Understanding the Return-Path

When an email doesn’t make it to its intended destination, the return path indicates where non-delivery receipts—or bounce messages—are to be sent.

The return path may also be referred to as bounce address, reverse path, envelope from, MAIL FROM (and quite a few more).

Isn’t the return path the same as the sender’s email address?

When you send an email to a handful of people, it makes sense that any bounce receipts are sent back to you, the sender. But when sending messages to a stadium-full, you don’t have that kind of time. Companies use the return path as a place to park the hundreds of bounce receipts that may come back from an email campaign sent to thousands. The receipts can then be sifted through, analyzed and corrected from this compartmentalized location.

What email address does the recipient see?

An email header includes both a sender address that is visible to the recipient, and a return path, which is not normally visible. While the visible sender address generates familiarity between your company and those you are trying to reach. The return path isn’t visible to the recipient but is instead recognized by the delivery processes running in the background.

Who comes up with the return path address?

Many senders will incorporate identifiers into the return path address to ease handling of reply and bounce traffic, referred to as Variable Envelope Return Path (VERP).

What about customized return paths and alignment?

Some companies do use headers containing a customized return path. And the reason for doing so has to do with email authentication processes—or how the recipient’s server determines which emails to let through and which ones to boot. DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance) is an email validation system created to detect and prevent spoofing (which is when the bad guys pretend to be the good guys so their spam emails get through). One of the many things the DMARC system does is to check for alignment between your sender name and your return-path name.

Does that mean that my messages won’t get through unless my sender/return path is aligned?

Not necessarily. Email authentication checks for a host of things and makes a decision based on the complete picture.

Does creating a custom return path help improve my chances of getting an email through?

Probably. Every server has a different way of interpreting the mail headers to establish authenticity, but the more consistent the signals contained in your messages are, the better.

Editing your email header to improve deliverability

As phishing and spoofing attacks increase and ISPs work to protect their own reputations, even reputable emails are subject to scrutiny. Although there are a whole host of things that play into your sending reputation, cleaning up your email header and customizing your return path is an easy fix to get your emails past the gates.

How does using SparkPost affect your Return-Path?

SparkPost allows companies to set a custom return path so they can begin building their reputation now. Not only do SparkPost’s developer friendly tools make it easy for you to set up and manage customized return path names, we have tools on top of that for marketers to better manage booted messages and improve the cleanliness (and therefore effectiveness) of their email lists.

 

More Essential Email Resources

Develop your email industry expertise and master best practices with SparkPost’s email resources.

Email Best Practices 101

This email boot camp will help you to increase the ROI of your email operations with 15 proven tactics for boosting email deliverability.

read more

The Big Rewards of Email Deliverability

Learn how third-party data shows the deliverability difference between SparkPost and also-ran cloud service providers yields hard, bottom-line benefits.

read more

Inside the Email Deliverability Lab

This practical course is a great way to get started understanding email deliverability and how to measure email performance.

read more