot. Recycled email addresses which had been left dormant are often used, in this case. Those are much more problematic. If an employee has been offboarded, their inactive email address could be turned into a spam trap. However, they might have actually signed up for emails at some point. This speaks to the importance of keeping email lists fresh and not continuously trying to engage people who are just not into you. Stay safe, remove inactive addresses.

Finally, keep it real. We’ve all put a fake email into a form at some point. No? Just me? Ahem, well, it’s my job to do that when I’m testing forms. These fake emails should bounce right back to you as undeliverable. Make sure you clean the undeliverable addresses out of your list. Every gatekeeper your email passes on the way in is looking at that email on its way back out after a bounce.

In conclusion, no conclusion

It would be nice if I just gave you a list of everything you had to do to ensure perfect email deliverability, wouldn’t it?

It would be nice if I had one.

If such a list existed, it would be very useful for you and I. It would also be very useful for spammers, thus negating that list. The obscurity around the rules of spam are deliberate, which is how they’re effective. What we’re left with is a living, evolving set of behaviours, where we strive to improve deliverability, stay on top of new threats and adjust for new players in the filter game.

It’s a full-time job and it won’t ever end, but it’s how we make sure you reach your target.

The intricacies of shifting requirements are our wheelhouse. Contact us.

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