Engagement and Reputation are Two Sides of the Same Coin

A coin with a thumbs down (or up!) on one side and a check mark on the other. The blog post is called "Email Engagement and Reputation are Two Sides of the Same Coin".

Even the most veteran email professionals might have different understandings of “engagement” and “reputation” and their impact on a sender’s deliverability. For some, they are different words with the same meaning, but for others, they mean two different things with important differences. 

That sounds like a riddle, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s more like looking at one coin with two sides, or yin and yang. 

Let’s unpack what reputation and engagement mean. 

What Is Sender Reputation?

Let’s jump right into reputation, which can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. 

For some, sender reputation is used as a bit of a blanket term attempting to encompass all the things most important to inbox placement, including items like the way you collect and manage your lists, the way recipients react to your content and sending frequency, and whether you’re properly authenticated.  

These are all important factors in having your mail delivered to the inbox, which is why these are all factored into StreamScore, the proprietary sender reputation scoring we use here at SocketLabs. 

Another important way to look at reputation, though, is through the eyes of mailbox providers (MBPs) themselves. What do they think of you as a sender? To find out, we look to things like postmaster tools and spam complaint feedback loops.  

This data coming from MBPs is what makes up the ‘Reputation’ aspect of our StreamScore. 

What Are Reputation Signals?

Largely, these are the things MBPs care about the most: 

  • User Safety 
  • Engagement (more on this later) 

More specifically, MBPs are concerned about the user experience. 

They’ll look closely at whether you’re properly authenticated to ensure the emails coming from you are safe. They’ll also be sniffing your emails like a drug dog at a music festival to ensure they don’t contain anything harmful to their users. If your authentication standards leave a lot to be desired or the links in the body of your email go somewhere shady, your sender reputation (and inbox placement) will reflect that. 

MBPs will also keep a close watch on how their users engage with your mail once it’s delivered. Are you consistently getting negative reactions like spam complaints in place of positive reactions like opens and replies? That will affect your reputation with MBPs…a lot. 

Now, you’ll also have to be very certain you’re following mailbox-specific requirements, particularly with providers like Google and Yahoo, because if you don’t, your reputation there will suffer and so will your deliverability. By and large, though, we recommend following the same practices across all providers, not just the ones with stricter standards.  

Reputation Signal Examples 

We know we want to make sure recipients are getting an experience their MBPs will be happy to see. To do that, you’ll need to demonstrate you know how to send good email in the right way. 

Here are a couple things they love to see you do: 

  • Protect recipients by properly authenticating with SPF, DKIM, DMARC 
  • Encourage positive user engagement by sending relevant content to addresses that have opted in to receive it 
  • Make it easy for recipients to unsubscribe 
  • Respond appropriately to negative user engagement 
  • Monitor all bounces and address issues accordingly 
    • Hard bounces come from sending to invalid addresses. High rates of hard bounces indicate a problem with list collection or maintenance. You should stop sending to these addresses. 
    • Soft bounces happen when you’re sending to valid addresses, but the mail was rejected by the MBP for <waving hands around> reasons. High rates of hard bounces — particularly when they’re happening with just one MBP — indicate a problem with sender reputation. You can keep sending to these addresses since they’re valid and active, but first you should fix what the bounce message is telling you is wrong. Continuing to send before you do will just exacerbate the problem.

All of this tells them you are aware of best practices, are serious about preventing spam and phishing, aren’t sending mail to addresses you shouldn’t be, and overall, are just behaving like a trustworthy sender. 

Managing Sender Reputation 

Broadly speaking, you want to make sure your practices align with MBP’s expectations. In some cases, you’ll even get indications directly from the source. For example, if you’re sending to Gmail recipients, you’ll want to get familiar with Google Postmaster Tools (GPT). Another example: many MBPs offer a spam feedback loop (FBL) where they inform you when a recipient (and who) has complained so you can remove them from future mailings. Most email service providers (ESPs) will set up the FBLs for you, but it’s always a good idea to double check when it comes to managing spam complaints. They are very damaging for deliverability. 

We mentioned StreamScore and how reputation factors into your overall score. This is what the “Reputation” breakdown looks like to a SocketLabs customer. 

reputation breakdown

As you can see, we look at things like sending patterns and your potential presence on industry-respected blocklists. Why? Because MBPs look at those things, too. 

Once you get more insight into where you might be running afoul, you can take appropriate action. For example, implement confirmed opt-in to reduce complaints, or clean lists periodically to lower bounces at each MBP.  

At that point, your deliverability is in the hands of the recipients themselves. That’s where engagement comes into play. 

What is Engagement?

At SocketLabs, we classify engagement as the activity of email recipients. These can be positive or negative, but regardless, they’re coming straight from individual recipients. 

Engagement has an immense impact on deliverability and overall “sender reputation,” so we use this as one of the four components of our StreamScore. We can use our parameters to frame the engagement discussion, because even if you aren’t a SocketLabs customer, you usually have access to several meaningful metrics to give you a sense of your engagement. How you see them or how they’re calculated will vary between email service providers (ESPs), but the core of their importance remains the same. 

Overall, recipients can give you positive or negative feedback. The more positive you get, the better, of course. But you need to pay just as close attention to negative reactions since they have a large impact on sender reputation. 

If you’re following the email best practices we’ve mentioned, you should notice consistent positive engagement with fluctuations from a distribution or campaign level. If you notice your typical performance beginning to skew negatively, dig into your email reporting to find out why. 

What Are Engagement Signals?

We’ve written a rather in-depth blog about engagement signals with a breakdown of how much importance most of them have. You can check that out here. 

The TL;DR version is: Any activity a recipient takes with your email counts as an engagement signal, and those signals can have either a positive or negative effect on your deliverability. 

We’ll give you some of the most common ones to supplement the very specific ones in our previous blog. 

Positive Engagement Signals 

It’s important to note, MBPs have a much different view into things than we do. They’ve got different angles, metrics, and signals senders know about but can’t measure themselves. The good news is we have plent of data points we can use as proxies to give us a good sense of what MBPs are seeing to help us make decisions aligned with their desires. 

These are important engagement signals affecting your deliverability: 

  • Opens 
  • Clicks 
  • Replies 
    • Quick tip: Lots of brands use a no-reply email address for their reply-to address, but we see this as a missed opportunity to foster relationships with recipients and learn about what you can improve. The reality is, some of them are going to want to respond to you — to ask a question or share feedback — and they’re gonna to be frustrated if that Mailer-Daemon tells them the email was not delivered. If you have the resources to man that channel, we highly recommend using a real reply address and not a no-reply address 
  • Categorizing, like moving spam to the inbox, or a promotional email into the primary tab 
    • Note this is not a sender-viewable metric. 
  • Forwards 
    • This is also not visible to senders in most cases. 

You might have more or less of each on every distribution, but really, any action from a recipient that indicates they’re happy to get your mail is a big mark in your favor. 

Negative Signals 

Again, here are some to whet your whistle, though this time these are things you do not want to see: 

  • Marking as spam 
    • Bad news: Google, the largest provider on most people’s lists, doesn’t provide spam reports allowing you to know who has flagged you as spam. Instead, you’ll need to monitor your aggregate spam rates via Google Postmaster Tools (commonly referred to as GPT).Quick heads up about GPT though: Lots of folks have been seeing large spikes of complaints while their IP and domain reputations have continued to be scored as “High.” If you’re facing this issue, check out Al Iverson’s interview with Google’s Neil Kumaran to learn why this might not be something to worry about. Lots of goodness in there, but specific to spam complaints, Neil says:“We recognize the fact that the math for spam complaints is nuanced. The spam rate we report is based on spam complaints from active users for inboxed emails. In Postmaster Tools, we report spam rates for the day of send, so a high or low send volume on any given day doesn’t affect the spam rate of the previous day. We attribute the spam report to when the email was received, not when the report happens.” 
  • Deleting without opening 
    • Another one inaccessible to senders 
  • Unsubscribes 
    • Good news: while these are technically a negative engagement signal because they let you and their mailbox provider know they no longer want your mail, it doesn’t typically damage sender reputation unless unsubscribes are very high. So, while these aren’t ideal, it could be a lot worse…they could mark your mail as spam instead. 

In fact, it can be helpful to use unsubscribe information as a proxy for complaint data since not all MBPs offer a spam FBL. (Remember how we said Google doesn’t provide this to senders?) If your unsubscribe rate is climbing, your spam complaint rate might be climbing, too.  

Managing Engagement 

You can always course-correct if you find yourself struggling in the engagement department. For instance, users of our SocketLabs Spotlight reporting platform can see what is causing an issue and what to do to help you fix and improve your performance. Here’s an example of what you might see. 

Guided Insights

Generally speaking, you can manage your engagement by making smart choices based on the data at hand. Don’t continue to send email to recipients who consistently don’t open or click. Respect unsubscribe requests. Analyze what frequency or types of content seems to work best for folks. 

Commit to sending good email and you will reap the benefits. 

The Relationship Between Engagement and Reputation 

Like we said, yin and yang. You can’t really have one element be abysmal while the other is just fine and dandy.  

The key to remember is this: the recipient experience should be at the center of everything you do. 

Sure, money is good, growth is great, and we want those things, too! But by making sure your recipients’ satisfaction is at the core of every decision, you have a better chance of enticing positive engagement, which will in turn please MBPs. Happy MBPs treat your mail well. 

Keeping a close watch on your email performance can make all the difference when you’re looking to improve your deliverability. When you’re able to see how recipients engage with your mail and what MBPs think of you, in addition to things like delivered rates and bounces, you get a better idea of how things are going holistically than just watching clicks or conversions. 

One of our favorite parts of SocketLabs Spotlight reporting is how you can see your StreamScores at an account-wide level, at a stream or subaccount level, as well as at the domain level. You get in-depth and quickly-actionable insights into your entire email ecosystem, with the ability to drill down into the weeds of specific sending domains, campaigns, even individual recipients as much as you like. And with our category breakdowns, you get really pinpointed information about what’s going on, why, and how to improve performance. 

Take a look, see what you think…and if you’re intrigued, let’s get you started with a free 90-day trial. 

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