Email Deliverability

Email Deliverability in 2023: Are You Headed for a Successful Black Friday…or a Black Hole?

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What should email senders expect this holiday season?

Signs suggest they may have their work cut out for them.

Global email volumes doubled pre-vs-post pandemic as traditionally offline businesses moved online. Plus, existing users reaffirmed email’s effectiveness as a high ROI channel that is popular with both brands and consumers.  

However, this popularity is a double-edged sword. The tidal wave of additional volume has placed more stress on the ability of mailbox providers (MBPs) to process all of these additional messages. It also means far greater competition for eye share (and share of wallet) in more congested inboxes.  

It’s no surprise that deliverability remains challenging, and new developments are making it more so.

Let’s review 2023’s key trends, and how senders can adapt.  

Deliverability in 2023 

The tectonic plates below the email deliverability landscape have shifted in 2023!  

Should we expect some inbox placement tremors anytime soon? The economy, consumer privacy, artificial intelligence, MBP postmasters, and dark patterns are all adding to the stress.  

Let’s have a closer look at these new challenges.

Economic headwinds 

Many email programs now face two conflicting challenges. Tough economic conditions mean consumers have reined in discretionary spending, making them less responsive to email promotions.  

This creates a vicious circle, because there is also increased pressure on marketers from their C-levels to send more emails to older/less engaged subscribers in the hope of generating more short-term revenue.

The combined impact is negative for subscriber engagement and email deliverability. (We explore these challenges in this episode of State of Email Live.)

Apple privacy initiatives

Apple introduced Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) two years ago, but senders are still feeling its impact.

Many email senders rely on opens to provide an engagement signal. However, MPP masks the fact that many of these addresses are no longer genuinely engaged.

Apple considers subscriber engagement as part of its filtering algorithms, which helps explain why Q3 inbox placement rates (IPRs) were only 54 percent—more than 30 percent below the other major MBPs.  

Artificial intelligence 

This year has undeniably been the year of AI. In the world of email marketing, AI is already old news—big MBPs like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Gmail have used AI-driven filtering for several years.

Gmail’s AI-powered defenses now stop more than 99.9 percent of spam, phishing, and malware attempts from reaching inboxes, and block nearly 15 billion unwanted emails every day.  

This is good news for email marketers because AI will help to reduce spam false positives/negatives.  

But because AI learns from subscriber interactions, it also means delivering messages similar to those that historically generated low/negative engagement will become harder. 

Mailbox providers 

There has been plenty of activity on the MBP front. Both Yahoo and Gmail have announced plans to enforce stronger email authentication (namely SPF, DKIM, and DMARC protocols), enforce a maximum complaint rate threshold, and introduce mandatory requirements for one-click opt-out functionality.  

Gmail has also announced plans to start deleting accounts that have not been active within the past two years.  

These developments won’t cause problems for senders who already meet these requirements, but deliverability is about to get a lot more difficult for those who don’t. 

New laws and dark patterns 

Twelve US states have now enacted new-generation privacy laws (not all are being enforced yet) and another ten have active bills in progress.

In theory, this is good news for marketing performance.  

Europe’s GDPR experience showed that writing established best practices (like robust consent, increased choice, and greater transparency) into law will mean higher engagement and more revenue for senders.  

However, we are also seeing the emergence of patterns and tricks that make people do things they didn’t mean to. E.g., if a website has a visible button to sign up, but the options to cancel are hidden away, this is a dark pattern. Consumers quickly become aware of their data rights, and they will respond negatively to brands using these practices. 

It’s very clear that deliverability isn’t getting any easier (and we have the data to prove it later in this report!). 

Let’s now consider how Validity can help ensure your Q4 doesn’t become a deliverability black hole, and that you are maximizing your email revenue in Q4 and beyond. 

How does deliverability trend during (and immediately after) the holidays? 

In the latest episode of State of Email Live, we polled our audience to get a feel for their current deliverability, or inbox placement rate.  

We kept it simple. The options were “90-100 percent” (which we associate with best-in-class senders) and “Less than 90 percent.” Responses were fairly evenly split between the two options. An additional quarter said they didn’t know their inbox placement rate. 

However, when we overlay “customer” versus “non-customer” filters on these responses, the picture we see is striking. Validity customers skew heavily towards the 90-100 percent range, while non-customers are far more likely to have lower IPRs (or simply not know what their IPRs are at all). 

We also asked our audience what happens to their deliverability during the Q4 sale season.  

Again, the customer versus non-customer split is eye-opening. Unsurprisingly, not many said their deliverability improves during peak sales season (although it can happen, as we explain in the next section).  

However, customers reporting stable deliverability during this period outnumbered non-customers by two to one—a major endorsement of the security Validity solutions provide during this business-critical period. 

It’s sometimes said ignorance is bliss. But Peter Drucker’s “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” adage is far closer to the truth.  

The 46 percent of “don’t knows” will have no visibility of the one of every six emails they are sending straight to their customers’ junk folders, nor what it is costing them in wasted revenue.  

Tom Peters said, “What gets measured gets done.” He’s correct, and in the next section, we’ll explain how. 

The Sender Certification advantage 

We recently compared the average inbox placement rates achieved by Certified vs non-Certified senders at over 80 mailbox providers, filtering companies, and hosting platforms around the world.  

We identified an average performance uplift of 8.6 percent for Certified senders across all providers.   

For many senders, the benefit is even greater—the average inbox placement rate across 10 of our most recently published case study customers is a phenomenal 99.3 percent (a full 15 percent higher than the global average). 

The Q4 holiday season has always posed additional deliverability challenges for email senders, and the performance advantage for Sender Certified programs has always been even more pronounced during this period.   

However, the weight of that advantage has changed over the years. As our data from 2015 shows, non-Certified senders would see a short-term dip in IPRs of ± 15 percent, which would then bounce back to normal levels once the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend ended. 

Fast forward to 2022, and the holiday season deliverability picture is a very different one. The weeklong V-shaped dip for non-Certified senders has now been replaced by a decline that is more subtle, but far longer-lasting than was previously the case. The performance dip now continues well into the New Year. 

While average IPRs for non-Certified senders during Q4 are declining, the deliverability performance of Certified senders is improving. Remember that Sender Certified benefits come in two ways—direct and indirect: direct where participating partners expressly apply benefits, and indirect where by meeting the high standards required by the program senders’ performance achieves distinctly higher outcomes. 

The lesson is clear—during the busiest email marketing period of the year, major MBPs prioritize (and reward) the trusted senders who have established themselves as good actors. 

Aggregating the inbox placement data for the top 10 MBPs (representing >90 percent of all email address owners as measured by our seed weightings) brings these insights into sharp relief. Even pre-Black Friday, the deliverability performance gap for Certified vs. non-Certified senders is now 11.9 percent. Deliverability is getting harder—more about this in a moment! 

Comparing the 45-day periods before and after Black Friday weekend, the deliverability performance gap between Certified and non-Certified senders increases by a further ± four percent.

The bottom-line impact 

Let’s consider this difference in terms of revenue. 

A Sender Certified program broadcasting 10M emails per month and achieving the industry average of $0.09 revenue per email will generate $900K of program revenue.   

A non-Certified program of the same size generates only $793K—already a $107K shortfall. 

Losing an additional four percent of deliverability performance for two months creates an additional $72K opportunity cost for this sender. Compare this with the 15 percent/7-day drop in 2015, which would have only cost $32K, and we can see the penalty for poor holiday season deliverability has doubled! 

We also mentioned deliverability isn’t getting any easier, and our latest analysis clearly shows the increasing deliverability performance gap between Certified and non-Certified senders over the past four quarters.  

The inbox placement difference between Certified and non-Certified senders across our top 10 MBPs has now grown to 15.5 percent. Applying the same $0.09 average revenue per email we used in our previous illustration; non-Certified senders are now losing an average of $14K potential revenue for every million emails they send. 

Remember—these illustrations are based on the aggregated deliverability achieved across the top 10 MBPs, adjusted to reflect the seed weightings provided by Validity’s Everest users.   

What’s next? 

As the numbers show, deliverability is getting harder during the Q4 holiday sales period—and senders are feeling the brunt of these challenges longer. As new deliverability hurdles continue to arise, those looking for an “insurance policy” during high-pressure sending times should consider Validity’s Sender Certification program‚ which helps senders get an average of 27 million additional emails into subscribers’ inboxes each year. 

To learn what Sender Certification can do for your email program, see if you’re pre-approved today.