email deliverability best practices
Project Ignite Podcast by Derek Gehl Email Deliverability Best Practices For 2016 - How To Get In The Inbox & Get Opened
00:00:00 00:00:00
  • Episode  43
  • Derek Gehl


Brendan Dubbels is the postmaster and deliverability expert at Ontraport. He is the best of the best out there when it comes to email marketing deliverability best practices, and the tips and strategies he shares with us today will drastically improve email deliverability and overhaul your open rates in only a few weeks.

We discuss how to stay out of the spam folder, and Brendan has some very specific steps to follow to make sure you’re keeping your IP clean. You will also learn how to test email deliverability which is one of the email deliverability best practices.

Find Brendan at and

Transcript of: Email Deliverability Best Practices For 2016

Welcome to the Project Ignite podcast–a podcast designed to skip the hype, skip the BS, and give you real, actionable tips and strategies to help you grow your business on the internet.This is your host, Derek Gehl, and today we’re gonna be diving deep into a topic I’ve been working on a lot lately because it’s something I’m personally interested in–email marketing deliverability. I don’t think enough digital entrepreneurs are thinking about how important it is to adhere to email deliverability best practices, which can drastically improve email deliverability.

I see people signing up with email service providers that advertise excellent deliverability, so entrepreneurs make the assumption that by using this service, they don’t need to worry about email deliverability best practices–they think they can just write up an email, send it out, and it’ll land in the inbox. But it’s so much more complex than that.

The fact is, email marketing deliverability is such a critical part of every digital business. If it’s not for yours, it probably should be. We build these massive lists of subscribers and customers we want to market to, but if our emails never get to them, what’s the point?

So to help us on our quest for the inbox, I guess you could say he breathes email deliverability. He’s the lead postmaster and deliverability expert for Ontraport, which is a leading email marketing platform for digital entrepreneurs. He’s obsessive about all things inbox and how to improve email deliverability: whether that’s taking advantage of Gmail’s tabbed inbox, avoiding the spam trap, maintaining a clean IP, or setting up the perfect list re-engagement campaign.

This guy has overseen the mailing of over 8 billion emails throughout his career and he’s been with Ontraport since day one. So without further ado, I’d like to welcome Brendan Dubbels to the show.

Brendan, thank you for being here.
Thanks for having me, Derek. I’m excited to talk email marketing deliverability for awhile.
Awesome. Before we talk deliverability–how did you get to where you are? How did you become a post master? When I was in school, that wasn’t an option in the career counselling catalogue! How did you become this deliverability guy?
Well I’ve been in tech my whole life. I’ve always been fascinated by computers. I began at Ontraport about seven years ago as a customer support rep. We had a really small team of about five people, and everyone wore a lot of different hats. Because of all those different hats, I got to find out what I had a strong affinity for, and what I was good at. That happened to be email marketing deliverability, and test email marketing. I think it’s interesting because for many people it’s a really dry, boring subject, but it’s so important to our customers businesses that I just gravitated towards it. I could talk about it all day.

Yeah, and I really think you’re right–but people don’t put enough thought into it. They sign up with Aweber or GetResponse, and for the most part, these companies do what they say they’re going to do with deliverability, but it goes far beyond that.

To start off, I’d be interested to hear your takes on the mistakes you’re seeing people make today with deliverability.

There’s one that stands out above the others, and that is treating email marketing deliverability as a reactionary problem. People don’t care about deliverability until it’s an issue; until they get blacklisted, or until they get an email from an angry customer that’s saying, “I just bought your course, where’s the email that I paid for?”

Whatever it is. It’s always reactionary. For most other portions of people’s online businesses, it’s not reactionary. You go into it with a plan, ready to go. Email deliverability should be the same way. So what I try to advocate for is a more well rounded approach where ideally in the beginning you would establish best practices–or even in the middle if you’re already into a promotion–to make sure that you don’t have those trigger problems that will freak you out down the road.

The easiest way to prepare is just to ensure you’re sending relevant information to people who want to hear from you. Some people would argue that, well, if someone’s on my list, they want to hear from me.

But that’s not always the case. Someone could sign up to get a free report from you, and then they forget that you’re emailing them every week. Or they change emails. Or they don’t like you, so they drop you into a folder and forget about it.

The ESPs–Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail–they see that happening. They think, I see Brendan or Derek sending out emails to our customers every week, and they’re not reading them. These emails must not be very valuable. Then, your name as a marketer gets associated with non valuable email. You gravitate towards the promotions tab or the spam folder, or you won’t be delivered at all.

The easiest way to combat that is ensuring that you’re removing people from your list if they haven’t been opening, reading, or clicking–because they’re probably not going to purchase.
email deliverability best practices

My rule of thumb is six months. This is your action item if you’re listening. Go to your list, create a separate segment for people that haven’t either opened, clicked, or purchased in six months. You either need to get rid of them–I know it sounds painful, but it will make a huge difference and improve email deliverability to your hot leads–or you need to start emailing them half as much.

You’ll see a huge pickup in the number of leads that are getting and responding to your leads.

I totally agree. Back in the old days, if you had a clean IP, you could make it to the inbox. I understand that today, that hardly matters. Is that true?

You’re totally right. If you think about the history of email, when it was first invented, it was incredible. You could send an email from your computer to another country. Then it evolved into this tool that people used to market and to spam people, and the ESPs had to respond. It’s been quite the evolution–it was first used in one to one communication, and then people used it to market, and then people started to break the rules and harvest email addresses to deliver crap. So now, the ESPs have realized they need to pull the crap out.

By adhering to the rules, you’re making it really easy to get into the inbox. You just need to make sure that you’re segmenting your list and only sending to your best people.

What I’m hearing you say as well is that the ESPs have now figured out that it’s about engagement. That’s the factor that carries the most weight in your long term deliverability.
Exactly. The reason for that is that in the beginning, spammers could ruin an IPs reputation, and then just get another IP. There was nothing stopping them. So ESPs have had to find new ways to identify mailers and then decide if they want to deliver their mail or not.

Let’s walk through a scenario here. This is a question that I think a lot of people are wondering, and if not, they should be. So I go over to Ontraport and I set up an account. I’m a new business; I don’t have a reputation yet. I sign up with Ontraport, and like most of the big email marketing platforms, I’d be sending through a shared IP.

I start building my list, I get to 500 people, and I start mailing to them. Am I going to get into the inbox right away, and then work my way out if I don’t do it well? Or do I need to fight to get into the inbox?

How do they work that when you’re getting started?

There’s a bit of both, honestly. With Google, you have the promotions folder, which is a bit more complicated, but if you’re starting out, it’s not as important to worry about the promotions folder versus the inbox. It can make a difference, but really, it’s a minor detail. If you’re just getting started, you want to be focused on laying a solid groundwork. You want to be focused on having systems in place to deal with those inactive people.

If you start with a company like Ontraport, we have package codes that you can enter into your account which will create our active re-engagement for you. What that does is it uses automated rules or sequences to send an inactive person on your list and say, we really like having you on our list but we also don’t want to annoy you, so click here if you’d like to stay on our list, or do nothing, and we’ll remove you in a week.

That shows ESPs that you care about your list and you care about segmenting. It’s great if you make it to the six month mark and you only care about the primary inbox–but the ESPs will still be seeing that people aren’t engaging. I really like to focus on that foundational piece first, rather than the smaller promotional piece.

So clean out based on open rates and clicking rates. Clicking rates you can track pretty reliably, but what about open rates?

It didn’t used to be super accurate, but now it’s getting much better. ESPs have realized that they can display images automatically, meaning that the pixel is downloaded every time someone opens an email. So it’s completely accurate. Most of the other big ISPs are following suit.

So they may be inaccurate by maybe 1% at most, and if you’re really a stickler for 100% accurate stats, you can always add in an opt-in that lets people display the images on their own. But it’s much more accurate now than it ever has been.

Everybody who’s listening–we’re talking open rate. If we send out 100 emails, we want to know how many of those emails are opened. To do that, basically, every time that email opens, there’s a one pixel image that’s downloaded. They don’t see it or know it’s there, but it tells your email marketing platform when it’s been opened. So in case you had no idea what we were talking about, now you know.

So there’s been a lot of talk about Gmail. It’s everywhere. Question for you–and I love talking to people like you because you get a detailed view of so many campaigns. So, have you ever looked across the whole segment of lists that you host, and noticed which percentage Gmail makes up?

I was just doing that this morning! We just launched a program called Ontrapages, which is a landing page generator. We launched it at our annual conference, Ontrapalooza, which was an awesome time. What I’ve noticed is that our opt-ins for Ontrapages and our sign-ins, it’s about 50% Gmail, whereas even a few years ago, our list was only 27% Gmail.

Gmail has really taken over in a big way. If they continue to grow the way they are, I think we’ll all wind up with a Gmail account.

And when you say that, is that only the people with email addresses?
Yes! That’s not even counting Google Apps.

Wow. All of my emails are all on Google Apps anyways. If you factor all of that in, it’d be an even bigger percentage.

Okay, let’s talk about Gmail’s algorithm. So they recently shook everything up with their introduction of the promotions tab. Nobody wants to be in the promotions tab. I forget that it’s there sometimes.

If something is put in the promotions tab, you’re telling people that you’re only trying to sell them things. How do you get around that? Have you reverse engineered that algorithm? Can you tell us what to do?

Yes. So I’ve done a lot of research on this and I’ve found that it’s actually simpler than I thought it would be. One of the things they look for is the number of links. So for example, we were setting up a welcome campaign for Ontrapages. Before we went live, I did our email deliverability test. We had four links in it, and it kept hitting my promotions folder, no matter which words I changed or took out. It made no difference. That’s just where we were going to live.

The next thing I tested was taking the number of links out. I took one link out, and it hit promotions. I took one more out, and voila. We hit the primary tab. It appears to me that one of the main factors is the number of links, and your image to text ratio. You want to keep that around 80% text, 20% images. So it’ll be a little different for everybody, but as a blanket rule, if you keep it to two links, and 80% text with 20% images, and you’re not purposefully misspelling any words, you’ll get in there just fine.

Okay. Let’s talk links for a second. It’s such a pain in the ass. Say you’re sending out a newsletter. You’re linking to different stuff. It’s hard to keep it below two to begin with. What about your unsubscribe link? You’re legally obligated to have one.
I did not include that because I figured everyone would have one, so you’re technically allowed to have three links:your unsubscribe, and two others in the body of the email.
Right now, if you’ve been doing email marketing deliverability for awhile, and you’re stuck in the promotions tab, and you’re listening right now and thinking you can follow those rules and hit the inbox immediately. If you’ve been doing this for awhile, and you have a reputation, will it make a difference right away?

It can. The thing that many people who send mass mailings don’t realize is that reputation is iterative. There’s the worst of the worst, spam score ten. Then there’s the best of the best, spam score zero. Let’s say you have a spam score of six. By following best practices, you might get down to five, and they won’t suspect you of being a spammer.

My suggestion is to always follow best practices. None of this will be a problem. For those of you that are already stuck with a bad spam score–now is the time to start fixing that. If you do one single thing after this call, go to your list, segment out your inactive subscribers, and get rid of them. It’ll take a few weeks to see the impact, but I promise you will see a change in how people interact with your emails.

I know it’s hard to get rid of part of your list, but if they haven’t bought or clicked or opened in six months, they’re probably never going to. You’re not really losing that much, and plus, you’ll save money on sending fewer emails.

Exactly. If someone hasn’t opened your emails in six months, why waste money on sending it to them? And you’re also taking a hit on your hot leads’ deliverability.

Let’s dig in a bit deeper now. With a system like Ontraport, I assume that before an email looks spammy, Ontraport will say so.

Yes. We have an integration with SpamAssassin. It’s not the be-all end-all, but each of the ESPs have their own private filters. Naturally, they won’t tell you what those filters are, because everyone would get into the inbox. So they can’t give out what they’re filtering for.

So we use SpamAssassin. It’s the largest open source spam filter available. People that are hosting on GoDaddy or BlueHost or they have their own server, they can install it for free on their email servers and it’ll scan your email. It’s a great place to start, but it won’t be 100% accurate with Gmail or Yahoo.

We see these checkers, and people are a bit misled by them. They think, my spam score is really low, I’ll make it to the inbox. So when they see that, they see an assessment, is that primarily based on keywords?
Yeah. If you google SpamAssassin Filtering List, it’ll return a bunch of the things that it looks for. Things like the HTML version not matching the plain text, or raw URLs that go to different places. We also have lots of reputation trackers in place for things like, so that will be flagged, because so many spammers use URL shorteners like If you use it in your email, it makes you look like a spammer. It’s all mostly content stuff.
Let’s shift to engagement metrics. Obviously that plays a huge role today in deliverability. What are the engagement methods that they’re monitoring that you’re aware of?

I do most of my testing on Gmail, simply because it’s so prevalent.

Gmail looks at everything from opens and clicks, to how long the email was open, or how far down the person scrolled in the email, whether they replied or forwarded the email. One neat thing about Gmail is that if someone replies twice to your emails, you’ll stay in the inbox, and you’ll also be marked as important, so you’ll stay above the fold most of the time.

You’ll just inbox. It’s assumed you’re a trusted source.

Right. So getting people to reply is critical. That’s interesting because every time you send out an email, you typically want people to take action and visit another page. I’ve had my head in a deliverability for awhile now, so I sent out a message saying, hey, what’s your number one challenge? Super easy survey, just like reply and email me back. I got a ton of replies that way.

I was high fiving myself, because I thought, yeah! Awesome! But you’ve just rained on my parade, because they have to reply twice.

Yep. Once is nice but twice is better.

For everyone listening, it’s great just as a customer survey standpoint. What would you like to see more of? Just reply to this email. You’ll get a ton of emails, but it’ll help with deliverability.

Let’s talk a bit about subject lines. How do they affect deliverability? Do you have any tips?

They used to be one of the most important factors, four or five years ago. But more recently, I have seen that subject lines aren’t really having a huge impact on your inbox rate. If there’s lots of symbols in the subject line, that’s caused some problems.
email marketing deliverability
A lot of people like to write RE: or FW: in the subject line to make it seem like it’s a real email, and it might be a reply or a forward, but that’s been shown to make a difference in spam folders. If it looks like you’re trying to impersonate another email, you will go to the spam folder. So stay away from reply, forward, and symbols in your subject lines and you should be fine.

Outside of that, just split test email deliverability. I know there’s lots of gurus out there that can be really specific and say that if you include a certain number of tips to make a certain amount of money per month, you will get the best open rates. Just remember that everyone’s list is different. Listen to those gurus, but always verify with your list because what works for them may not work for you.

I want to shift gears again here. The other question is, the HTML behind your email–we go into these different systems and platforms and they have all of these templates. Sometimes you look behind the scenes and it’s entirely a coding disaster. What impact does that have?
Honestly, I haven’t tested it too much so I can’t give you a concrete answer either way. If your HTML is too long or too bulky, emails will start to get clipped, but I haven’t done any extensive testing on a code, because it hasn’t yet been a problem.
I have one more question for you. What impact does your from address and your domain have on your deliverability?

There’s definitely a small impact on deliverability with regards to your domain. But things are starting to move away from domains more and more now, because spammers are able to hop on an IP, blow an IP out, and then get another and mail from there–that’s also doable with domains.

What ESPs are starting to do is to try to thumbprint mailers. They do this by way of list makeup. Let’s say you’re mailing, Derek, and it goes out to one million people. When you mail, it’ll always go out to the same 400,000 Gmail inboxes, with one or two difference. Your list is very unique, because it’s unlikely that anyone else has that specific 400,000 emails. So the ESPs are able to identify your segment that way, so if those same 400,000 people get an email, they might think, maybe his list was stolen. Or maybe he’s sharing. Or maybe, he’s hopping around from domain to domain trying to spam people.

They’re developing ways to target, judge, and assign reputation based on your list, more than your IP or domain. There’s some people that are learning to break up their list and be strategic about who they send to when to avoid being thumb printed by the ESPs. So, yes. It does play into deliverability. I think it has more to do with recognition for your customer.

That’s so interesting. I didn’t know that was happening. You’re so right, you can switch IPs or domains, but it’s harder to change up your list.

One more question, again. Let’s talk transactional versus promotional emails. When you’re sending those out, should there be consistency with your from address, your domain, or should your transactional emails be coming from a different place? Or should all of your emails come from one address? What’s the best practice there?

In my opinion, your transactional addresses can go out over a different IP, so that your people will get the important stuff no matter what. Even if your reputation isn’t really strong, you know that you can get your most pristine communications out over this IP.

As far as whether it should be involved with other mail, people will argue that if that one IP is so pristine, we should let it reflect on our other IP to even things out. To help bring up the reputation of the others. With the way things are headed, I don’t think it’ll make much of a difference, but for the time being, use a different IP, use a different from name, just so you can establish a really healthy reputation for transactional communications. But eventually, your reputation won’t depend on your IP or from name, especially if we get to IPV6, IP reputation will go straight out the window.

Two questions. First, how does IPV6 affect us?
It’ll have a huge effect, because we’re going to go from the amount of IPs currently available based on the limits of the numerical structure we have, to basically innumerable IPs. It’ll be way easier to hop around, easier to get, cheaper–there’ll be so many more options. IP reputation will be irrelevant.
Do you know of any plans to roll that out?
Not really. I do know that lots of people have been saying that we’re going to run out of IPs and it’ll be a catastrophe, but that’s been happening for years. So there’s speculation, but I think we’ll be good for the next several years.
Awesome. I want to go back to transactionals. I had one more question there as well. So you’re saying that eventually, separating transactional communications won’t matter. Lately, there’s been a big shift of transactional mailers. People are starting to utilize those to send out their emails, even to the point of connecting their email marketing platforms to send through those transactional mailers. Is there a benefit to that?
For the time being, yes, because if it’s only transactional email, it’ll only be going out with invoice or product information, so all the mail it’s lumped in with is only of the most importance. Right now, it’s perfect. In a few years, it will not make a difference, because we’re moving away from that type of tracking.
Here’s what I don’t understand. So you have transactional mailers like Sendgrid or Mandrill, but people are hooking up email marketing platforms to them and blasting promotional emails through them.
When you connect to Sendgrid for example, they will filter and screen your emails and separate them into which will go on the transactional IPs and which will go on their normal IPs. Don’t take this the wrong way, Sendgrid and Mandrill are great services, but when you’re using their normal IPs, it’ll be mostly the same as using your ESPs IPs. There’s only so much you can do on the technical end. it won’t make that much of a difference, especially because most ESPs out there also have reserved transactional IPs. So if you were an Ontraport customer, we do send all double opt-in mails and transactional mails in a separate IP pool.

That was my question! What’s the benefit is there’s a ton of promotional stuff going through on those transactional emails.

So we’re almost out of time–where can people find out more about you, and what you’re up to with Ontraport or deliverability? Are there any resources you’d recommend?

We recently released Ontraport basic, which is a lower priced option for people that want a powerful tool like Ontraport. The goal was to release something that would allow people to start small and allow us to scale up with them as their business grow. That wasn’t previously available. Most ESPs like Ontraport are really expensive. We wanted to change that. So go check that out at If you’re into landing pages, check out We have a free version if you just want to dip your toes in, and we also have a premium version with more templates that can connect to any ESP out there via FormConnector.
Brendan, thank you so much for sharing all of this with us.
Of course. Thanks for having me, Derek!

Great. Alright everyone, that was Ontraport’s postmaster and email deliverability expert Brendan Dubbels. As usual, all of our resources and transcript can be found over at Don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes or Soundcloud, and if you like what you hear, leave us a review or a rating. It’s those reviews that give me the momentum to keep making this the best info-packed podcast for digital entrepreneurs.

Now, it’s time to take and apply that final ingredient to everything you learned here today: action. Go forth, take action, use what you’ve learned and stay tuned for more episodes of the Project Ignite podcast, a podcast designed to take the confusion, the hype, and the BS out of online business so that you can get it right and make more money.

This is Derek Gehl, signing off.

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