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What Inbox Engagement Really Means

My inbox is different than yours

The inbox is not a “global” concept: my inbox is different than everyone else’s. That’s how the Big 4 all see it: sender reputation and inboxing are two different concepts. Your company may have stellar sender reputation, and yet a specific message may end up in the junk folder in my particular inbox. Why? Because I’ve shown that it’s not relevant to me, although it may be to many other people.

There is no real definition of SPAM
What defines messages that go into the junk folder? Nothing, really. There is no real definition of SPAM. It’s all about the mix of signals that are constantly monitored and that indicate to the ISP whether a message is or is not relevant to a specific recipient.

Of course, there is a textbook definition of SPAM, but it doesn’t help much in figuring out why your “Best Sellers” campaign ended up in my junk folder.

Clicks don’t count
None of the Big 4 tracks clicks. They see it as a violation of privacy, and they simply don’t do it. Whether a recipient clicks or not, therefore, has no impact whatsoever on engagement.

The 7 signals of engagement

The Big 4 – instead – all agreed that these seven signals of inbox engagement play a fundamental part in determining the relevancy of your email campaigns for a specific recipient.
1. Open (GOOD): although they know that open has become a less relevant metric (images downloaded by default in certain email clients), they still track it
2. Reply (GOOD): a reply to a message is considered a super-strong signal of engagement. If you ever needed evidence that using a “no-reply@…” email address is a bad idea… here we go!
3. Move to junk (BAD): strong, negative signal. Two of these on AOL are enough to automatically place that message in the spam folder from then on, for that recipient.
4. Not junk (GOOD): strong, positive signal that the message should not be considered spam.One of these on AOL is enough to “reset” the previous behavior.
5. Delete without open (BAD): a quick glance at the sender/subject, and they didn’t like it: a negative signal.
6. Move to folder (GOOD): if you are moving certain messages around, it means you care about them.
7. Add to address book (GOOD): it shows that the sender matters to the recipient.

In the case of Outlook.com, only number three – flagging a message as spam – hurts the overall sender reputation. The rest affects inbox personalization (whether a message ends up in the inbox for a specific recipient), but not overall reputation. For the other three, all signals affect both reputation and individual personalization.
Inactive recipients: what should you do?

Keep or discard?
Should you automatically get rid of recipients that have been inactive for 12 months or more?

Outlook.com‘s John Scarrow said “no”. Don’t get rid of them. They do not directly affect your sender reputation. The only way they could hurt your overall sender reputation is if they flagged your messages as spam. That doesn’t mean that you won’t end up in the junk folder, though. You need to separate the concepts of sender reputation and personal inbox preference: your reputation may be good (no one flags you as a spammer), but if there is no engagement, your message may not inbox.
Ramp-up and ramp-down

The other ISPs didn’t necessarily agree with Outlook.com on this one. Gmail‘s Sri Somanchi talked of ramp-up and ramp-down. Just like you need to gradually ramp-up when you start a new email marketing program (or switch to a new ESP), you need to introduce a ramp-down mechanism for inactive recipients:

* If you’re sending daily, switch to once a week
* If you’re sending weekly, switch to once or twice a month
* If there is still no engagement with the modified frequency, pop the big question after 3 to 6 months: do you want to continue hearing from us? If there is still no answer, it’s time to let them go, in Gmail’s view.
It’s what Gmail recommends to the Google marketing teams.

Other notes

95% of emails are garbage
Finding good emails is like finding a needle in a haystack: around 95% of all email messages received by the Big 4 has no value and needs to be thrown out. Email marketers that follow best practices are obviously part of the other 5%, but they can’t forget that the receivers spend a lot of time and resources on filtering those bad senders. In other words: they have their hands full.

No authentication is a recipe for trouble
All of the ISPs agreed that non-authenticated mass emails are a non-starter. If they cannot figure out who you are, it’s likely you’ll end up in the junk folder (or not be delivered at all). Make sure that you have basic authentication in place, such as adding a SPF record to your sending domain.

Blacklists matter… to an extent
AOL has its own internal blacklist: if you end up there, you’re in real trouble (automatic block) and the only way to get off of it is to contact the Abuse desk. Your presence in other blacklists, instead, is seen as one of many variables in the overall sender reputation equation.

For Gmail, blacklists are just one of thousands of signals. The same is true for Outlook.com: John Scarrow likened blacklisting to points on a driver’s license. Same for Comcast: a member of the audience pointed out that Comcast appears to give substantial weight to the Cloudmarkblacklist, and that it’s difficult for businesses to be removed from it: Matthew Moleski replied that a removal request is the way to go.

“Free” etc. in subject lines
They don’t matter. ISPs don’t look at that sort of thing at all. That said, if certain words trigger certain behaviors (e.g. Delete without open, see above), they could certainly have an impact on inboxing for those recipients.

They are email marketers too
Both Gmail and Comcast specifically pointed out that they see the other side of the coin: their companies send lots of emails too! The Gmail team, for example, spends time training the Google marketing team on best practices. In a recent training session, they highlighted these concepts:

* Right acquisition: start by following best practices when getting people to opt in.
* Right engagement: don’t send the same thing to everyone
* Right metric: find a way to meaningfully track recipient engagement
* Right amount: ramp-up at the beginning and ramp-down inactive recipients (see above)
* Right opt-out: make sure that recipients can easily unsubscribe

Don’t try to game the Gmail Primary tab
Sri Somanchi had a final word of advice: promotions are meant to be in the Promotions tab. Don’t try to game the system. If you are offered some sort of back way into the Primary tab, don’t listen to those consultants. He was very clear on that. You’ve been warned.

Deliverability has become personal
Lots of interesting content. Hopefully it can help you better understand what happens in that mysterious place called the inbox once you hit “Send”.

In the end, the big takeaway from the discussion was described well by EEC’s 2015 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year award winner Justine Jordan: deliverability has become personalized.

EMAIL – What Gets to the Inbox

Today at the Email Evolution Conference put on by the EEC, a very informative panel consisting of Gmail, AOL, Outlook (Microsoft), and Comcast shed some light on a few questions that email marketers consistently ask us.

What affects deliverability to the inbox?
Many we already knew the answers to, but there were some nuggets of information that might have been unclear. Below are some of the highlights we gleaned from attending.

On blacklists:
AOL uses SpamHaus CBL and XBL blacklists. None of the other ISPs admitted to this openly, but Spencer Kollasfrom Experian Marketing Services believes most of them use it as a strong signal. He mentioned in an unrelated session that they’ve seen 80-90% drops in engagement when listed on a SpamHaus blacklist.
Gmail stated they don’t really have a blacklists per se, as everything is determined via algorithms. Many inputs (discussed below) are analyzed to decide an emails fate.
Microsoft’s solution is a hybrid of blacklist and algorithms. Comcast is similar to Microsoft, but it was insinuated they’re not as advanced.

On engagement:
Gmail stated that signal from a user that something “is not spam” is an order of magnitude more powerful than the spam button.
Microsoft came out and stated that user engagement will NOT affect a senders overall reputation. AOL and Gmail agreed with these statements. Comcast, however, said that engagement does affect overall reputation. For clarity, engagement WILL affect the ability to get to that individual user’s inbox. Gmail stated that engagement will only affect reputation in a positive reinforcement only.

All of the ISPs stated they do not track clicks (mainly for privacy reasons, partially for technical reasons), but they do track opens.

There are a number of engagement metrics they track that do affect reputation and individual delivery, including some of the following:
OPENS are good
DELETE without OPEN is pretty bad
FILING an email is good
REPLYING to an email is very good
Adding to the ADDRESS BOOK is good
Moving from JUNK to INBOX is very good
Moving from INBOX to JUNK is obviously bad
The SPAM button is also obviously pretty bad

Gmail also stated that there’s a higher probability that someone will click the spam button if your email is in the “inbox tab”, and less likely if it’s in the “promotions tab”. The message was: don’t fight the tabs, they’re a good thing.

On domain vs. IP-based reputation:
AOL and Gmail stated they have been tracking both domain and IP-based reputation scores for many, many years.

AOL will actually do domain-based white-listing, but you better have your security policies (SPF, DKIM, and DMARC) locked down or don’t bother. If you switch IPs, you’ll get stomped by their algorithms if you don’t manage your authentication policies well. If you do manage them well, they will transfer your reputation over. AOL also pointed out that you should be doing authentication for your active domains that don’t send email, so they don’t get spoofed.

Gmail added to this, stating that it’s still important to warm up any new IPs. The system will quickly learn that you’re the same sender, but stated that your ramp up should be staged: send ones… tens… hundreds… thousands… etc. And don’t change your new authentication policies during the ramp-up.

Microsoft added that the biggest value to domain-based reputation for them is for IP moves. If you’re doing a migration, they said to call and give them a heads up. They also stated that the URL host domains (where you’re sending people to) holds more weight than the sending domain.

All of them stated, repeatedly, that setting up your authentication policies are vital. It’s always surprising to us how many folks have issues with even just SPF. We see a huge percentage of new customers with problems during onboarding. Get these in order, people!

Oh…and subject line or body keywords are much, much less relevant than you think. But, of course, crappy keywords might cause a user to not want to open!

On spam traps:
AOL will suspend email accounts after a time of inactivity, and they have occasionally turned those into spam traps in the past. They didn’t say whether or not this is still a current practice.
Gmail said they don’t recycle or reuse accounts for anything.

Microsoft will disable an account if they haven’t seen a login in 2 years. They do not reuse them for spam traps.
Comcast does not reuse them for spam traps either. Their traps are typically random characters and obvious to spot.

Finishing up:
I will say this seems to have been one of the more open conversations we’ve heard from the ISPs directly. We think this might have something to do with the fact that their algorithms are getting really good and they can afford to share more than in the past.

They have to filter out 95% of the junk that hits their front doors, and over the years they’ve gotten good at spotting the 5% of valuable emails that need to be delivered. On top of this, they want a good user experience so people don’t declare “email bankruptcy” and head to another mailbox provider. So, they will err on the side of caution to preserve inbox integrity.

The bottom line? Getting to the inbox is still complex, and will likely remain so for a while. The rules of the game are just changing and morphing, and doing so at a rapid pace.