How to Improve Email Deliverability During the COVID-19 Crisis

Technical Email Marketing | Xiaohui "x" Wang • 13 MINUTE READ
Now more than ever, brands need to improve their email deliverability and make sure that their emails actually reach subscribers’ inboxes.

Messages sent to US subscribers reach the inbox 82% of the time on average, and the number can be even lower for specific industries. This means that during the time of crisis, 1 in 6 of your subscribers may not be getting your email about shorter working hours, free deliveries, or discounted products.

In addition to that, a large number of COVID-19 emails is very likely to cause a drop in the email engagement rate. This leads to a jump in unsubscribes or spam reports and increases the rate at which emails are placed in the junk folders of email clients like Outlook or Gmail.

To help you prevent that, we’re sharing email deliverability best practices to improve your email deliverability during the COVID-19 crisis.

The top five tips may seem advanced and you’ll need a domain administrator’s help to implement them. The rest of them should be handled by your email campaign manager on a regular basis.

1. Implement white-labeling of your domain

The inboxing rate measures how many of the sent emails are delivered in the inbox and how many in the spam folder. You can calculate this by dividing the number of emails that reach the inbox by the number of emails that were sent.

The inboxing rate is greatly affected by the reputation of your sending domain.

Your email service provider (ESP), by default, will send your emails from a shared domain, whose reputation is created by all the other senders on that list.

White-labeling your domain helps avoid that issue. It ensures that your domain reputation is responsible for the inboxing rate instead of the shared reputation provided by the ESP.

As a bonus, the emails in the inbox will be shown as coming from the company itself instead of the ESP.

What to do:
The setup procedure is explained for each ESP separately in their documentation. This process is usually accompanied by adding a CNAME record, or SPF and DKIM record to the DNS.

2. Divide sending domains by using subdomains

Not all the emails that you send from your domain have the same engagement rate. A Shipping Confirmation email will have a higher open and click rate than a Cart Abandonment email. Sending all emails from the same domain might hurt the domain reputation and email deliverability.

Creating subdomains is strongly recommended to ensure that the emails that are of the greatest importance, like internal emails or transaction emails, always land in the inbox.

Note that the ”From:” field does not have to match the subdomain, so the recipient will remain unaware of the sender subdomain.

What to do:
Create subdomains for the different types of emails you send.

3. Set up a SPF record

SPF is a mechanism that allows domain owners to publish and maintain a list of systems authorized to send emails on their behalf. SPF is a required method for transactional and eCommerce emails to land in users’ mailboxes. An absent, incorrect, or failed SPF record can be a reason for the entire email marketing campaign going to spam or even blocked by IPS.

So, in effect, the SPF record acts as an anti-abuse tool, protecting your domain from spoofing and other unauthorized sending of emails on your behalf.

Therefore, it’s important to have a properly set up SPF record to protect your account from spoofing attacks. However, only SPF isn’t enough to guarantee full spoof and spam protection of your domain. To improve security, you need to set up the entire authentication complex (DKIM+SPF+DMARC).

What to do:
A TXT file needs to be added to the DNS. For a proper setup, it needs to allow only the recognized IPs or senders, at the same time disallowing anyone else to send emails in the name of the company. Follow the full setup process outlined in the M3 AAWG Best Practices for Managing SPF Records.

4. Set up a DMARC record

DMARC is a part of the email authentication process, similar to SPF and DKIM. Its main goal is to detect and prevent email spoofing, such as phishing emails, like the ones that look like they are coming from your bank, prompting you to give them your information.

By having a well-configured DMARC record, your domain improves its authority, and emails sent from the domain have higher deliverability rates. To be validated, DMARC records should complete an alignment test. At least one of the mentioned methods (SPF or DKIM) needs to be set up correctly for successful DMARC authentication.

What to do:
A TXT file needs to be added to the DNS. The file follows certain syntax protocols and it needs to be added by the administrator of the domain. The initial setup (if ‘none’ option is active) analyzes the emails sent from the domain, while the full activation will quarantine (send the emails to spam), reject emails (not allowing emails to pass final gates of entry in an inbox).

Setting a DMARC record is both easy and crucial. You just have to add a record with a few lines to your DNS record, using respective DMARC tags for the configuration.

An example of an initial DMARC Record:
v=DMARC1; p=none; rua=mailto:[email protected],mailto:[email protected]; ruf=mailto:[email protected]; fo=1;

Resources on how the full process works are available on the DMARC website.

5. Set up a BIMI record

Setting up a BIMI record will improve your brand recognition and inboxing rate. Once set up, it will allow you to show the sender logo while increasing the inboxing rate.

While still in an experimental phase, BIMI is starting to get recognition by the major inbox providers like Yahoo, Outlook, and soon Gmail.

Note that you can only set it up after the full implementation of DMARC.

What to do:
After a full activation of DMARC (quarantine or reject policy in place), another entry is needed in the DNS for BIMI which gives information on where the logo lives on a server. The logo needs to be certified to be valid.

6. Clean your list

We frequently hear eCommerce managers complaining about “huge bounce rates”, having emails stuck in folders other than the inbox folder, even getting blacklisted, or registered as spam. This normally happens because the email list is not clean and healthy.

Your list may have a lot of emails that are not used or are disabled, hence the high bounce rate. This can happen especially if the list has not been active for a long time or if it is a purchased list (this is not a recommended practice).

What to do:
This is usually a very simple process. It is performed by uploading the list to a verification software which then singles out the invalid or defunct addresses. These are promptly deleted, and what’s left is an almost 100% healthy list ready for further processing.

7. Seek permission when capturing emails

Whether you are capturing emails at checkout, through a site overlay, or some other source, you need to explicitly ask for permission. The more aware your contacts are that they are being opted into your list, the lower the chances they will automatically press the spam button or ignore your emails.

Laws are becoming increasingly restrictive in terms of explicit permission. Therefore, make sure to get some form of permission before sending marketing messages to your contacts.

What to do:
Implement different opt-in options for potential subscribers coming from different countries.

8. Segment your list

Email segmentation is at the core of effective email marketing. Segmented messaging has been proven to generate more engagement, increase sales conversions, reduce subscriber churn, and grow the inboxing rate.

What to do:
Segment your lists by following subscriber activity and prepare tiered lists that will get emails by following subscriber engagement.

9. Avoid spam complaints

When a user marks one of your emails as spam (also known as a complaint), it sends a major red flag signal to ISPs that your mail is unwanted.

If your email list is large, there’s no way to prevent spam complaints completely. Luckily, ISPs don’t look at absolute complaint numbers as much as the complaint ratio, or the total number of spam complaints compared to the volume of mail you send. A good rule of thumb is to keep your complaint ratio below 5 in 1000 (0.5%), though your ESP can be much more restrictive than this before you get a warning.

What to do:
  • Use a tiered segmentation strategy
  • Segment out the dormant (inactive) subscribers
  • Exclude bounced emails
  • Provide relevant content

10. Avoid spam filters

Spam filters are algorithms that are set in place in each of the email providers. They are monitoring the content of the emails as well as the setup. As the topic of the setup is covered above, the focus will be on the content here.

The spam recognition algorithms are based on past data and are flagging any content that seems suspicious. This means that even though legitimate senders would send emails to their respective subscribers, the emails may be marked as spam if ill-conceived. To avoid this, stick to the best practices, avoid the well-known spam-activating triggers and make sure to check out our tips to avoid spam filters.

What to do:
  • avoid any spam trigger words
  • avoid UPPERCASE text formatting, especially in the subject line
  • avoid using too many exclamation marks
  • refrain from using too many images in the email
  • keep the email weight in the proposed limits which are below 102kB
Make sure to check another article on how to handle COVID-19.

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  • Heath Weaver

    Managing Director, Principal

    Heath Weaver has almost two decades of eCommerce digital marketing experience. He has run multiple agencies, headed up Search Engine Marketing for the consumer electronics division of Sony, and served as a Vice President at Trilogy Software. He enjoys working day-to-day with clients to level up their retention marketing game.

  • Xiaohui "X" Wang

    Founder, Principal

    Xiaohui "X" Wang is a veteran of the email marketing industry. In the last decade, he has led the strategic and tactic retention marketing efforts for over 300 ecommerce brands ranging from small mom & pops to IR500 retailers. He's passionate about all things eCommerce, email, and SMS.