Is “Deliverability” just another (Silly) Buzzword?

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Elie Chevignard, Digital Marketing Manager at Mailjet.

I work for Mailjet and we focus on deliverability: it is central in our business. So I don’t believe that deliverability is a buzzword: it refers to a problem which has become more pregnant than ever. Nearly 25% of legitimate email gets lost and never makes it to the inbox.

But when someone is bragging about a “99% deliverability”, you want to know exactly what it means. If you’re unable to picture what’s behind this flashy phrase, you might just be victim of another empty-catchy concept. Many businesses heavily depend on deliverability. When choosing an Email Service Provider, “Deliverability” is a decisive criterion.  Thus, the term is too important to remain vague and it must be clearly defined.

Deliverability Everywhere, Definition Nowhere

Deliverability is all over the web: articles, landing pages, Twitter, etc.  However, the word itself isn’t findable in any dictionary yet. And if you use Google for a definition, here is what you get:

You might think that dictionaries are always late and never ahead of their time, so it would be normal not to find any definition. But then, why isn’t there anything on Wikipedia either? The collaborative encyclopedia has no entry for “deliverability” (neither does “email deliverability!”).

But in the meantime, Google gives you 1.5 million results for the term. Isn’t that paradoxical? Does it actually mean that everybody is talking about something nobody knows about?

Who Defines The Standards?

The project of harmonizing the email-related definitions is not new. Take the metrics: it is very painful for a marketer if when he switches provider, the way the KPIs are calculated changes. For example, in a world with no standards, the open rate could be based on the number of “accepted emails” or on the number of “sent emails”. This means that your campaign reporting would not be the same from one ESP to the other… Maybe you’ve already faced this problem and did some research on this topic. If so, you probably know about the S.A.M.E project.

This initiative is backed by the Email Experience Council (EEC) which is a subsidiary of the influent Direct Marketing Association (DMA). The workgroup aims to set up “unified standards for the most basic email metrics such as delivered, opened and clicked”. In June 2010, they released a document proposing some metric standards for the email industry. It explained how open rates and click rates should be calculated.

The term “deliverability” has been left behind

Unfortunately, the word “deliverability” can’t be found anywhere in the EEC document. This raises serious questions about a Direct Marketing News article from 2008, which reports that: Deliverability has been defined by the EMAC as total e-mail deployed (unique records) divided into the total amount successfully delivered.

The article is actually not sourced. Plus, the Email Measurement Accuracy Coalition (EMAC) merged with the EEC in 2008.Therefore, it would have been logical to find a definition of “deliverability” in the EEC synthesis of June 2010. But again, nothing. The notion of “deliverability” appears to have been left behind. No authority has proposed a definition yet…

But everybody wants more “deliverability”

Meanwhile, the marketer’s boss stopped asking about open rates, his question is now: “what about the deliverability of our emails?”. Although the main metrics have been defined, the poor email marketer still finds himself in a uncomfortable position where his superior hears things like “we promise you a +25% deliverability” or “have a look at our case study, we’ve achieved a 99% deliverability”… The boss wants it, even if he doesn’t know what it means…

Deliverability Is Not The “Delivery Rate”

Almost every time someone talks about a “deliverability rate”,  we’re actually talking about the “delivery rate”, which corresponds to the proportion of “accepted” emails. An email is considered as “delivered” if it didn’t bounce. The number of accepted (or delivered) emails is actually calculated this way:

Accepted = Sent – Bounced

In this case, when someone talks about a “99% deliverability” or a “+20% deliverability”, it simply means that “99% of the emails didn’t bounce” or that “20% more emails were accepted”. Here, the word “deliverability” is used only because it looks sexy. Nothing more: it’s pure marketing. The word “delivery” was enough, no need to talk about deliverability…

Deliverability is Not The “Inbox Placement Rate”

Sometimes, the expression “deliverability rate” also refers to the Inbox Placement Rate (IPR): this metric is measured with inbox seeding and is provided by Return Path, the leader in email reputation services. This indicator is quite complex to obtain, so it costs money.

For the moment, there is absolutely no way to detect if a particular message ended up in the spam folder. The feedback loops provided by the ISPs need to be triggered by the recipient himself (via the “report as spam” option). But when an email is placed in the spam folder, you can’t know about it for sure.

So how does it work? It’s simple: Return Path administrates a fair number of test inboxes. The only way to find out if an email was delivered to the inbox is actually to check the recipient’s inbox and see if the email appears in it. The test inboxes allow the sender to get an idea of his Inbox Placement Rate…

But why talk about “Deliverability” if we’re talking about “Inbox Placement Rate”? That’s because the IPR is a measurement of the deliverability, not a synonym. And in fact, there is no such thing as a “Deliverability Rate”.

Proposing a definition for “deliverability”

You understand the concept when you realize that it is not a metric, but a qualitative objective. If I had to propose a definition, here’s what it would look like:

Deliverability: refers to the ability that an email has of successfully reaching the inbox of its recipients.

Deliverability can be assessed with the help of the indicators aforementioned: the “accepted (or delivery) rate” and the “Inbox Placement Rate”. But in any case, it is not an equivalent of these indicators.

To make it clearer, here’s a parallel: if you want to improve “road safety” you will measure the number of car accidents. But the annual number of car accidents does not equal “road safety”. Just as the “deliverability” does not equal to “delivery rate” or “IPR”. The objective can never be assimilated to the success metrics.

Deliverability is a quest!

This is the way we see it at Mailjet. Once you have understood that “deliverability” is not a metric, you can start working on it efficiently. Beyond the “delivery rate”, the “open rates” or the “click rates” can actually be used to track success and detect deliverability problems. You just need to put them into perspective and track their evolution. The IPR can be too expensive if you are a small or medium sender. It is really important to understand that “deliverability” is not an absolute but rather an objective. We really try to make it clear to our customers: we refuse to make it look like there is a magic solution. The deliverability topic is already complex enough (reputation, technical, etc.): no need to blur the lines for marketing purposes!

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