Pinpoint e-mail deliverability problems and fix them

See how you, as an IT pro, could make changes in a process that directly affects the bottom line. That could be the case when it comes to deliverability of your company's commercial e-mail.

It has been perhaps one of the most used phrases in the last couple of years: IT/business alignment. No one can argue that helping the business meet its goals is the best way to get IT a seat at the corporate table. What you don't hear so much about is there are two levels of business alignment—strategic and tactical. Strategic isn't hard to achieve as long as your CIO sits at the table with the CEO when the big picture is being formed and discussed. The tactical aspect is a little harder to achieve. It's one thing to say that IT is aligned with business strategy and another to make sure it's happening.

But what if you, as an IT pro, could make changes in a process that directly affects the bottom line? That could be the case when it comes to deliverability of your company's commercial e-mail. According to George Brilbey, vice-president and general manager of Deliverability Solutions, Return Path, more than 20 percent of e-mail does not get delivered to the inbox by ISPs. Non-delivery erodes response rates and program effectiveness.

Brilbey, who will be a speaker at the INBOX Email event in San Jose on June 1-2 cites four root causes of delivery problems:

  • Complaints—If enough users at a large ISP (for example, AOL) or a community-based filter (like Cloudmark's Safety Bar or Mailfrontier's Matador) hit the Report Spam button, you mail will not be delivered.
  • List quality—If you mail to a significant number of spam trap addresses (an e-mail address that has never subscribed to any mailings, sometimes called "honeypots") or mail to a large number of "unknown users" (addresses that don't exist at that domain) your mail will have delivery problems
  • Mailing infrastructure configuration—Because spammers tend to have badly-configured mailing infrastructure, ISPs and filtering applications take a very close look at mailing infrastructure. If your server isn't compliant with Internet standards, you may have a delivery issue.
  • Content of messages—Your content (keywords, phrases, HTML syntax, etc.) may cause your messages to be filtered out.

Some of these problems are largely the province of marketing and/or product management, according to Brilbey. For example, complaints are driven by: (1) not getting clear permission to send mail; (2) not setting proper expectations about what messaging will be sent and or how frequently, and (3) sending relevant messaging. This is largely controlled by marketing. Content is also mostly controlled by marketing.

However, list quality is jointly the province of both IT and marketing. "Often marketing makes decisions about third-party data sourcing (such as co-registration) and how the registration form is set up (for example, does it require you to enter the e-mail address twice?). IT is often in charge of deciding how bounces are handled. Improper handling of bounces can cause a high unknown-user rate." But, clearly, the mailing infrastructure is primarily IT's responsibility.

Mailing infrastructure

The first step IT must take toward solving a deliverability problem is to find out the extent of the problem. Toward this end, Brilbey recommends taking the following steps:

  • Look at your SMTP statistics: In many cases, if someone isn't accepting your mail, they will tell you. The receiving mail server may, in effect, say "no thanks, I'm not taking mail from you". This may be done at the time you are trying to deliver the mail or later in a bounce message. This is done using the delivery status codes as specified in the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). Many mail engines have reporting interfaces that allow you to aggregate this data and see if you have a delivery problem. Ideally, you should look at this information, by domain, over time. A dip in these statistics might indicate that you have a problem. The problem is that ISPs and filtering applications don't always tell you what they are doing with your messages. For example, if the mail goes into the junk mail folder, there is no notification to this effect.
  • Mail to a seedlist: Mail to addresses that you control at major ISPs. See what happens to them. Do they end up in the junk mail folder? Are they simply missing? There are companies, including Return Path, that provide seedlist services. You simply add a seedlist provided by the company to your mailing, log into a Web interface, and see what happens to those seed addresses across a large number of ISPs.
  • Use a "Battery of Filters": Use a commercial service that will run your messages through a variety of spam-filtering applications to see if they pass or fail the filter.

After you've determined the extent of the problem, then you can take steps to increase the amount of mail that gets through to the inbox. Brilbey says you must first make sure your mailing infrastructure is properly configured. Some ways to do this are:

  • Ensure that you have a reverse DNS lookup on your IP address results in a valid PTR record.
  • Make sure that postmaster@ and abuse@ addresses at your domain are accepting mail.
  • Make sure that your sending domain is also configured to receive mail (has a valid MX server that receives mail).
  • Check that the HELO/EHLO domain is fully qualified.

"Last, you must make sure that your bounce handling actually works—that unknown users are pulled off the list," Brilbey said.

Finally, it's important to continually monitor e-mail deliverability rates because the rules around them change daily. Also, make sure that you are tracking delivery, testing for spam filters and ISP blocking before a mass mailing, and reacting to all changes that need to be made.

About Toni Bowers

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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