Read Time: 8 min

The Root Cause of Poor Email Deliverability: Webinar Recording + Q&A


Being blocked and blocklisted should be far less common than they are today, when 34% of marketers have been blocked and nearly 15% have been blocklisted in the past 12 months, according to Litmus’ 2017 State of Email Deliverability report.

After examining the subscriber acquisition, permission, inactivity management, and other practices of more than 3,500 marketers, we’ve identified the root causes of poor inbox placement. We’ve also identified the half-measures marketers take to avoid addressing those root causes.

In this webinar, Research Director Chad White and deliverability expert and Litmus Product Manager Jay Brangiforte discuss the various ways that marketers try to improve their poor email deliverability and which ones work best.

Didn’t make the webinar? That’s ok. We recorded the whole thing. Watch the recording above and download the slides below:


We didn’t have time to get to all of the questions during the live webinar, but we’ve answered them here on our blog. Have any additional questions about fixing poor email deliverability? Please leave them in the comments.

What’s the difference between being blocked and blocklisted?

Chad: Blocking happens at the inbox provider level. For instance, Gmail might block all of your email, while you don’t have any trouble with delivery to your subscribers at Yahoo! Mail,, and elsewhere.

Blocklists are run by third-parties, and inbox providers use blocklists to varying degrees to help make their blocking decisions. For instance, being blocklisted by Spamhaus, which is a very powerful blocklist, will likely lead to your emails being blocked at multiple inbox providers. However, there are lots of smaller, less influential blocklists where being listed won’t immediately cause trouble.

Where can we check to see if we’re blocklisted?

Jay: There are many places you can go to run a blocklist check, however you will want to use a comprehensive tool that will index many domain and IP blocklists in one pass. Litmus Spam Testing runs a comprehensive check on both your IP addresses and sending domains via a simple email submission. We will also assign an impact value to any blocklist listing that we find you on. While there are many blocklists out there, some blocklists carry far more weight and trust than others, thus are implemented by more receivers.

There are other tools such as MX ToolBox that can scan across a wide variety of blocklists. Another great place to look is if you have direct access to your mail logs. Often times when you are being blocked, the receiver may reference a blocklist directly in the bounce code you receive.

What is the best way to avoid going to the Gmail Promotions tab and go to the Inbox instead?

Chad: First, the Promotions tab is the inbox. Whether it’s in Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, or another tabbed inbox interface, being in one of those tabs is making to the inbox.

Second, being in the Primary tab does not guarantee more success than being in the Promotions or another tab. You really want to be in the tab where subscribers expect to find your message. Back in 2013, in the wake of Gmail’s rollout of tabs, I wrote about why you shouldn’t ask your Gmail subscribers to re-tab your emails. I stand by that advice today.

And third, Google has demonstrated repeatedly that it doesn’t appreciate it when brands—even other Google brands—game their search and email algorithms. If you try to trick Gmail into putting your email in an inappropriate tab, be prepared to suffer retaliations.

Keeping all of that in mind, if you’re concerned about the appropriate tab placement of an email, Litmus has a tool that will tell you which Gmail tab your email appear under.

Are all of these instructions valid for transactional emails also or is there some difference?

Chad: Transactional emails do have special issues and considerations. In general, you should be extra careful with your transactional emails. You should be sending them from a separate IP address and domain than you do your marketing or corporate emails. That helps protect the reputation of your transactional emails, which you never, ever want to have any deliverability issues because of their mission-critical nature.

Beyond that, you do want to be sure that you’re authenticating these emails, and I’d argue encrypting them as well since they may contain personal transactional information. That said, you don’t need to enable list-unsubscribe for transactional emails, since they don’t have to carry an unsubscribe link.

Do you have examples of email address verification services?

Chad: The most popular email address verification service providers noted in our 2017 State of Email Deliverability report include BriteVerify and FreshAddress.

Do you always want to remove hard bounces? Do you need to look at the bounce reason?

Chad: Generally, you will want to remove all hard bounces immediately, but soft bounces don’t need to be instantly removed. Here’s a full discussion of the difference between a hard and soft bounce.

Don’t most ESPs take care of including SPF, DKIM, and DMARC code in outgoing emails on their clients’ behalf?

Jay: In many cases, documentation will be provided to you by your email service provider, but it will be up to you to implement the DNS records per their instructions. In some configurations, your ESP might control the SPF record needed, or may include a second signature to ensure that DKIM is signed and other tracking purposes.

Is it better to have the unsubscribe on the top or on the bottom of the emails?

Chad: You should always have an unsubscribe link at the bottom of your emails, because that’s where we’ve trained subscribers to look for it. That said, you can always have an additional unsubscribe link at the top of your emails. I think it’s most appropriate to do that for your welcome email(s) and reengagement emails, which are sent at email relationship pivot points when you’d much prefer an unsubscribe to a spam complaint.

Jay: I would actually recommend putting it at the top versus the bottom. That way it’s immediately visible without any scrolling needed. Unsubscribe rates may see a spike initially, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Do you think chronically inactive subscribers will be taken more into consideration in the future for email practices?

Chad: Subscriber engagement is already highly considered at most major inbox providers, with Gmail leading the way. I don’t think the bar will rise much higher.

However, marketers continue to lag in adjusting to the guidance provided by inbox providers. Brands need to do a much better job at managing their inactive subscribers through reengagement campaigns, reduced email frequencies, and ultimately re-permission campaigns and removal.

Can you briefly discuss the direct mail option for email list growth—the best process or considerations, etc.?

Chad: The biggest problem with asking for folks to sign up for email via direct mail is transcribing a handwritten email address. Transcription error rates can be very high—around 50% or higher. The solution is to not have return mail cards that you use for email signups.

Instead, set up an email signup page with a friendly, easy-to-type URL. For instance, Litmus has a newsletter signup page at Then use that as your call-to-action for email signups in your direct mail and catalogs.

Can you rank the importance of each cause of not making it to the inbox or even going “missing”?

Jay: Each inbox provider has its own algorithm as to how they weigh the importance of various factors when making a decision on placement. The best approach is to remove as many variables about your email program up front as you can, since many factors are dynamic from campaign to campaign, such as complaints and bounces.

First focus on the ones that you can implement immediately like authentication. Getting these out of the way first is important, because you can now take these factors out of the equation when trying to figure out the real root cause of your issues. Removing inactive subscribers is another easily implemented change to a program that can see benefit. Things like spam complaints and hard bounces might take a bit more effort since you’ll want to first look into the sources of where those issues arise.

Chad S. White

Chad S. White

Chad S. White was the Research Director at Litmus