CSA Digital Email Summit 2020

ESPs vs Brands: who delivers?


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ESPs vs Brands: who delivers?

The relationship between a brand and an ESP is vitally important for the success of both, and misalignment over who is responsible for delivery and inbox placement is one of the biggest causes of tension and relationship breakdown. In this session, Tamara Bond, Delivery Operations Manager at dotdigital, and Alice Cornell, Director of Email Deliverability for Change.org, drew a line in the sand regarding these responsibilities. They discussed their disaster stories when expectations don’t meet reality, and highlighted the successes obtainable by achieving a positive symbiosis between two teams who are ultimately on the same side.

They first took the attendees through the difference between ‘delivery’ (the transmission of an email from and to a mail transfer agent (MTA)) and ‘deliverability” (the email actually reaching the user’s inbox). While many expect that recipients will receive an email as soon as it is sent, email is not actually an instant medium (though very very fast).

Delivery: Relaying the message

On the delivery front, a connection must first be established with the receiving MTA, the data has to be relayed and then the connection is closed. The number of simultaneous connections that can be established with a receiving server can be limited. The delivery can be successful, be deferred (try again later), or it can fail (because e.g. the mailbox does not exist).

Deliverability: Landing in the inbox

In terms of deliverability, the expectation is that as soon as ‘send’ is clicked, the email will land in recipients inboxes. However, the reality is 17% of email lands in spam folders and is not seen by recipients. So, deliverability is understanding what happens to an email after it passes the server. Senders are usually interested in where the email actually ends up; in the inbox or the spam folder, and in the tab placement.

How do brands send?

When polled on what infrastructure they use, 33% of the webinar attendees responded that they send completely in-house and 23% partner with an ESP.

IP warming is easy, right?

Another expectation in relation to delivery is that IP warming is easy – just double the volume each day for two weeks and then you’re good to go. In reality though, IP warming is complex and non-linear. Different mail box providers have different expectations and if you increase the volume too quickly, it might not be well received. It makes a difference how engaging the content is and how the recipients engage with the email; do they read it and thus show mailbox providers that they want that email? The key is to send email that the recipient really wants. Domain warming will also become more and more important, with the dawn of Ipv6.

To what extent can the ESP influence deliverability?

Senders sometimes think that their ESP can influence whether an email reaches an inbox or not. However, it’s the frequency, cadence, content, the targeting of the email, and the integrity of the database are much more weighty factors that impact on deliverability. Unfortunately, there is no perfect configuration that will magically deliver emails directly into a user’s inbox. Mailbox providers constantly change the goalposts to try stay ahead of spammers. MTAs can’t just be built, set and forgotten about. They need to be constantly tinkered with and tweaked to guarantee performance.

While there is sometimes an expectation that an ESP can just call the mailbox providers (MBPs) and get email delivered, each MBP has a sophisticated algorithm using multiple different data points to decide inbox placement.

The large majority of attendees (74%) use a mix of dedicated and shared IPs. Some think that dedicated IPs are the best solution for every brand and helps the brand build their reputation. However, well-managed shared IPs can deliver the same – if not better –performance, particularly for brands that don’t send in large volumes and very regularly. It really helps to use custom (as opposed to shared) DKIM signing and keys.

Email is a victim of its own success. More email does not lead to more revenue, though the right email at the right time to the right person will. If you don’t send mail your users actually want to receive, you will stop being able to reach them at all. Changing IP or sending domain won’t solve delivery/deliverability challenges; any relief will be temporary and the underlying causes still must be addressed (the right content, the right timing, the right targeting?).

Careful testing really helps

Brands often are really happy with their emails, but don’t know what actually resonates with their users. This is where testing comes in. Without careful testing, you won’t know what really delights your users.

Working together

How can the symbiosis between senders, ESPs and MTAs be best leveraged to ensure that all are successful? It is important to be clear about the responsibilities of the sender/ESP/MTA. ESPs/MTAs are responsible for providing the sending infrastructure, be that in the cloud or on physical servers; and tracking the changing email ecosystem. They are also responsible for authentication, including signing messages with DKIM, and for managing shared IPs by pooling similar senders together and removing bad actors, and handling bounces with e.g. appropriate resend intervals. The sender is responsible for content, cadence, targeting, consistency and branding

ESPs and brands can work better together by stressing communication and cooperation. ESPs should listen to brands and find out what success looks like for their clients and what challenges they face (e.g. corporate decision-making processes and business constraints). Brands should communicate with and follow the advice of their ESP. Then together, they can get that email into the inbox.