My favorite “secret” to share with marketers who are new to the world of email marketing is: Just because you’re sending emails, doesn’t mean your audience is getting your emails.  In the email world, we call this inbox placement, or deliverability.

As a marketer, the first thing you probably think of when it comes to getting an email delivered to the inbox is: Content.  Keeping spam-like words to a minimum, using a good balance of image to text, and keeping your image files reasonably sized are all great starts.  Next, you’re probably going to make sure you’re sending through a reputable ESP (Email Service Provider), with established sending IPs that have healthy sender scores.  You know that most ESPs will even make sure you have some authentication in place to boost your domain’s sending reputation.  But if you are like many of the marketers that I have worked with, you may overlooking, unaware of, or just plain avoiding one of the biggest keys to deliverability: List Hygiene. For many, the concept of a shrinking list seems like a step backward. But it’s not. Here’s why.

Deliverability experts like ReturnPath have tested the theory that removing old, inactive contacts from a list actually improves your inbox placement, and have proven that it’s true.  I’ve even tested and proved this theory with an emfluence Platform sender whose Yahoo! inbox placement was less than 5%.  Removing half of their Yahoo! subscribers (who hadn’t opened in over a year), got them to nearly 100% inbox placement within 2 more sends.

While inbox providers have recently promised that they don’t take subscriber engagement into account when deciding where to send your mail, we’ve seen that consistent engagement with each person on your email list can turn into better inbox placement. If an inbox like Gmail or Yahoo! thinks your audience isn’t interested in your emails, they may not deliver them. If you have a 10% open rate at Gmail, compared to the average 20-25% industry open rate, Gmail thinks that its users aren’t very interested in your content, and will send some of your emails to the junk folder.  Or worse, they can let your emails go completely missing, and never tell you. Inbox Providers’ first priority is the happiness of their users.  If they don’t think their users like your emails, they may choose not to deliver them!

Let’s say you send to a list of 10,000 addresses.  If 1,000 people open your email, you have a 10% open rate.  Gmail sees that 10%, and sends most of your emails to junk folders, preventing active/engaged subscribers from even seeing your email.  So – remove 5,000 addresses from the list who haven’t opened a single email from you in over 2 years.  Now – 1,000/5,000 = 20% open rate.  20% looks much better to Gmail than 10%, so they send your email to the inbox more often.

Inactives-Clean-UpWant to know if your current, active list is receiving your emails?

The first place to look is your Sent email reports.  Don’t just look at your opens and clicks, pay attention to the bounce rate and by-domain engagement rates.  If your bounce rate is over 3-4% consistently, and most of those bounces are soft bounces, some of your emails may be getting sent to the junk folder.  Unfortunately, most inboxes aren’t nice enough to report back a soft bounce, and instead they’ll let your emails go missing and not tell you.  So be sure to check your domain report, and look for any inboxes with dramatically lower engagement rates:

Domain Report

Notice how addresses have about half the open rate as other domains?  This is a red flag that some of our mail to Yahoo may be going missing.  If you spot a problem in your domain reporting, reach out to your emfluence account rep or Support for help.

See a problem domain? Send to the ReturnPath seed list.

ReturnPath offers a seed list of 500-600 addresses, which includes 20 addresses at every inbox out there.  When an email is sent to this list, the inboxes report Inbox, Junk, and Missing percentages back to the emfluence Marketing Platform team. These reports are sent to you by your account rep, and provide a breakdown of your inbox %, junk folder %, and % missing.  This is an excellent diagnostic tool to check on your inbox placement, and is free to emfluence Marketing Platform Users.

If the seed list confirms that there’s a deliverability problem, the next step is to clean up your list.  If you’ve never looked at the engagement history of your subscribers to find out how many are “inactive”, click here to see the steps on how to find this list in the emfluence Marketing Platform.

Cleaning out inactives can and should be done on a regular basis to prevent deliverability issues like those mentioned above! Doing this once a month, or even once a quarter, will save you from having to fix problems later!

If you’ve never seen the percent of unengaged contacts on your list before, remember to keep breathing when you see it!  The number is probably bigger than you expected: for may senders, it’s close to 40% or more.  Part of that are simply changes of email address.  Up to 25% of your email marketing list will go “bad” every year from subscribers abandoning overcrowded inboxes, people mistyping their address, or subscribers simply losing interest in your content.  It’s pretty likely that if they haven’t opened in over a year, they’re not going to.  You can give them one more chance to stay on your list with a re-engagement campaign!  But we typically only see a 1-2% re-engagement rate from that.

Lastly, keep your list as clean as possible from your first point of contact by setting up a welcome email.

Besides making a nice first impression on subscribers — and getting one of your highest open rates usually — an automated welcome email accomplishes two very important things:

  1. By telling sign-ups to check their inbox for your welcome email, they’re very likely to look for the email and open it. The open rate on your welcome email alone will give a good boost to your engagement numbers.  Bonus – remind them to check their junk folder, and to add you to their safe senders list if the email got accidentally flagged as spam.  Inboxes like Gmail give you credit every time someone clicks the “this isn’t spam” button on one of your messages.
  2. If someone mistyped their address, or a spambot filled out the sign-up form with a fake address, your welcome email will hard bounce, and that address will be cleaned out of your list before they ever make it to your active marketing lists.

That’s a lot of information, so here’s a quick breakdown.

The 3 basic things you should always do to keep a clean email list:

  • Once: Set up an automated welcome email – include verbiage on the sign-up form for subscriber to check their inbox for your email.
  • Every few sends: Check your bounce and domain reporting for inbox placement issues.
  • Monthly/Quarterly: Run a search for Inactives on your mailing list and remove them from your active lists.

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