A Beginner’s Guide to Great Deliverability

A couple years ago, I was chatting with a friend who was telling me about working at SparkPost. He asked me if I thought it would be a challenge to communicate about email and how it works. I have to confess, my first reaction was, “how hard can it be?” After all, I was a technically literate person who had a lot of enterprise tech marketing under my belt. I knew something about the basic standards involved with email transmission. I even had some hands-on knowledge of administering small-scale mail servers.

Suffice to say, it didn’t take me long to realize just how much I didn’t know! In particular, the challenge of ensuring email deliverability for large-scale senders was a real eye-opener.

If you’re at all like me, this story might feel familiar. And it’s why SparkPost’s deliverability team has put together 10 Steps to Great Email Deliverability. This deliverability for beginners guide is aimed at helping new senders get over the hurdle of “where do I begin?”

One thing I really like about this guide is that it’s very practical. It’s focused on 10 best practices and key configuration steps that will help any new sender get off on the right foot, including the best way to configure sending and bounce domains, how to warm up a new IP address, why email authentication affects email deliverability—and the all-important impact of subscriber permission and engagement.

Additional Deliverability for Beginners Resources

By the way, once you’ve had a chance to work through these 10 starting steps, you might want to check out some additional resources that will help you continue to develop great email deliverability.

  • In Email Best Practices 101, SparkPost’s head of deliverability, Kate Nowrouzi, builds on these starting tips with a curriculum that will help you to increase the ROI of your email operations with 15 proven tactics for boosting email deliverability.
  • And if you’re a developer new to building email into your apps, you might especially appreciate our Developer’s Survival Guide to Email. It’s a light-hearted read highlighting the quirks and idiosyncrasies that turn out to be “gotchas” for many developers.
  • Anyone can send email, but let’s not forget the key players on the other side of the equation who actually deliver it—ISP inbox providers. They sometimes earn a reputation as demanding deliverability gatekeepers, but their rationale really isn’t a mystery. Their job is to ensure that their customers (and ours!) have a great experience with email. It’s well worth getting the perspective they share in the 9 Things ISPs Really Want Email Senders to Know.
  • And finally? You’re looking at it. 🙂 SparkPost’s team consistently shares great blog posts about using Google’s postmaster tools to troubleshooting blacklisted IP addresses to the surprisingly complicated question of how to measure email deliverability. Dig into our Deliverability category for a wealth of information for newbies and experts alike.

If you’re a new sender, what kinds of challenges did you face ramping up your programs? And if you’re a pro, what do you wish you’d known when you got started in this business? Sometimes the best lessons are the ones you learn the hard way. Let us know in the comments below, or reach out on Twitter.


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email deliverability best practicesGmail uses many different references to determine inbox placement as well as delivery of your messages. Below are the top 10 email deliverability best practices you should follow when sending to Gmail as well as five bonus best practices regarding the Promotions vs. the Primary Inbox Tabs.

  • Opt-in. Gmail strongly suggests double opt-in or confirmed opt-in when possible. However, single opt-in is a must. SparkPost policy prohibits sending unsolicited messages.
  • Engagement. The most important thing to remember is to send messages to subscribers that are engaged with your brand. They are opening, reading, clicking and interacting with your brand. Interacting may mean purchasing or even getting involved with the discussion depending on your business model.
  • Overall list hygiene. Do not continue to send to email addresses that no longer exist or hard bounce (SparkPost suppresses hard bounces). Do not continue to send to subscribers that have not opened or clicked in a reasonable time. This length of time really depends on your business model. If you send daily or several times a week you should not continue to send to subscribers that have not opened or clicked in 6 months to a year with the same cadence as subscribers who have.
  • Monitor blacklistings. Gmail does use 3rd party blacklists (which ones are unknown) to determine inbox placement.
  • Avoid URL shorteners. Gmail will block most of them if used in bulk mailings, especially Bit.ly.
  • Use the unsubscribe header. Make it easy for subscribers to unsubscribe from your message! Spam complaints are not shared back to you through feedback loops like other ISPs. Therefore it is crucial that your subscribers unsubscribe rather than reporting as spam. SparkPost deploys the list-unsubscribe header and suppresses unsubscribes.
  • Avoid affiliate marketing. Gmail states you should avoid affiliate marketing as a tactic. It is also against SparkPost policy to send affiliate marketing through our system.
  • Authenticate. Authenticate with both SPF and DKIM.
  • Subdomains. Use different subdomains that well define your different email streams. (Example: newsletter.example.com; deals.example.com; confirmation.example.com) Be consistent. Don’t add too many as you want to be able to develop a reputation for each subdomain.
  • Warm up Domains just like you do IPs. If you add a new domain or subdomain do a traditional warm up to avoid bulking or blocks.
  • Gmail Warm up Volumes. Week 1 send 20,000 and double week over week.
  • Engagement. Send to your most engaged subscribers 1st then add lesser-engaged subscribers as your lists grows week over week.

Promotions vs Primary Inbox Tabs

  • Per-user filtering. Remember that just because some subscriber messages may be in the promotions tab does not mean that all subscriber messages are in the promotions tab. Filtering is done on the individual subscriber level not bulk sender level.
  • HTML to Text Balance. Keep the balance of HTML to Text similar.
  • Encourage Interaction. Subscriber awareness is important. Train your subscribers to expect the message and move the message into the Primary inbox. The messages should start going to the Primary inbox after a few moves.
  • Don’t send a promotion. When the above fails and you need a message to get into the inbox design your message to NOT look like a promotion.
    • Personalize your messages. Include the reader’s first name in your message to Gmail subscribers.
    • Lose the images. Gmail sees images as a sign of a promotion or spam message. You will in crease your readership by not having pictures.
    • Letter format. Design the Gmail template to look more personal and natural like an email.
    • Limit call-to-actions. The best way to keep from looking like a promotion is to have 1 link and not multiple upsells or RSS Feeds. Keep it short and simple!
  • Appreciate the promotions tab. When it comes down to it, if a subscriber wants your message in the primary tab they can move it there and will receive it there going forward. However, Gmail’s tabs are not new and subscribers know how they work and often go to the tab for promotions they are interested in.

Gmail rules look to be a little more relaxed once the introduction of the different folders. It is not like the scary wasteland of lost messages called the SPAM folder. If you have an interesting subject line and a brand that your subscribers want to engage with, the promotions tab will still get you opens and clicks.

Looking for best practices on Yahoo! mail? Then you might like this post.

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