The Inbox is a Privilege, Not a Right

Posted by Erick Pillay on

Have you tried almost everything only to find that your inbox placement rates still aren’t improving?

There are a few dynamics to keep in mind when working in email deliverability. The first is that mailbox providers are primarily concerned with providing their end-users with a good experience. This means that user inboxes only receive relevant mail and that spam is relegated to the bulk folder or blocked. Lately, mailbox providers have been looking to increase relevance on an individual level, so your inbox and spam folder may look different than mine even if we use the same mailbox provider and subscribe to the same newsletters. Also, keep in mind that the majority of email is spam, so mailbox providers won’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt when it comes to inbox placement.

The folders within a user’s mailbox can be seen as confidence levels: The inbox is comprised of mail that the mailbox provider is certain isn’t spam, The spam folder contains mail that is likely to be spam but may still have some significance to the user. This is why it is given a second chance to be viewed in the spam folder. On the other hand, mail that is blocked or missing may not be useful or interesting to the user. In this case, the mailbox provider has high confidence of this and users aren’t given the opportunity to retrieve this mail.

So how do mailbox providers understand what goes in which bucket? The answer to that is constantly changing as mailbox providers optimize their algorithms, but the truth is that it’s mainly based on user feedback. Users provide feedback both passively and actively. Users provide feedback passively by opening and reading some mail while ignoring mail that they aren’t interested in. Active feedback is most apparent in the form of complaints. A complaint is registered when a user moves your mail to the spam folder by clicking the “Junk” button in the mailbox provider’s UI. But this also includes mail that is deleted without being read and feedback that is provided when mailbox providers survey their users about specific messages.

Data about user actions is then applied during the mailbox provider’s filtering decision as part of your sender reputation. They’ll look at how your specific mail streams have performed in the past. And how specific users have reacted to your mail, whether they’ve complained, ignored it, deleted it, or read it. Your sender reputation can be impacted by your IP address, your domain, and even your content. Pictures and landing page links that you include in your templates can be tagged as likely to be spam or legitimate.

With so many data points that make up the filtering decision, it’s difficult to foil mail filtering systems. Tricks that might have worked even a couple months ago may no longer work today.  The most sustainable way to maintain good deliverability is to align with the mailbox providers and do all you can to provide a good user experience. But what does this mean?

It means running an email program that you would sign up for yourself. One that contributes value throughout the user lifecycle. At signup, this email program introduces itself and explains what it’s all about. When it first arrives in the inbox, this email program treads lightly and provides a series of informative emails about the brand and the benefits of being part of the email program. Then, the email program melds itself to the needs of the user. If the user is highly engaged and opens every email, the email program should send to them regularly. If the user is not opening mail, the email program should pull back and send less frequently perhaps sending weekly or monthly digests instead of a daily email. There should always be a mix of promotional content and newsletter pieces to keep things interesting.

Marketers often fall into a trap where the content they send is self-serving and doesn’t deliver a whole lot of value to subscribers on its own. This type of approach can work in display advertising because the user will be exposed to your content, whether they like it or not. After all, you can pay for display advertising by impression. However, in email marketing, you pay only for the sending infrastructure and there’s no such thing as a guaranteed impression. Instead, your email program is at the mercy of user perception, a gray area most would prefer to avoid. Your email program must have a convincing value proposition for users to bother engaging with it and for mailbox providers to deem it inbox worthy.

Consider the email in your inbox currently. What do you find compelling? I doubt an email from the same brand about 5 percent off their core product is something you’d find interesting enough to open every day. In fact, you might click the junk mail button after about a week of the same thing over and over but only after ignoring it. The most sophisticated mailbox providers will get the sense that you’re not interested in this mail as you stop opening it and if many other users are following suit, the sender will see their bulk rates increase, but it’s likely that this mail will start to bulk on an individual level long before they notice. If that same brand had been more thoughtful, they might have sent you more content pieces such as “10 Tips for Staying Cool This Summer (while not looking like a slob)” and then they might have sent you a tie-in offer for shorts later that week. With a little variation, you might have been more interested in what they had to say.

Also, as a bulk sender, you might want to consider modifying your strategy based on specific subscriber use cases. For instance, I happen to be a home theater nerd and I’ve recently purchased a whole lot of speaker cable, but now that brand keeps reaching out to me about all sorts of items that don’t necessarily fit my use case. I’m not about to wire a building for networking, but thanks! As a result, users can and will ignore, complain, or unsubscribe. Imagine if that brand had sent me thoughtful content pieces, perhaps something about hiding unsightly wires with their cable management solutions or tips on mounting speakers to the wall with their hardware. They would have stayed top of mind, and I probably wouldn’t be scrambling to unsubscribe as they described the merits of their Ethernet cables.

In summary, remember to be conscious of your users and avoid designing your email program solely around your business needs. Your spot in the inbox is not a guarantee but is more of a privilege. As an email marketer, it’s your duty to establish a value proposition for your email program while also presenting the value proposition for your product or service. It’s a delicate balance, but your users will appreciate the high quality content you’re delivering to their inbox and you’ll be rewarded with steady inbox placement without the need to panic whenever a mailbox provider updates their filtering methodology.


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About Erick Pillay

Erick Pillay is a Technical Account Manager at Return Path in California. He enjoys helping his clients become Email Heros by revealing the stories behind their data. He loves technology and in his free time you can find him talking to Siri and dodging his robot vaccum. Connect with him on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/erickpillay

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