A couple of weeks back, I was doing some routine monitoring of MarketBeat’s email engagement metrics and saw an interesting number appear on our dashboard:

It turns out that MarketBeat has sent more than one billion emails in 2020 to our 1.75 million email subscribers with an average open rate of 21%. Any spammer can find a mailing list and blast promotional messages to people’s inboxes (often illegally) but sending that many messages to real subscribers that want to receive your emails is a true digital marketing accomplishment. Getting 200 million+ emails opened in a year from your subscribers requires the adoption of some advanced email deliverability strategies that most email marketing guides and books miss.

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Here are the advanced strategies MarketBeat uses to maintain email engagement:

  1. First, cover the basics.

I have written about the basics of email deliverability at length in the past and these tactics still apply when you are sending email at scale. You should use an email service provider with a good reputation, such as MailChimp or ConvertKit, and verify that your DNS verification records (SPF, DKIM and DMARC) are setup properly. You should periodically check and make sure that your email sending domain and IP address aren’t on any of the major blacklists and remove invalid email addresses and subscribers that don’t open your messages for a period of time from your mailing list. These are the basics that every list owner should do, regardless of the size of your list.

  1. Use an aggressive sunsetting policy.

Email engagement metrics (open rates, spam report rates and clickthrough rates) are the primary way that email service providers determine if users want your email campaigns. If a low single digit percentage of your recipients are opening your messages, Gmail, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL will assume that your recipients as a group don’t want your messages and place them in the spam folder. If your engagement metrics are bad enough and you don’t have deliverability basics covered, your messages may not be delivered at all.

The way to improve your engagement metrics is to email your less-active users less often. Since MarketBeat sends two or more emails to its subscribers per day, we will throttle back the volume of email that subscribers receive from two messages per day to two messages per week after they have not opened or clicked on a message in the last 30 days. After a subscriber has been inactive for 90 days, we send them a message that we are marking their account as inactive. We will then message them as little as once or twice per month to try to get them to re-engage. After a couple of years of not opening the once-per-month email we send a user, we simply remove them from our mailing list all together.

It seems counter-intuitive, but you will make more money from your email campaigns by sending fewer emails. Sending your most-active subscribers email more often and your least-active subscribers less often will keep your engagement metrics high and your email campaigns in your subscribers inboxes.

  1. Check for signs of life when someone first subscribes.

In the past, email lists would require users to click a welcome email to confirm their subscription before they would start receiving messages from that list. This process, known as a two-step opt-in, does a good job of preventing invalid email addresses from getting on your mailing list. Unfortunately, it also costs list managers a lot of money because confirmation rates have declined dramatically in the last few years. Many email lists, including MarketBeat’s, no longer use a two-step opt-in for that reason.

Instead, we use a tool called KickBox to try to verify if an email address is valid during the sign-up process. KickBox will verify that the sign-up domain is real and will authenticate the email address itself if possible. If the email address is invalid, we simply do not add it to our mailing list. We also check for role-based email addresses such as [email protected] and email addresses with curse words in them (such as the classic, f***@you.com) and prevent them from being added to our list as well.

  1. Put new subscribers on probation

When someone first signs up for MarketBeat, we put them on a form of sign-up probation. We send new subscribers all the emails we would normally send but permanently remove them from our mailing list if they show no signs of life in the first 3 weeks of their subscription. By then, a subscriber would have received more than 20 newsletters and 20 other auto-responder emails from MarketBeat. If they do not open or click on any of the first 40 messages they receive, our assumption is that either that the email address is invalid or that the subscriber simply does not want our messages. We remove about 300 subscribers, or 10% of one day’s new list sign-ups, using this method. By removing unengaged new users from our list, we are keeping our email engagement metrics high and avoiding email spam traps and honeypots.

  1. Use List-Unsubscribe and Include Multiple Unsubscribe Links

If someone does not want your messages anymore, they are either going to click your unsubscribe link or click on the report spam button with their email service provider. You want to avoid having people click on the report spam button as much as possible, so you should make your unsubscribe links easy to find. We place an unsubscribe link in the header and footer of every email and also use the newish list-unsubscribe header that allows email subscribers to unsubscribe from your messages from within their email account. Interestingly enough, you can actually get people to come back to your website using the list-unsubscribe link and show them promotions for your products or other people’s products after they unsubscribe.

  1. Monitor Open Rates by Email Service Provider and by Lead Source

Your messages will not receive equal treatment from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL. This makes it especially important to monitor what your email engagement metrics look like at different email service providers and make adjustments to your sending plan if necessary. Microsoft currently has a reputation for having the strictest spam filter. We’ve had an issue with email deliverability with Microsoft emails in the past, so we don’t send them certain types of promotional messages that get lower engagement metrics and we use a more strict sunsetting window for email subscribers on Microsoft domains (e.g. Hotmail.com, Live.com and Outlook.com).

MarketBeat also monitors engagement metrics and revenue metrics by the source of the email subscriber. We know that the organic email sign-ups on our website have the best engagement and email sign-ups through co-registration advertising networks have lower engagement. If we find that a website that we are advertising on sends us an unusually large percentage of invalid or unengaged email addresses, we will stop buying ad placements on their website.

Wrap Up

Many of these strategies will be overkill for list managers with fewer than 50,000 subscribers but following the principle of emailing your most-engaged subscribers more often and your less-engaged subscribers less often will do wonders for your email engagement metrics. Furthermore, removing invalid email addresses from your list will show email providers that you are serious about list hygiene and following best practices. Some of these specific strategies may not be possible with every email service provider, but following these two principles will help keep your messages out of the spam folder and will help you maximize revenue from their list.