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The Oft-Forgotten Lever of Conversion: Email Deliverability and 5 Keys to Mastering It

[fa icon="calendar"] Aug 13, 2018 / by Alice Cornell


Email is a very important part of Change.org’s mission to empower people to make the change they want to see. We send around 450 million messages per month in 20 countries asking our users to sign and start petitions. But before users can fulfill one of these email asks, the email has to complete a very important, and often overlooked step: they have to be delivered.

As Director of Email Deliverability, it’s my responsibility to make sure all that email is delivered to users’ inboxes where it can be acted upon.

Easy, yes? Unfortunately not.

The reason it can be difficult is that mailbox providers have devised complicated algorithms to protect their users from spam and unwanted mail. Mail with spammy characteristics is filtered to the spam folder.

Over my years of work overcoming these obstacles, I’ve developed best practices for infrastructure, data hygiene, engagement, user experience, and legal compliance to make sure your email reaches those inboxes.

1.  Infrastructure

If you are using an ESP (Email Service Provider) to deliver your email then they should have this covered for you, but it’s worth checking these four things:

  • Are you authenticating your mail? Authenticating your mail will help mailbox providers identify you as a bona fide sender. SPF and DKIM are crucial. You should also consider DMARC.
  • Do you have dedicated IPs? If you do, stick with them. If you experience deliverability issues, switching IPs is not the way forward (it is a classic spammers’ trick); it is much better to fix your sender reputation on your existing IPs than to jump ship.
  • Are you clean and optimized? Keep your HTML coding clean and make sure your mails are optimised for mobile viewing.
  • Do you have Feedback Loops? Set up Feedback Loops to remove those users that hit the ‘this is spam’ button and ensure those users remain suppressed.


2.  Data Hygiene

Spam traps are a sign you urgently need to improve your data hygiene practices. Following these steps should ensure you don’t fall foul of allowing spam traps in your database, which can have serious implications for your deliverability.

  • Make sure you have a clean list. A clean list is the foundation of a good email programme. Remove permanently invalid addresses that return a hard bounce. Consider implementing rules to manage your soft bounces (temporary errors), so that you don’t retry them endlessly.
  • Implement a double opt-in. Prevent bad addresses from joining your database by implementing double opt-in, or at least by verifying addresses at the point of sign up. Consider retiring addresses that show no signs of life, or create a strategy around how to target them more appropriately.
  • Be very wary of buying 3rd party lists; it can be difficult to be sure where the addresses came from or what they have given permission to receive.


3. Engagement

Make sure you know the difference between good and bad engagement metrics so you can optimize your email for success:

  • Know what good engagement looks like. Mailbox providers such as Gmail and Hotmail see positive user engagement as a sign that mail is wanted and belongs in the inbox. Email opens, moving mail from the spam folder to the inbox (the best!), replies to the mail, and adding the sender to the address book are all clear signs that the user is engaged with your mail. See some great benchmarks here.
  • Know what bad engagement looks like. The number one measure of ‘bad’ engagement is recipients hitting the ‘This is spam’ button. Another measure of bad engagement are users that delete your mail without ever reading it. These users are clearly uninterested in your mail.
  • Know what to ask to improve engagement. If you are experiencing bad engagement, you might want to ask yourself whether users are expecting your mail, if you’re sending too often, if your messages are clearly branded, or if your unsubscribe works correctly.


4. User Experience

You want users to look forward to the mail they receive from you and enjoy reading it. Here’s how you can create an inviting user experience that encourages engagement:

  • Opt-ins only. Only send to users that have opted in to receive your mail. Set their expectations as to the type and frequency of the mail they will receive from you.
  • Tone and frequency matter. Tone and frequency of your emails are essential for creating content that people want to engage with. Finding the right tone and frequency is something that will take testing and constant optimisation; no one can tell you what will work best for your programme.
  • Test everything! Your subject line is of course a great place to start, but consider content, font size, time of day, frequency etc.  
  • Think about the user lifecycle. Make sure your email programme complements your user lifecycle and experiment so that your messaging stays fresh. Essentially, happy, active users = good deliverability.


5. Legal Compliance

If there is one thing you don’t want to mess with, it’s the law. Make sure you discuss any concerns you have with your legal counsel. Here are some things you will want to remember about deliverability and the law:

  • Keep in mind where you deliver. Check the guidelines for sending emails in every country where you deliver them
  • Make it easy to unsubscribe. Include a clear easy-to-find global unsubscribe in every message you send. Positioning it at the top of the page can help reduce spam complaints.
  • Include a physical address in every message.


It can often be a challenge to balance business decisions and best practice. Every email programme is unique and the email space is constantly changing, as the mailbox provider community continues to battle spam.

To that end, Change.org is constantly working to optimise our programme. Currently our inbox placement averages at 96%, but my aim is always to have us reach that magic 100% mark. How are we going to do that? Essentially, happy, active users = good deliverability.


#EmailCRO is an Email Optimization Experts Series featuring best practice advice and technology insights from email marketing and conversion rate optimization thought leaders and industry experts. Subscribe to the #EmailCRO Twitter list to learn more and join the conversation.

Topics: Email Optimization, Deliverability

Alice Cornell

Written by Alice Cornell

Alice Cornell is the Director of Email Deliverability at Change.org. Alice has worked in electronic messaging for over 15 years, helping many large global senders optimise their email programs and implementing best practices to ensure that their email delivers to the inbox. Find her on Linkedin or follow @alicecornell.

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