Sep 18 2009

How Deliverability is Like SEO and SEM for Email

How Deliverability is Like SEO and SEM for Email

I admit this is an imperfect analogy, and I’m sure many of my colleagues in the email industry are going to blanch at a comparison to search, but the reality is that email deliverability is still not well understood — and search engines are.  I hope that I can make a comparison here that will help you better understand what it really means to work on deliverability – they same way you understand what it means to work on search.

But before we get to that, let’s start with the language around deliverability which is still muddled.  I’d like to encourage everyone in the email industry to rally around more precise meanings.  Specifically I’d like propose that we start to use the term “inbox placement rate” or IPR, for short.  I think this better explains what marketers mean when they say “delivered” – because anywhere other than the inbox is not going to generate the kind of response that marketers need.  The problem with the term “delivered” is that it is usually used to mean “didn’t bounce.”  While that is a good metric to track, it does not tell you where the email lands.  Inbox placement rate, by contrast, is pretty straightforward: how much of the email you sent landed in the inbox of our customers and prospects?

Now let’s come back to how achieving a high inbox placement rate is like search.  If you run a web site, you certainly understand what SEO and SEM are, you care deeply about both, and you spend money on both to get them right.  Whether “organic” or “paid,” you want your site to show up as high as possible on the page at Google, Yahoo, Bing, whatever.  Both SEO and SEM drive success in your business, though in different ways.

The inbox is different and a far more fragmented place than search engines, but if you run an email program, you need to worry both about your “organic” inbox placement and your “paid” inbox placement.  If you are prone to loving acronyms you could call them OIP and PIP.

What’s the difference between the two?

With organic inbox placement, you are using technology and analytics to manage your email reputation, the underpinning of deliverability.  You are testing, tracking, and monitoring your outbound email.  Seeing where it lands – in the inbox, in the junk mail folder, or nowhere?  You are doing all this to optimize your inbox placement rate (IPR) — just as you work to optimize your page rank on search engines.  One of the ways you do this is by monitoring your email reputation (Sender Score) as a proxy for how likely you are to have your email filtered or blocked.  The more you manage all of these factors, the greater likelihood you will be placed in inboxes everywhere.

With paid inbox placement, you first have to qualify by having a strong email reputation.  Then you use payment to ensure inbox placement, and frequently other benefits like functioning images and links or access to rich media.  With this paid model, there’s no guarantee to inbox placement (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), just like there’s no guarantee that you’ll be in the #1 position via paid search if someone outbids you.  But by paying, you are radically increasing the odds of inbox placement as well as adding other benefits.  There is one critical difference from search here, which is that you need good organic inbox placement in order to gain access to PIP.  You can’t just pay to play.

Like SEO, some organic deliverability work can and must be done in-house, but frequently it’s better to outsource to companies like Return Path to save costs and time, and to gain specific expertise.  Like SEM, paid deliverability inherently means you are working with third parties like our Return Path Certification program

As I said, it’s an imperfect analogy, but hopefully can help you better understand the strategies and services that are available to help you make the most of every email you send.