Andrew Barrett is the Director, Deliverability & ISP Relations at Salesforce Marketing Cloud where he works with all stakeholders in the email ecosystem to define and promulgate best practices. He specializes in technical provisioning, list acquisition and hygiene, block list remediation, and an array of other email- and deliverability-related areas.

Gmail has a reputation for being tough on senders. Why?

It’s important to remember that Google’s business model is largely driven by ad revenues. Their properties like Gmail, YouTube, Maps, etc. are all free to users because they serve as gateways for ads.

Free inbox providers like Gmail are doing their best to present pleasant and engaging email experiences for users. Gmail’s business model relies on a large pool of receptive, engaged eyeballs. The more often they can present ever more engaging mail to those eyeballs, the more and better opportunities it has to present relevant and engaging advertising alongside the mail. The more Gmail can do that, the more ad revenue they can capture.

This underscores a common misunderstanding about the relationship between the inbox providers and their users. Your recipients are not Gmail’s customers; they are Gmail’s inventory—an inventory with a very short shelf life. Gmail has to protect that inventory from a poor experience in order to protect their revenue. That means senders have to do their best to present engaging mail to Gmail’s users as often as they can to ensure consistent delivery to the inbox.

Is Gmail a good barometer for measuring deliverability through other email providers?

As it relates to measuring engagement, I believe that Gmail is a reasonable proxy for other free inbox providers. Senders who test and optimize their mail for Gmail inbox placement should see gains in deliverability most anywhere else. They’re not just assessing whether a message is important to bulk audiences, but rather each individual recipient.

How do they do this?

Back in 2011, Gmail published a research paper that details the algorithms they use to measure recipient engagement. In that paper we see that Gmail is assessing the probability that a recipient will interact with a given message within a certain amount of time after it arrives. They can detect positive signals like whether recipients are opening and replying to them, or negative signals like moving them to the junk folder or deleting them without opening.

How does this impact future deliverability?

Whether and how recipients engage with emails is part of the assessment of sender reputation. If too many recipients are not engaging with emails, sender reputation is depressed, which can increase the time it takes for Gmail to accept the mail on behalf of the recipient, and whether or not it appears in the inbox at all. Senders who can increase their reputation by sending more engaging email can achieve consistently good deliverability.

What role does authentication play?

Mail authentication protocols like DKIM, SPF and DMARC are not in and of themselves deliverability solutions, even though improper authentication can have a big effect on deliverability.

Gmail and other inbox providers need a reliable way to determine who is responsible for a given message in an automated fashion. Authentication can help the inbox providers to correctly identify a sender’s reputation and deliver their mail accordingly. It also allows them to award better sender reputation to the correct sender when recipients continue to engage with the mail they send. Senders who want credit for the hard work they do to ensure their mail is engaging must also ensure that it’s authenticated correctly.

How does list hygiene impact sender reputation?

List hygiene or data quality all harken back to engagement. When senders send mail to folks who aren’t expecting to see it, or if it contains content that’s different from what they’d agreed to receive, they’ll generate the kinds of negative signals that count against reputation and that negatively impacts deliverability results. If a large slice of a sender’s recipients haven’t engaged with their mail in months, that’s a huge drag on engagement rates. So are old addresses that may not even have a real human behind them any more, or that may even have been converted into spam traps. These, by the way, are all big reasons why purchased or rented lists of addresses are so dangerous, and why most ESPs (including Salesforce Marketing Cloud) prohibit their use.

Informed consent (or opt in) is a very strong signal of potential engagement to senders. When senders can create and fulfill an expectation for as many of their subscribers as they can about the mail they intend to send, deliverability gets a big boost. That’s why permission is so important, even though Gmail and the other inbox providers can’t measure it directly.

Are there actions that senders should request of recipients—like marking messages as ‘not spam’—and do they work?

There are, and they do because those are the types of actions that generate the kind of positive engagement signals I described earlier. In addition to marking the message as “Not Spam,” senders can ask recipients to mark the mail as ‘Important” in the Gmail interface, move the message into another folder for later action, and other things that might compel a recipient to open or engage with the mail earlier than they may have otherwise. Remember, Gmail is measuring time to action, so the more compelling or engaging of a message senders can present to more recipients, the bigger the boost to deliverability.

What are some other common mistakes that senders make?

A good place to start is Gmail’s bulk sender guidelines. The closer you get to compliance with those guidelines, the better your results can be. Beyond that, I’d only stress the importance of engagement to successful deliverability.

It’s my sense that senders generally overestimate the engagement value of the mail they send, which is completely understandable. We live and breathe email, and we pour a lot of time and energy into the development of messages that we want recipients to read. But recipients will tolerate only so much mail that doesn’t appeal to them in a personally important way. Successful senders put as much effort into understanding where the line is drawn as they do into crafting the mail itself.

If a sender develops reputation issues, what can they do?

There’s lots of useful, prescriptive advice out there for folks who are having deliverability issues caused by poor sending reputation. But in my opinion, the first step in any remediation effort should be a hard, realistic look at list quality.

Take a look at your sign-up process and other data sources. Is the opt in statement clear? Are you meeting the expectation you set in terms of content and frequency of your messaging? Are you sure that the consent you’ve collected from recipients is truly informed, or is it buried under a mountain of mousetype? If your subscription form has a pre-checked checkbox, stop doing that now. Get rid of recipients who just aren’t engaging with the mail. Some of them that haven’t opened a message in six months or more may even have been converted to spam traps in that time.

When we continue to send to dead addresses and unengaged recipients, we’re trading the vanishingly small possibility that they will magically re-engage for the much greater likelihood that we’ll no longer be able to reach our best customers reliably and consistently via email anymore. That’s a very bad trade.

And finally, you’re the Co-Chair of a group that, among many other things, fights spam. Can you explain?

The Messaging, Malware and Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group (M3AAWG) is where the industry comes together to work against botnets, malware, spam, viruses, DoS attacks and other online exploitation. It gives us the opportunity to engage and with the ISPs and the rest of the messaging community in a very collaborative and friendly fashion. It helps us to stay on top of changes at the ISPs, and to work with them to solve problems around spam and other types of abuse. Occasionally, it gives an opportunity to help shape best practices and policy.

I’m very proud of the work Salesforce Marketing Cloud does there, which helps to cement our reputation as one of the good guys, fighting to preserve email and the rest of messaging space as a viable medium for personal as well as for commercial and marketing messaging.