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It’s not us it’s all you – what an ESP might tell you about email deliverability problems

There was a time when getting emails into the inbox was a key distinction between email service providers. Nowadays it’s not on most marketers radars, but I still see certain vendors perform better than others.

It used to be the case the most vital thing for good deliverability was a clean IP address. Ideally you would have a dedicated IP address (if you had significant volumes of email) but otherwise you would share it with good quality clients of the ESP.

ESP’s used to get a lot of stick if your emails on a shared IP address landed in junk.

What has now happened is a consensus has developed that it’s not the fault of ESP if you land in junk, but the quality of your emails. This is because of two key changes in the email deliverability landscape.

Firstly, each client has their own DKIM record (a piece of authentication that allows likes of Gmail to measure the sender separately from others using the same IP address). Mail providers do build up a reputation on domain. Secondly there is also mention of ‘engagement’ factors – if you never open an email then the email service might be clever enough to route these through to junk.

But these are not the only factor – the reputation of the sending IP address still has a large impact. Admittedly it’s not as important as before but it still is important. So, if you share an IP with some crappy clients of the ESP who have bad mailing and data collection practices it can still help push your emails to spam.

This is based upon real experience helping clients navigate the conversation with their ESP.

The first of these was generated after I noted a new client we started working with had considerably lower open rates at a couple of the big email domains. The client had whiter than white data collection (it was nearly all those that actively ticked a box during signup with a handful of people that signed up for emails separately on the site) and didn’t over email their database.

And of course all authentication was setup correctly.

When we signed up for their emails with a few test accounts at major domains, those problem domains were indeed sending emails to junk.

The ESP (who was costing upwards of £30K per annum) sent their boilerplate response of ‘you need to send better emails because nowadays email providers will make decisions based upon whether the recipient is interested on their open history’. But my test addresses were brand new so this couldn’t be it, and open rates on some emails were near 30% at other domains. If overall engagement was a factor then everybody would surely see the impact as not many get such good engagement.

A quick look on https://www.senderscore.org/ at the IP’s being used and I could see what other brands were using the same IP addresses. I wasn’t that impressed, there were some suspect industry sectors of online gaming and lottery sites. I know from past experience these industries can have more aggressive data collection, sometimes via affiliates which causes issues.

After a lot of debate with the ESP they were able to move the client to an alternative shared IP range and immediately things improved. Our test emails stopped junking and open rates recovered for these problem domains.

The second client had a similar issue but this time we felt a dedicated IP address would be the better solution as the volume and frequency justified it.

This again took a lot of debate with the ESP suggesting impractical changes to the whole CRM strategy, blaming the quality of the emails in an attempt to deflect the deliverability issue.

When they finally relented there was some concern that they would not support the process fully, and managing the warm-up process on a new IP address is critical. Luckily we found someone senior at the ESP who suggested they actually have a number of pre-warmed IP’s for this very purpose and allocated the client one of these.

We checked this IP address and it appeared to have higher quality neighbours. Again, instant improvements were seen where it mattered.

Lower end ESPs sometimes perform better

Don’t assume because you pay a lot of money for an ESP it will give you better deliverability that some lower end tools like Mailchimp. In both of these examples the ESPs were what I would term mid-market, costing a few thousand pounds a month.

We don’t see the same issues with Mailchimp because they are far stricter with who they bring onto the platform and have automated processes for cleaning data they think is suspicious. The fact you can’t get to talk to anyone at these ESPs is actually an advantage when it comes to deliverability!

With the mid-market there is less automated policing, and as a result more can slip through the net. I’ve seen with my own eyes a pressurised sales representative bring business to the ESP that is of the lower quality side.

What does this mean for you?

We have written this post as we have seen too many email marketers take the wrong path with their deliverability. Sometimes you might need a different perspective to what your ESP tells you.

If you think you might have any delivery issues follow these steps:

  • Get your own measure of deliverability – get a report by domain on open rates as a good start. You will naturally see differences between domains but significant, sharp drops you should not. If you have a problem its only likely to be in a couple of places.
  • If there is an issue before contacting your ESP have you considered your mailing practices? Are there any questionable segments you should not be sending to? Is your data collection truly permission based? Do this now as your ESP will want to look at these things anyway, and if you are a suspect
  • When contacting your ESP highlight the steps you have already taken, and why you don’t think it’s your practices causing this. Try and avoid them sending the first boilerplate response! Ask what options are available to improve this deliverability.
  • Remember many of these staff at the ESP will be quite junior and effectively reading from a script. Try and engage with more senior members of the ESP – starting with an honest conversation with your account manager is usually more productive than emailing the helpdesk.

If none of this works and you hit a dead end with your ESP talk to a 3rd party who can give you expert input and advice on the nature of your deliverability issues, and if required liaise directly with the ESP to resolve them.

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