Email is the most cost-efficient form of advertising, and it’s one of the few places to spend marketing budget where you can actually see return on investment (ROI). The money that you spend on email marketing can be directly tied to actual sales generated from email campaigns. It’s well known to be a channel that provides great value for the dollar — and is sometimes even crazy lucrative.

It was still a shock to me, however, to learn this lesson from my own creative side project — running an e-commerce site for Paper Doll Blanket with my sister. In 2015, we had a video go viral on Facebook and sold out of all items in her Etsy store. We quickly set up a splash page on paperdollblanket.com, added an email signup form, and collected 10,000 email addresses.

Since then, we’ve been active on Facebook and Instagram and have utilized paid search. But nothing generates revenue like sending email to our email list. It’s just magical: We send an email and make money.

Social media campaigns don’t have the same impact at all. Other channels are great for generating leads, branding, and forming a community, but a nice, robust email marketing program cultivates interest in our brand and products, and brings customers to actually buy.

But if email is so magical, why don’t we just send to our list every day and make tons of money?  The reason is our users would unsubscribe or hit the spam button, or our mail would get sent straight to the spam folder.

Enter Deliverability

Deliverability is the art and science of ensuring emails reach the inbox. When an email is sent, there are three things that can happen: 1) It arrives in the inbox, 2) It arrives in the spam folder, or 3) It doesn’t arrive at all. If the message delivers to the spam folder, it’s because an email filter looked at the message and decided it was spam. If the message doesn’t arrive at all, it’s because the receiving server issued a failure code, or blocked the mail with a bounce that looks like this: ‘550 Invalid Address’, ‘554 Blocked for spam’, ‘421 Server busy, try again later’, etc.

There are some technical steps required in order to send email properly, and that will help with deliverability. The domains and IP addresses your emails come from are important. To see the domains and IPs that your messages come from, you can send an email to a Gmail address and then go to: More (the three dots to the right) > Show Original. You will see something like this:

DKIM is technology that allows Gmail to know that you really are the owner of the domain listed in the From: address. Gmail and other inboxes will attach ‘reputation’ to this domain and deliverability is highly dependent on this reputation.

It’s very important to use your own website domain in the From: address and to set up DKIM with your own domain. The exact process for setting up DKIM can be obtained from your email service provider (Mailchimp, Campaign Monitor, Constant Contact, etc). A good first step is to send a test to Gmail and check which domain is being used.

In the following example, Flax and Twine’s otherwise beautiful campaigns have a technical flaw — they are using a Gmail address in the From: field. Their mail could actually be rejected because they don’t have permission to send from Gmail’s domain. There are two issues: 1) They should use their own flaxandtwine.com domain in the From: field and 2) They should use their own flaxandtwine.com domain to sign the mail with DKIM in order to build reputation under their own domain.

What matters most in delivering email to the inbox is your reputation as a sender, and that reputation is tied to the domain that shows up in that DKIM field. So, make sure that when you send a test to Gmail, the DKIM check shows your own domain — that’s the domain your reputation is tied to!

Reputation is composed of certain metrics describing the email you send. For good deliverability, these metrics should all look healthy. Monitor these metrics on an ongoing basis:

Top Tips for the Creative Sender

 Authentication – DKIM

Make sure your messages are being signed with DKIM and with your own domain so that reputation is being maintained for your own sending domain. Check with your own email service provider for DKIM instructions.

Acquiring new addresses

How subscribers are opted in to a marketer’s list plays a crucial role in deliverability. While it makes sense to acquire as many addresses as possible, the problem is that if people are forced to sign up and don’t really want to receive the sender’s email, then that will be reflected in low open rates and high complaint rates. And that has a direct, negative impact on deliverability.  Bad subscription practices directly cause poor deliverability.

Send only to addresses that opted in to receive your mail; don’t ever send email to a list that was purchased, rented, or found on a CD in some old desk drawer. This will be against the law in many places and can cause significant delivery issues.

Here are some suggestions for ways to collect addresses in a positive way:

  • Use a cute, cheeky signup message
  • Use — but don’t abuse — overlays (aka pop-ups). Make it easy to close out of them and don’t require email sign up to visit your page.
  • Use a signup discount. Users collected this way are definitely interested in your product, however they often use disposable addresses or secondary addresses that are less valuable than the user’s primary-use address.
  • Give something away that is really in line with what you have to offer. What we use that works great is a lookbook. It’s relatively free, and people who want our lookbook are definitely interested in our products.
  • Whenever a new product is released, try to build a sense of urgency about it and get people to sign up for early access or info about it.
Creativebug.com – free class giveaway
Joann.com + darice.com – overlay with discount
paperdollblanket.com – free lookbook download
flaxandtwine.com – free pattern and discount
jenniferperkins.com – nice images and cute message
rags.com – cute kid! and a sense of urgency

Data Management

Most email service providers will do this for you, but your email list needs to be cleaned of bad addresses, unsubscribes, and complaints. This is the bare minimum.

Also remove addresses that haven’t opened a message in a long time.  How you determine what “a long time” is depends on the frequency that you are mailing, and the buying cycle and expected customer behavior. For most of us, a good cut-off point is removing anyone who hasn’t opened a message in somewhere between three months and one year.

Note that if you find yourself getting delivered to the junk folder or getting blocked, most of the time the remedy for the situation is to stop sending to users who aren’t opening messages. This could mean tightening the suppression from one-year ‘non openers’ to three- or six-month ‘non openers.’

Content: Send Smarter and Send Less

A long time ago, you used to be able to avoid the 25 spammy words to never include in subject lines, and could steer clear of the spam folder. Ah, the good old days of spam filtering.

The content that you send is less about spammy words and more about user engagement. If people are opening your messages, clicking the links, forwarding the message on to their friends, and not unsubscribing or hitting the spam button, then you will deliver to the inbox. So when it comes to deciding what to send, you have to think about what message people want to hear and get creative.

The best email marketing content is a robust mix of segmented and targeted campaigns, personalized campaigns, and user flows that trigger based on someone’s activity on the website or interaction with the brand.

Instead of sending one monthly newsletter with content you think maybe people want to see, build content around where they are in the lifecycle with your brand. Send smarter, more targeted messages and less email.

There are definitely some sophisticated tools out there that help you design highly personalized content and use machine learning to target the right customers (like Sailthru, where I work!).  But you can do a lot of great stuff with very simple tools. At Paper Doll Blanket, we are just two sisters working in our spare time who managed to set up several of the following user flows:

Ways to Send Smarter Now

Abandoned cart series

Create an abandoned cart flow with 1-3 messages. For Paper Doll Blanket we have a 3-part series. Email 1 is just a saved cart reminder. Email 2 has product recommendations for outfits to go with what’s in their cart. Email 3 drives home the quality and value of our product, including our most amazing testimonials.

happycactusdesigns.com – Happy Cactus designs has a lovely short and simple abandoned cart message

Welcome series

Send a welcome message to anyone who signs up for your list. Use the opportunity to provide helpful information, a discount, or something other than “welcome to the club” or “you’ve been subscribed.” Happy Cactus Designs does a nice job by including lots of beautiful imagery combined with information about the brand. Flax and Seed also has a nice welcome email with lots of eye candy and helpful newbie guides. You could also make this a series of emails.

happycactus.com – welcome message
paperdollblanket.com – survey example
spoonflower.com – survey example

Post-sales flow

Send a follow up email to anyone who purchased, asking them to please rate the product they received. The campaign we use for Paper Doll Blanket has been very effective. In the email we mention that we are a tiny company and that reviews mean everything to us. We also include a way to reach us if there are any real problems with our products. We depend heavily on customer feedback and love that this campaign brings us product reviews and real customer feedback.

Friendly Follow Up

Send a series of emails after someone has purchased to give them the warm fuzzies. A special message, product care tips/tutorials/instructions. Craftsy does a great job of this with this campaign:

Newsletters that rock

If you are going to do a regular newsletter, make it amazing. Use lots of images, tutorials, quick polls, ideas, and fun stuff. Here are some good examples from Fancy Tiger and Missouri Star.

In Short

These are some tactics and inspiring examples for smarter email marketing. As a more general guide, send emaisl that people love to read. Email filters are designed to filter out mail that people don’t want to read. Your emails will no doubt break through the filters if you consistently provide smart, helpful, and fun content that readers look forward to receiving.

Email Deliverability for the Creative Business
Laura Villevieille

Laura Villevieille


Laura Villevieille is a Deliverability Engineer for Sailthru and co-founder of Paper Doll Blanket.  She helps very large companies (Minted, Craftsy, Rent the Runway) deliver email to the inbox and runs email for her own small business, Paper Doll Blanket.

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