TAM 060: ActiveCampaign Deliverability With Jon Maldia
We chat about email deliverability, the factors that go into it, what you can control what you can't control and a few best practices.
Email deliverability is a bit like like SEO, there are a lot of moving parts and it is constantly changing. There are many factors that go into determining deliverability, some of which you have control over and some you don't.
We cover many of the things you can control and some of the best practices you want to engage in to make sure that your are getting the best deliverability out of your email marketing.
We Chat About:
- Factors that go into deliverability
- Tools to use
- Best practice
- IP reputation
- Domain reputation
- Contact interaction
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Links Mentioned In The Show
- The Active Marketer Academy
Barry: Well, you learn something new every day, Jon, because I didn't even know AOL was still in business.
Jon: I don't even know what they do really.
Barry: Yeah, exactly.
Announcer: Welcome to The Active Marketer podcast, where we talk about how to design, automate and scale your business to the next level using sales and marketing automation. You can find out all the tips, tactics and techniques you need to get more customers and sell more stuff over at theactivemarketer.com.
Now, here's your host, Barry Moore.
Barry: Welcome to The Active Marketer podcast. I'm your host, Barry Moore and this is the podcast that's all about sales funnels and marketing automation.
This week, we're gonna talk about a hot topic that always seems to come up when people talk about marketing automation and different email service providers and that's deliverability.
What kind of sparked this topic for this week was, recently Gmail made a bit of an algorithm change to how they filter their emails for spam when they hit the inbox. A lot of people who were getting to the inbox disappeared out of the inbox, either to the promotions tab or straight to the spam folder. And when that happened, open rates went down everywhere and people started pointing fingers. So I decided to get Jon from Active Campaign, the Head of Delivery over at Active Campaign, to talk a little bit about deliverability: what elements go into deliverability, what you can control, what you can't control, i.e. Gmail changing their algorithm, and some things you can do to give yourself the best chance of hitting that inbox.
Let's get into this week's episode with Jon Maldia from Active Campaign.
All right. I'd like to welcome to the show Jon from Active Campaign, Head of Deliverability over there. Jon, welcome.
Jon: Hey. Thank you. Thanks for having me here.
Barry: Now, I see a lot of discussions around deliverability, in our private Facebook group, and in my private community as well, and there seems to be something that has a lot of misconceptions around it and nobody seems to really know what the story is. It seems like a dark art.
I'd love to get you on and have a chat about kind of a lot of different things, but what is deliverability, how do you guys track it over there at Active Campaign, and some of the things that might be in your control or out of your control when it comes to deliverability as a sender.
Let's just start there. What is deliverability? How do you guys define it over there at Active Campaign?
Deliverability is really one of those terms that's really there and enigmatic. Even people that are in the ESP space, it's still a little bit fuzzy for them. But, depending on who you're talking to, if you're talking to an ESP, they might be referring to the health of the servers, if you're talking to somebody who's sending, they might be referring to their open rates. But general speaking, especially for the sake of your audience here in this podcast, I think we can define deliverability as the concept of sending email marketing to the inbox. There's definite factors that affect deliverability. We can't wrap it into one thing, but there's a lot of factors that we have to be aware of when it comes to deliverability. Some of them the ESP can control and then some of them, as a sender, you could control. Some of those things are IP reputation, content, bounce and spam complaints, contact interaction, list quality.
I think the other thing that people should know about when it comes to deliverability is that it's a very fickle thing. It changes all the time. What may work one day, may not work the other day. That's probably one of the biggest misconceptions is that … because we get that a lot. We get tickets where somebody would come in and come to us complaining that they were sending this type of email a month ago and now it's not going through. It's possible there's been changes in ISP rules, spam rules and all that stuff.
Barry: Yeah, it seems to be like the email equivalent of SEO. Nobody really is sure. All [inaudible 00:04:43] there's like a million moving parts under the hood and nobody-
Jon: Yeah, exactly.
Barry: … nobody's really sure what they all are, number one. And number two, the change, as you said, they're constantly changing all the time.
Barry: As an ESP yourself, an email service provider, what do you guys measure and what do you try and control as far as … you can't control everything, obviously, but what things are you measuring, what things are you looking at, what things are you trying to control on your end to maximise deliverability for your customers?
We take a holistic approach when it comes to anything that we do, really, and especially with deliverability. I also throw in compliance to that so we take a holistic approach. What that means is that instead of just looking at one specific metric, like some people would just look at open rates and stuff, we also look at other stuff. So in terms of managing our IPs, which is a primary concern for us, we monitor blacklist, we have several alerts that are in place that tells us if there are any spam configs coming in, feedback, loops and stuff like that.
In terms of controlling what comes out of our platform, we start with our terms of service. They're very rigid, they're probably a little too strict for some. We have certain content types that we don't allow and then in terms of the email sense and even imports, we have automatic and manual checks in place. For example, our campaign approvals, all emails that are sent through us go through an approval system that has a 100 checks and then if certain things get triggered, then we would put that on a manual approval. Not all accounts would get manually approved, but we do check a certain portion of the emails that come through so that we are ensuring that everybody's in compliance.
Barry: Just a couple of things to loop back to that. You do have, I won't say rigid, but they're probably more rigid than others as far as terms of service go. What's the thinking behind that? What's the reason behind that? Is it just that you want to maximise your deliverability or you just build your company with customers you want to have and not customers you don't want to have?
Jon: It's a combination of those things plus we've been in business for 13 years, little over 13 years, so we've had a lot of experience in terms of what types of content we should allow, we shouldn't allow. Every year we probably turn away about millions of dollars in revenue because we want to make sure that our clients' experience is top-notch. If we just allow anybody to send to us, then people that are good senders would just suffer. I would say it's mainly a combination of what you said and also the experience that we have when it comes to deliverability and compliance.
Barry: Yeah, and if you allow a lot of spamy douche bags, to be blunt, to use your platform, it's just gonna hurt deliverability for everybody as well, right?
Barry: One thing I want to loop back to is that manual approval process, because I've seen this from your customers all the time. Can you just confirm, if you have a brand new account, all those people go on manual approval for the first few sends. Is that correct?
Jon: Yeah, that's correct. Every new campaign that gets sent on a new account gets manually approved. However, we don't contact all the accounts that get manually approved.
Just a little tip in terms of making sure that everything is in order when you first send your emails. I would suggest that when you import your list, we ask three questions on the import questions. Be as detailed as possible when it comes to that, because usually that's what we look at. If your content is okay and then you have those detailed answers to those import questions then we would just let those emails go. Even though they go on manual approval, it doesn't necessarily mean that we'll contact you because of that.
Barry: I just wanted to bring that up because lots of people in the Automation Nation Facebook group, they get a new AC account and they go to send and it's delayed for 20-30 minutes, whatever, because they're unaware of the fact that the first few sends have to go through a manual approval process.
Is there a way for people to streamline that if they have a big send coming up and they want to get pre-approval of it. Is there a way to do that?
Jon: Currently, we don't have any pre-approval. We've [inaudible 00:09:59] some feedback on that and that's something that we're considering. I would say that the only thing they could really do for the mean time is what I suggested. Just be very detailed in terms of what answers you have in the import questions that we have.
Another thing that you could possibly do would be to send us a ticket, just make us aware of what you're going to be doing, that “We're gonna be sending this. Do you have any questions?” And we could possibly help you out with that. Then any answers that you have we can put on the account notes. That's not a guarantee that the emails won't be delayed and we try to be as quick as possible with that, but we also have to analyse the email just to make sure that everything's in order.
Barry: Okay. Cool.
Just looping back to the deliverability bit in keeping your servers clean. What would hurt your servers as far as getting them on a blacklist, as you said you're checking blacklists all the time. What would put them on a blacklist or what would damage their reputation as a sending IP? What are the elements that go into that?
Jon: There's a lot of things that could effect that. Some of the main things that would effect that would be spam complaints. That's probably the main cause there. Also, if we have senders that are using domains that are blacklisted in the emails, that could also have an effect on the emails. If, for whatever reason, some malicious sender slips through, that might be another cost for an IP to be blacklisted.
Barry: And if somebody wanted to essentially check or essentially scrub their messages before they send them, I'd like to check for those blacklisted domains, are there good sites or good tools that they can use to do that, to make sure they give themselves the best chance before they hit send?
Jon: Yes, definitely. The one that I use all the time is MxToolbox. If you just put in the domain or an IP that you're using, you could check if that domain or IP is blacklisted.
There's also another site, I believe it's called [multivare 00:12:25] that work. That's another site where it checks a tonne of blacklist organisations.
And then in terms of cleaning up and scrubbing your list, there's a few different sites, especially if you have an old list, that could scrub those lists of any bad emails. If you send to an old list, one of the main things that might happen is that you'll get a tonne of bounces, so in order for you to get rid of those bad emails, you could go to those list cleaning sites. One that we usually recommend is BriteVerify.
Barry: Sorry, what was the name of that one?
Jon: BriteVerify. It's B-R-I-T-E-V-E-R-I-F-Y.
Barry: Okay. Cool.
So moving on, we touched on it a little bit in that there's a lot of elements that go into deliverability, but if I'm a sender, what are the major elements that kind of go into deliverability, just so I'm aware of them, and which ones are in my control and which ones are just completely outside of my control.
Jon: Sure. Yeah.
In terms of what's out of your control, I'll touch on that little bit, the IP repetition, that's out of a senders control. The only thing that you could really do in terms of that would be to contact us if we haven't dealt with that already. That would be very helpful for us to know that you noticed that there are some blocks on it. Another thing that might not be under your control would be domain reputation. So if you're using a different domain on your email, maybe you're linking to it or something, if that's blacklisted, you don't really have any control over that. Those are the two main things that you don't have any control over.
In terms of the elements that you have control over, there's probably three main things that is probably in a big umbrella called sender reputation. The three main things there would be: less quality, content, and then contact interaction. So in the past what ISPs looked at was mainly IP and domain reputation, but over the past several years they moved slowly away from that and have a more user based filtering. They rely heavily right now on content and contact interaction.
Those are the things that you really have to make sure that you're taking care of. If you have an email that you're deciding, you have to make sure that you have good image to text ratio, you're not using bad domains like email shorteners, making sure that the content that you're sending to your list is something that they opted in for.
And then in terms of contact interaction, you just want to make sure that your contacts are always engaged, doing your best making sure that their emails are open, having clicked throughs, forwards, stuff like that. Then for list quality, making sure that only contacts that are opted in are the ones in your list that you're sending to.
Barry: Okay. Maybe we can touch on a few of those just quickly. So the contact integration-
Barry: Interaction, sorry. Contact interaction, that's based off just those obvious things like opens and clicks and forwards and stuff.
Barry: And that's the number that comes up in your Active Campaign dashboard, right? Is that it? So this is like
67% engagement rate or whatever it is?
Jon: Yeah, that's correct.
With that interaction, it's anything that is done by the contact to the email, any sort of action within the email. That's why I mentioned, aside from opens and clicks, I also mentioned forwards, I also mentioned social share. Social share, that can also be considered a click. But just making sure that there's some sort of interaction between the contact and the email.
And then you mentioned content as well. Are there some high level guidelines to follow there?
Jon: Yeah, sure.
We have a good article on our site here, I could link that to you later on, that has several tips in terms of creating good content. I'm just gonna list a few things that people need to be aware of in terms of creating their content.
One of the main things that you probably would want to look at would be the spam checker. You want to make sure that you don't have any source … that's another misconception that people have that if they have a low score they feel, “Oh, I'm good.” So it's not really about having a low score or a high score. It's about having no score at all. Any score within that spam filter gives you a high probability that your email could get filtered. So you just want to make sure that anything that you see there that you take care of and you address. If it's something that you can't do anything about, then you could ignore it. There's still a probability, but if it's something that you can't avoid, you can't avoid that.
Another thing would be using single graphics. We still have clients that do that. You want to make sure that you have a good ratio of graphics and text. You don't want to just send a single graphic. One of the main reasons for that is that when ISPs look at your email, they try to look for patterns within the email and if they don't see any text there they can't really judge if that email is spamming or is not spamming.
Another thing that you would want to look at would be subject. Probably what you would want to do there is test your subject, see if it's something that would engage contacts or not.
Another thing that I mentioned would be link shorteners. Try to avoid that.
And then using a consistent from email address would also be one thing you want to look at in terms of content. When you have a consistent from address, that builds up the reputation and also gives a recognition to your contacts. When you're using a consistent from, your contacts would recognise your email and they know it would be a trusted sender.
Barry: Yeah, for sure.
Another interesting thing one of my colleagues found out with that spam score is that he was sending out emails with just a naked link pasted in there, you know https, whatever the URL address and since the link tracking in Active Campaign just replaces that anyway, the spam filters were seeing that as him trying to trick the spam filters by put … he's putting in one address, mysite.com, and Active Campaign's replacing it so what the spam filters are seeing is a URL that's been replaced by a different URL. So almost like the link shortening thing that you mentioned before. That was spiking his spam score, but if he just changed it to say ‘Click here' and then put the URL behind the words ‘Click here' or ‘Check this out' or whatever, then the spam score dropped dramatically.
And he was just trying to be open and honest about what links he was sending people to and the spam filters were actually punishing him a little bit for that. It was an interesting thing to experiment.
Jon: It's almost like fishing when it comes to email. I think I actually listened to that. Is that your podcast with Shaun?
Barry: Yeah, for sure.
They look at all that kind of stuff, the ISPs, so you want to make sure that even those little quirks you kind of test and see if it's getting filtered because of that. The ISPs want to make sure that they're transparent to their contacts or their users also.
Barry: Just a loop back question about that spam score.
In Active Campaign when you're setting up your campaign, you're setting up your email, you got that little spam score there. Is that a proprietary algorithm or are you just pulling that in from somewhere else so somebody can go and check in greater detail what's tripping those spam scores?
Jon: We actually use SpamAssassin-
Barry: SpamAssassin, right.
Jon: It's an open source platform or checker. If people want to take a closer look at what kinds of filters there are and what kinds of scores, they could just look up SpamAssassin and they should be able to find resources on that.
Barry: All right. Cool.
And lastly, what are some of the big misconceptions that you see out there that people have about deliverability?
Jon: I think the biggest misconception is that people think that deliverability only relies on the ISP or the ESP, that they don't … when they send that and there are any issues, that it's only the responsibility of the ESP to take care of deliverability.
That's really a bad misconception and something that could hurt your reputation, it could hurt your bottom line. I think when it comes to deliverability, we want to be aware of everything. Like I said before, it's a fickle thing, so you have to be aware of any changes, of any trends within deliverability. The common mistakes in terms of deliverability what people make would be having bad list management. You have to make sure that you take care of your list. Some people don't test, so if you don't you want to make sure that when you're sending you're also testing your emails. Make sure that you're getting the rates that you want.
In terms of advice, I think the main advice I would give to people would be to target and also to focus on segmenting and using tabs would be a great way of doing that.
Barry: Yeah and I think the biggest one is opens doesn't equal deliverability. Just because somebody didn't open your email, it doesn't mean it wasn't delivered to the inbox in the first place.
And there's an interesting thing, like you said, keeping up on all the latest trends and all the latest changes in the landscape. Very similar to how I see [Outworks 00:24:07] for web content. There's a lot of discussion around the usual places, the boards and the groups and things, just this last week about everyone's deliverability dropping dramatically and everyone's pointing fingers at whose fault it is. Eventually, I think, it got tracked back to the fact that Gmail just changed their spam algorithm quite substantially so that-
Barry: … a bunch of emails that used to be going into people's inboxes were now ending up in someone's spam folder or out of the inbox and into the promotions tab or whatever. I think people need to be aware that there's a lot of different layers that email goes to from the time you hit send and then it goes to the server and then it goes out through the server, then it gets handled by a bunch of other servers and then it ends up in someone's inbox and that inbox has an algorithm itself, and then this little subtle change to very much like SEO with Penguin and Panda and all those other updates, that little subtle algorithm change by Gmail all of a sudden killed people's deliverability … not really deliverability because message got there, but it ended up going to either spam folder or somewhere where it wasn't going previously and nobody knew what was going on.
You're right. It's changing landscape all the time and you can't possibly just point at one thing and say, “This is the be all and end all deliverability” because it's made up of so many different things.
Jon: Right. Exactly.
While you were mentioning Gmail, that also reminded me of what happened last year when it comes to AOL and Yahoo. They did the same thing. Basically implemented DMARC on their email so when that happened, people that were using Yahoo and AOL as their from email started getting their emails bounced. That's essentially what happened with Gmail as well. Although right now, they're not as [inaudible 00:25:59] as Yahoo and AOL when they did it. I think right now they're just soft failing it. If you have the marketing in place and that's usually when the bounces happen or the filtering happens, but we really have to be aware of that, keep up with the latest trends, the latest changes in deliverability.
Barry: Well, you learn something new every day Jon, because I didn't even know AOL was still in business.
Jon: I don't know what they do really.
Barry: Yeah. Exactly.
Jon: I just know that some people use AOL as their email address. But in terms of what their business model is, I don't know.
Barry: Welcome to 1985.
All right. Jon, I want to thank you so much for your time today and filling us in a little bit about what you guys look at as deliverability and what we should be looking at as deliverability. You mentioned a couple of resources there: MxToolbox, BriteVarify, SpamAssassin. Any other places people can go to learn a little bit more about deliverability and what they should and should not be doing?
Jon: Sure. There's a great blog that I usually go to to learn about trends and deliverability. It's called the wordtothewise.com/blog. That's a good resource when it comes to latest things in deliverability. You could also go to our help section and look for the deliverability section. We have articles there about improving open rates, what to do when you have high spam complaints, high abuses. That's a good place to go to.
And then you could also go to mail-tester.com for testing your email. A lot of people have been using that. A lot of our clients are using that right now. And it's a free tool, so it gives second there of testing, aside from the SpamAssassin tool that we have on the Campaigns.
Barry: Okay. Great. Cool.
Thank you so much for your time. I don't want to keep you anymore because I want you to go home and play with your kids. Thank you very much and we'll see you online.
I want to thank Jon for coming on and sharing his insights on deliverability with us. My challenge for you is to go find one thing in your marketing, in your emails, that you can change to increase your deliverability and your chance of hitting that inbox.
If you want to learn more about deliverability and marketing automation and sales funnels and how to put them to work in your business, you can join us at The Active Marketer Insiders, the private community for entrepreneurs and business owners just like you who want to learn more about sales funnels and marketing automation and how to put those powerful techniques and tactics to use in their business. You can find out more about the active marketer insiders and how to join over at theactivemarketer.com/members.
So until next week, get out there and design, automate and scale your business to the next level using sales and marketing automation. See ya, everybody.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Active Marketer podcast. You can find the show notes and all the latest marketing automation news over at theactivemarketer.com.