Why Your “Delivered” Emails Aren’t Delivered Emails

Sending email can sometimes feel like a salmon run.

Instead of rapids and bears, messages must navigate spam checks and filters to reach their end destination: the hallowed inbox.

Your email marketing software or service provider tells you how many of your emails were delivered. Provided you keep your lists free of invalid email addresses, it’s likely not far off 100%.


Except that number isn’t telling you the whole story.

Delivered mail hasn’t been delivered yet

Delivered email is typically calculated as the number of emails sent minus the number rejected by the destination server. Those rejections are easy to identify, since the receiving system sends back a rejection (bounce) message.

So far so good. Where’s the problem?

This calculation does not tell you how many emails were delivered to recipient inboxes. It just tells you how many mails were accepted by the receiving server.

That’s not the same thing.

An accepted email hasn’t reached the recipient’s inbox yet. It might, for example, be quietly blocked and deleted by the system as spam. That fate is also more likely if you have too many invalid addresses on your list, which is commonly used by ISPs as an indication of a “bad” sender.

Even if your email passes the blocking checks, it might still be delivered to the recipient’s junk or spam folder…either directly or through that user’s individual settings.

According to our partner Return Path, in their Q4 2012 Email Intelligence Report, delivery rates to the actual inbox average around 82%.

As a marketer, delivery to the inbox obviously matters as much (more) than simply getting mail accepted. Understanding your true inbox placement rates places other metrics, such as opens and clicks, in a proper context for comparison. It’s also key to knowing whether you need take action on delivery issues.

So how do you calculate inbox placement rates?

Your email service might offer analytical tools that can gauge this number for your campaigns. You can also spot inbox delivery problems from dips in response rates at particular ISPs. We’ll have more thoughts on the topic in a future blog post.

P.S. To make the distinction between “acceptance” and “delivery” clearer, some email marketing service providers are now following the recommendations of the Email Measurement Accuracy Roundtable of the DMA/Email Experience Council. The Council suggests using the terms “accepted rate” and “inbox placement rate” in delivery reports.

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