Email deliverability and inbox placement

By Michael Macdonald | Behaviour

Jun 26

You have more power than you think.

How are your emails performing? 

Great? 

Awesome? 

Not bad? 

Rubbish? 

Don’t know? 

These are all common answers from small businesses that we interview when we get on a Marketing Therapy Session with them.

You want to be getting the most from your email list. There’s no point having a list if they don’t get your emails, or don’t open them. 

You may have a ‘list’ of 100,000 email addresses, or you may have a list of 500. Either way, you need to know the best ways of getting your emails into their inbox, and enticing them to open and click and reply to your emails. 

In this post we’ll cover:

  1. How to measure your email success
  2. The technical setup that you should implement
  3. Keeping a clean list

You may have seen our awesome blog on how many people are ignoring email deliverability. All of the elements that are mentioned still apply, and you should stick to them.  What comes below is an extension of that, and gives you more actionable steps to make sure that you are doing all you can to get into their inboxes and beyond. 

Stop. Objection Time:

“Um, do I really need to do this, after all, if I’m  sending 200,000 emails in one blast, who cares how many never get there? The people that do get them will buy my stuff, right?”

Mr Spamalot, 2019.

This is sadly often the mentality. 

What Mr Spamalot is not taking into consideration is that every person that doesn’t receive his emails, or receives and doesn’t open his emails is contributing to his downfall. 

He has a list of 200,000, but he is not aware of how many of them have unsubscribed or reported him as spam, or haven’t opened his emails in 6 months… This means all his other emails are less likely to get into the inbox too. So Mr Spamalot is losing out big time.

The journey from your brain to your subscribers’ inbox has a lot of obstacles and pitfalls. Some are small and some are bear traps. Let’s start with the easy wins. 

1. How to measure your email success and learn where you are really at. 

What email reports you need to have

Look at how many emails you are sending. Not only how many a day, but how many in a week, and look at a bunch of contacts and see how many emails people are getting from all your campaigns and broadcasts on a regular basis.

We have come into contact with clients on both ends of the spectrum here. One client was not sending any regular emails at all when they came to us, and one did not know that some of their contacts were getting up to 6 emails PER DAY from having so many live campaigns. 

You should be keeping an eye on the following reports:

  1. How many emails are being sent, opened and clicked, from your application in total. 
  2. How many sent opens and clicks for each broadcast and each campaign
  3. Unsubscribe rates - Monthly, weekly, and for each campaign and broadcast
  4. Spam complaint rates - Same as for (3)
  5. Whether you are experiencing vastly different open and click rates for different email providers - gmail.com, yahoo.com, aol.com, hotmail.com etc. 
  6. How many have not engaged for 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and 12 months. (Engaged - Opened, clicked, filled in a form or otherwise engaged with your marketing platform)
  7. What your best performing email subject lines are - This is measured by which emails have the best open rate. 
  8. What your best performing email is - This can be measured by the number of clicks your emails attract, and any product purchases can be attributed to it. 

One you have the baseline stats as above, you can work on improving those numbers. 

Your very first step to healthy email sending is a technical step. Start by setting up your SPF and DKIM records.

2. The technical setup that you should implement

You should have SPF and DKIM set up before you send your first automated email. An automated email is any email that is not being sent one by one by you from your gmail/outlook/ favourite email provider.

What are SPF and DKIM?

SPF and DKIM are two records that you set up to let your recipients’ inbox provider know that the email is from you, and the content of the email is also from you. 

They are vital tools in the battle against spam and spoofing, and we should welcome them with open arms (even if they sound a bit scary). 

What is SPF?

Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is an industry standard method used to prevent email forgery. It allows the owner of the domain (that’s you) to let the internet know which servers are allowed to send on your behalf. If the tool you’re using to send emails from isn’t mentioned on your SPF record, it’s potentially dodgy and should go in the spam folder… Which is why you need one. You’re not dodgy. 

The SPF record sits on your domain settings and lets the world know that your IP addresses or email platform is allowed to send on your behalf. You would normally set up one SPF record that would include the IP addresses you are sending from, and whatever other email platforms or mail exchange servers you are using to send email, for instance Infusionsoft, Keap, Active Campaign, Google’s G Suite. 

This record is publicly available, and you can go look it up for any domain you like. For instance, I can go to mxtoolbox.com and look up the SPF record for the band ‘Iron Maiden’ and it tells me the range of IP addresses they are sending from, and also that Google is allowed to send on their behalf.

Our very own SPF record is as follows, and lets the world know that we use G-Suite, and Infusionsoft:

v=spf1 mx include:_spf.google.com include:infusionmail.com ~all

What is DKIM?

DKIM stands for DomainKeys Identified Mail and is another industry standard that authenticates your email. So this is more about letting the recipient’s server know that the content of the email has not been tampered with. It relates to the individual email, not just the tool that you’re sending emails from.

DKIM has two parts, one part on the DNS, and one in the header of your email. Sounds confusing right? Let’s clarify both of these:

  1. Your DNS stands for Domain Name System and is the phonebook of the internet. It allows a web browser to find you, just like we used to look people up in a phone book. You publish a DKIM key on your domain’s DNS record. The key is completely unique to you. 
  2. Your ESP would add a signature to the header of the email that you are sending  - this is the Private Domain Key. 

When your recipient receives their email, the email provider checks the signature in the header of the email, and the key on your DNS to see if they match. If they match your email passes and can be read with glee.

It sounds messy, but it’s just a way to say that the email comes from you and hasn’t been tampered with along the way.

What you need to do:

  1. Check your existing SPF record using a tool like mxtoolbox, or dmarcian
  2. Your email service provider (ESP) or marketing platform should be able to tell you what to include in your SPF record and also in your DKIM record
  3. Give this information to your awesome webnerd. 

But wait - there’s more!

DMARC is the elephant in the room. 

DMARC (Domain Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance)  is an extra step that is becoming more important for those that are serious about getting inbox placement. It’s an A+++ on email safety. 

It is a way of telling the email recipient’s provider what to do with emails that do not pass SPF and DKIM checks. To implement DMARC, you must have SPF and DKIM set up correctly first. 

The problem with DMARC is that whilst SPF and DKIM can be done within a few minutes by you and your web dude/dude-ess/dudeperson, DMARC can be tricky to get right, and if done incorrectly can be an elephant in a china shop and cause bigger delivery problems than never doing it at all. No bull. 

DMARC is really useful if there are known issues with platforms like gmail, yahoo etc. Sometimes platforms tighten up their security suddenly, and make it hard for people to get into the inbox. When this happens, having DMARC is like having a VIP pass. It’s an extra level of authentication that says you’re safe.

As DMARC is so complex we like to leave it to the DMARC experts. You can find more information on Returnpath, it’s worth considering using a service like Dmarcanalyzer to help you get set up if you feel you need to be A+++. Your software provider will also very often have some useful information hidden in it’s help section.

What email are you sending from?

You should also be sending from a personal domain name, or business email address. If you are using a marketing platform, your email probably won’t get through if your email is johnbob@gmail.com. Your email should be john@johnbob.com or whatever your domain is. Your marketing software may mask your email - i.e. it will be sent from johnbob+gmail@infusionmail.com. Not ideal.

It also looks a lot more professional if you have your own domain.

Bulk Sender Guidelines

You are a bulk sender. If you send more than one email at a time, you’re bulk.

Each major email provider (gmail etc) has different guidelines that it works to regarding bulk senders. For example - Google have published theirs here: https://support.google.com/mail/answer/81126

Checking these on a quarterly basis will help you understand the best practices that email providers expect you to uphold, and may help with any problems you are having with a single provider, like Yahoo.

On single providers, we often notice that people can have trouble with a specific platform. Everything else gets delivered fine, but yahoo, or hotmail, won’t play nice.This can be a tell tale sign that your email sending practices aren’t so hot… 

Unsubscribes - a little word of warning

If you have been experiencing low delivery rates, low open rates and low engagement all over, and have implemented some or all of the above - Hooray! You may now get more emails in the inbox, leading to more opens, clicks and replies. So… Don’t be put off if you get a spike in unsubscribes too. People may not have seen your emails in a while and may not recognise you or have forgotten what they signed up for. Hopefully they won’t mark you as spam, but if you have implemented new protocols, we suggest that you be careful about sending in bulk to people that have not engaged in some time. We talk about keeping a clean and engaged list later on. 

Blacklisting

If you’ve been a very naughty marketer and have been buying lists, and spamming your poor subscribers, you may already be on a blacklist. 

You should do quarterly checks on your sending domain to see if you are on a naughty list. 

We use mxtoolbox for this - https://mxtoolbox.com/blacklists.aspx.

If you do turn up on a blacklist, you can contact the blacklisting provider and ask what steps you need to take to have yourself removed. If they ask you to prove that you’re a nice marketer, you should make sure you are following the best practices and protocols in our Action Plan first- Sign up for this below 🙂

Blacklisting also goes for the links that you are putting in your emails. So, if you are sending people to another address that isn’t your domain, you need to check that they are not blacklisted too!

3. Clean your email list and keep it clean

Your list is not just a list, it’s people. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the good guys and you appreciate that already. 

Our definition of a good, clean email list:

  1. Should not have been bought. Bought lists have not given their consent for you to email them. 
  2. Should be double opted in (confirmed). This will tell your marketing software that you are a responsible marketer and may mean that emails are sent from their nice clean servers instead of the mucky ones that have all their naughty corner customers on.
  3. This may seem a silly one, but bear with me - Unsubscribes. Are you still adding people to your campaigns that have unsubscribed? This may be showing your marketing platform that you’re not keeping an eye on list health, and they may warn you, or put restrictions on your sending. 
  4. Engaged - Separate your list into those that are good, bad and ugly for engagement - How many on your list have not engaged with you for 3 months, 6 months, 12 months or longer? Can you segment further into those that are your best engaged people? How many emails have they been opening, clicking?
  5. Test contacts removed. Is your application full of years of test@test.com type contacts? If you have many of these, and they’re not opening emails, or are bouncing, they are adding to your downfall!
  6. Duplicate contacts removed - if people are getting two of the same email every time you send, they will hit the unsub button faster, and maybe even the spam button!
  7. Invalid email addresses. You may have a few of these if you haven’t been keeping an eye on who is filling out your webforms. If you are offering a lead magnet, with the delivery on the thank you page rather than delivered by email, people may be putting in fake email addresses to get hold of it. Also, there are always a few mistakes like hotmail.con or hoymail.com in every list. You may also see random numbers and letters as a name or email address, these are most likely to be spam signups. 
  8. Bounces. Your marketing software should be able to tell you who is bouncing, and whether it’s a hard or soft bounce. Hard bounces will never reach the inbox, as they either don’t exist, or have been shut down as email addresses. Soft bounces may fail once and then work next time. For instance an inbox could be full, and once cleared will accept emails again.

When you are happy that you have done the above steps, you may want to consider using a list scrubbing service. There are many out there, like Zerobounce or Klean 13, which is widely used in our community. We’re not affiliated in any way with them, but some of our clients have used them with great effect. They and others like them will take your email list, and will verify them against all their filters and databases and return your list to you categorised by how good, bad or ugly those emails are.

Next steps - Beyond the DNS

To further your mission to the inbox, we have given you a handy little PDF that will guide you on your journey.  

It’s called ‘Mission to the Inbox’ and you can download it right here by using that awesome click power on the button below. Go on, use the button, it really wants your attention. In this post, we’ve only covered the points in the first column. Download the PDF and have a look at the second two columns, and watch out for the posts on those too.If we were to put everything in one blog post, you’d be here for a week reading it, and you want action!

If this has been useful, but you’re going to put actioning all of the above for a little while longer, get in touch now, and we’ll help you get moving on it. We can chat with your web person (even if that’s you) and get you set up. 

The Automation Ninjas Marketing Therapy Session

Our Marketing Therapy Session is free, but it won’t be for long.

You can book one using the link below. It’s designed to help Business Owners, Sales and Marketing Managers, Social Media Managers and those that are responsible for their company’s marketing strategy. 


If you would like a seat on the therapy couch because your marketing is not performing as it should be, or it is completely non-existent, you're in the right place. Get booked in with us, and we’ll listen, take notes, come up with a plan for you, and you’ll walk away with a solid plan - for free. 

Further reading:

Email Deliverability - Stop ignoring it

How to measure email engagement and your unengaged contacts

About the Author

Mike - aka the Bearded Ninja - is a director at Automation Ninjas. Amongst his many hats he looks after some of our most complex client campaigns, the company finances and makes sure his fellow Ninja are supported in all the ways so they can do a great job for our clients. He also supports Kenda in developing the business so our products and services deliver what our clients need. Despite Mike’s horticultural background he is every bit the automation expert with literally thousands of Infusionsoft hours under his belt. Like Kenda, much of his time is dedicated to helping our clients achieve greatness. In his own time Mike tends to his garden and can be found listening to hardcore metal, drum and bass and Beethoven.

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