July 24, 2012
How To

Email Deliverability: 5 tactics for 99% (or greater) delivery across millions of subscribers

SUMMARY: Maintaining deliverability can be tedious. It’s easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of the big picture -- the deliverability tactics that matter most.

Check out the five tactics this flash deals website says are the most important to keeping its average delivery rate above 99%. You’ll find why the team doesn’t wait for people to unsubscribe, and what you need on your registration page to prevent it from killing your list.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

Deliverability is a challenge for every email marketer, but especially Joss & Main. The flash deals website specializes in home and lifestyle products. Its emails bring daily offers to millions of subscribers.

Most of the offers are only available for three days, and hot items sell out even faster. To give everyone a fair shot at the best deals, the marketing team has to reach every subscriber at roughly the same time.

"That is a big challenge," says Paul Toms, Director of Marketing, Joss & Main. "It takes a ton of time, and we have to constantly monitor to make sure we’re on the straight and narrow."

But, the team has done it:
  • Joss & Main sends millions of emails within 10 minutes each day, starting at roughly 11 a.m.

  • The emails have greater than 99% average deliverability. That beats the 96% average seen across the daily deals industry in North America, according to ReturnPath’s Global Delivery Benchmark Report 2H 2011.

Joss & Main maintained this strong rate while adding millions of subscribers since the company’s launch in January 2011. Toms says his team is even pushing to send campaigns within five minutes instead of 10.

Toms shares the five most important tactics he's found to keep deliverability strong while growing the database:

Tactic #1: Proactively remove bad subscribers

List quality is a paramount concern for Joss & Main’s email team. If poor subscribers get onto the list, then spam complaints could increase, engagement could fall, and deliverability could plummet. So, Toms’ team removes poor subscribers.

"We don’t wait for someone to unsubscribe to stop mailing them," he says.

The team keeps a close eye on engagement metrics such as:
  • Open and click activity

  • Purchase activity

  • Login activity

  • How recently an action was taken

  • How frequently an action was taken

The team also gauges subscribers through profile data such as:
  • Source (where the team acquired the subscriber)

  • Internet service provider (ISP) used for email (such as Gmail, Yahoo!, AOL)

The team uses this data to power a system that is similar to lead scoring, Toms says. Active subscribers with strong profiles receive different offers than less active subscribers. People who do not take action over a long period are sent fewer emails, and eventually stop receiving them.

The amount of time it takes for a lapsed subscriber to stop receiving emails depends on several factors.

"It’s going to differ by who the person is," Toms says. "There are some folks that after two weeks if they are not opening, we’re going to remove them. There are some that it might be six months. It depends on what they’ve done prior."

Tactic #2: Win back inactive subscribers

The team sends re-engagement emails to spur action from inactive subscribers. Any positive action qualifies the person as "reactivated," even opening an email.

"We find that once someone opens they are back in the [active] pool, but if they never open, then obviously they sort of trail off," Toms says.

The team strives to make the offers and subject lines of these emails very enticing. One re-engagement email asked subscribers to invite friends to join. Subscribers received $15 for every referral who made a purchase.

The subject line of the email emphasized the value of the offer:
"Get $15 (or a lot more) toward your next design find"

Tactic #3: Set clear expectations at opt-in

A vague registration page can undermine the quality of a list. It forces people to assume what they’ll receive by opting in. That sets them up for disappointment, which leads to inactivity and spam complaints.

Instead, your opt-in page should clearly describe your program and set expectations.

"We try to make sure that our members know that this is a members-only subscription site so that no one is surprised or upset when they sign up and start getting emails," Toms says.

Joss & Main’s opt-in overlay form has four pieces of information that set subscribers’ expectations:

#1. Content of the emails

The page must tell people what they will receive, whether it is links to blog posts, special offers or something else. Joss & Main’s form mentions, "best home brands at the best prices" and "daily sales events."

#2. Frequency of the emails

People need to know how often your email will arrive. If they expect a monthly newsletter and receive a daily news alert, they will not be happy. Joss & Main’s form mentions, "daily sales events."

#3. Value of the emails

Tell people why they want the email. What value does it give them? For example, Joss & Main’s form says, "Save up to 70% off retail."

#4. Privacy policy

People need to know you will respect their personal information and not sell it. This is easily done by linking to a privacy policy. Joss & Main includes the link at the bottom of its form.

Fulfill the promise

It is helpful to think of the expectations you set as promises. You have promised subscribers you will deliver specific content at a set time. Breaking that promise will encourage them to harm your program by disengaging and marking you as spam.

Send a confirmation email

You can reinforce expectations by sending a good confirmation email instead of a generic, text-based one. Joss & Main sends an immediate opt-in confirmation email that includes:
  • Full design and branding - sets expectations for look and feel of later emails

  • Offers - sets expectations for content

  • Sender address - shows subscribers the address to look for in their inboxes

All this helps set the expectations for new members and makes them less likely to click "spam" on later messages.

Tactic #4: Work with ISPs through your ESP

Many back-end details must be aligned to maintain Joss & Main’s deliverability. For example, some ISPs limit the number of connections-per-second a server can make when delivering emails to their customers. Joss & Main has to stay within those thresholds to get its emails delivered correctly and on time.

ISPs are not always forthcoming with this type of information, so Toms’ team works closely with its email service provider (ESP) to maintain the program’s technical requirements. The ESP helps in two ways:

Cross-company data

The ESP is able to monitor how each ISP responds to various email campaigns (those sent by the ESP’s customers). This teaches the ESP about the nuances of each provider and how Joss & Main’s email program should be calibrated for each.

Direct contacts

Getting a person at an ISP on the phone is not always easy. Since ESPs manage large volumes of email, they are often given direct contact information. Some (including Joss & Main’s ESP) also have delivery services teams that reach out to ISPs on your behalf to resolve problems.

Keep a strong record

The ISPs monitor your reputation as a sender and use it to determine whether your emails are delivered, junked or sent to the inbox. Spam complaints harm your reputation, and over time, harm deliverability. The opposite is also true: consistently low complaint rates can improve your reputation over time.

One way Joss & Main has forged good relationships with ISPs is by consistently focusing on list quality and deliverability best practices.

"If we do this right every day for five months, then, if we do have a slip up, we’ll be okay because [the ISPs] know we’re a reputable and valuable sender," Toms says.

Tactic #5: Watch engagement like a hawk

Joss & Main has at least 100 different "paths" subscribers can take in its email program. Depending on their behaviors and profiles, subscribers are led down different paths where emails and offers are tailored to their needs.

All this is intended to increase relevance and thereby increase engagement.

The team focuses on engagement in two more ways:

Track overall results

On a macro level, the team monitors behavioral data across the program. The goal is to spot trends that could hurt delivery rates, such as a sudden jump in complaints, disengagement or unsubscribe requests.

Test for more clicks

The email marketing team regularly runs A/B and multivariate tests on subject lines, offers and other aspects of its emails, Toms says. All this focuses on improving engagement.

"The better our [program] is, the more engaged people are and the more inboxes we get into."

When testing registration forms, the team has even monitored the performance of subscribers after they signed up.

"We are not only going to watch how many people sign up. We are going to see who those folks are. Do they open? Is there an impact on open rate if you make the form too basic?"

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Creative Samples

  1. Re-engagement email

  2. Homepage overlay opt-in form

  3. Opt-in confirmation email


Joss & Main

Wayfair -- Joss & Main’s parent company

StrongMail -- Joss & Main’s email service provider

Related Resources

List Building: The four questions every email capture page must answer

B2B Email Deliverability: 11% of B2B email is classified as spam, these 6 tactics will help

Email Deliverability Tested: How "FREE" produced a 6.7% higher clickthrough rate

Email Marketing: Improve deliverability by deleting subscribers?

ReturnPath -- Resources and publications

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