How to Get Great Email Deliverability in 2021

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You could be writing the greatest emails in the world…

But what’s the point if they aren’t reaching your subscribers?

That’s why email deliverability is so important—and in this guide, I’m going to cover steps you can take to keep your deliverability high.

Let’s get started!


Table of Contents


What is Email Deliverability?

Email deliverability is the measure of your emails’ ability to reach the recipients’ inboxes.

It is not to be confused with email delivery, which tracks whether your emails reach your recipients’ email servers.

That’s because an email could be successfully delivered to a server, only to bounce or be sent to the spam folder.

Whatever is the case, the email fails to reach the inbox.

Emails that don’t reach your subscribers’ inbox are pretty much useless, so what can you do to improve your deliverability?

It all starts with this…


Choosing the Right Email Platform and Infrastructure

Don’t use free personal email accounts

If you’re just starting out, you might be thinking of sending emails from a free personal email account—like one from Gmail or Outlook.

However, that’s almost certainly not a good idea…

These email providers generally aren’t set up for sending high volumes of email. In fact, some of them may have caps on the number of emails you can send every day.

For example, free Gmail addresses can send up to 500 emails per day.

What’s more: if recipients see your business’ emails coming from a personal email address, there’s a high chance of them marking your emails as spam.

(We’ll cover what happens if your emails are marked as spam later, but needless to say it isn’t a good thing.)

So instead, you’ll want to send email from a domain that represents your business. This domain should also be hooked up to an email platform that can handle mass-emailing.

Such email platforms will also have dedicated processes in place for ensuring high deliverability.

Of course, these platforms usually don’t provide their services for free. But this price can be well worth paying to ensure that your email infrastructure is set up for success.

Choosing between shared and dedicated IPs

When you send emails, they will have to come from an IP address. This IP can be either a shared IP or a dedicated one.

What’s the difference between the two?

A shared IP is an IP address that’s shared among multiple email senders. On the other hand, a dedicated IP is reserved for your use and for your use only.

Having a private IP can sound attractive, but bear in mind that this means that your deliverability rate will depend largely on your own sender reputation (more on sender reputation later).

This isn’t like using a shared IP, where the reputation of the IP is based on the overall reputation of all email senders using the same IP.

As a result, if your sender reputation is poor, you won’t be able to tap on the sender reputation of other senders to boost your deliverability.

With all this in mind, a dedicated IP is usually recommended only for senders who have a very good sender reputation and especially high sending volumes.

For example, email platform ConvertKit recommends that dedicated IP users send at least 50,000 emails three times a week.

If you aren’t sending emails at such high volumes, a shared IP will likely be good enough for you.

Just make sure that your email platform practices a decent acceptable use policy so as to maintain the reputation of its shared IPs.


Ensuring That Your Emails Pass Authentication

Before an email provider puts an email into a recipient’s inbox, it authenticates the email to check that the sender is actually who it really claims to be.

Emails that fail authentication will be sent to the spam folder (or not delivered at all).

Don’t want your emails to suffer such fates? Then familiarize yourself with these three authentication methods:

1. SPF (Sender Policy Framework)

SPF involves an email provider checking the IP address from which the email has originated against a list of IP addresses that are authorized to send email for your domain.

If there’s a match, then the email has passed SPF.

If there isn’t a match, this suggests that the email is being sent from an unauthorized source, and the email will fail authentication.

If you’re using an email platform to send emails, they will usually take care of SPF for you, so you won’t need to do anything.

But if you’re using a custom email solution, you may need to add to your domain a TXT record of the authorized IP addresses by yourself. Check with your domain host if you’re unsure of how to do so.

2. DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail)

SPF isn’t foolproof, so DKIM adds another layer of security. Here’s how it works:

All outgoing emails come with a signature header, which has been encrypted using a private key. This private key is unique to the domain sending the email.

Also, signature headers encrypted using a particular private key will need the domain’s matching public key to be decrypted. The public key can be obtained from the domain’s Domain Name System (DNS) records.

So when the email provider receives an email from a certain domain, it will locate the domain’s public key. The email provider will then try to use the public key to decrypt the signature header.

If the decryption is successful, the email passes DKIM.

But if the decryption fails (i.e. the private and public keys don’t match), this suggests that the domain that sent the email isn’t legit.

In this case, authentication will fail.

Similar to SPF, DKIM is usually handled by the email platform that you’re using—unless you’re using a custom email solution, or a dedicated sending domain.

If so, you’ll have to add the DKIM TXT records to your domain’s DNS settings yourself. Again, reach out to your domain host if you need help with this!

3. DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance)

Finally, there’s DMARC.

There are two steps in a DMARC check:

First, there has to be a match between the email’s:

  • Friendly-from address (i.e. the email address that recipients see the email as coming from); and its
  • Return-path address (i.e. the email address that delivery error messages are sent to).

Then, the email has to pass either SPF or DKIM.

(Passing both is great, but passing either of them is good enough.)

If these two requirements are met, then the email passes DMARC.

If the email fails one or both requirements, then it has failed authentication.

While DMARC provides yet another layer of security to emails on top of SPF and DKIM, DMARC can be rather technical to set up.

(Yes, even more so than adding TXT records for setting up SPF and DKIM.)

In fact, if DMARC is implemented wrongly, DMARC can actually harm your deliverability instead of improving it.

So be very careful when implementing DMARC, and reach out to an email deliverability expert if in doubt!


Best Practices When Emailing Subscribers

Don’t buy email subscribers

Buying a list of emails to pad your subscriber base can be a really tempting idea.

But resist the urge to do so, because it can seriously hurt your deliverability.

One reason is that you might just fall for spam traps. These are email addresses created specifically for catching senders with dubious email list-building practices.

That’s because spam trap email addresses aren’t legitimately used to subscribe to any email lists. But if you still managed to collect that email address, this suggests that you used some blackhat method to get it…

…such as buying a list of email addresses (especially where the sources of these addresses are unclear).

Then when you email an email address that turns out to be a spam trap, you are immediately blacklisted.

Of course, it’s theoretically possible to buy an email list that doesn’t contain any spam traps. But this doesn’t guarantee your deliverability will be safe.

Because the subscribers you’ve bought have likely never heard of you before, or consented to receiving your emails.

Which brings us to the next point:

Get subscribers’ permission to send them emails

Imagine that a new email has arrived in your inbox.

You open the email, only to find that it’s been sent by someone whom you have never heard of before—much less given permission to email you.

How would you feel? Annoyed?

And how likely are you to want to do business with them, if the sender had been trying to sell you something?

Probably very unlikely.

Chances are that this is how your subscribers would feel too, if you were to send them unsolicited emails.

If a subscriber gets irritated enough, they might just mark your email as spam too.

It’s fine to get a few complaints every now and then. After all, some people may forget that they had subscribed to your emails.

But if too many of your emails are getting marked as spam, your deliverability will take a hit.

Also: depending on the laws of where you’re from, sending unsolicited marketing emails can be illegal.

So when building your email list, be sure to email only subscribers who have consented to receiving your emails.

Getting consent can be as simple as having a notice on your email forms saying:
“By subscribing, you agree to receive marketing emails from me.”

Ask subscribers to whitelist your email address

After someone subscribes to your email list, ask them to do you the favor of whitelisting your email address.

That’s because even despite your best efforts, your emails can still be sent to spam.

But you can help prevent this by asking your subscribers to whitelist your email address.

When they do so, they’re expressly telling their email provider that they want your emails, so it should NOT be sending your emails to spam.

The exact method of whitelisting depends on the subscriber’s email provider.

For example, if your emails have been landing in the subscriber’s Promotions tab in Gmail, they can drag your emails over to the Primary tab.

Alternatively, they can create a filter that instructs Gmail to never send emails from your email address to spam:

Source: Gmail

For Outlook users on the other hand, they can add your email address to their “Safe senders and domains” list (it’s under the “Junk email” settings).

Source: Outlook

As for how to ask subscribers to whitelist your email address, here’s a great example from Harry’s Marketing Examples:

Keep your sender reputation high

Just like in the offline world, your reputation precedes you when it comes to email deliverability.

Email providers keep track of the type and extent of engagement your previous emails have received when determining what to do with your newest emails.

If engagement is poor, your sender reputation will drop—causing your deliverability to drop as well.

Sender reputation is affected by a variety of factors, such as:

  • How often you send emails
  • Whether you’re emailing only subscribers who have agreed to receive your emails (as discussed above)

Apart from these, the actions taken by subscribers on your emails also plays a big role. In other words:

What does a subscriber do after receiving your email?

  • Do they open it, click on its links or even reply to it?
  • Or do they unsubscribe or mark the email as spam?

The actions that subscribers take send positive, neutral or negative signals as to how much they value your emails. To maintain a good sender reputation, you’ll need to keep up with the positive signals, while reducing the occurrence of negative ones.

ConvertKit has provided a handy chart of the types of signals that common subscriber actions will send:

Source: ConvertKit

NOTE: Contrary to what you may think, unsubscribes are a neutral signal and not a negative one. So don’t panic if people unsubscribe from your list!

Give subscribers what they signed up for

Your subscribers signed up because they were interested in what your emails had to offer.

So give them what they had signed up for!

For example, let’s say you run a baking newsletter that promises to send subscribers a new recipe every week.

You faithfully do so for a few months. But one day, you decide to send your subscribers an article about gardening instead.

Now there’s nothing wrong with gardening per se, but you’re going to get a lot of subscribers confused.

After all, didn’t you say you were going to send them recipes?

Some subscribers might get confused enough to hit unsubscribe. And that’s still fine—but some may take the more drastic action of marking your email as spam.

And as shown in the chart above, such spam complaints send a negative signal about your sender reputation.

So as far as possible, pack your emails with useful content that your subscribers had requested for.

This will help reduce the number of unsubscribes and complaints, and help keep your deliverability up.

Make it easy for subscribers to unsubscribe

No matter how awesome your emails are, it’s inevitable that some subscribers will lose interest and want to “break up” with you.

First things first, try not to take this personally. After that, be sure that it’s easy for subscribers to unsubscribe if they want to.

This may sound counterintuitive. But the alternative is the subscriber being unable to find the option to unsubscribe, and marking your emails as spam instead.

And if I haven’t made it clear by now, you definitely don’t want that to happen.

Of course, no one is saying that you need to make your unsubscribe link huge, or place it right smack in the middle of your email.

But it should be easy enough to find, and conspicuous enough to be seen.

This means ensuring that the link is visible, both in terms of font size and color.

As for where to put it, it generally goes into the email footer.


Do the Above to Ensure Great Deliverability

I hope this article has helped you understand what email deliverability is, and the steps you can take to boost your own.

In a nutshell, you’ll first need to set up the right technical infrastructure for your emails.

After that, it’s a matter of making sure that you send valuable content to subscribers who are happy to receive and engage with your emails.

What are you doing to improve your email deliverability? Let me know in the comments.