You’ve probably heard that email deliverability is important. But what is email deliverability?

Email deliverability is a term that refers to the ability of an email message to arrive in the recipient’s email inbox. Deliverability is also related to inbox placement — whether an email appears in the primary inbox, the promotional tab, another inbox, or the dreaded spam folder.

Multiple factors impact email deliverability:

  • Spam complaints: Recipients marking your email as “spam”
  • Bounces: Sending to invalid or nonexistent email addresses
  • Spam traps: Covert email addresses used by email blocklist providers to catch fraudulent sending (more on email blocklists here)
  • IP address reputation: A measure of how reputable your IP address is based on the quality and types of emails you send
  • Domain reputation: A measure of how reputable your email domain is based on the quality and types of emails you send

These factors all matter but in this post we’re going to focus on the holy grail of email deliverability: email engagement.

Keep reading to learn:

  • What is email engagement?
  • How email email engagement became the holy grail of email deliverability
  • 4 best practices to generate positive email engagement
  • Tools to boost email engagement

What is email engagement?

Email engagement is defined as all the different ways in which a contact interacts with your emails.

Email engagement is measured by:

  • Email open rate
  • Email click-through rates (CTR)
  • Length of time a contact spends reading your email
  • How long an email remains unopened in your contact’s inbox
  • Number of contacts who move your email from their spam folder or promotions tab to their primary inbox
  • Number and frequency of spam complaints
  • How often contacts move your emails to their junk folder

Every interaction a contact has with your emails is an indicator of either positive or negative email engagement.

How email engagement became the holy grail of email deliverability

Email has been a cornerstone communication tool for the better part of 30 years, and over time email has evolved. Email service providers (ESPs), also called inbox service providers (ISPs), determine senders’ email deliverability.

Some common ESPs are:

  • Gmail
  • Yahoo
  • Outlook
  • iCloud mail
  • AOL

In the past, ESPs looked at a few key metrics to determine deliverability:

  • Spam complaints
  • Bounces
  • Spam traps

But ESPs began to notice that senders could manipulate and even fake these metrics. Senders didn’t follow best practices, and mailbox providers needed a better way to hold email senders accountable for their actions.

As email grew as a marketing and sales tool, algorithms and machine learning replaced human postmasters. Mailbox providers replaced the human element with an automated element to improve consistency and keep up with the ever-increasing amount of email activity. ESPs began to consider different metrics when evaluating email senders.

Now, ESPs gather and analyze huge amounts of data in different categories:

  • Sending
  • Opens
  • Clicks
  • Email content

Each of these metrics factor into email engagement. And because it’s data-centric, email engagement is becoming the most important factor for email deliverability.

Think of email engagement as a trust-meter. If you send emails that receive high levels of positive engagement, mailbox providers view you as a credible sender and reward you with improved deliverability.

Email engagement > domain reputation > IP address reputation

Email deliverability is now more merit-based, and specific to the individual sender — with data to back it up. It tells the email deliverability story better than the other measures, and is becoming the most important metric in IP address reputation and domain reputation.

4 best practices for generating positive email engagement

Positive email engagement includes:

  • Email opens
  • Rising email CTR
  • Moving emails from the spam or promotions tab to the primary inbox
  • Minimal spam complaints
  • Shorter time spent unopened in the recipient’s inbox
  • Longer time spent reading the email

If positive email engagement is the goal, what can you do to get there?

Here are 4 best practices to generate positive email engagement:

  1. Understand the contact engagement cycle
  2. Segment your list based on engagement
  3. Make an attempt to re-engage unengaged contacts
  4. Take the engaged approach

1. Understand the contact engagement cycle

What is the contact engagement cycle?

The contact engagement cycle is the natural progression of a contact’s interactions with your email content. The cycle classifies your email contacts into 5 categories based on when they last interacted with your emails:

  1. Actively engaged (0-30 days since last interaction)
  2. Recently engaged (30-90 days)
  3. Unengaged (3-6 months)
  4. Re-engagement needed (6-12 months)
  5. Inactive (12+ months)

Every contact is different, and may go through the cycle faster or slower than another contact. Some contacts will be attentive and eager to open every email you send. Some contacts will sign up and never interact with a single email.

Thinking about contact engagement in phases will give your email program more direction

What does this mean for your email program?

Your contacts’ engagement phase should inform how you email them:

  • Actively engaged: These contacts are your ‘cheerleaders.’ They eagerly await your messages and want to hear from you. These email contacts drive positive engagement and you should send to them more frequently.
  • Recently engaged: These contacts are still engaged, but might be losing interest. Send to them on a regular basis with the knowledge that some will become ‘cheerleaders’ and some will phase out.
  • Unengaged: These contacts are unengaged and you need to rebuild the relationship with them. You can use re-engagement campaigns, coupons, offers, and other strategies to reinvigorate them.
  • Re-engagement needed: These contacts should most likely be removed from your list — their continued lack of engagement can hurt your deliverability. Re-engage these contacts with caution.
  • Inactive: Remove these contacts from your email list. Continued sending to them is dangerous for your deliverability and can be detrimental to your overall deliverability.

The dates above are just one example of an engagement cycle timeline. It’s important to think of the engagement cycle as it pertains to your industry and your business model. How often do your customers purchase your product or service?

If you’re selling cars, the chances of selling a car to someone who purchased one a few months ago are low. If you’re selling cans of cat food, the chances are much higher.

2. Segment your list based on engagement

Email engagement is about quality, not quantity. It’s better to have a small list of highly engaged contacts than a large list of unengaged contacts.

How do you know who’s who?

Enter segmentation.

Segmentation is the process of grouping your contacts by similar attributes and/or behaviors. A list of contacts isn’t really 1 list — it’s made up of smaller, more refined lists. Segmentation makes it possible to identify those smaller lists within your overall list.

Every email service provider has their own naming conventions for segmentation. At ActiveCampaign we have 3 different ways to break up your list:

  • Lists: A list is intended to represent a broad spectrum of contacts who have one main interest in common (like “customers”)
  • Tags: Tags organize contacts on a deeper level than lists by highlighting more specific, dynamic characteristics about a contact (like “cat owner” or “customer for 2+ years”)
  • Custom fields: Custom fields are the most targeted and personalized level of segmentation and indicate fixed, unique contact attributes (example: birthday, shirt size, address)

When it comes to email engagement segmentation, it’s best to use tags. Tags reflect a contact’s engagement level at that exact moment, but tags also allow for status changes as a contact goes through the engagement lifecycle.

This ActiveCampaign automation tags your email contacts in real time as they engage with your content. You can import this automation into your ActiveCampaign account for free here!

Segmenting your email list based on engagement tells you where each contact is in their engagement engagement cycle. The segmentation data lets you improve your email engagement and deliverability.

When used with the automation above, you’ll always be up to date with who your engaged contacts are! This automation is available for free here!

How?

Sending to your active contacts means more positive email engagement, and more positive email engagement means improved deliverability. If you want to maintain healthy email inbox placement, message your active audience more frequently and your inactive audience less frequently.

Spend more time focusing on the email contacts who want to hear from you.

The best way to know which audience is which is through segmentation.

3. Attempt to re-engage your unengaged contacts

Some of your contacts won’t engage with your emails for 3-6 months or more, and that’s okay. List turnover is a natural thing — it happens every year and you’re not doing anything wrong if a subsection of your email list isn’t engaging.

In fact, 20-30% of email addresses decay year over year.

People change, and so do their interests and purchase intent.

I know, I know, you’ve spent a lot of time growing your email list, and you’re emotionally invested. You’d feel better keeping 1 contact from unsubscribing than gaining 1 new contact. This is a tendency known as loss aversion and it’s why you feel so attached to your email contacts.

Give yourself a chance to win back some of your unengaged contacts by sending a re-engagement email campaign.

A re-engagement email campaign is a series of emails sent to unengaged or inactive contacts with the goal of getting these contacts to interact with your emails again.

A re-engagement campaign doesn’t always have to be an email series. it could be:

  • An exclusive offer
  • A coupon
  • An “are you still interested?” email
  • A text message
  • A social media message

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box for your unengaged contacts. Try other channels beyond email. Message your unengaged contacts every so often, but only a few times. If it works, great! If they still don’t respond, it’s time to move on.

Continuing to pester your uninterested contacts is a great way to rack up spam complaints, and it can harm your overall email deliverability.

Follow these tips for best results during a re-engagement campaign.

There’s nothing wrong with an unsubscribe — those are way better than a spam complaint. It’s better to experience a dip in the size of your email list than a dip in your overall deliverability health.

Remember, email engagement and deliverability are about quality, not quantity.

4. Take the engaged approach

Taking an engaged approach means using the tools available to you to your advantage.

  • Segmentation: What contact information do you have? How did you get it? How can you use that information to send more engaging emails?
  • Design: How are people viewing your emails? Desktop? Mobile? Does your email have a clear message, theme, and call-to-action (CTA)?
  • Response: What kinds of actions are your contacts taking? What aren’t they doing? Choose your next steps based on opens and clicks..
  • Reporting: What kinds of emails are generating engagement? What kinds aren’t? What’s working in your email strategy?

An engaged approach to your email strategy is a smart approach.

The engaged approach refers to your contacts, but also to you. Are you engaged in your email strategy?

What does it mean to be engaged in your own email strategy?

  • Think about how you can segment your contact lists in new ways
  • Understand who your contacts are and how to tailor your email to their needs
  • Keep an eye on reporting and monitor the trends
  • Set appropriate expectations for your email program

Collect information, analyze the data, iterate your strategy, improve your engagement.

Tools to boost email engagement

Improving your email engagement might seem daunting, but the good news is that there are a host of tools to help you throughout the process.

ActiveCampaign offers several features to give you insight into how your emails are performing and which contacts are engaged:

We also encourage taking a look at some external tools to help build positive engagement:

Kickbox is an email address verification service to help eliminate bounces

Kickbox is a useful tool for larger email lists. Their service verifies the email addresses on your list, identifying invalid or misformatted email addresses and improving your deliverability.

Kickbox helps to ensure inbox placement and reclaim lost opportunities from sending to incorrect email addresses. They offer a free trial period and a competitive pricing structure.

Postmaster by Gmail helps senders understand delivery errors, spam reports, feedback loops, and more.

Postmaster by Gmail is a free tool to see how Gmail-specific email addresses are reacting to your emails. While Postmaster might not cover all of your contacts, Gmail makes up more and more of the world’s email addresses as it grows.

You can also use Postmaster to learn the overall health of your domain. Your health will be given as either:

  • Good
  • Medium
  • Low
  • Bad

Postmaster offers a definitive answer to the question:

“Do I have a good domain reputation with Gmail’s ESP?”

Litmus is a paid email service provider offering a host of helpful insights and tools related to email marketing

Litmus offers several email services for improved engagement and strategy development, including:

  • Campaign development
  • Insights and analytics
  • Pre-send testing
  • Reviews and collaboration
  • Design and rendering insight
  • Reports on receptiveness of different inbox providers

Litmus is a premium email service for designers, marketers, and agencies.

G-Lock Software offers a 60 day free trial and several different paid email services and products

G-Lock’s Advanced Email Verifier helps clean your email list of invalid or incorrect email addresses.

“List hygiene plays a role in the delivery race. It is important to maintain a clean mailing list and remove bounced, undeliverable emails because a lot of ISP mail servers have been known to block a sender’s email domain for repeatedly sending messages to non-existing email addresses.

If you are getting too many bounces, undeliverables, complainers, and being blocked as a result, Advanced Email Verifier can help when nothing else will.” (Source)

Conclusion: Why email engagement matters

When it comes to email deliverability, inbox service providers are moving towards a more holistic, data-centric method of evaluating email senders. That means a larger focus than ever on email engagement as a deliverability factor.

As email continues to evolve, so does the data that’s available to us. While these legacy email metrics are still important:

  • Spam complaints
  • Spam traps
  • Bounces

ISPs are now looking to more specific metrics when determining a sender’s deliverability, like:

  • Opens
  • Clicks
  • Spam rescues
  • Domain reputation
  • Time spent unopened
  • Time spent reading email

These metrics all fall into the category of “email engagement” — and it’s the key to your email program health.

If you’re engaged in your email marketing program and work to improve the emails you’re sending, you’ll see improved results. You’ll see why email engagement matters.