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The Demise of the Deliverability Reputation Score

Thomas Senne
Senior Director of Global Deliverability

It’s time that we get real about Sender Score and any other attempt at a singular email deliverability reputation score. The concept of a universal number that you watch on a daily basis to judge deliverability is and has been extinct for quite a while. Most of you just don’t know it yet.

The VCR, cassette tapes, CDs, floppy disks, manual transmissions, and not wearing a seat belt are all things that were once common in popular culture. They have been replaced by Netflix, iTunes, The Cloud, and the Tesla. I do hear stories of people who still tape Wheel of Fortune on their VCR’s, and I’ll admit to having a box of CDs somewhere in my attic.  But, just because a few people still use these relics doesn’t mean there’s not a more intelligent choice. 

The concept of a “reputation score” was a fantastic idea years ago. ISP’s as a whole behaved in pretty much the same manner. They would look at incoming senders, have their own version of a “reputation,” and make a deliverability decision based on those factors. As a sender with a deliverability problem, you would commonly see all of your email to a particular sender being blocked. The idea that you could create a smaller environment that would mirror that same sort of evaluation and be a predictor of deliverability success made sense.

Deliverability specialists and senders alike would use this number as one of the most important factors in judging success or failure. The scoring worked as this mini-world was pretty accurate as a guide to day-to-day activities. The first question asked by senders when they sent a campaign was:  How was my reputation impacted?

But then…

We evolved as an industry. The ISPs evolved, and they realized that some users wanted to see messages from a particular sender, but others didn’t. The real goal of email providers is to place in the inbox, the messages their customers interact with, and to filter out the ones that they don’t. This was the tipping point for the transition from the old world of deliverability to the current state. Gmail is leading the charge of sophisticated email providers. Engagement statistics like opens, clicks, and scrolls became important.

Why would Gmail or Hotmail stop delivering email to a highly engaged audience?

Ignoring the wants of their customers just didn’t make any sense for the providers. Delivering email to people who wanted to receive it (common sense, but still true) became the story of the day. Feedback from users who continually were bombarded with messages they didn’t interact with was that there was just too much spam. The comments from users who didn’t receive email they expected were ones of frustration.  Things had to change in order for email providers to keep their customers happy.

This brings us back to the idea of the reputation score. Honestly, the concept of a reputation score was always a pretty sketchy idea. Senders were desperate for some kind of measure to explain email deliverability, and this number was something that they could look to as a guide. We just sort of bought into what we were being sold, because there wasn’t anything else.

The drop in the score gave email professionals a way to push back on bad behavior. A rise in the score allowed marketers to justify their efforts. There are a few major issues with the scoring system.

• No major ISP uses the Sender Score metric to determine delivery or inbox placement.

• The score doesn’t reflect the reality of deliverability success or failure.

• The scoring only uses a couple of “secret” sources.  Why are these relevant?

• It is mainly a US based system; the scoring does not accurately reflect performance for senders in EMEA, APAC, or Latin America.

• There is no explanation to what moves the score up or down.

• It would make sense to know exactly what sources determine the score, so you could decide for yourself if it was important to your program.

Panic Mode

Our Deliverability Operations Team handles a significant number of tickets from concerned customers who see a drop in Sender Score and panic. We talk with prospects that only use reputation score to monitor their success. Marketers are flat wasting time with this metric.

A stopped clock is right twice a day, and it’s the same way with the reputation score. Sometimes it is right, but most of the time it pushes senders down the wrong path. Third party email monitoring services had to come up with the concept of a reputation score, because they do not have direct access to campaign performance metrics like open, clicks, bounces, etc. that only an ESP or marketing platform captures. They felt like they need a metric to validate their existence. If you pay attention to the best practices/metrics that matter today, you will be a much smarter and successful sender.

Monitoring trending in metrics like reads, clicks, bounces and complaints tells a much more accurate story about your deliverability. Understanding what your competitors are sending, and how they are performing, gives you a baseline for what the market expectations should look like. Jeans companies may see a 30% open rate, while book senders may average 15%. This knowledge is much more relevant to evaluating performance than some old school number that doesn’t reflect what is important to you.

It’s time to move on. Reputation scores are obsolete. The sooner you realize that the reputation score died three years ago and move to refocus your efforts on important information, the better off you will be. There’s no free pass to the inbox, and there’s no magic all-knowing score that ISPs use to decide your inbox placement. I know it’s boring, but sending relevant messages to people who asked to receive them is the way to the inbox. 

Of course email is just one part of an overall cross-channel marketing strategy. To reach your customers and prospects you have be utilizing all the channels that are relevant to them.

To help marketers get a competitive advantage when it comes cross-channel marketing we created the Modern Marketing Essentials Guide to Cross-Channel Marketing. Download it today because regardless of channel, consumers and prospects have more refined appetites for marketing and higher expectations.

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