Email deliverability is a universal challenge, or concern at the very least, for all marketers. While other marketing channels have come and gone, email has proven itself lucrative and effective. In one study, email deliverability ranked 3rd on the list of challenges presented to respondents, which equated to a 12% increase compared to the same 2018 study (Demand Metric/Validity State of Email Marketing report, 2019). As email will continue to be core to Marketing Automation, monitoring, fixing and improving deliverability becomes a priority for marketing teams.
Deliverability can become mixed up with another measure: mailability. While both concepts aim to explain why an email can or can’t make it into the recipient’s inbox, the terms differ in a number of ways. In this post, I will share my favourite analogy for explaining the differences between deliverability and mailability: the upscale nightclub. Then, I will talk about the importance of distinguishing between the two in your email data management and campaign performance predictions.
Setting the Scene: The Inbox Nightclub
As I mentioned, I use an analogy to paint a story that explains the differences between deliverability and mailability. Imagine an upscale nightclub. You probably know of the ones I am talking about – pretentious dress codes, surly bouncers, expensive drinks – you get the picture.
(Now that I mention it, ‘Inbox’ would be a cool name for a bar or nightclub…maybe a future venture)
Sending an email is only part of the story. Turning up to the nightclub is only part of the story. Whether you get into the nightclub, is another matter entirely.
The Nightclub, the Guests, and the Bouncers
The recipient’s inbox is the nightclub that everyone is trying to get into. There are a number of factors at play here: the club has a certain capacity, a dress code, and most importantly, security to protect the venue (there have been some dodgy dealings going on!)
Your email is a nightclub goer. Your email is just one of many nightclub hopefuls lining up to get in.
Inboxes have filters that try to stop unsolicited emails from entering the recipient’s inbox. Filters can be imagined as bouncers. Security personnel are ensuring that only the right people enter the club. As we will see, this includes ID checking, adhering to dress codes, and ensuring that the club’s capacity is not exceeded.
Mailability: Are You on the Guest List?
Mailability is the ‘status’ you have with the recipient. Are you allowed to send emails? This can be summarised with one word: ‘consent’.
There are two ways you can achieve mailability (get your name on the club’s guest list):
- Be invited to the guest list: a recipient subscribes to your mailing list, effectively giving you consent to come to the club and adding your brand to the guest list. This is good inbound marketing!
- Ask to be added to the guest list: any way that you are directly asking for consent to come to the club. Popular examples of requesting email marketing consent include website pop-ups, sales reps asking on the phone/in person, permission pass campaigns.
Remember, you can also be removed from the guest list, for example, if you began shouting unnecessarily for attention at the bar. This would be an opt-out or unsubscribe from your mailable marketing database, a common fate for brands sending too many emails and/or that aren’t of interest to subscribers.
Deliverability: Can You Enter the Club?
Deliverability, on the other hand, is whether you will be able to get into the nightclub at a particular date/time. Being on the guest list does not guarantee you will be able to enter the club. The factors that determine to deliverability are not consistent, just like the things that can between you and the club, which can vary night by night.
Here are 5 factors that impact entry (deliverability) on any given night:
1. Providing your ID
This guest list is strict! The club’s policy is that you must provide photo ID in order to enter. This avoids other people trying to enter using your name that’s on the guest list. Usually, it’s just someone trying to get into the club that shouldn’t be there, but in the worst cases, someone could enter under your name to cause trouble, like stealing the money behind the bar, or the keys to the club office.
This is why setting up email authentication is so important. SFP/DKIM are email authentication that works just like providing ID to prove you are who you say you are. This avoids ’email spoofing’ where malicious individuals or organisations send emails with a forged sender address – in other words, using your name to commit crime in the club.
Even if your name is on the guest list (have consent), you won’t be allowed in unless you show your photo ID (SPF/DKIM email authentication).
2. Dress Code
Upscale nightclubs use dress code to create a desirable atmosphere inside the club. Trashy and sloppy outfits are not welcome.
Think of the words you are using in your emails – are those words ’spammy’? This is the same as showing up to an upscale nightclub in dirty running trainers.
Bouncers are checking you are dressed appropriately. If they don’t like what they see, you will be turned away; this is what spam filters do, scanning each email for keywords or phrases that such spam-like contents.
3. Venue Capacity
The nightclub may be full one night, often through no fault of your own – it’s either been a popular night, or the club has temporarily closed.
This temporary unmailable status is known as a ’soft bounce’ in email marketing. Soft bounces are usually caused by server downtime, or the recipient inbox is at full capacity, or maybe hasn’t been set up completely.
4. The Club Went Out of Business
The club shut down! You just didn’t hear about it until you showed up.
Deactivated email inboxes seem more frequent in B2B databases (in my experience) where employees of companies come and go, and can’t transfer their email address (for obvious reasons).
5. You Spelt the Address Wrong
Did you spell the address correctly? Firth Street, or Frith Street? Maybe that’s why you can’t find the right street. You will just keep circling around before you consider this nightclub a no-go.
This is what happens in email marketing, although virtually. Misspelling an email address may initially cause a ‘soft’ bounce, but will ultimately end up a ‘hard’ bounce. In Pardot, for example, 5 soft bounces equate a hard bounce, whereby the recipient record is marked unmailable.
Deliverability Ultimately Determines Mailability
So far, I have shown you how deliverability is not solely determined by the recipient’s mailability that you see on their record in Pardot/Salesforce (ie. the factors that change to day). However, the two do work in a feedback loop.
As I mentioned with bounces above – ‘hard’ bounces and ‘soft’* bounces do result in the prospect becoming unmailable. Therefore, even before you send the next email campaign, you will know where you stand with that prospect (ie. they won’t receive your email).
How the two concepts work independently, and when they work together, is an important lesson to grasp.
Why Understanding Deliverability vs. Mailability is Key
What’s the point in this post, that drums in the differences between these two concepts? Here are some points to get you thinking about your own marketing automation tactics and operations:
- Potential reach: understanding the extent of your mailable database means you have a better estimate of the reach your email campaign can have. If you have a list of 100 prospects, but turns out only 60 are mailable, you may decide to allocate less time and budget to this campaign or change your target audience.
- Conversion estimates: smart marketers work backwards from the number of conversions they want to achieve in a process that sounds like: “for X prospects to convert, I need this many to click in the email…based on our typical open rate…means sending to X number of prospects”. To be realistic in your conversion goals, you need to set yourself up for success before pressing send by having enough prospects in your send list.
- Data management & archiving: knowing which data is totally defunct (ie. hard bounced, marked ‘Do not email’ in Pardot), and which data could potentially be reactivated (ie. opted-out prospects opting back in, Prospect Resubscribe in Pardot).
- Stale data: I will say it again, just because a prospect is mailable, does not guarantee deliverability! This is a dangerous assumption for old data that may not have been emailed in a while; data degrades as time goes by, as the number of invalid email addresses is likely to increase. Always remember that a 10% bounce rate on a list email sent from Pardot will put your account at risk (repeated high bounce sends or severely breaching this will result in Pardot suspending your account!)
Showing up to the club and trying to get in may be futile if you don’t have your name on the guest list. But that doesn’t stop some people showing up, taking their chances, and hopefully blagging their way in (they will get caught one day with severe consequences).
Even if you do have your name on the guest list, there are other factors that can stand between you and the club, which can vary night by night.
Whether you can provide your photo ID to confirm your identity, stick to the dress code, the venue isn’t already at full capacity, is still in business, or you spelt the address wrong are all reasons that depend on the night.
These two points explain the difference between mailabilty and deliverability. Here they are again, using email marketing terms:
Showing up to the recipient’s inbox and trying to get in may be futile if you don’t have consent to send marketing communications to them. But that doesn’t stop some organisations showing up, taking their chances, and hopefully slipping their email in without getting reported as a ‘Spam complaint’ (they will get caught one day with severe consequences – think GDPR).
Even if you do have consent to send marketing communications, there are other factors that can stand between you and the inbox, which can vary day by day.
Whether you have email authentication (DKIM/SPF) to confirm your identity, avoid words and phrases that are unfavourable with spam filters – or the recipient’s inbox isn’t at full capacity, they are still an employee of that organisation, or their email address is spelt wrong in your database.
Finally, you will know that deliverability cannot be predicted but some causes behind undelivered email can be mitigated. Focus your efforts on the factors you can control to lessen the impact of the factors outside of your control. It’s not your fault if the club management decided to go on vacation last minute.