Should My Subdomain Stay or Should It Go?

Cathie McFarren, Deliverability Analyst

In order to make the most out of segmentation, personalization, cart recovery and recommendation programs, commerce marketers must first make sure their email can make its way to the customer’s inbox.

This is a particular concern when companies are in the process of evaluating whether to move to a new email provider, or have just made the switch. Do I migrate my existing subdomain? If I start from scratch, will my emails get to my customers? And if I’ve never used a private subdomain, should I start now? These are all excellent questions.

Here are a few things for you to evaluate when deciding whether to break free of an existing domain or take it with you. The answers can also help you decide whether a subdomain you are currently using needs to be retired.

What’s the subdomain’s reputation?

Has your email subdomain been blocked or added to blacklists, causing some reputation issues? You can typically tell if this has happened if your open rates are suffering. Moving to a new ESP won’t magically wipe the slate clean. If your permissions are strong and your email is wanted, your positive domain reputation will show by having strong open rates. Lousy domain reputations are hard to repair, even with a good list scrubbing and a judicious approach to email.

If you’ve got a subdomain with a solid reputation, it is probably worth sticking with it as new subdomains can require a warm-up period.

How will the transition plan work?

One hiccup in moving the subdomain relates to how you plan to transition to your new email service provider. Some companies prefer to overlap providers when they transition. The problem with this approach is that you can’t use the same subdomain with two providers (i.e. two locations) at the same time, and per CAN-SPAM, the unsubscribe link must remain active for 30 days. This is totally workable but requires the right timing and resources with your new and old ESP.

If I’ve never had a subdomain, why should I get one now?

Some companies happily use their email service provider’s domain, in essence, piggybacking off the email provider’s reputation. But private subdomains have their advantages. Using your own private subdomain ensures you are 100% in charge of your reputation, which can help with open rates and engagement as receivers will see their domain as the sender (instead of the name of the email service provider).

If I get a new subdomain, is there anything I need to be concerned about?

In some instances, a new subdomain may require a warm-up period. Some ISPs have such tight filters that they don’t readily let through emails from domains without a known reputation. Instead, they let only some of the emails go through and then measure users’ behavior, such as opens, spam complaints and deleting the emails without reading them. Once they see positive feedback from your users, they will deliver your emails to the inbox.

Domain reputation can also be taken from the top-level domain if your subdomain is new to email. The reputation of the top-level domain can transfer down to your new subdomain and also require a warm-up. For that reason, we have seen new subdomains have a slow start for open rates. The good news is that there are ways to speed up the warm-up. Sending to engaged contacts first will help establish a good reputation quickly.

Are there other steps I need to take to warm up my new subdomain?

Import your most engaged contacts first, those who routinely open, click through and purchase items. Not only are they more likely to open the email, they won’t mark it as spam. And if it does end up in their spam file, they are more likely to click on the “this is not spam” button. Doing it this way will also help you avoid other types of complaints that can be a drag on deliverability.

For the next batch, look at people who’ve recently opened your email or subscribed. You know you’ve got a good address and a moderately engaged subscriber. Also, understand that not all ISPs require warm-ups. It’s a common situation for the more popular ones, though.

What if I really want to save my old subdomain with the “iffy” reputation?

The same methods described above can work to manage deliverability problems with an existing subdomain. The time it takes to warm up a subdomain depends on its existing reputation. The key here is user engagement and clear permissions.  Another option for dealing with a damaged subdomain is to place an unsubscribe link at the top of your creative. By allowing people to see this link first in the email (potentially in the preview pane), you enable them to easily choose to unsubscribe rather than hit the spam button.

You can still rescue a subdomain with a poor reputation. We recently worked with a retailer whose email reputation had hit rock bottom with one particular ISP. Less than 1% of their emails were making it to their subscribers for this provider. But the company wanted to keep their subdomain for brand recognition, so we worked with them, and in very little time, we got their open rates up above 20%.

The key is to have clear permissions, which points to strong brand recognition. Using a subdomain just ties it all together.