Certification: The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth

At Return Path, we take pride in our Certification program. Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen what Certification can do for senders, and we have the data to show that the program is capable of  increasing email reach and improving ROI. Sadly, there are a few vendors in the industry who downplay the value of Certification and misrepresent how Certification actually works. It’s important to us that email marketers know the truth, so in this blog post, we are going to bust some myths and educate our readers about the power of Certification.

Myth #1: Certification is more psychological than tangible
To help our customers understand their deliverability, Return Path collects data from three different sources: our Reputation Network, Consumer Network panel, and seed addresses. Across all three sources, certified senders as a whole outperform non-certified senders on a regular basis.


For a specific individual sender, results can vary slightly as deliverability is a product of many reputation signals. Certification is a strong signal to mailbox providers that the sender is reputable, but it is not the only thing mailbox providers are looking at. If there is something else about the sender’s email program that is negatively affecting their reputation, then we might see a less impactful effect on inbox placement rate from Certification.

Because of these other factors, Certification is not—and has never been—a guarantee of inbox placement. Instead, Certification allows email marketers to enhance their sending reputation through monitoring and vetting. Improved inbox placement rates typically come as a result of this improved reputation.

Myth #2: Certification tends to promote bad habits because of the false sense of security
An important part of the Certification life cycle is regular audits and continual performance monitoring to ensure senders stay in compliance with the Certification standards. If a sender falls out of compliance, their IP addresses and/or domains will be suspended from the program and cease receiving benefits until compliance is met again.

Certified senders are well aware of where they stand in relation to our standards and are empowered to monitor this themselves. Every day, Certified senders are sent a Daily Performance Report, which shows their complaint rates, spam trap hits, Microsoft Sender Reputation Data (SRD), among other metrics. They also receive real-time alerts if one of these metrics falls out of compliance, allowing them to immediately address any issues affecting their reputation.

We are transparent with our data because we are serious about senders staying compliant. Being upfront about what we expect from Certified senders ensures that they are maintaining good habits and constantly working to retain their certification status.

Myth #3: Certification is less important today than it once was
Return Path began offering Certification to best-in-class senders over 10 years ago. Currently we certify over 1,800 customers and 9,300 IP addresses. Even with significant changes to the industry and how mailbox providers have filtered email in the past 10 years, Certification still remains relevant and senders rely on the program to help them increase their email reach.

Why is Certification still relevant? Because email marketers continue to struggle with getting mail to the inbox. As reported in our 2015 Deliverability Benchmark Report, we saw a 4 percent decrease in worldwide inbox placement rate between 2014 and 2015. In the US, inbox placement rates dropped from 87 percent in 2014 to 76 percent in 2015. That means that nearly one in four emails is landing in the spam folder or going missing. Email marketers need help, and becoming certified is one thing legitimate senders can do to help their reputation and, in turn, their inbox placement.

Myth #4: There’s not much of an acceptance process to becoming certified, basically you write a check
The process to getting Certified is not an easy one, but we keep it that way because it’s important to us to maintain the integrity of the program. Certification truly is reserved for the best-of-the-best senders, so we need to ensure those senders are following all best practices and staying compliant with our standards.

To become certified, a sender must apply online and supply detailed information about their email program, list hygiene practices, opt-in and opt-out processes, and infrastructure. Once the application is submitted, our team runs checks against 75 requirements in eight categories. Our certification analysts will sign up for the sender’s emails to ensure what they receive matches what they opted in to. If the sender does not pass any of these checks, our team will work with the sender to bring their email program up to par and get them to a state where they can be certified.

Sometimes, however, we are simply unable to certify a sender, whether because of an uncertifiable business model (like third-party mail), non-compliance, or unwillingness to make the necessary changes. When this occurs, we do reject the sender’s application. Since January 2015, our Certification analysts have rejected, on average, over 40 percent of applications received due to the sender not meeting the standards of the certification program.

Myth #5: ISPs don’t respect this kind of list
Through Certification, Return Path works with over 70 mailbox provider partners, which represents over 70 percent of total global mailboxes. It’s because of these partnerships that we are able to offer Certification to our customers; if these mailbox providers did not accept and use the Certification whitelist, then there would be no Certification program.

Certification not only helps senders, but it also benefits these mailbox providers, which is why they continue to partner with us. Commercial email traffic continues to climb—we’ve seen volume increase seven percent since 2014 and 16 percent since 2013. With so much email coming in, it’s extremely difficult for mailbox providers to keep up and accurately classify email as legitimate versus junk. Certification helps mailbox providers to vet incoming email and determine who to deliver to the inbox. They know they can trust senders of certified mail, so they do not have to spend as much time scrutinizing the sender and content, therefore leading to time saved for the mailbox providers.

Myth #6: Certification touches a small portion of most lists
Included in the over 70 mailbox provider partners that work with us for Certification are Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, and Comcast. Together, our Certification partners represent 2.5 billion mailboxes worldwide.

One mailbox provider that we do not directly partner with for Certification is Gmail. We have seen that Gmail can sometimes make up nearly 50 percent of a subscriber list, depending on the industry. And while senders will not see reputation or deliverability improvements at Gmail as a direct impact of Certification, we have seen an indirect relationship between Certification and improved deliverability at Gmail.

Why would this be? By holding senders in our Certification program to the highest of standards, and continuously monitoring their performance we ensure they are best-in-class senders, which translates to high performance at Gmail as well.

Myth #7: Few senders have done true side-by-side analysis of the benefits, and for good, mainstream senders, the numbers don’t indicate that there is an actual bump in metrics
We do occasionally help senders test the impact of Certification, but it can be difficult to run a successful test as (1) senders are hesitant to completely turn off Certification for a mailstream since they will lose benefits, and (2) it can be challenging to find two identical mailstreams that would allow for an apples-to-apples comparison.

Instead of running tests, we tend to make use of the data we have to show how a Certified sender compares to a similar un-Certified sender. Using this data, we have seen time and time again that Certified senders outperform un-Certified senders.

In the example below, you can see an example of this comparison for a Certified retailer. The green line consistently hovering just below 100% represents the Certified sender’s inbox placement rate. The unstable gray line shows the average inbox placement rate of similar un-Certified senders. For this particular sender, they are seeing an average inbox placement boost of 14.6 percent from Certification, which can equate to millions in additional revenue for this particular retailer.

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Want to learn more about Certification? Join our webinar on June 8 to learn how Certification can help you increase your email reach, reduce volume filtering and throttling, and prepare your email program now for a successful holiday season.

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