4 myths, misconceptions and untruths about email deliverability


Many organizations use deliverability as a data point when selecting an email service provider. Unfortunately there are a number of myths about deliverability and especially about the role of deliverability staff at ESPs.

Some are out of date, some are misconceptions and some are untruths spread by competitive ESPs. But all of them really deserve to be dispelled.

I want to be clear that I am not knocking deliverability staff or the ESPs they work for. I know many of them very well and they’re fine folks doing sterling work for great organizations. When selecting an ESP though, companies should clearly understand what they are and are not getting.

Myth #1: Deliverability staff are there for your benefit

As with all these myths there is some truth to this, but there’s far more to the situation. It varies a little from ESP to ESP but historically deliverability was an internal, behind the scenes role. Many deliverability people were systems engineers, email postmasters or anti-spam activists before they got into deliverability. Deliverability staff were mostly hired to protect the ESP from its own customers.

Job #1 was to keep bad customers off the ESP’s network. Bad actors can damage an ESP’s reputation and that of their other customers. For most customers if there’s one thing worse than being blocked for your own activity it’s being blocked for someone elses. So identifying and preventing bad actors and bad behaviors is still the primary job for deliverability teams.

Myth #2: Deliverability assistance means they’ll fix it for you

Bad delivery has a tendency to upset customers and so assisting customers with delivery has become job #2 for deliverability staff. However there is often a disconnect between what customers think “deliverability troubleshooting and issue resolution” means and what deliverability staff think it means.

Deliverability troubleshooting means figuring out what went wrong, everyone agrees on that, though there is often some misunderstanding about how that should be done and how quickly it can be achieved (see Myth #3). The major disconnect though is on resolution.

Companies tend to think resolution is about the ESP changing things – ISP whitelisting, blocklist delisting etc.. Deliverability people know that resolution is primarily about education and subsequent behavior modification. For sure, a good deliverability person can help you get an SBL (Spamhaus Blocklist) entry removed. But first they’ll want to ensure that the underlying cause of the listing has been fixed because they know that’s what Spamhaus requires and because they know the listing will simply return if it’s not done. If you’re thinking that resolution means fixing messes without you changing your practices, it’s time to think again.

Myth #3: Deliverability is about relationships

Though this may have been true once upon a time, today it’s most definitely what you know not who you know. Spam filtering systems are complex and automated. The days when an individual postmaster would personally blacklist your IPs or personally whitelist them are long gone.

Once upon a time knowing the right people at the major ISPs, and more importantly being respected in the industry mattered. It could get you the benefit of the doubt or enable cutting the queue when trying to resolve issues. Today those right people have been replaced at the ISPs by algorithms so you’ll just have to hang on to that box of meat.

The deliverability staff at an ESP do matter, but if your ESP evaluation has a checkbox that asks for personal relationships with ISPs you’re asking the wrong questions.

Myth #4: Some ESPs have a secret sauce

This myth sadly was cultivated in large part by the ESPs themselves. Once upon a time there were so many ESPs that didn’t really know what they were doing that deliverability could be a competitive differentiator and it was used as such.

The reality though is that there are no secret handshakes or deliverability tricks known only to insiders and there never were. There are still ESPs that don’t get the basics right of email authentication and platform management and whose deliverability is worse for it, but if you’re looking for a deliverability edge you’re looking in vain.

What is the ESP with the best deliverability?

So what should you look for? A deliverability staff that’s knowledgeable and helpful; infrastructure that’s flexible, scalable and well managed; and a company with a solid reputation and clients you’d be happy being associated with.

Image via esparta

Derek Harding

About Derek Harding

Derek Harding is the CEO and founder of Innovyx Inc., a member of the Omnicom Group and the first e-mail service provider to be wholly owned by a full-service marketing agency. A British expatriate living in Seattle, WA, Derek is a technologist by background who has been working in online marketing on both sides of the Atlantic for the last 10 years.

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Nadav

    #2 is particularly true. Huge disconnect between expectations and the reality of what an ESP will do for you.

  • Derek Harding

    Thanks Nadav, it’s not that they won’t help, but many people figure they’ll fix it and that’s far from reality.

  • Darcy Grabenstein

    I actually had a great experience re deliverability when I was on the client side. My ESP recommended sender certification for our company, and I oversaw the process. Without it, we were doomed to be blacklisted.

    • Derek Harding

      Thanks Darcy, I hope I didn’t give the impression that I think ESP deliverability teams suck and I’m really pleased to hear that you had such a great experience.

      As I mentioned, many ESPs have great deliverability people with a lot of experience. However all too often I find that customers expectations of deliverability teams isn’t quite in line with the reality which is what I was trying to address.

  • Jon

    I work in as a deliverability consultant for a fairly big ESP. I really liked your post Derek. There are a lot of truths in it, and while it is sometimes hard to explain to clients that wer are not here to “help them circumvent spamfilters”, I think more an more marketers are starting to understand that our role is to educate first and foremost. Fixing what has been broken is fruitless if the sender continues the same bad practices that created the broken situation in the first place.