Patrick Cappy, ActiveCampaign Deliverability Specialist, had the pleasure of speaking with Lauren Meyer, VP of Industry Relations and Compliance at Kickbox. Their discussion covers various deliverability topics – what to expect for the holiday sending season, current trends, and sound advice for senders during the next few months, and into the future. 

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How did you get into the deliverability space and this role?

I’ve been working in the email industry for a little over 14 years.

I’ve spent most of my time on the sender side – starting in affiliate marketing, then a startup doing affiliate marketing – that’s where I really learned a lot about deliverability. Doing tasks such as reviewing performance to schedule the next day’s offers, copywriting, and using multiple ESPs to send emails gave me a good deal of experience using different sending platforms; recognizing the patterns of what you could get away with, which ESPs were strict with what, as well as what it takes to get low-quality email delivered to the inbox.

After that, I moved on to work for a couple of different ESPs, including Epsilon, and then Mailjet for about 4 years – managing all things related to deliverability, compliance, and anti-abuse.

And now I’m working at Kickbox, who has offered email verification for the past several years, and just released a brand new suite of deliverability monitoring tools over the summer. I now work with product development, education and advocating for best practices in the industry.

That’s quite a resume. In your experience, what are the most common errors or biggest mistakes you’ve seen during the holidays when it comes to senders and their deliverability?

Around the holidays, this typically takes the form of overly-aggressive sending in one way or another:

  • Large spikes in sending volume pretty much overnight – which is deemed as very suspicious behavior by mailbox providers.
  • Reaching back into very inactive segments – hoping to make some extra money or reach a few extra recipients can result in spam complaints, high hard bounce rates, spam trap hits – all negative factors that can influence your deliverability as a whole.
  • Increasing your frequency, which may not be welcomed by recipients – leading to unsubscribes, spam complaints, or an overall lack of engagement (which can be bad for deliverability

One other big mistake I see is people packing their campaign calendar so tightly that they don’t leave room for issue remediation in the event of a deliv issue can cause further problems, including:

  • Stress for the sender/marketer
  • Wasted time and effort
  • Getting desperate and employing bad practices which can serve to make the issue worse

I think this year, even more than ever, marketers need to have a couple of contingency plans on hand – and also should work some breathing room into their calendars so they can make up time if something goes wrong. It’s a little like planning a snow day from school. They build several of those into the school year, just in case.

I couldn’t agree more. There is too much focus on the quantity of emails these days, and not the quality. What trends do you expect for the holiday sending season in 2020?

The party already started earlier this year.

Supply chains have been a mess in 2020. Marketers will try to get ahead of this by offering “Christmas in October” kinds of sales, suggesting people shop sooner. For example, Amazon Prime day has come and gone. Some marketers may be offering free shipping or free returns when they normally wouldn’t in an attempt to encourage people to buy items without worrying about size or fit.

Additionally, email volumes will be massive! We are facing the perfect email storm this year: Normal holiday email volumes, plus more shoppers turning to eCommerce for Sales that might normally come from brick and mortar locations due to the current global pandemic.

Emails will continue to adapt to the global circumstances – it’s likely we’ll see more emails being sent with health updates, information about store closures and changes in operating hours and procedures. Not to mention all the transactional emails that would be sent related to eCommerce sales coming from people who have returned to stores lately and might have to shift back to online shopping instead. Some examples would be:

  • Purchase confirmations
  • Delivery updates and confirmations
  • Product enablement / drip campaigns / cross-selling
  • Follow-ups with Support

The current social justice movements have also contributed to even larger send volumes. I saw some figures from Change.org, who is seeing their highest email volumes ever — sending 1 billion emails per month for all of the petitions and causes they support!!

Furthermore, the presidential election here in the US is approaching. Sendview.io subscribed to both candidates’ emails and wired the results into a real-time dashboard of campaigns and trends leading up to the 2020 election. The amount of volume being sent is staggering.

You’ll note there was a large spike in emails sent right before the first presidential debate:

  • President Trump sent each of his subscribers 17 emails in ONE day
  • Candidate Joe Biden’s email volume has increased too much over time – but his emails also include an apology for how many emails they sent.

During political campaigns,email best practices tend to go out the window as election day approaches, so the email volumes here could be massive – much larger than what we see related to the pandemic.

We may see more email senders facing deliverability issues (and so, more tickets submitted to mailbox providers and longer waits for issue resolution) because:

  • Everyone is sending more emails than ever, but mailbox providers don’t magically have the ability to build out their infrastructure to handle that extra volume – they may have issues accepting and processing so much mail at once.
  • Spam filters may be more aggressive because of the above – or there could be more false positives due to the massive amounts of spam coming in from various sources and offenders.
  • Brands looking to recoup lost revenue from brick and mortar sales may get overly aggressive with their marketing, digging deeper into their inactive bases, purchasing lists or implementing bad sending practices.
  • There are more brands than ever who are doing email marketing for the first time, and they may have faulty list collection or targeting just like all the other senders we see facing issues.

Those statistics regarding the political emails are astounding. Seems like email overkill, but it’s understandable why candidates want as much material going out to potential voters as possible. Given the large increase in overall sending, what tools would you recommend marketers use to prepare for holiday sending, and to monitor performance?

When it comes to monitoring performance, your past self is going to be your best indicator.

Regularly review all of the stats available within your ESP – both the positive signals like open and click rates, conversions – but also the negative ones like spam complaints, unsubscribes and bounces.

Particularly if you’re going to be getting more aggressive, targeting more inactive users than normal, or increasing your sending frequency – watch those stats like a hawk. If you’re seeing any bounces that aren’t invalid addresses, track the patterns to identify if you’re being blocked by one particular network – and work to understand the signals they give in their bounce message. They provide a lot of valuable information in those messages to help you understand what’s going on, and your ESP can help provide further context and recommendations.

Also take advantage of the data that is available directly from the Mailbox Providers, such as Google Postmaster tools and Microsoft’s SNDS. While these tools won’t tell you what’s going on with other networks, they do give you feedback – directly from the horse’s mouth – about what they think of you as an email sender.

If you happen to have a budget for paid 3rd party monitoring tools, like the ones available in Kickbox’s deliverability suite, you can have greater insight into your IP and domain reputation, how many spam traps you might be hitting, if your emails are making it through common spam filters and so much more.

Very true. Data points are something I feel that some senders gloss over – only focusing on one or two areas – as opposed to the bigger picture. One example would be list quality. In relation to sender data and for your email verification products specifically – how do you see customers leveraging those services for the holidays?

The two best use cases I’ve seen for verification around the holidays are:

  1. If you’re doing a re-engagement campaign, or sending to some recipients on your list who you only target around the holidays, email verification can help you remove any addresses that may have gone invalid since you last contacted them, helping reduce your hard bounce rate.
  2. Implementing real-time verification at the point of capture is an under-utilized but powerful way to ensure you collect a valid email address from anyone who’s trying to join your mailing list, or more importantly – make a purchase.

Even if the customer is the one who entered their email address incorrectly, if they don’t receive a purchase confirmation from you, they may have to follow up with support – which means more work for your team – but it could also lead to a bad experience with your brand, that they will hold against you, at no fault of your own. Implementing real-time verification would increase the likelihood that you capture a correct address, greasing the wheels for an easy start to your relationship, and allowing you to stay in contact with them in the future.

This is a great way to show the importance of list quality and the benefits of email verification. Can you give us a brief overview of Kickbox’s functionality and how it helps customers with deliverability and data challenges?

You can be alerted to issues as they happen, as Kickbox can get information via APIs from mailbox providers. This tool can provide more granular data (such as actual bounce logs), and drill down views into specific events. Also, the tool has key data points already included (such as Google Postmaster Tools, SNDS) and blocklists. The pre-check section gives insight into inbox placement. There are also design previews that can visualize campaigns across email clients for links and potential sending issues. The DMARC tool allows for confidence around domain security and authentication, and we have lots of learning resources as well.

Wow! That’s quite the robust offering of products. How do your reputation and monitoring systems differ from competitors in terms of functionality?

In a lot of ways, they’re actually pretty similar. Most of these third party monitoring products are plugging in a multitude of data points related to reputation, service provider metrics and other forms of testing to try and define that ever-elusive “inbox placement rate”. How we differ is mainly in our approach to how we display that information.

We aim to provide relevant information that allows senders who are busy doing many other things to know when they have a deliverability issue that needs their attention, and when they’re seeing a red flag that does not impact their delivery. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve had a client worried about a listing that they were notified about by the other guys, with zero context about the fact that they are a specific type of sender and so the listing likely has little to no effect on their inbox placement.

Our goal is ultimately to let people have a thumbs up or thumbs down view on their deliverability for the day. Are there issues you need to tackle today – immediately? Things to look into sometime soon? Or things that simply aren’t worth your time because they’re not impacting your ability to hit the inbox, at all.

This is how I see us being different from the other guys.

To touch more on functionality – I’ve been doing some poking around on Kickbox’s site and your Deliverability Suite has a lot of great features and looks like it provides detailed insights into key areas of deliverability (such as reputation, inbox placement, authentication for example). What is the feature you are most excited about, and how do you feel senders can use these tools to their full potential?

That’s a tough one – it’s a toss-up between our real-time alerts, and our spam trap network.

Alerts are far and away the feature that most people who’ve seen and used the deliverability suite tend to get excited about. Because it’s rare that any email marketer we deal with is just sending emails and monitoring deliverability. They tend to be juggling a whole lot more than that. So our alerts allow them to comfortably work on other things, knowing that we’ll tap them on the shoulder as soon as something interesting happens.

Particularly for DMARC – you can go months without authentication failures happening. And then overnight, someone starts spoofing your brand and your dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree. Our alerts allow you to publish a DMARC record, set up some alerts, and know that as soon as any of your mail starts failing, you’ll be the first to know. Aside from the mailbox providers, that is.

On the other hand, I love our spam trap monitoring. The network of traps is massive, and you can track trends over time, and again – even be alerted – if you all of a sudden have a spike in spam trap hits, or see them increasing over time.

Spam traps don’t always lead to a deliverability issue – but they are a great indicator for when your list collection or maintenance practices are in need of improvement. We provide drilled down information about when you’re hitting traps, using what IPs and sending domains, and even the Subject lines. Plenty of information to trace your issue back to the source and plug up the hole where spam traps are entering your list.

In a related question, what was the inspiration for moving into the seed-list/inbox tool realm?

Quite honestly, people rely on seed testing as a standard part of their deliverability monitoring process. In fact, more people are using it than I think I ever realized. A lot of marketers are relying on inbox placement testing to give them a percentage data point that tells them if they’re going to the inbox or not. While it’s not nearly that simple – seed testing is a helpful tool for identifying trends – once you’ve been tracking your seed testing results at Hotmail, and Gmail and other top providers you send to, you can build a baseline.

So if you’re typically seeing 80% inbox placement with Hotmail on a consistent basis, and one or two campaigns drop to 30 or 40%, it’s a good cue to look deeper into your stats – to find out if your open rates are down at that Hotmail compared to other mailbox providers you send to, as well as compared to open rates at Hotmail on past campaigns.

Are there any other product offerings in the future that you may be able to briefly touch on?

We’ve got a lot going on right now at Kickbox! We are continuing to build out our deliverability suite with more features, more tools, and more insights based on the data that’s coming from someone’s sending platform – feedback from postmaster tools, our spam trap network, authentication and blocklist monitoring on their IPs and domains. Having real-time alerting features to pull it all together and keep our customers informed at the first sign that something is amiss in the land of deliverability.

Over time, I see us building a bit of a hybrid model – where we provide things like results from seed testing, but pair them with reality. So if someone sees 100% spam folder placement with Gmail within their seed testing, we can say hold on – we’ve reviewed your open rates at Gmail over the last three months, and also compared them to other destinations you sent to today – and we don’t see any changes in your Google Postmaster Tool data – essentially everything looks normal. Don’t freak out!

We’re also currently developing improvements for our email verification product. I can’t speak too much about these just yet, but you’ll see some information coming out soon, so stay tuned for that.

In my daily experiences, I see many senders who think that there’s a one-size fits all plan to improve their data quality and deliverability when that is simply not the case. Issues vary from sender to sender, as does data quality. What are the top “myths” or misconceptions that you run into in regards to list cleansing, email verification/validation, and spam traps?

There are some very big misconceptions around email verification.

First, I’d say the first one is that email verification cannot create permission where actual consent from the recipient hasn’t been given. Just because a list has been validated, and an email address exists, doesn’t mean the subscribers want to receive your emails. Permission should always come first.

Secondly, list validation can’t make up for a lack of engaging content. A permission-based, validated list can still see poor results if the content of the emails aren’t relevant and providing value to subscribers

Third, and potentially the one that provides the most confusion: email verification should never be seen as a way to remove spam traps from a poorly built list, because there is absolutely no way to find each and every individual spam trap out in the email world. There are millions – probably billions of spam traps around the world today, with a goal of catching email senders who have faulty list collection and management practices. The whole point is that they are kept secret. ISPs and anti-spam agencies never disclose them.

Is it possible to identify spam traps? Sure. Most people in the industry have stumbled upon some at some point while doing a deliverability investigation. But telling customers that you can remove every single spam trap from their list – including ones from ISPs, and very credible sources like Spamhaus – it’s simply not possible. In fact, it’s downright misleading.

What you’ll see in that scenario is a marketer spending thousands of dollars on what they believe is now a perfectly clean list, free from spam traps – when in reality, they’re still going to hit spam traps when they hit send, so the risk to deliverability is still there. Focus on the reason why you have traps on your list in the first place, instead of trying to clean up the mess you’ve made with your list by having faulty practices.

Looking into the last part of 2020 and into 2021, what sort of trends have you seen as of late in terms of deliverability?

Engagement continues to play a bigger part in inbox placement decisions than ever before. All mailbox providers apply user reactions to their filtering in one way or another – even if they’re only monitoring for user complaints – but at the end of the day, all mailbox providers are aiming to deliver only valuable, wanted content to their user’s inboxes. And they are getting more and more sophisticated in how they do this every day.

As a final question – Given all of your experiences with email and deliverability – do you have any sage advice for email marketers looking to improve their deliverability and change their practices?

Start now! Start anywhere! There are so many factors that impact inbox placement, and just as many ways to improve your deliverability. There is no silver bullet with deliverability – it’s more like a dashboard with a ton of levers and dials you can adjust. The key is to implement as many best practices as possible up front – before you have an issue.

Follow your stats to know what you need to improve first – whether that be list collection, list management, authentication, more engaging content, you name it. Don’t wait until you’re going to spam or getting blocked – otherwise the journey to deliverability success becomes much harder.

As Laura Atkins says:

You can’t fix a reputation issue by focusing on reputation. You need to focus on the practices behind that reputation, and work to optimize as many of them as possible.