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Tips for Email Agencies: How to Coach and Train Your Clients on Deliverability


For many marketers, email deliverability is a daunting topic. While there’s no doubt about the importance of getting your email delivered to the inbox, the nitty gritty details and the technical nature of the topic often give marketers the shivers. No wonder many brands are turning to professional services—their email agency, for example—when facing deliverability questions.

But how can an agency help their clients with their deliverability problems? How do you troubleshoot your clients’ issues and how do you communicate ideas for improvements, especially if fixing deliverability issues means fundamental changes to a client’s email program?

Derek Harding knows these challenges well. As the CTO at Trendline Interactive, a full-service email marketing agency, he is responsible for the agency’s Technical Consulting and Platform Management teams—and for managing all deliverability-related customer questions.

We sat down with Derek to learn about Trendline Interactive’s approach to tackling clients’ deliverability challenges and to hear his tips on how agencies can train their clients on this tricky subject.

When starting off with a new client, how do you assess their current deliverability health? What tools do you use?

The key with any new client is to understand how they view deliverability, and make certain that everyone is in agreement on how it works and how it affects email programs. It’s critical  that everyone realizes that poor practices lead to poor deliverability which leads to poor campaign results. The challenge is that the causal relationship often takes a roundabout path which can lead to confusion and misunderstanding of the impact of behaviors on campaign and business results.

Poor practices lead to poor deliverability which leads to poor campaign results

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It’s important for everyone to be on the same page before analyzing and making recommendations. The recommendations for correcting deliverability challenges are often not very palatable and this helps ensure the client recognizes the value of any corrective action that’s required.

When performing a general deliverability audit at Trendline, we look at the client’s list and historical delivery data. This may come from them in the form of past delivery reports or from tools such as eDatasource’s panel. We look at list size, growth, and sources, as well as inbox, bounce, complaint, unsubscription, open, and clickthrough rates. Analysis of trends can be effective at identifying deliverability problems before they occur.

Sometimes a new client already has a specific deliverability issue that they’re looking to address. The starting point is to investigate and address the proximate causes (the blocklisting or situation under which bulking is occurring) as well as the root causes. Root causes are identified from the same data as a general deliverability audit.

What are the common deliverability issues that you see?

Bulking—getting your email delivered to the spam folder rather than the inbox—is the most common, followed by blocklisting by the Inbox provider (ISP), blocklisting by the Email Service Provider (ESP), and finally blocklisting by external lists (Spamhaus and the like).

A major challenge is that general bulking is both the most common challenge and the hardest to diagnose. This is one of the biggest reasons for distrust of deliverability experts. The complexity of Internet Service Providers (ISP) filters means that it is frequently impossible to identify specific root causes for such issues. Applying general best practices for  list acquisition and hygiene typically addresses the problem, but not being able to definitely state which behaviors are causal can reduce confidence.

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What are common misconceptions a client has in their understanding of deliverability?

Different clients have different misconceptions. The following are some of the most common in my experience.

    1. Their ESP is the problem

      Many customers think that switching ESPs, or even using multiple ESPs, will enable them to circumvent or ignore filtering issues. However, ISPs have become very adept at identifying senders across ESPs and IPs because spammers have been using the tactic for many years.

    2. ISPs will change if we explain it to them

      “Let me tell you about my business model” has become a cliché in deliverability circles for a reason. Even today, many customers believe that they deserve to be an exception and that ISPs will give them some kind of pass if they just explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. The truth is that ISPs are looking at how their customers are responding to your messages. That’s what matters to them and not the validity or novelty of your business model.

    3. Personal ISP relationships matter

      This is just out of date knowledge. It certainly used to be the case that knowing the postmaster at an ISP made an enormous difference. Today, however, ISP filters are complex, automated, often machine learning, systems. Postmasters no longer have the ability to individually allowlist senders or code in specific exceptions.

If a client has deliverability issues, what steps would you recommend to fix them?

It may sound simplistic and trite but there are three key elements:

  1. Fix infrastructure issues
  2. Clean their list
  3. Re-warm their IPs

First, ensure that your infrastructure, your authentication, DNS, bounce, and unsubscription handling etc., are set up and working correctly. In today’s world these are table stakes.

Next, make sure your list is in good shape. If necessary, perform list hygiene, re-permissioning, or even address removal. List hygiene maintenance is important. Fortunately, there are good solutions available to help clean up a list that has not been well maintained.

Finally, re-warm your IPs. i.e. rebuild your reputation. This is often overlooked. Fixing the underlying causes will not necessarily result in immediate resolution. It took time to create a poor reputation and it takes time to rebuild a good one.

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Who is responsible for a client’s deliverability: The agency or the client? Or does it vary?

It varies from client to client. Unfortunately, the most problematic clients are often also the ones that want to avoid the responsibility and who are least willing to make necessary changes.

The reality, of course, is that it is ultimately a shared responsibility. Good deliverability is heavily dependent on list quality, which always has a heavy client responsibility component. However, list usage and growth, as well as content and targeting, all play a part and the agency often has a lot of say in those areas.

If your client is responsible for monitoring their deliverability health going forward, how do you train them? How do you keep them up-to-date on the latest deliverability nuances?

Generally speaking, this isn’t an approach we take at Trendline. “Teach a man to fish” is a great mantra, but the reality is that clients are typically already overstretched in terms of resources, and deliverability monitoring and analysis is a complex technical task requiring significant experience and expertise.

In addition, given the troubleshooting nature of deliverability, clients only have an occasional need for deliverability support so it rarely makes financial sense for them to have a deliverability specialist on staff.

What do you do if you see your clients ignoring deliverability best practices that you’ve recommended?

This is why making sure that everyone is on the same page regarding deliverability is so important. Good deliverability is possible for any company that manages their email marketing effectively. The threat of blocking and bulking should not be an email marketing sword of Damocles.

Bad deliverability impacts a company’s brand and revenue. It’s also something which, if not addressed, gets worse rather than better. Ignoring best practices therefore tends to be a self-solving problem as the client becomes very motivated to address it once their campaign performance starts to suffer.

If you could give three tips for email marketers to help with their own or their client’s deliverability, what would they be?

There’s really just one overarching tip—look after your list.

  1. Take care how you collect it

    Like pouring dye into water, it’s hard to remove bad addresses once they’ve joined your list, so manage your sources and be careful what you add. Keep track of the provenance, age, and activity of every address on your list.

  2. Protect how it’s used

    These are your customers and prospects—what gets sent to your list members, how often, and by whom matters. Often there are competing priorities within an organization and the house list can get treated like a magic slot machine—pull the handle and money comes out. Over time this kind of behavior can reduce engagement and result in increased spam complaints.
    It’s also important to know if, when, and with whom, your list is shared. Quid pro quo list sharing can be very harmful to your future deliverability.

  3. Maintain it

    Keep it clean. Ensure that bounces are managed, unsubscribes are removed, and spam complaints suppressed. Also make sure that it’s used. Everyone on the list should receive email on a regular basis. This can become challenging with a large list and targeted messaging. If necessary, use a hygiene service.

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