Sender reputation: The road to inbox placement

Deliverability Podcasts
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In episode 2 of the Deliverability Defined podcast, my co-host Melissa Lambert and I talk about sender reputation, why it matters, how it’s calculated, and how to improve it.

What is sender reputation?

The domain that you use to send emails carries around a reputation. Each mailbox provider such as Gmail, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc. has calculated their own reputation for you. That reputation is scored based on the mailbox providers’ algorithms and each one is unique in the way that it weighs different factors. That means it’s possible to have an excellent sender reputation with one mailbox provider, but a poor sender reputation with another.

Your reputation is determined by the way your subscribers engage, or don't engage, with your emails. Good types of engagement send positive signals to mailbox providers, resulting in a better sender reputation, while bad types of engagement send negative signals that can lower your sender reputation.

potential subscriber actions

Positive signals

The types of subscriber engagement that help your reputation are:

  • Opens
  • Clicks
  • Replies
  • Adding sender to address book or contact list

These actions show mailbox providers that your message was safe, solicited, and wanted by the subscriber. Some mailbox providers will even track the amount of time a subscriber reads an email to determine how engaged the subscriber is.

For example, a subscriber reading an email for 1 minute would be seen as more positive than a subscriber reading an email for 3 seconds and immediately moving on to the next email.

To promote positive signals, be sure to send relevant and engaging content to your subscribers. Never use misleading subject lines to try and increase opens. Instead, send emails that provide value to your subscribers so that they’ll want to engage. We recommend asking subscribers to reply to your emails to show mailbox providers that your audience is highly engaged.

Negative signals

The types of engagement that can harm your reputation are:

  • Mark message as spam (complain)
  • Move message to the spam folder
  • Deleting without opening
  • Leaving unopened

These negative signals are each weighted differently and some become more and more negative over time. Marking a message as spam is the most negative signal a subscriber can send. If you’re seeing a complaint rate over 0.1%, you’ll want to investigate why your messages are being marked as spam.

If a subscriber is mostly engaged with your messages but doesn’t open a message from time to time, this won’t cause damage to your sender reputation. However, the longer a subscriber goes without opening your message, the more damage they are likely to cause. It’s important to regularly clean your list of cold subscribers so that they don’t remain unengaged and harm your reputation.

How to recover from a damaged reputation

How to recover from a damaged reputation

If your deliverability is suffering due to a damaged sender reputation, here are the steps you should take to recover:

1. Audit your list — Ensure everyone has opted-in to your emails

Document all of the ways in which subscribers enter your list, and make sure that each source is a healthy one. For instance, purchased lists, scraped lists, and other unsolicited sources are guaranteed to cause reputation issues. Each subscriber on your list needs to have provided explicit permission to receive your email marketing.

Online forms are a great way to collect subscribers, but be sure you have double opt-in enabled to prevent bots from making it onto your list and damaging your reputation.

2. Clean up your list — Remove unengaged subscribers, or at least suppress them for 2-4 weeks

To improve your reputation, you’ll need to minimize negative signals. Most negative signals come from perpetually unengaged subscribers.

We recommend removing cold subscribers from your list to keep your list clean. However, if you aren’t convinced you need to part with them just yet, exclude them from your emails for 2-4 weeks. You should see your engagement rates improve and be more encouraged to trim your list.

3. Stay consistent — Avoid big changes in volume, frequency, or sending infrastructure

Email filters love consistency. Each time there is a big change in the way you send, mailbox providers often recalculate your sender reputation which can cause an increase in spam filtering or bounces.

Try to avoid any big spikes in volume or frequency to help give the filters peace of mind and signal that you’re a good, consistent sender.

4. Provide value — Make sure your content is relevant and valuable

You can follow all technical and deliverability best practices but at the end of the day, if subscribers aren’t interested in your content, they’re likely to exhibit negative engagement signals rather than positive ones.

Take the time to get to know your audience and what they want to hear from you. Use tags and segments to send each subscriber targeted, relevant information that provides value.

5. Promote positive engagement — Ask subscribers to reply to your email and add you to their address book, or drag your emails to their primary tab

To increase engagement, think of creative ways to ask subscribers to reply to your email. This not only improves your reputation, it can also help you build a relationship with your audience.

Another helpful step is to ask subscribers to add you to their address book in the first email they receive from you. This will make sure your messages go straight to their inbox. Many subscribers will be happy to do this since it means they’ll receive your emails more successfully.

Next week on Deliverability Defined

As you can see, content plays a big role in your sender reputation and deliverability. Next week, we’ll be diving into the ways that content impacts your deliverability, and also some common misconceptions about the topic. We hope you’ll join us!


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Alyssa Dulin

Alyssa is a Deliverability Lead located in Nashville, TN. She loves helping senders reach the inbox of their subscribers. Outside of work, Alyssa enjoys traveling, indoor cycling, and spending time with family.

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