Getting Back Into the Inbox: A Case Study

Cathie McFarren, Deliverability Analyst

When we were asked last year to help an automotive components retailer improve its deliverability rates, things were not looking good. The average open rate was 5%, and it was even worse for Gmail – just 1%. As Gmail accounts for 35% to 50% of email accounts in the US, that was particularly troubling.

Whenever a deliverability problem is this severe, the culprit is often weak permissions. And that was exactly the case for this client. The company was adding contacts via sweepstakes and consumer trade show sign-ups, without explicitly seeking permission.

When customers don’t realize they are opting in to your emails, they are much more likely to mark them as spam, block them, report your domain to their ISP or simply not open them. Even if a small fraction of customers take one of the first three actions, the impact can be damaging. ISPs watch user behavior closely to see if your recipients are interacting with your emails or ignoring them. If they aren’t, or if they are actively blocking your emails, it can result in increased spam folder placement. As spam folder placement increases, your open rates will begin to drop.

Here are the steps we took to get things back on track:

Step 1: Strengthen Those Permissions

We required the company to ensure that all contacts directly opt in. A statement indicating the client’s brand name and intentions needed to be present on all points of sign-up. This mostly involved changing the language on landing pages for promotions like the sweepstakes and making displays at trade shows very clear.

Step 2: Concentrate on the Customers That Are Opening Emails

By running reports weekly for this company, we found several segments of engaged customers and recommended concentrating the marketing on this group by sending them emails that spoke to the types of things they were purchasing, or the products they were interested in. By suppressing a large part of the unengaged list and sending thoughtful emails to those that were engaged, the open rate started to take off.

I know what you’re saying. “Of course the open rate will go up if I only send to engaged customers. But how do I reach more people?” As you make your way back into the inbox and your reputation improves, you can begin reaching out to your less engaged contacts.

To help understand this concept, think of the last time you looked at your junk box and were surprised to find an email from a company that you want to receive emails from. This likely happened because the company was sending to customers that aren’t opening – or never wanted the emails to begin with.

The Result: Email Is Working Again

Open rates have taken off for this client. The Gmail open rate jumped from that abysmal 1% to nearly 30% at one point. In the third quarter, the company successfully maintained and increased open rates of all the top domains. The average Gmail open rate for October was 18.3%. To date, many deliveries are sent to all active contacts, but non-engaged contacts are regularly excluded.

New email subscribers are being introduced to the brand via a welcome series, and the company is working on a preference form to better understand what kinds of emails these new customers want.

The deliverability issues have been so successfully managed that the company is going to look closer at the unengaged subscribers they suppressed and send some of them an email to try to bring them back to the brand. While they’ll need to carefully review complaint rates, unsubscribes and open rates, it is the kind of action they can safely take – now that they aren’t trapped in in the dreaded spam folder.