The Deliverability Series is a collection of conversations intended to shed light on the intricate nature of email deliverability and compliance. In this segment, Brad Gurley shares how his team provides deliverability services at WhatCounts, several email delivery best practices, and his thoughts around the ongoing email engagement conversation.
Brad Gurley has over 10 years of experience in email marketing, with a focus on email deliverability and ISP relations. At WhatCounts, he oversees the deliverability of three application platforms and provides delivery strategy for the organization. He’s responsible for identifying and resolving large-scale delivery issues and coordinating communication with ISPs and blacklist providers.
I’ve worked for ESPs for about 11 years now. I stumbled into email marketing and latched on to email deliverability as a specialty. I worked for 2 previous email service providers, and now I’m with WhatCounts as the Director of Deliverability. I manage all email deliverability related functions for our core product and delivery services.
What type of problems do you typically solve?
A typical problem we run into is mail not getting delivered, to over-simplify it. Mail blocks, blacklists causing deliverability issues, and mail not going to the inbox - whether it’s going to the spam folder, getting blocked, or if there’s some sort of infrastructure issue that’s causing the problem.
Do you have team members who handle the day-to-day activities?
Like most Delivery teams, ours is split into different roles. One role is tasked with internal, core deliverability issues. For instance, if one of our shared IPs is on a blacklist or we have an infrastructure issue that doesn’t involve a specific sender. Another role has responsibility for deliverability services interactions. My role is to oversee these areas while also digging into more complicated and widespread problems like policy and enforcement that may be more managerial. However, I still do deep diving and hands-on work with clients on a regular basis.
Is it normal that some clients need more hand holding than others?
Yes, definitely. We have a number of clients who are pretty savvy when it comes to email deliverability - they know what metrics they want. But we also have just as many who don’t understand deliverability, and that’s what we’re here for. Across our team we have nearly 20 years of experience in email deliverability. That experience really allows us to lead the way and actually educate our clients, rather than just saying, "We’ve fixed the problem."
The absolute best practice is to send timely relevant email to people who have asked you for it.
Do you find it is hard to educate people on best practices for deliverability?
Most of the time it’s not so hard to educate as it is to get through to the right person. Many marketing practices are set by people who don’t work directly with email. When you get the true marketers - the ones who have their hands in the email all day - they often have a lot more sway with other people who are making decisions. The people who deal with email everyday know what’s going on, but when we provide them with guidance around their practices it may be above their head to get it fixed. Maybe a policy shift is needed, and that has to come from above.
What do you see as being a client’s biggest pain point?
I think there are really two. For clients who really don’t know about deliverability, it’s just them not having any insight. Basically being in the dark as to what delivery even is, and knowing that it matters but not knowing how to tell if it’s good or not. How to measure it and how it really matters is where a need for better education exists.
For the people who understand delivery and know the best practices, the biggest pain point is understanding that deliverability is a moving target. There’s never a list of things that will accomplish great deliverability. For example, "Here are 4 things, do these and you will make it to the inbox." If we’re sending email to people that want to receive it, and we're doing it in a smart way, then that’s what’s really going to drive good deliverability.
Most of the people we work with are very busy. They don’t have the resources to try different things and test on their end, so we try to provide as much of that as we can. But once the testing is done, there’s usually something on the marketer’s end that needs to be fixed, or at least adjusted.
How do you vet whether marketers are good senders or not?
Part of our sales process includes a questionnaire where we get a lot of data around their opt-in practices and how they’ve been sending. We also get an idea of their current metrics. Then there’s usually a conversation around that as well so we can confirm everything: "Where are your contacts coming from? How are you mailing to them? What are your sending patterns?" We want to find out how they run their email business and compare that against our guidelines. We then determine whether they would be best suited for a dedicated IP or a shared IP environment, based on volume.
We have an onboarding process that starts everything off and I try to have a conversation with every onboarding client. We first want to confirm everything we need to know about them, and then share with them what we want them to know about email deliverability. The more hands-on we can be with a new client, the more quickly we can spot and address potential concerns.
We pride ourselves in having a robust delivery services organization. There are a lot of services out there that you can just sign up and do everything yourself, but we are geared as a more services-based organization. We have the tools, but we also want to be able to help clients use them better.
What are your thoughts on the ongoing conversation around email and engagement?
It’s been discussed a lot that engagement is a major factor for big ISPs. Especially over the last couple of months, since new information has come to light, including Hotmail saying that they limit the amount of engagement tracking they do. Even so, it still stands to reason that other ISPs are using that data.
As marketers, we have access to open data, click data, and if people purchase on our website, but we don’t have access to what ISPs have access to. Did someone move your message into a folder? Did they open a message and leave it open for an hour? Conversely, ISPs don’t have access to the information we have access to, such as if purchases are made on your website, or if a subscriber requests information from you in a different format.
So all of the engagement metrics we have, although they are different, are still pointing to the same goal. If someone is actively engaged with your emails then that’s who you want to be mailing to the most. Not just from a standpoint of "If I follow this rule, then this will happen", but from a business standpoint you want to know that your customers are engaged with you.
There are all sorts of ways to work with customers who aren’t engaged, whether it’s re-engagement campaigns, or reducing frequency to those [unengaged] people. All of these things aren’t designed to just say "I’m following deliverability rules" ; they also fall inline with most people's business goals.
If we’re sending email to people that want to receive it, and we're doing it in a smart way, then that’s what’s really going to drive good deliverability.
What email best practices do you think are the most important to deliverability?
The absolute best practice is to send timely relevant email to people who have asked you for it. That’s a very broad answer, but in practice one of the best things you can do is to get people interested in your email. Don’t go out and scrape someone’s address off the internet and assume they want your email. Get the opt-in, and set the expectations. We have so many marketers who are getting opt-ins, but they aren’t setting expectations about what type of email you’ll be getting or the frequency you’ll be receiving it. These things are important not just because you want to avoid spam complaints and delivery problems, but you want to make sure you’re sending people what they want to receive. Have a preference center that lets customers say "I’m interested in these 3 products." Then, you know what they’re interested in, and you know they’re going to be engaged. Those are the types of things that don’t just help delivery, but they help business overall.
What is your biggest pain point when it comes to email deliverability?
I think for me the biggest pain point is not having all of the data needed from an ISP. That’s one of the things that over the past few months has really picked up. We’ve really gotten a lot of insight from some ISPs lately, but that’s just a subset. There are so many more out there that don’t provide a lot of information back, or don't provide it in an understandable way. ISPs don’t want nefarious people to be able to glean data and go around the system, and understandably so. But at the same time, legitimate senders need to know what they’re doing wrong. That’s why we’re in business and why I have a job in delivery; so much of what we do is around noticing patterns, testing, and iterating.
It would be great to get more data back from ISPs, to just have an open dialogue with them and say, "What are we doing that we could do better?" Not just "What can we do to avoid the spam folder?", but "What can we do that’s going to help you [the ISP] and your recipients?" That’s also going to help us because we’ll be able to get our content in. Consistency in reporting across ISPs is certainly lacking, and that causes some pain as well.
For the people who understand delivery, and know the best practices, the biggest pain point is understanding that deliverability is such a moving target.
If there was one area of deliverability that you could automate, what would it be?
The ability to give clients more insight. To have a client say, "When I looked at my email metrics today I saw my bounce rates went up, and the open rates went down, inbox placement decreased. I have a dashboard of reports that tells me the trends that went up and down, and what I can do about it."
An automated way to say, "Here’s what it looks like at a glance."
If one thing could happen in the email space to make it better, what would that be?
Increased communication is the biggest thing. There are a handful of organizations out there, as well as conferences and meetups, and there’s really an open dialogue in the email deliverability space. Now we’re seeing a little of that from the ISPs. There’s been some improvement recently, but I would love to see that continue to grow with the mindset of wanting to work together to actually make the email space better, not to just avoid filters. We don’t want to take the back way in; we want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing and benefiting both parties.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share with email marketers?
The one thing I would say is that the perception of the email deliverability space isn’t always on point. Many senders think "You can give me these one, two, or three things and we’ll never have a deliverability problem," while many on the ISP or anti-spam side think, "You’re just trying to get around spam filters. You’re trying to figure out a way to skirt the rules." In reality, deliverability is neither of those things. Deliverability is really all about getting mail to the people that want it, and ideally not getting mail to those that don’t. We want to make sure that the mail that people are asking for is what’s getting delivered to them. I don’t want to get mail delivered to someone who doesn’t want it, and pretty much everyone I know who works in deliverability shares that sentiment.
If you enjoyed this post, check out the other Deliverability Series: