Has your average email open rate taken a nosedive recently? There’s a good chance your content is not to blame. If you've started to wonder, "is my email going to spam?",  you’re on the right track. Your real problem is probably not content, it's more likely poor email domain reputation causing poor email deliverability. 

Did you know that 21% of legitimate marketing emails never make it to the inbox? For senders with the lowest email sender reputation scores, less than 1% of their email gets delivered! So how do you improve your email domain reputation? How do you make sure YOUR emails aren’t the ones that end up in SPAM? Let's find out.

In this article, we’ll first look at what tools you can use to diagnose a domain reputation issue and then how you can fix your issue with emails going to spam. For a deeper dive into why emails go to spam, check out our post: How Spam Filters Work (and how to stop emails going to spam).

Tools to check your email domain reputation

Google Postmaster Tools - Setting up Google Postmaster Tools is highly recommended for anyone who is serious about email marketing. It allows you to see exactly where you stand with the world’s largest email inbox provider on metrics like spam rate, email domain reputation and authenticated traffic. 

The only downside of Google Postmaster tools is it does require your to verify ownership of your domain to see your data.

SenderScore.org - Sender Score by Return Path is probably the best known service that tracks email sender reputations. The reputation of your email sending IP’s are scored on a scale of 0 to 100 based on data from Return Paths Reputation Network. 

According to Return Path: “senders scoring 91-100 (the best possible reputation score) saw 92 percent of their messages delivered to the inbox.” “For senders scoring 70 or below, only a small fraction of messages were actually delivered.”

Talos Intelligence - Produced by Cisco, Talos Intelligence ranks email senders from Good, Neutral to Poor. A Good ranking means there is minimal malicious or threatening traffic coming from your IP.

Reputation Authority - WatchGuard provides email protection and security against most known web threats. Reputation Authority also monitors IP reputation and will score your domain or IP from 1-100.

Barracuda Central - Barracuda Networks has a system called the Barracuda Reputation System that keeps a record of IP Address histories for both spammers and good senders. Using their lookup feature, you can check your domain reputation with real-time results. They will provide ratings of either “good” or “poor.”

TrustedSource - A service run by McAfee, TrustedSource provides a sender reputation score similar to the other tools.

Deliverability Audit - If you're a HubSpot user, you can detect signals of HubSpot deliverability issues by tracking open/click rates across email providers using the free Deliverability Audit tool. 

A simpler way to test email domain reputation

While not very scientific, an easy way to get an idea of where you stand with different email providers is to sign up for your own emails with a new email address. I recently ran an experiment where I subscribed to the email lists of several dozen companies using several different personal email addresses to see where their emails would land. 

While some companies’ welcome emails made it to my inbox or promotions, many went directly to spam. Keep in mind, these are welcome emails from well known companies, and their first email went straight to my spam folder. Not a great start.

I knew from prior research that all these companies use the same well-respected marketing automation platform for email delivery and that none of them had a dedicated sending IP. This means the results I was seeing were likely due to domain, not IP reputation. 

Why do emails go to spam?

Despite me explicitly requesting to be added to these companies’ email lists, Gmail’s spam filter had determined I was not going to miss emails from these brands if they put them in spam instead of my inbox. That's not a great place to be as a brand or marketer!

So why is gmail classifying these emails as spam? The message they tag spam with makes it pretty clear:

“Why is this message in spam? It is similar to messages that were identified as spam in the past.”

Email in spam

In the case of the message above, this was a legitimate transactional message from a new subscription service I had just joined. I had to dig it out of my spam folder because the companies email domain reputation was so poor that even their payment receipts end up in spam.

So how can you tell if your emails are actually being delivered?

You're probably wondering now, are MY emails going to spam?

Unfortunately, knowing if your companies emails are going to spam is more complicated than looking at the delivery rate in your marketing automation platform. An email can be “successfully delivered” to spam.

There’s a big difference between the “delivery rate” report in most email marketing programs and “email deliverability.” The delivery rate essentially is the number of emails that made it to the digital post office. I’ve seen many brands that have reported email delivery rates of 99%+ but still see their welcome emails to new subscribers going to spam.

So how can you tell if your domain reputation is causing emails to end up in spam?

Low Active Audience

Your active audience is the number of unique people that engaged with your email program in a given period.

Not all open rates are created equal. Let’s say for example you send blog updates five times a month, and have a 20% open rate. Is that a healthy number? It depends.

Was it the same 20% of people opening every email? Or did each group of 20% open one email? If so, your active audience chart in Seventh Sense would look like this:High Active Audience

If its a different 20% of people opening your emails most of the time, then 20% is actually not a bad open rate.

Your subscribers are active, they are just not interested in, or maybe not seeing all of your content due to when it lands in their inbox. In that case your active audience would look more like this:Low Active Audience

The most likely scenario is some combination of the two - some people open every email, some people open a few, and some never open any of your emails.

The issue is those people who rarely, or never open emails. These are your “Inactive” and “Passive” subscribers. They can take a huge toll on your deliverability over time if you continue to email them at the same cadence as others. We’ll get into this more later.

Lower than average email open rates

The first sign of a deliverability problem is usually low/declining open rates - often with click rates that remain steady.

Open rate is an imperfect metric, but it's fair to say that if your open rate is significantly below the average for your industry, you likely have an email deliverability problem. While it’s true, poor quality content, seasonality and many other factors can influence open rates for business email, a longer term downward trend usually indicates a problem.

Open rates vary by industry. Take a look at the chart below that shows average email open rates by industry to see how you stack up.

Average email open rate by industry

The average email open rate across all industries is 22.86%. A 2%, 4% or even 10% open rate is below average in any industry. If your open rate is this low, you likely have a deliverability issue.

So how can you make sure your domain reputation stay health and emails don't land in spam?

Tip #1 - Don’t use a purchased list

In a perfect world, your list would be made of active, engaged fans of your brand. Every one of them would have personally requested to receive your emails and regularly engage with your brand.

Let's be real though, building an opted-in email list is hard, so many email marketers try to take short cuts. One of the most common is buying a third party email list. This mistake can quickly lead to a tarnished email domain reputation that can take months to recover.

The quality of the email list is very important in email deliverability. Email providers look at a number of factors when deciding where to put your emails: engagement, bounce rate, and unsubscribe rate are a few of the key ones.

The low-quality addresses on a bought list can end up hurting your chances of landing in the inbox for ANYONE who’s on your email list. Let's take a look at why this happens.

Your emails will be unsolicited.

If you didn’t build the list yourself, the recipients have no idea who you are. There’s a high chance that they will see your email as spam and mark it as so. With an increase in spam complaints, your domain reputation will decrease. Pretty soon providers may automatically send your emails directly to spam.

In addition, sending unsolicited emails is illegal in many countries. If you’re not careful, you may open your company up to significant legal liabilities.

The email addresses might not be valid

You can never be sure of the quality of email addresses you didn’t acquire yourself.

With a purchased email list, the incentive is often quantity over quality. Even if the emails are valid, people switch jobs, companies switch email address formats and change names.

Despite their best efforts, most data brokers aren’t able to keep their lists 100% up to date. This means you will likely get hard bounces every time you add emails to your list. If your bounce rate spikes, your deliverability will suffer.

The odds are against you

To summarize, purchased email lists can be filled with out-of-date, or even spam trap email addresses. Even if the list is 100% valid email addresses, these people didn’t ask to be emailed by your brand. They’re not very likely to open your emails, and if they do, the are likely to be put off that they are receiving an unsolicited email.

Tip #2 - Healthy email list = Healthy domain reputation

Building a strong domain reputation takes time and there really is no easy shortcut.  Yes, sending from an IP address with a low reputation is sure to drop your deliverability. However,  using a clean IP is no guarantee of high deliverability if your domain reputation is poor.

Going back to the little experiment that I described earlier in this post, there was one common thread I noticed between the senders with the poorest deliverability in the pack. They all sent a LOT of emails. Even though I hadn’t opened a single message, the emails just kept coming.

Be relevant

Recipients that personally opted in to join your mailing list are interested in your brand or service. Provide them with high-quality and relevant content.

By gathering data on where your prospects heard about your brand, and which of your content they have engaged with, you can segment your audience so each person receives content that is relevant to their interests.

Badly-coded emails can get filtered out by ESPs. Even if your email makes it past ESP filters, a poorly designed email may make your readers more likely to mark it as spam if it renders poorly. Poor email formatting can give a poor impression, leading to lower engagement, and a lower domain reputation.

If in doubt, in most cases a plain text email will perform better and make it through spam filters easier than a poorly formatted one.

Stay complaint-free

Spam complaints are one of the quickest ways to tarnish your email domain reputation.

Good marketing automation platforms may not even let you send emails if your complaint rate gets too high. HubSpot for example will revoke email sending for accounts with a complaint rate higher than .1%, just 1 in 1000.

Stay consistent

Sending inconsistent volumes of email over time can be viewed as suspicious by ESP’s. Try to keep to a consistent email sending schedule and send volume to stay in good graces with inbox providers.

Stay out of spam traps

Email service providers (ESP’s) and anti-spam groups use fake, or abandoned email addresses as a way to “trap” spammers (or marketers with poor email list hygiene).  

These addresses won’t bounce, because email service providers are purposely keeping them open. Don’t get caught in this email marketing equivalent of a police sting operation. You will not win. There are two types of spam traps:

The recycled spam trap

The recycled spam trap used to belong to an actual user but has since been abandoned. Email service providers will keep an abandoned email address open as a way of catching senders that have poor list hygiene.

The honey pot spam trap

The second type is called the pristine spam trap, or “honey pot.” It is an email address that was never used by a real person and was created for the sole purpose of identifying spammers. Honey pot addresses are placed online in hidden places where only bots are likely to find them.

Sending to just a few honey pot addresses can have a very negative effect on your domain reputation.

Email service providers know that no business reaching out to real contacts and customers would ever send to a non-existent person using a fake email address that was hidden on a page only a web crawler would visit.

Keep bounce rates low

Email bounces can be classified into two types: hard and soft bounces.

Email addresses that hard bounce should be removed. Chances are, these are email addresses that are out-of-date, fake or misspelled, or senders who have blocked you. It is pointless to continue sending to hard bounces since you’re not likely to get any engagement from them. They will only hurt your sender reputation and lower your overall deliverability.

Soft bounces happen when the email addresses are valid but delivery failed for some reason. This could be due to several reasons like a full inbox, the email server being down at the time the message was sent, and so on. If this was a previously active address, you can try resending, but if it keeps bouncing, it’s best to take it off your list.

Tip #3 - Make sure your emails are properly authenticated

Authentication protocols are one of the many different ways ESP’s verify email senders and prevent hackers, spammers etc from reaching your inbox.

Emails that don’t pass authentication are more likely to be classified as risky or spam by ESP’s. It’s worth investing the time to make sure your marketing emails are being sent with proper authentication.

The three primary authentication methods are SPF, DKIM and DMARC. We could easily write a whole article on each of these, but here’s the basics on each:

-SPF (Sender Policy Framework) - this lets you, the sender, specify which mail servers are authorized to send email for your domain.

-DKIM (Domain Keys Identified Mail) - DKIM makes use of an encrypted digital signature to verify that the emails are actually coming from the domain they say they are, and not “spoofed,” faked or altered in transit.

-DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, & Conformance) - provides the receiving server with options on how to handle your email in the event it fails SPF and DKIM authentication. It also provides reports that tell you who is sending emails from your domain.

Keep your recipients interested

The success of your business is dependent on your customers, make it the goal of your email program to maintain their interest.

Unlike social media followers, you own your subscriber email list. There’s no gatekeeper that charges you every time you send an email, but subscribers are only valuable if you can reach them. Send out emails with evergreen, valuable content at the right time for each subscriber. This keeps them happy and satisfied with your product or service long after the initial transaction.

Are you making the most of your email list? If not, be ready to take steps to ensure that you do.

Ivan LaBianca

Written by Ivan LaBianca

Ivan is the Chief Revenue Officer of Seventh Sense, an optimization system that leverages artificial intelligence to drive better results with email marketing. In his role, Ivan oversees all revenue operations which includes sales, marketing, and customer success. Prior to Seventh Sense, Ivan was an independent marketing consultant and has supported organizations such as The Conservation Fund, 2Stone and Beyond Microgreens. Ivan started his career as a photojournalist, which brought him to countries such as Haiti, India, Nepal, Tunisia, Libya, and others. His photos have been widely published including by outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Amnesty International, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, and National Geographic Online.