Today’s blog post kicks off a brand new series focused around the most deceptively complicated question in email sending: “Why is my email going to spam?” We’ll start the series with an exploration on why that question is insanely complicated, then in a couple weeks we’ll dig into some reasons things might be going wrong from an infrastructure perspective, some reasons things might be chaotic from a database perspective, and we’ll wrap up with a discussion on email content and subject lines. Let’s get started!
The first, and most important thing to understand about email, is that it’s deceptive in its simplicity. On the surface, and on a basic technical level, it’s one server telling another server it has some information to give to someone who resides on that server. Email is like postal mail in that sense: you put the letter in your outbound mailbox, someone comes and gets it, and sticks it in another mailbox in a neighborhood somewhere. But what if the mailbox in that neighborhood somewhere is actually first sorted through a mailroom run by teenagers? That’s effectively what email is.
Teenagers sorting my email? No wonder I have a hard time figuring this out, you may (should) be thinking. Let’s break that down a little bit to describe the email sending process and what questions a receiving server asks before they’ll deliver your mail.
First and foremost, is this person catfishing me?
One of the more technical steps in email is when a receiver is trying to validate if you’re even allowed to send email on a particular domain’s behalf. At this step, this teen is glancing at your mail and asking “Okay, is Skyler who she says she is, and is she actually sending from the company she says she’s from? Or is this letter actually a lie and belongs in the garbage?”. In order to do that, a receiver checks your SPF record, your DKIM record, and (potentially) your DMARC record.
An SPF record is similar to you adding your other social media profiles on your Instagram, it validates that I own those other accounts on other platforms and you can expect to see content from me on those accounts alone. If you see people on other accounts pretending to be me, you should know those aren’t legitimate and they should be ignored. SPF is just a more technical way of saying “you can trust mail from these sources, but don’t trust it from anywhere else,” which can help cut down on strangers and bad actors sending mail and claiming to be you.
A DKIM record is the same as signing the back of an envelope to prove the message hasn’t been tampered with in transit. This is important so the receiver can be sure the message is actually from Skyler and isn’t from a bad guy somewhere in the middle, ripping out my email content and replacing it with spam.
A DMARC record helps tie your SPF and DKIM records together, so you can say things like “Hey! Any email that comes from me should have both a valid SPF check and a valid DKIM check. Anyone who doesn’t have both of these should be treated a certain way.” So, in our mail sorting analogy, a DMARC record would be like adding a post-it note to your letter to say “Hi, mail sorter. Just so you know, if you see both a correct SPF statement and the signature is intact, this is definitely mail coming from me.”
So, we’ve checked your authentication and it looks fine, you’ve proved you are who you say you are. Pretty easy, right? Now it gets significantly harder. Once we’re past the technical part of email implementation, we get into thousands of other reasons why your mail may not be delivered, and that’s where the teenager analogy becomes extremely useful.
Maybe I don’t like your mail, so I’m sending it to spam anyway.
Your handwriting isn’t my favorite. The color of the envelope is ugly. The sender’s too generic. Too many hashtags. Not enough hashtags. The mail you sent yesterday wasn’t good, so today’s probably won’t be good either. Your reputation is not what I want to see in a sender. I’m pretty sure the person receiving it won’t like this mail. Too many pictures. I’ve been told to shred any letter that comes from your neighborhood.
Most commonly, the answer is “I don’t like it, and I’m not telling you why.” That is the answer that gives us no useful information, so there’s no specific way to troubleshoot. That is the answer that sprouted an entire industry based around trying to answer the question “Why is your mail going to spam?” That is the answer that makes us have to step back, look at everything you are doing, and try to determine what you could be doing better to get your mail past that mailroom and not sent to spam. Maybe you actually didn’t pass the technical steps, so we can fix that and you’ll be on your way. Maybe your overall engagement with your email is really bad, so servers take notice and stop sending your mail to the inbox. Maybe you’re sending to purchased lists and nobody wants to deliver that. The question is simple, but the answer is often tremendously specific to your sending, it’s generally quite complicated, and we don’t get a lot of feedback from those mailroom teenagers.
So, okay, email is hard. Way harder than you probably thought when you first started reading this. Where do you go from here? How in the world can you get mail delivered if we can’t hit the magic “make it send” button? Stay tuned for our next few posts, in which we’ll break down some of the ways things go wrong and how you can get them fixed.
You’ve probably noticed I love analogies related to email, and I’d love to hear yours! Tweet me @holobachgirl with the hashtag #EmailExplained.