As an email marketer, you spend a lot of time creating compelling messages for the right target audience. But what if no-one interacts with your email? If metrics, such as open and click rates, are low, you may have a deliverability problem.
Excellent email deliverability takes work to set-up, but a lot more work fixing a bad sending reputation impacting your deliverability. The recommendations I provide in this article are based on my experiences working with a number of email systems over the last 15+ years, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud (SFMC) over the last three years. Here you will find several tactics that will help you understand how deliverability works, and the concept of ‘sender reputation’. We dive into configuration, monitoring, and troubleshooting specifically for Salesforce Marketing Cloud (SFMC).
Setting up Salesforce Marketing Cloud for Good Email Deliverability
Sender Authentication Package (SAP)
The first thing you do when setting up SFMC for email is configuring your Sender Authentication Package (SAP); this makes sure email providers that receive your emails see you as legit. SAP configuration in SFMC, and your DNS, enable you to:
- Send emails from your domain (ie. email.company.com)
- Set click-path in links and image location to your company domain,
- Assign a dedicated IP* to your SFMC setup
- Configure reply mail management.
*although shared IP configuration is also possible, this article focuses on dedicated IP
When everything is set up, you need to “warm-up” your IP address.
When email servers receive email from your new IP address, they need some time to get used to you. They look at the volume they receive and how users engage with your emails. Each domain receiving email does this verification differently – but as a rule of thumb, the advice Salesforce (and other email sending services) give, is to start off by sending a low volume of emails to more engaged email addresses, and then increase the volume over time.
The max volume you can initially send differs per email domain. Salesforce has created a document they use for advice on how to build up these volumes per domain – however, there is no consensus in the market on ramp-up volumes.
I would advise taking your time to warm-up the IP/domain. For Marketing Cloud, this could mean starting with smaller or individual Journey Builder sends before starting your bulk sends. After that, gradually increase the number of bulk emails you send. Assuming you are new to Marketing Cloud, this means you gradually move subscribers from your old email system and start emailing them in Marketing Cloud. Again, take your time to do this migration.
Dedicated IP and Reputation
An essential factor as you build your sender reputation is the dedicated IP – because your sender reputation becomes based on this IP (amongst other factors). As in real life, you build a reputation over time and doing things that damage that reputation can have long-lasting effects. Each receiving domain has its own way of evaluating your reputation, and some critical factors that impact your reputation are:
- Subscriber reaction: how do your subscribers react to your emails over time? Do they open the email? Move it to the trash, or click on spam buttons? Do they engage with your message?
- Legitimacy: is the receiving domain able to validate you are entitled to send from the sending domain you are using?
- Blacklists: are you on blacklists?
- Frequency: how many emails are delivered in a short timeframe? And are you a “new” domain/IP or a regular sender.
- Compliance: are you honouring CAN-SPAM act and other regulations that state requirements on email content (like unsubscribe option) and how you obtained the email address?
- SPAM Trapped: How many emails bounce or are caught by SPAM traps?
These are 6 factors that help build or destroy your deliverability and reputation. If you misbehave, your emails can get reported, resulting in your IP being blacklisted or temporary suppressed.
The first thing I do when I suspect there are reputation issues is to check an IP address on blacklists. If you are blacklisted, you can ask for removal from this list. Usually, you also get an email on one of your admin email addresses to notify you.
How to Troubleshoot Email Deliverability Issues in Salesforce Marketing Cloud
If you have been sending emails for a while, your IP address is “warm”. If you send relevant content, build your database gradually, have double opt-in in place, and offer a clear way to unsubscribe, then you should not have any deliverability issues.
Often, however, parts marketing databases may originate from legacy systems, and so, you cannot determine its origins. You are probably aware this is not GDPR compliant, but neither you/your manager wants to exclude or delete these addresses. We’ve all been there probably, but this is the part where you can have the most impact. Let’s focus on identifying and troubleshooting the issue first, before mitigation tactics.
Analyzing the Issue – Email Studio Reports
There are a couple of reporting options in Email Studio to track the performance of your email and analyze domain issues. Stats you need to look at are:
- Bounce Rate / Delivery Rate: both high numbers of hard- and block-bounces are bad. Soft bounces usually are temporary (eg. out of office replies), and so, are less critical. Block bounces (bounce because of a complaint, blacklist, or content issues), and hard bounces (unknown domains and users) are tell-tale signs of bad list quality and domain/reputation issues. Take a look at the detailed descriptions of these metrics. I aim for delivery rates >99,5% – anything below 98% indicates you have a deliverability problem!
- Open %: while this percentage is highly influenced by factors as list quality, subject line, etc., plotting this metric over time, or per domain, can give you insights into which domains are not performing.
- Click %: usually, open and click %s are particularly useful when receiving domains do not report back on deliverability to Salesforce Marketing Cloud; this can happen when you have a (temporal) block in Microsoft related domains.
Aside from these standard metrics, there are some useful reports you can run in Marketing Cloud to analyze your deliverability problems:
- Tracking Report of a Job ID – Tracking/My Tracking
This gives you the basics (volume, bounces, clicks, etc) of an email send. You can select multiple sends/job ID’s to compare results.
Journey builder also has email analytics when you click on your email component in a Journey; look for drops in performance over time or on specific sends.
- Email Performance by Domain /Email Performance for All Domains
This report shows a breakdown per domain for a specific send. This is useful to analyze if you have domain-specific deliverability issues. helping you narrow down to blacklisting, spam complaint, and content-related issues.
- Bounce Event Extract File
This gives you detailed SMTP error codes (more detailed error codes) for each subscriber that bounced, and enables you to zoom in on a granular level.
In Automation Studio activities, select: New → Data extract → follow steps (additional instructions here), and make sure to select ‘bounce’ options. You need to create an automation with a data extract activity and a file transfer activity to get the data. This feature needs to be enabled by Salesforce support.
- Spam Complaints Over Time report
Domains can receive spam complaints from their users. If the amount of complaints exceeds a certain threshold, this can result in a (temporary) ban.
This report shows you how many complaints you received from domains that offer spam reporting back to Salesforce. A complicating factor is that some domains (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo) have Spam buttons in their web email client. Users click this button also to move your message to spam folders but do not realize this may also trigger a complaint!
Logging Cases with Salesforce Support
When turning to Salesforce Support for help, usually, they give some generic guidance, like send only to engaged subscribers, and make sure there’s an opt-in. Make sure you’ve done your homework and be specific in your case description; there are tier levels in support teams, and if you have domain-specific issues, they can help you analyze and even contact the domain to mitigate. For example, I had several cases where Microsoft domains turned out to be the issue and needed support to lift a ban the sending domain had gotten.
Prevention: What can you do to Mitigate Deliverability Issues?
Several recommendations can help your deliverability, even if your list has grown stale over the years. This is where you need to kill some of your beloved prospects, I’m afraid.
Data Quality and Engagement
Make sure you only email to people who have opted-in, and are engaged with your brand; in failing to do this, you run the risk of sending emails to spam-trap emails, triggering sending bans, no matter how engaged subscribers are and how prudent your ramp-up period is.
Start warming up with new and engaged mails. If you start your warm-up/ramp-up period with the emails that are most engaged, receiving domains see you as trustworthy faster. How do you make that selection? Select subscribers that have opened and clicked recently and/or frequently.
I use a very crude score to calculate engagement in a subscriber base per user:
Has opened in the last 6 months + has clicked 5+ times last 6 months.
Consult with your data specialist to make this smarter, and compensate for time decay.
Kill your Subscribers
Now for the fun part! If you do not know if you have opt-in, or you have subscribers that do not engage, or haven’t engaged over the last x months/years – stop sending emails to this group! I know this will raise some eyebrows, but engaging with those addresses screws up the effectiveness of the people that do engage. I usually do two things to make this digestible for management (and myself):
- I do not immediately delete these subscribers. I give them a separate email status indicating this email address is unengaged; for example I use:
- ‘Healthy’ for new and engaged subscribers,
- ‘Inactive’ for subscribers that have not clicked or opened for a while,
- ‘Bounced’ for subscribers with a bounce status. I usually do not set the opt-in field to false, you still have opt-in.
- Create a journey, or run a campaign on all Inactive subscribers once in a while. You can go crazy here to have subscribers open and click, this is where you add them again to your regular sends.
After several retries, I delete subscribers (if there are no purchases, cases, or other account activity).
You can proactively test your email in Content Detective to simulate content filters that would trigger in real sends.
To do this, go to the Content tab in Email Studio, navigate to your email, click the down-arrow on the right, and select Content Detective. If there are content issues, the detective will tell you!
Add DMARC to DNS
DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to give email domain owners the ability to protect their domain from unauthorized use, commonly known as ‘email spoofing’. This is not implemented as part of your default SAP package, and so needs to be implemented separately. If you manage your domain DNS you can make modifications yourself, but if you have delegated this to Salesforce, they can make a basic modification for you – this help article will be good to read also.
Data Cleanup Services
Sometimes email addresses just aren’t being used anymore, are invalid, or originate from companies that longer exist. If you need to have a screening of your base on the validity of your email addresses, there are services you can use to screen your base. I usually go to Briteverify by Validity, but there are more alternatives.
Microsoft Junk Mail Reporting
One thing you need to monitor is the number of spam complaints you get on your Microsoft domains.
Microsoft has a reporting program on this, the Junk mail reporting tool that can help you monitor these complaints in more detail next to the complaints report in Marketing Cloud. I use this when warming up a new IP, but it can also help monitor your current IP.
Do you usually send emails out all in one go? If you want to manage how many emails are offered to domains per hour for a specific send, you can throttle this with Send Throttling, a feature that must be enabled by Salesforce support.
I hope this helps to analyze and mitigate your deliverability issues. This is the experience I had in projects and am sure there is a lot more you can do. Please share your experiences in the comments – deliverability is one of my favourite topics to discuss!