Email Deliverability: Earn your place in the inbox

In this article Al Elliott looks at email deliverability and email deliverability best practices. Read on to learn how poor email deliverability can affect your email campaigns (oh, and feel sorry for the poor analogy that gets stretched far too far…).

We’ve all had this dream. 

  1. You craft a nicely written, engaging email,
  2. You press ‘send to list’,
  3. Within minutes, you start hearing that comforting ‘ding’ as the orders (and lovely money) roll in.

However, there’s a problem. 

It doesn’t matter how good your content is, or how pretty the email looks, or even how good your offer is – there’s a good chance that your recipient doesn’t even see your email.

It’s down to email deliverability…

This is down to email deliverability. In other words, is your email even getting delivered?

A recent report found that 1 in 5 business emails just don’t arrive at all. 

And of those that do, a large percentage go to the dreaded ‘other’ folder along with the Pizza Hut offers and 70% off GAP vouchers. 

These days, just collecting email addresses isn’t enough – you have to earn your place in the inbox.

So who’s stopping you from reaching your subscribers? 

We call them the Email Inbox Providers (or EIP for short), and they’re the services like Gmail and Yahoo, that the vast majority of consumers and businesses use to handle incoming mail. And they take email deliverability very seriously indeed.

In a rush? Download the Ultimate Deliverability Checklist for free!

EIP = Nightclubs..?

Bear with me for a second whilst I stretch an analogy to its breaking point…

Imagine a huge nightclub with lots of roped-off VIP areas. 

In those VIP areas, your customers are happily sitting, sipping champagne and having a lovely time. 

You, as a marketer or business owner, want to get into those VIP areas and sit next to your customers so you can show them your product/service/offer.

You know that if you could just talk to them for a few minutes, they’d fall in love with you, and most would buy.

You have several challenges though:  

  • There are 4 main nightclubs where your customers spend time.
  • Each of these nightclubs have bouncers; It’s their job to decide who comes in and who doesn’t.
  • Within each nightclub, there are millions of private, roped-off VIP areas, which are monitored and controlled by fancy-looking robots, who decide if you go into the VIP area or not.
  • There’s a cellar in the nightclub where all the bad people are sent to.
  • Oh, and all the nightclubs have slightly different rules for both entry into the club, and admission to the VIP areas.

Of course you’ve probably already guessed that those 4 main nightclubs are called:

  1. Gmail (53% of the email market),
  2. Yahoo (18% of the email market),
  3. Hotmail/Outlook (14% of the email market),
  4. AOL (8% of the email market).

They’re the top 4 Email Inbox Providers, and they control over 92% of the email that gets delivered today.

top 4 email providers

And you probably already know that the roped-off VIP areas (guarded by these robots) are the customer’s primary inboxes.

Gmail is the one to watch for email deliverability,

To be fair, not all of the big 4 EIPs have ‘Primary’ inboxes (yet!), but since (statistically) over half of your list will have Gmail addresses, you need to ensure you’re following Gmail’s rules.

With Gmail, there are 3 main inboxes:

  • Primary: Where the trusted senders get sent,
  • Social: Facebook & Instagram notifications,
  • Promotions: Where the marketing and sales email go to die.

Your aim is to always land in the primary inbox – the roped-off, VIP area.

Even if you’re sending to any of the EIPs who don’t filter email, the techniques in the post will help ensure you don’t get sent to SPAM , or worse, don’t even get to the inbox.

Watch out for the SPAM cellar…

If you’re clever you’ll already have worked out that the grimy, sweaty cellar is the SPAM or trash folder.

Once you’re in there, you’re stuck. And, what’s worse is that the more often you get sent there, the more often you get sent there.

In other words, if your first few emails go to SPAM, then it’s likely you’ll automatically be sent there in the future.

So how do you get past the bouncers, sweet talk the gatekeeper robots and sit down next to your customers?

Read on, and I’ll show you.

Step 1: Get past the bouncers

As you approach the front door, the bouncers have three options:

  1. Turn you away,
  2. Make you wait in a queue,
  3. Let you in.

The same thing happens with your emails.

Reasons for being turned away are:

  1. Your customer is not in the club (the email address is invalid),
  2. You, or the person you represent, have a reputation for causing trouble, so you’re barred from the club completely (you’re blacklisted),
  3. You’re sneezing and coughing (you may have a virus).

When this happens, us email geeks call this a ‘hard bounce’.

The opposite to a ‘hard bounce’ is a ‘soft bounce‘ – that’s when you’re put in a waiting line/queue.

Reasons for being put in the waiting line are:

  1. The customer’s VIP area is full (inbox full) or they’ve not visited the the nightclub for some months (inbox inactive),
  2. You’re wearing trainers not smart shoes (your reputation is in doubt),
  3. You appear to be using a false name, or your ID doesn’t check out (your email/domain sending setup isn’t quite right),
  4. You’re holding a sales brochure (your content looks very salesy),
  5. You have boxes and boxes of papers (your message is too large),
  6.  The bouncers are having an off day (the server is temporarily down or the mailbox is not configured correctly),
  7. You keep turning up every single night trying to get in (you’re sending too many emails).

So being put in the queue is called a ’soft bounce’.

It’s not a ‘no’ – it’s a ‘no for now’. The bouncers may let you in shortly.

Soft vs hard bounce

Course, if you get put into the queue multiple times, you’ll probably automatically be turned away in future. 

In a rush? Download the Ultimate Deliverability Checklist for free!

Step 2: Get into the VIP Area

Success – you’re past the bouncers, and you’re in the club! Now all you have to do is sit down next to the customer in their VIP area.

But wait, there’s fancy looking robots with scanners at the entrance of each VIP area.

Imagine C3P0 in a tuxedo – pleasant enough, but he’s a judgmental prick, and will make snap decisions based on your appearance.

Robots guard the inbox

You walk up to this robot, and wait in the small queue behind 3 other people.

You’re in the queue for the inbox…

Your customer glances up at the queue and waves to a smiley older lady, who turns out to be her Mum. The robot lets her in without question.

The next person is wearing an Amazon uniform and holding a delivery confirmation note. Again, they get let in immediately, and get a knowing nod from the robot – it seems obvious that they turn up a lot. 

Just in front of you in the queue, a shady looking guy with a dodgy mustache is talking about a fortune that a Nigerian prince has left the customer. 

The robot frowns, beeps a few times, and gently, but firmly, leads this guy to a curtain. 

As he steps through you see a huge, silver, slippery slide, and you hear the man scream as he slides hundreds of feet to the basement of the club.

As the curtain closes, you see a tiny sign on the side of the wall that says,  ‘Spam/Trash only please’.

Doesn’t look like there’s any way out of this cellar. You definitely don’t want to go there.

The robot turns to look at you…

Finally, it’s your turn. 

The robot welcomes you politely, takes a look at your sales brochure, and gently guides you through a glass door next to the VIP area with large windows.

Once inside, you realise the door is locked from the outside, and you’re surrounded by all kinds of similar looking people, each clutching sales brochures, coupons and other shiny looking marketing material. 

It slowly dawns on you that although you’re not in the horrible SPAM cellar, you aren’t in the VIP area with your customer.

From time to time you see your customer glancing over at your group through the glass, but then another important looking visitor starts talking to them and she loses interest in you.

You realise you’ve been banished to the ‘Promotions’ part of the VIP area, and there’s no way out.

Despondent, you sit down and try to work out what you did wrong.

The Email Deliverability Analogy Unwrapped:

If you’ve followed this analogy so far, you’ll know several things about email deliverability:

  1. You can get ‘bounced’ at the door of each of the big four nightclubs. (This is the hard or soft bounce we talked about earlier),
  2. Even if you get into the night club, if you look dodgy, or are blabbering about SEO or little blue pills, you’ll get sent to the cellar SPAM folder,
  3. Even if you don’t go to spam, you aren’t guaranteed to be let into the VIP area by the robot – you could be sent to the glass-walled ‘promotions’ room where you’re unlikely to be noticed.

In fact, it’s clear that there are really only 4 types of people allowed into the VIP area without any question:

  1. Those who the customer knows intimately, like their friends, family and co-workers (those in the contacts list),
  2. Those who work for big, trusted companies, like Amazon (transactional emails),
  3. Those who the customer has explicitly put on the guest list for the VIP area (white-listing),
  4. Those who the customer has invited in from  the glass-walled promotions tab (manually been marked as important).

Getting into your customer’s inbox isn’t as simple as sending a few emails, is it? 

Let’s look at what went wrong, and how we can put it right.

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So what went wrong here?

In order to get into the VIP area (the customer’s primary inbox), you need to display 3 Trust Factors:

  1. You’re Respectable: Your domain is set up correctly, you’re not sending rubbish, and/or you have some authority,
  2. You’re Anticipated: Your customer is happy for you to email them,
  3. You’re Relevant: Your emails are read, replied to, and/or some action is usually taken, like scrolling or forwarding.

The good news is that with a little bit of effort up front, you can tick all these three things off in about 45 mins.

Trust Factor 1: Being Respectable

Being respectable will get you past the bouncers and inside the nightclub. 

In fact, there are really only two factors your EIP (like Gmail) take into account here:

  1. Are you who you say you are? (e.g. Is your domain set up properly with SPF & DKIM),
  2. Is your content safe? (e.g. links aren’t dodgy, no weird attachments and no virus).

If you use the default setup of a decent email marketing platform (like Active Campaign or Mailchimp), then the first of these will be taken care of already.

Psst: If you choose to manage your own domain authentication, then there is a great guide here.

That’s requirement 1 ticked off – good news is, you usually only have to do this once.

Now onto the second requirement: Is your content safe?.

When you’re creating email content, just follow the golden rules to avoid looking dodgy:

  1. Use as few images as possible (I recommend using none),
  2. Make sure all links work and you’re not linking to spammy content (always send yourself a test email before sending),
  3. Don’t use URL shorteners like,
  4. Never send attachments (link to the file instead on dropbox or your website),
  5. Avoid spammy words like ‘Money off’ or ‘free’ (There’s a great list here).

Do all this and you’ll avoid getting bounced. 

So you’re through the doors of the nightclub and in the inbox – now let’s avoid getting marked as SPAM.

Trust Factor 2: Be Anticipated

The biggest risk with not being anticipated is that the recipient marks you as ‘unwanted’ in some way.

They can do this by:

  1. Unsubscribing and/or blocking you,
  2. Moving you to the spam bin,
  3. Deleting your message.

Important: This affects your entire list!

If an EIP (e.g. Gmail) sees that a lot of your recipients do this, they’re likely to mark everything from you as unwanted. 

This means that not only will you be put in the spam or promotions folder for that recipient – you’ll be put in it for anyone with a Gmail address that you send email to – regardless of whether they’ve taken the same action. 

So it doesn’t just affect that one recipient – it could affect your entire list! 

Five golden rules for anticipated emails

So the five golden rules for anticipated emails are:

  1. Ensure they’ve opted in (signed up) properly. I recommend double opt-in, where a user has to explicitly click a link when they sign up, saying they want your emails. (Yes, your list grows slower, but you know people are anticipating your emails).
  2. Ensure you’re emailing regularly. I recommend once a week – if you leave it too long, you risk the recipient forgetting who you are and marking you as spam. (I bet you’ve done this before, even if you’ve actually opted into the list!).
  3. Try to get the recipient to whitelist you. This is where they add you to their contacts list, or mark you as ‘important’ or a ‘safe sender’. (This is not easy, and only a handful will – however if just 10% of them do this, it’s a good signal to the EIP that you’re a safe sender),
  4. Use a clear ‘from’ label. I recommend you use your first name and brand name – e.g. ‘Al from ConvertMag’.
  5. Set the sending expectations at the start and stick to them. Tell the recipient in the welcome email you’ll email once a week on a Tuesday, for example, so they’ll feel comfortable about you being in their inbox.

If you do this, then your recipient is unlikely to be surprised, confused, or annoyed when they get an email from you.

OK, now we know we’re a welcome guest in their inbox, let’s look at how to be useful & relevant. 

In a rush? Download the Ultimate Deliverability Checklist for free!

Trust Factor 3: Be Relevant

This one is a little harder to do, but the effort is well worth it. 

If your email is relevant to your recipient, then they’ll take some kind of action. 

You already instinctively know this:

  • If your boss or coworker emails you, then you usually forward and/or reply,
  • If you get an email from a friend or family member, you’d usually reply,
  • When your favourite email newsletter arrives, you usually open and scroll,
  • If you get a sales email from Amazon, you’ll often click through to the recommended product.

Each one of these actions is a tiny signal to the EIP that the email is important, and/or expected, AND the sender is sending relevant emails to you.

The actions you want your reader to take

There are 7 main actions that the EIP (e.g. Gmail) monitor to help decide if your email is relevant (and you’re a trusted sender).

These are:

  1. Opening the email,
  2. Scrolling through the email,
  3. Clicking a link,
  4. Replying to the email,
  5. Forwarding the email,
  6. Moving the email to a folder manually,
  7. Marking it as important.

The aim is to craft your email so it’s as close to a ‘personal’ email as possible.

“Wait… so I can’t use my lovely email template?”

No, you can’t. 

Firstly, those templates are usually full of images, which is a signal that it’s a marketing/sales email.

Secondly, it’s much more difficult to ensure these are completely HTML compliant (another factor that can affect deliverability).

And thirdly, when you add a load of styling and layout elements, it’s immediately obvious that this email is from a company, not a person. 

After all, when was the last time your friend sent you an email laid out like that?

Yep. Never. (Unless your friends are really weird…

So stop doing it please. 

“But Amazon sends these kinds of emails…”

Let’s be clear – Amazon can send out beautiful emails with fancy images, because they’ve already earned their place in the inbox. 

You haven’t yet!

Your aim is to prompt an action, not wow them with your wonderful branding. So when writing emails, you should only use:

  • Words (obviously),
  • The occasional link (no more than two),
  • A standard signature (with no image),

I know. This means you can’t brand your emails. 

But I’ve been building email campaigns since 2004, and I’ve never seen a customer refuse to buy because the email wasn’t branded…  

Your only aim: Encourage action

So in order to be relevant, you must be encouraging one of those 7 actions.

To remind you, these are:

  1. Opening the email,
  2. Scrolling through the email,
  3. Clicking a link,
  4. Replying to the email,
  5. Forwarding the email,
  6. Moving the email to a folder manually,
  7. Marking it as important.

The good news is this: If some of your emails get one of these actions, then it’s more likely that all of your future emails will be marked as ‘safe’ and arrive in the inbox.

In other words, the more you can encourage an open, click, scroll or reply, the more likely it is that every email will land in the inbox.

In a rush? Download the Ultimate Deliverability Checklist for free!

Summary & Next Steps

You now know how to get into the primary inbox of your recipient! 

It’s not as easy as pressing a button and ticking some preference boxes, but I promise you the effort is worth it.

After all, there’s no point in creating amazing emails with cleverly crafted content if nobody sees them.

Here are the main points summarised:

  • Be Respectable: Make sure you’re set up correctly using SPF/DKIM. Your email marketing platform has probably already done this for you.
  • Be Anticipated: Make sure your recipients know who you are, and are expecting your emails.
  • Be Relevant: Emails are not adverts – they should resemble an email you’d send a friend.

There’s something I’ve not told you

There is something I’ve not touched on here that is vitally important. 

In fact, it’s so important, I’ve created another post entirely about it – it’s called list sanitation.

In essence, it means ensuring that the only people on your list are those that:

  1. Have explicitly said they want to hear from you. Building a list via an iPad giveaway is one of the worst things you can do – they want the iPad not your emails!
  2. Open and engage with your emails. Like I said before, the EIP will monitor how many of your recipients interact with your emails across the entire platform. If that number is small, they’ll likely prevent you from going to the primary inbox, or, worse, send you to SPAM.

It’s logical when you think about it, but it does mean removing (or at least tagging) those recipients who do not interact with your emails.

After all, if you have 1,000 on your list but only 250 ever interact, then you’re telling the EIP that 75% of your recipients don’t care about your emails!

Instead, send regular emails to just those 250. When the EIP sees that every single one is opened, you’ll be seen as respected, anticipated and relevant (and you’ll be up on their wall of fame).

If you’re interested in learning more about this, then subscribe to the weekly magazine and you’ll get the article all about list sanitation before anyone else.

Yes, it’s hard work. And yes, it takes time.

But once you’ve nailed this, you’ll see your sales volumes increase significantly.

Want the Ultimate Deliverability Checklist for free? Course you do…