OMG—A Deer! Why You Need Both Seed and Panel Data for Deliverability

One thing that makes Return Path unique in the email industry is not only the vast amount of data that we have access to, but also how we combine this data to provide customers with useful insights about their email programs. This data comes from three sources—our Consumer, Provider, and Developer Networks—and is used to power our Email Optimization solutions, like Inbox Monitor, Reputation Monitor, and Inbox Insight.

Our Consumer Network data is particularly important in providing our customers with insight into how their emails are being received and reacted to by real-life subscribers. Using our panel of over two million subscribers, we can show email marketers where their emails are being delivered (inbox vs. junk) and if they are being read, forwarded, or deleted without reading. Metrics like these help email marketers understand what does and does not resonate with their subscribers, so they can make adjustments to get the most revenue from email.

Our Inbox Monitor solution uses Consumer Network data combined with seed data to give email marketers the most accurate and comprehensive view into their deliverability. But some may ask, “Why is it important to have both?”

To answer this question, let’s back up a bit and first  talk about seed data. Over ten years ago, Return Path began helping email marketers measure their deliverability by using seed addresses. These seed addresses were email addresses set up at mailbox providers that had no live person behind them, meaning that nobody was reacting to the mail. Over the years, we have maintained seed addresses at hundreds of mailbox providers and filters around the world, and we provide multiple addresses per mailbox provider. Seed addresses did—and still do—a great job telling you where your email was being delivered based on factors like IP address reputation and email infrastructure. Today, seed addresses can also give a sense of deliverability based on domain reputation and email authentication.  

The benefits of seed address to email marketers are accuracy, convenience, and coverage. At Return Path, we are able to provide our customers with a large sample of seeds for more accurate measurements, meaning they do not need to set up and maintain their own seed addresses at over 100 mailbox providers around the world. Results from seeds are in near real-time, providing the opportunity to pause a campaign if major deliverability issues are seen. By having access to multiple seed accounts, email marketers can see where an email eventually lands, giving them a sense of how the emails they send to users at the same mailbox provider were delivered. By maintaining hundreds of B2C and B2B seed addresses, we are able to provide our customers with global mailbox coverage, at both large and small providers.

In recent years, deliverability has become a bit more complicated and subscriber engagement is now a major factor in determining whether an email arrives in the inbox or junk folder. Since there is no live person behind seed addresses, it became difficult to understand true deliverability at major mailbox providers using just seeds by themselves. So, in 2012, Return Path introduced our Consumer Network panel. By combining this data with our seed addresses, we were then able to show marketers what happens to your mail once you hit send based on actual subscriber data.

Our Consumer Network data provides more accurate results at the top mailbox providers, like Gmail and Yahoo, by accounting for personal interactions. This means that we are now able to show email deliverability metrics based on IP address and domain reputation, email authentication, infrastructure, and subscriber engagement. This provides a much more complete picture for email marketers of what is actually happening to their emails.

Consider this scenario: You have a great IP address and domain reputation. You have all your email infrastructure and authentication set up and working correctly. You’ve tested your content in Inbox Preview to ensure it renders properly and passes spam filters. You hit send, and seed addresses—which are looking at all these data points—show 100% inbox at Gmail. You’re elated. However, what you can’t see with seed addresses is that your actual subscribers aren’t engaging with your emails. They aren’t reading them, and in fact, they are deleting them without reading. This lack of engagement has caused a deliverability issue at Gmail, as subscriber engagement makes up a significant part of their filtering algorithm. Using just seed addresses alone, you wouldn’t be able to see this. But by using Consumer Network data, you can see that your emails are being delivered to the junk folder at Gmail, and you can now take action to correct that for future campaigns.

Because of scenarios like this, we often say that measuring deliverability using only seed addresses is like driving with half your windshield blocked out. You may be able to see enough to drive in ideal conditions, but once a problem occurs—OMG a deer!—not having full visibility can lead to serious issues. Only by combining seed address and Consumer Network data can you get a full picture of your email deliverability to truly understand how your emails are being delivered and received by your subscribers.

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