New Deliverability Statistics and What They Mean for Your Email Marketing Program

In a 2010 survey conducted by MarketingSherpa, 31 percent of email marketers cited “improving email deliverability” as a significant challenge to effective email marketing. Based on a white paper about deliverability that I’ve just reviewed, I’m surprised and dismayed that the figure isn’t higher.

On average, only 81 percent of legitimate email marketing messages make it to the inbox, according to Return Path’s Global Deliverability Benchmark Report for the first half of 2011. In North America, the figure is a bit higher at 86 percent (for a more detailed global breakdown, see the report).

Think about this for a minute. If your email marketing program has average global deliverability, then roughly one out of five messages (19 percent) that you send don’t reach the inbox. Even with higher North American figures, an average of 14 percent of email messages aren’t being delivered as intended.

Take that a step further and apply the math to the bottom line goal(s) of your email marketing program. If your goal is direct sales, then average deliverability means that you’re making 14 to 19 percent less revenue than you could. If generating leads is your mission, you could be bringing in an additional prospect for every four or five you currently get. Even if you’re just looking to get eyeballs to your website, imagine what a 14 to 19 percent increase in clicks would do for your performance metrics.

OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. One-hundred percent deliverability is theoretically possible, but maybe not immediately accomplishable. But if you aren’t actively working to improve your deliverability, you are leaving money on the table.

One thing surprised me about these latest figures: that they haven’t changed significantly compared to previous periods. Why? We know so much more about the challenges of deliverability and how to address them; why aren’t more email messages reaching the inbox?

When I asked Tom Sather, director of professional services for Return Path, he brought up “the myth of the ‘non-bounce’ rate.” Your technology team or email service provider (ESP) may be providing you a statistic, which is defined as email messages sent minus bounces. Many times this is labeled as a “delivery rate,” but that’s not really accurate. While this can give you insight into how clean your list is, it does not tell you much about your inbox delivery rate. Not every ISP that blocks your emails will return bounce messages; if your email is delivered to the junk mail or spam folder, it’s even more unlikely that the ISP will let you know.

To see this in action, look at the latest Email Trends and Benchmark Report from Epsilon and the Email Experience Council (EEC). The non-bounce rates (kudos for Epsilon and the EEC for labeling this appropriately) for Q1 2011 and Q2 2011 are 96 percent and 95.7 percent respectively. Compare this to the Return Path report, which shows the United States inbox delivery rate for the first half of 2011 at 86.5 percent. That’s a difference of 9.2 percent in the second quarter, 9.5 percent in the first. Bottom line: if you’re relying on the non-bounce rate as an accurate measure of deliverability, you are likely overestimating your inbox placement by an average of 9 percentage points.

So what can you do to improve your deliverability rate? Your company’s email reputation has a huge impact on your inbox placement rate. As in the offline world, there are many elements that factor into your email reputation. Tom cited one of my personal hot buttons as a “big one” – treatment of inactive addresses.

When an email address hasn’t opened, clicked, or otherwise shown signs of life for a given period of time, we call it “inactive.” What length of time are we talking about? It depends on how frequently you’re sending messages and how often you would reasonably expect a person to interact with your email. If you’re sending a daily email newsletter, you might define this period as a month. If you’re sending a monthly missive, you might decide that someone who hasn’t opened, clicked, or otherwise shown activity in a year is inactive.

You should always undertake a reengagement campaign to try to reactivate these subscribers. But once that’s complete, you’ll still have a number of inactives that didn’t respond. Here’s where the tough decisions come in.

Some email marketers never remove inactive email addresses. They feel that there’s some “branding” benefit to people seeing their company name in the subject line (they’re assuming inbox deliverability) and, besides, it’s not that expensive to keep sending to these addresses. But continuing to send to inactive addresses can harm your deliverability.

How? Because many ISPs monitor whether or not people are logging in to check their email. If no one logs in for a long period of time, they assume the email address has been abandoned. And many ISPs will then disable the subscriber’s ability to log in but keep the email address live and turn it into a spam trap.

Over time, the ISP will take note of companies that continue to send email there, long after anyone has ever logged in to pick up, open, or click on links in any message sent there. ISPs consider organizations that send to these spam traps on a regular basis to be potential spammers and it’s noted in their email reputations, which drive deliverability.

Bottom line: if you think you don’t have to worry about deliverability because your bounces are a low percentage of the email you send, you’re fooling yourself. And if you aren’t removing inactive addresses from your list, you’re putting your deliverability at risk.

Until next time,


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