The Email Hierarchy of Needs: Deliverability is the Foundation
If you're not getting the most out of your email messaging, you might not be asking the right questions.
I can't count how many times I've been asked, "What's the best day of the week to send email?" "What's the best time of day to send email?" "Which is the best email provider?" These questions are much less important than the big ones: "Is my email getting to my subscribers?" "Can subscribers read my emails on their mobile device?" "Do subscribers want to receive my email or are they hitting ‘spam’?"
Many times companies want to run before they walk. There are times when first to market or a beta version of a product is more important than getting it perfect the first time. However, if you take that approach with email messaging, you better make sure you have your fundamentals squared away first. What does it matter what time the email is sent if it gets sent to the "spam" folder anyway? It doesn't matter what email provider you use if you keep mailing outdated lists.
The foundation: Deliverability and inbox placement
In the end, none of your email messaging efforts are going to make any impact if the subscriber doesn't receive the email. The first barrier to overcome in email marketing is deliverability. Email services, ISPs that provide email services and the software on which subscribers view emails have an arsenal of anti-spam tactics they use to keep your email from getting to subscribers. In a world of spammers, phishers and corporate network admins trying to increase productivity by filtering distracting emails, the odds are stacked against you that your email message will be delivered to your subscribers. There are a number of factors that contribute to your deliverability and inbox placement, including the following:
This is the reason marketers use email service providers (ESPs) instead of sending emails via Outlook or Gmail. Brands also use ESPs instead of letting their developers with no email experience say, "we'll build it." Email delivery is complex.
The configuration of the mail transfer agent, the proper processing of bounces and unsubscribes, the feedback loops necessary to track and opt out spam complaints, and the proper throttle rates per domain takes a team. This is where the question "what is the best ESP" becomes interesting. All successful ESPs must have this piece down to a science. The first question I ask an emerging ESP is how many people are on its deliverability team. If the answer is "we all just pitch in" (that's a real answer I received once), then I stay away.
The single most important thing you have control of to optimize deliverability is good data practices. This means list hygiene and validation to eliminate malformed and undeliverable email addresses. It means opting out subscribers who ask to be unsubscribed. It means regularly mailing your entire list, having clean and transparent opt-in practices, and keeping your database clean and centralized to allow you to target subscribers based on their actions and preferences.
A terrible email message alone won't land your message in the spam folder, but it certainly won't help. Email can be marked as spam for a combination of things: content, IP reputation, from name/domain, etc. If you're spamming people, your email won't get delivered, even if your content doesn't have "FREE" or "Viagra" in it. If you send emails that people open and click on like crazy and nobody ever hits "this is spam," you can say free (almost) as much as you want. Most companies are somewhere in between. Test prior to sending. Usually one "free" won't kill your deliverability.
Of course, this overly simplifies the complex issue of email deliverability to some basics tenants. Spam filters are updated regularly in an attempt to thwart the efforts of spammers. Companies will have the most success getting their emails delivered by respecting the permission and preferences of their subscribers, as well as working with a reputable ESP that has a deliverability team to tackle the technical aspect of bounce handling and email send settings.