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Insights from 5 Billion Emails [A Q&A with Return Path]

Posted on 7.06.2017
Measuring consumers' level of engagement with emails they receive is a critical part of email marketing - making it helpful to understand read rate, reply rate, forward rate, complaint rate and other metrics indicating how people are interacting with emails. 

Earlier this year, Return Path released its report, "The Hidden Metrics of Email Deliverability," which provides sector-specific results from those metrics listed above - drawn from more than 5 billion commercial emails received in 2016. For example, although overall spam placement increased slightly year over year (13 percent in 2016 versus 12 percent in 2015), positive engagement metrics like read rate, reply rate, and forward rate also saw significant improvement.

Website Magazine caught up with Return Path's Co-Founder and President George Bilbrey to gather more insights into the report and email deliverability in general. Let's get started:

As mailbox providers improve their user experience like Gmail Tabs, (1) how is that impacting senders’ KPIs and (2) what steps can senders take to complement those mailbox providers’ efforts to deliver a better user experience?

George Bilbrey, Return Path: More than ever before, mailbox providers are taking steps to ensure that they’re delivering only legitimate email that their users actually want. To do this, major mailbox providers like Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have begun changing their filtering algorithms to factor in user engagement. This includes metrics like reads, replies, forwards, “deleted without reading,” and spam complaints.

If email doesn’t reach the inbox, brands lose the opportunity to connect with customers and ultimately make a sale—so every message counts. For this reason, marketers need to understand which metrics are important to mailbox providers and include these among their KPIs, rather than focusing solely on traditional performance metrics like opens and clicks. Ignoring the metrics mailbox providers track can only lead to a drop in overall performance of the email channel. 

However, it’s important to remember that subscriber engagement is not just a way to avoid the spam folder—it’s also good for business. Engagement metrics like reads, replies, forwards, and complaints represent real-life user actions that reflect how your subscribers feel about your emails. By paying attention to these metrics, marketers can identify what tactics and campaigns resonate with subscribers and tailor their email program to align with user preferences—ultimately leading to better customer relationships, more sales, and better ROI from email.

Is it good news or bad news for email marketers that recipients are taking a more active role in filtering their email messages?

Bilbrey, Return Path: We think it’s great news! For one thing, it’s definitive proof that email is *not* dead—on the contrary, it’s an effective, vital channel that consumers are actively engaged with.

While some might view this finding as a tough new challenge, the fact that subscribers are taking charge of their inbox should be seen as an opportunity. Every subscriber action provides an important signal to marketers. When a large percentage of subscribers delete your messages without reading them, it shows that they’re not really engaged with your emails. Maybe it’s time to revisit your subject line strategy, or even consider a re-engagement campaign. On the flip side, when subscribers take the time to retrieve your email from the spam folder and mark it as “Not Spam,” it shows that they want to hear from you—these are valuable customers you should continue reaching out to. 

What are some under-tracked email metrics, and how can businesses benefit from tracking them?

Bilbrey, Return Path: Surprisingly, many marketers don’t make a habit of tracking engagement metrics—and may not even be aware that they’re available. Key engagement metrics include:

● Read rate
● Forwarded rate
● Reply rate
● Spam complaints
● Messages marked as “not spam”

● Messages deleted without reading

As mailbox providers increasingly factor user engagement into their filtering decisions, these metrics have become crucial to understanding the true performance of an email program, as well as securing placement in the inbox. Tracking these metrics will give marketers an early warning of possible spam filtering, and also offers key insight into how subscribers view their email program.

What factors do you attribute to the overall ‘read rate’ increasing (as indicated in Return Path's report)?

Bilbrey, Return Path: There are several factors that could play a role in the increase in read rates. 

1. Mailbox providers are getting better at delivering messages that people want and expect in their inbox, thanks to more advanced filtering algorithms. As a result, more of the messages that reach the inbox are being read.
2. Smartphones and tablets have made consuming email easier, anywhere.
3. People rely on email more than ever to receive information from brands and organizations they love.

Users prefer email because it gives them more control over what they see, as opposed to social where your feed is determined largely by algorithms and paid placements.

What can marketers learn from the industries with the lowest spam rates (banking/finance, distribution & manufacturing, travel, and utilities)?

Bilbrey, Return Path: The industries with the lowest spam rates last year were account based industries, which means they have an established relationship with the user, and a large portion of their messages are transactional rather than promotional. Messages like bank statements, delivery updates, and ticket confirmations are almost always opened by users, as these messages contain valuable information that users want—and seldom report as spam. 

This higher placement shows the impact that engagement and an ongoing relationship can have on deliverability. Higher read rates, lower deleted without reading rates, and lower complaint rates than average signal to mailbox providers that their content is wanted by users and should be placed in the inbox. Marketers looking to increase their inbox placement need to pay attention to how users are interacting with their messages, because mailbox providers certainly are.  

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