How to Achieve High Inbox Placement Rates with Third-Party Email

Let’s face it: third-party email doesn’t get a lot of respect in the email marketing world. And many people assume two things: 1. third-party marketers must have bad deliverability, 2. all third-party email is the same.

At Return Path we’ve never believed either of those two things to be true. In fact, we were so sure that you could do third-party email and have a good sending reputation, that in 2004 we acquired Postmaster Direct, the original email list rental company going back to the mid-90s. Well, we now have some great data that proves that email list rental can have good deliverability and that all email advertising is not equal.

On the first point, our Postmaster Direct email has deliverability averages that are in line with the average for all Sender Score clients with approximately one in five messages not making it into the inbox. It’s not perfect, and it’s not where we want it to be – or think it could be. But it’s certainly tolerable. But, more importantly, Postmaster Direct has deliverability that is much higher than many other third-party senders. Based on Return Path data, third-party email marketers average 50% inbox placement and see 30 to 45% of their mail blocked completely. Of course, there are other third party senders that have comparable delivery numbers to Postmaster Direct. We’re proud to call many of them clients.

Why is this so? I know what you’re thinking – well, of course Return Path does more to help its own email. Believe me, I wish that were true. Unfortunately, for a long time, Postmaster Direct was the proverbial cobbler’s child with ratty shoes — we did not get service from our own Sender Score team equal to revenue-generating clients. We’ve amended that in recent quarters and now Postmaster Direct gets the same level of service as any other client – no more, no less.

So what does make the difference? We’ve identified nine practices that put us over the top:

  1. Double opt-in: By confirming subscriptions into our network, we assure that subscribers want to get email from us and that they will welcome the email they get. In recent months we’ve improved the onboarding process for new subscribers to enhance the value proposition and make this process even better. We also include information about our publishing partners in the header of every email so subscribers make the connection from the sign up process to the email they receive from us.
  2. Unsubscribe process: Unlike some marketers, we make opt-out simple, clear and instantaneous. Subscribers don’t need to sign in, remember a password or click through to multiple screens to get off our list. You don’t want email from us anymore? No problem – one click and you’re out.
  3. Frequency: We have firm rules that restrict the amount of email an individual subscriber can receive from us so we don’t burn through the database.
  4. Targeting: We use every piece of data available to us to send the right offers to the right audience. There are other senders that do this, too, but some do little or no targeting.
  5. List hygiene: Our CPM model means we can lose revenue when we cut people out of the database, even if they don’t respond. But we know our long-term deliverability is at stake, so we are uncompromising about list hygiene and removing old, inactive data. (And, actually, the revenue hit is mitigated by the fact that we overmail to compensate for lower deliverability.) We also have an aggressive spam trap removal process.
  6. Complaints: We sign up for and process every feedback loop available to us and we instantly remove complainers. When complaints are higher than unusual, we comb through the feedback data to see what’s caused the spike.
  7. Authentication: We authenticate our third party advertisements with DomainKeys, SPF, and SenderID.
  8. Infrastructure: Our email system is RFC compliant and we keep an eye on all relevant system issues that could cause failures.
  9. Segmentation: We are always working to further optimize our mailstream by testing pockets of data, content and mailing type to determine the low performers from the high performers.

And, it’s worth saying: the key is that we do all of these things. Plenty of third-party marketers do some of them. But deliverability has never been about finding a silver bullet. It’s about pulling on all the levers that influence reputation to achieve optimum inbox placement. We’re not where we want to be, but we’ve made great strides improving our reputation and our inbox placement.

The payoff for us is simple: better deliverability means better response for our advertisers.

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