How to Build a Strong Sender Reputation to Improve Email Deliverability

The million dollar question for any email marketer - how do you guarantee email deliverability? Many expect the answer to be black and white, but really, the key to building a strong sender reputation is having a holistic email strategy centered around consistently sending good emails your subscribers engage with.

Why? As Sparkpost says, “User engagement with emails matters more than ever. It’s the key factor in deliverability - and your success”. ISPs look mainly at your sending frequency and subscriber engagement when scoring your sender reputation to determine whether they should place your emails in the inbox or spam. To them, the ideal sender is one that sends a consistent volume of emails with high engagement, on a frequent basis.

consistent volume + high engagement + frequent basis = strong sender reputation

Email Behavior ISPs Look For

ISPs consider the following types of engagement as “good”, which help build your sender reputation:

  • Opening your emails
  • Clicking your emails
  • Replying to your emails
  • Forwarding your emails
  • Marking your emails as ‘Not Spam’
  • Moving your emails to a folder
  • Adding your sender domain to their address book

The more of these positive engagements you continuously get from subscribers, the stronger your sender reputation becomes. In contrast, you don’t want subscribers to do the following, as these will hurt your sender reputation:

  • Marking your emails as spam
  • Not opening your emails
  • Not clicking your emails

But how do you get subscribers to interact and engage positively with your emails? The following are best practices you should incorporate into your email strategy to improve your sender reputation.

Best Practices for Deliverability

Clean Your List

It’s common sense - if ISPs favor senders with consistently “good” emails that receive high engagement, you’ll only hurt your deliverability by continuously emailing subscribers who never open your emails. Cleaning your list helps protect your deliverability, especially in regard to the subscribers that regularly open and click your emails. Bonus: knowing the state of the subscribers in your list will help you come up with an intentional strategy to re-engage inactive subscribers.

Isolating your inactive subscribers will help you hone in on the best way to engage them (think, what’s the one email you can send that will instantly get them to open and click through?) You’ll also want to manage list hygiene by constantly pruning out invalid subscribers (unsubscribes, hard bounces, or spam complaints) as these are the people you never want to email - a good ESP will often have this built into their product.

Hive automatically buckets your contacts into engagement levels: actives, new subscribers, at-risk, inactives, and invalids, making it easier for you to send core campaigns to your active subscribers. Subscriber engagement levels update in real-time based on how they’re engaging with your emails, giving you the most accurate and comprehensive view of your email list.

Worship Welcome and Winback Automations

The most effective way to immediately engage new signups and re-engage anyone who’s fallen off is with welcome and winback automations. These are email campaigns designed strategically to appeal to new and unengaged subscribers, set to automatically trigger based on a certain action (e.g. upon signup or after a user hasn’t engaged with 5+ emails). As a result, these emails are sent at exactly the right time with the relevant content necessary to engage subscribers.

Welcome Campaign
A welcome campaign is the first email or series of emails a new subscriber gets, triggered upon signup. ISPs look at these emails to see if a subscriber wants to hear from you, which makes it a crucial time for good engagement. These subscribers just signed up to your list, which almost guarantees that they will open the first email you send them. Welcome emails are proven to be the most engaging promotional email with a whopping 84% average open rate, making them a valuable opportunity for you to establish a strong sender reputation. You don’t want to miss this piece of your email strategy.

Winback Campaign
A winback campaign is an email or series of emails sent to a subscriber who hasn’t engaged in a set period of time. Designing a relevant campaign to win back your at-risk and inactive subscribers will increase the chance they’ll actually engage. Remember, lack of engagement kills your deliverability, so make sure your winback email includes enticing content that your unengaged subscribers will actually click on.

For most brands, a simple ‘We miss you’ or ‘Still want to be on the list?’ is relevant enough to re-engage at-risk and inactive subscribers. If you’re an ecommerce brand, you may want to include a discount code to drive higher conversion. If a subscriber goes through your entire winback automation without engaging, it may be time to prune them from your list and consider them invalid (or at the very least, be very cautious when deciding to email them again).

Related: The 2019 Ultimate Guide to Email Deliverability

Send Targeted and Relevant Emails

You should know by now that blasting your whole list is a recipe for disaster - especially for your deliverability. Even when emailing your active subscribers, you should segment based on interests, demographics, purchase behavior, etc. This lets you design campaigns that are hyper-relevant, increasing the chances that they’ll continue to engage. Targeted emails are shown to have 82% higher open rates than bulk email blasts, further proving that segmentation is a must in any good email strategy.

Segment your active subscribers to maximize engagement.

What happens if you don’t segment? The chance that all your active subscribers will find the same email relevant is null, so continuing to send the same emails will only cause more and more of them to drop off. Over a period of time, ISPs mark you as a bad sender due to lack of engagement. This is what will land your emails in spam, even for engaged subscribers.

Design Emails for Engagement

Imagine you go through all the work of building a smarter email strategy, yet send a poorly designed email that no one wants to see in their inbox. This could lead them to unsubscribe, stop opening your emails, or worst yet, mark your email as spam. Designing emails for engagement is a critical step in keeping your relevancy in subscribers’ inboxes, and driving opens and clicks. We get that changing the design of your brand’s email templates is a hard push to get approved, but here are small best practices every email should include:

  • Compelling Subject Line: This is the one thing that has the power to make your email stand out in subscribers’ inboxes. Subject lines are often an afterthought, but spending time testing what your audience responds to best will improve your deliverability drastically in the long run. Learn what subject line formula performs best for you, and leverage it to maximize engagement.
  • Place One CTA Above the Fold: Placing a CTA button above the fold in an email (e.g. visible right when a subscriber opens the email) will drastically improve the chances they click through.
  • Use Eye-Catching Graphics: Imagery and interactive content like GIFs are shown to increase click-to-open rates by 73%. Balancing the content of your email between text and images can go a long way in ensuring your subscribers continue engaging with your emails.
  • Use ALT text: Though your ESP can’t see what images you’re using, they’ll read the ALT text to decide how relevant your email is.
  • Keep Emails Short and Concise: Emails that are too long and contain too many images or too many links are more likely to be flagged as suspicious by ISPs. Your emails should always be designed with a goal in mind (typically achieved when subscribers click through), and your copy should be concise when convincing your subscribers to achieve that goal.

Manage your Sending Volume Over Time

ISPs are on the lookout for suspicious activity, including erratic spikes in sending volume. To maintain a healthy sender reputation, you should send approximately the same number of emails on a daily basis. Let’s say you have a weekly newsletter that you send to 800k subscribers every Wednesday. If you aren’t sending quality content to these 800k subscribers every day, it’s best to break that down into chunks of 200k subscribers that you email 4x a week.

Due to content schedules and required timing, we know this isn’t always possible - if you can’t break up one large email over multiple days, your best bet is to have other campaigns to send out to smaller segments between your weekly campaign in order to mitigate the spikes.

It’s also important to ramp into high sending volumes, both for your domain and the IPs your emails are sent over. ISPs like to take it slow and steady when building a relationship with you as a sender (AKA playing the game of determining whether they’ll place your emails in inbox or spam). You want to prove that you deserve to send high volume email with good placement by ramping your volume overtime. Best practice is to start with a send of 2,000 subscribers and increase volume by 2x with each send on a daily basis. More on this coming up next.

Want to learn more about how to improve email deliverability?

This is a snippet from our 2019 Ultimate Guide to Email Deliverability. In the full guide, we dive deeper into the topics we covered here, and break down everything you need to know about deliverability. From domains and IPs to common email mistakes you should look out for, download the guide to get a comprehensive understanding of deliverability and how you can improve your current email strategy to achieve it. There’s even an actionable checklist at the end to help you get started! Check it out 👉🏼

Hive's Ultimate Guide to Email Deliverability