Your ESP and Deliverability: Who’s Responsible?

Jenna Moye

7 minute read

The Common Misconception

Before you begin the search for an email service provider (ESP), it’s important that you are aware of a common misconception about who’s responsible for a sender’s reputation. Often times, it is believed that deliverability successes and failures are solely based on the ESP a sender chooses. Unfortunately, that isn’t entirely true. Laura Atkins couldn’t have said it any better when she said, “This is a subject that doesn’t get talked about very much because marketers often don’t understand deliverability, and ESPs get paid to respond to delivery problems not prevent them. Worse than that, many companies expect that deliverability is what their ESP does, and if there are problems, the ESP will be responsible and fix it. This isn’t actually true. In most cases, a sender having problems getting to the inbox is responsible for those problems.”

I hope this sheds a little light on that dilemma so I can safely say that, though a sender is responsible for their sending reputation and deliverability, the ESP you choose can play a role in it as well. This is why it is imperative that you are working with a competent ESP that has their customers’ best interest at heart. A successful deliverability plan involves effort from both the marketer and the Email Service Provider. Both work congruously together for one purpose- sending emails and getting them to the inbox.

“Your deliverability is only as strong as your weakest sender.”

The Role of a Sender 

Identify what you need out of a partnering ESP-only you know what that looks like. The key focus of a sender is to continue to follow email best practices to maintain a good sending reputation. It sounds pretty simple, but you’d be amazed at how many marketers don’t adhere. They want high numbers at a fast rate and will do whatever it takes to achieve it. This is not the practice of a good sender. So what does being a good sender look like? It means:

  • Paying close attention to the people on your lists
  • Growing your lists organically rather than purchasing or scraping them
  • Sending emails to actual people (versus the spam traps you are likely to hit by sending to purchased lists)
  • Ensuring that these actual people want to receive emails from you
  • Keeping your content relevant so they continue wanting to hear from you
  • Consciously sending emails with best practices in mind, being mindful that your reputation can affect others

Your sending volume is a key factor an ESP takes into account when establishing your IP delegation. Larger sending customers will likely be assigned a dedicated IP, while smaller sending customers will be assigned a shared IP. A dedicated IP is an IP address that is unique and delegated to a specific sender; it is not shared with anyone else and other senders cannot affect its reputation. A dedicated IP is not always the answer but is generally used by an individual or organization utilizing a higher sending volume. Typically, depending on the ESP, opting for a dedicated IP incurs a higher cost and may have certain volume requirements. A shared IP means that you share a reputation with all senders that are in your IP pool. If your sending reputation starts to falter, it will then affect the other companies’ sending reputations that are in the IP pool with you – for better or worse depending on your sending. The same goes for other senders. If one of them has a negative reputation, you’re likely to see a dip in your deliverability rates. Utilize good sending practices, not just for yourself, but for others in your sending space.

The Role of an ESP

The role of an ESP, as it pertains to their customers’ deliverability, is to actively monitor its environment, keeping a strong arm when adhering to email best practices, and to ‘release’ the bad senders. If an ESP is on top of who is a poor sender, they should be getting rid of the ones who are affecting the others reputations negatively.

Essentially, the IPs that the ESPs own develop a bad reputation due to continuing to host poor senders on their range of IPs. This practice, or lack thereof, warrants some questions to ask when considering a new ESP. On the bright side, some ESPs will “bump up” good senders to a pool of IPs with other positive senders. That’s a win for everyone. After all, your deliverability is only as strong as your weakest sender.

Other roles might include maintaining your subscriber list, looking out for your IP reputation, content fingerprinting, providing you with email templates, sending your mail, calculating engagement, monitoring blacklists, bounce processing, and offering you statistics and reports on your performance. Some ESPs will go as far as making sure you are alerted to any speed bumps along the way. For example, if sending starts to throttle on certain domains, the ESP will inform you that there may be an issue with your campaign.

“Any successful deliverability plan involves effort from both the marketer and the ESP.”

Deliverability Related Questions to Ask Your ESP

Like any partnership, you put your feelers out there and try to get an idea if this is going to be beneficial and conducive to what you are trying to achieve for your business. It’s no doubt that they will advertise the highest inbox placement over [competing ESP] but there are things you can ask as it relates specifically to your deliverability, reputation, and their stance on best practices.

  1. Have you ever ‘released’ a customer for bad sending or have you ever refused services to someone for bad sending?
  2. How do you protect my reputation from other senders?
  3. What are your policies on list acquisition and complaints?
  4. How can you help me if I start to encounter deliverability issues?
  5. What are your abuse and anti-spam policies?
  6. Will you work with me if my deliverability rates start to decrease?
  7. Do you have an internal or external deliverability team to work with?
  8. Are you permission-based sending only?
  9. What tools and integrations do you offer that will enhance my sending performance?
  10. What measures do you take to ensure I land in the inbox at all mailbox providers (AOL, Windows Live Hotmail, Yahoo!, Gmail, etc.)?
  11. Do you offer functionality around email authentication (SPF and DKIM)?
  12. What does your overall sending reputation look like? (This one may well be one of the most important.)

What to Look For in An ESP

When looking for an ESP, make sure they can deliver what they’re selling you. Most will have tall claims for the best inbox placement once you make the switch and sometimes in as little as a 24-hour period. The majority of the time, that isn’t the case. There are some exceptions where you might see your inbox placement increase with a new ESP, depending on the reputation of your prior ESP.

When you ask if they’ve ever released a customer for bad sending, it’s not a trick question; you hope the answer is going to be yes. You want a company who is going to move forward in a direction that strengthens the reputation of good senders and isolate them from the spammers. It’s also beneficial to know if they require their users to use their own sending domain, which also helps with reputation. Lastly, you want to make sure that they care about how you are acquiring your lists. If they don’t care that you’re buying lists left and right, the likelihood of other senders that you share a reputation with that are also buying lists is probably pretty high.

Additionally, see what they are doing to stay on top of the ISPs’ filters, as they are ever-changing. Are they up to date on the latest privacy and compliance policies that are in place that can affect you when it comes to international sending (and even now sending within the US)? Your ESP should be in constant communication with receivers, looking out for big changes in the email space that could affect your sending. They should also be in the loop when it comes to new privacy and compliance laws (GDPR, CAN-SPAM, etc.) and anti-abuse policies (M3AAWG), etc.

If you’re going to partner with a company who is going to be handling hundreds of thousands or even millions of your emails, you’re going to want to some feedback on what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and what you can improve on. Most ESPs should have some type of analytics or reporting in place when it comes to your lists, engagement, inbox placement, and other metrics. A good thing to also be on the lookout for are the resources and knowledge-base they offer as it relates to their services, FAQ, articles, etc. If you should run into anything that you need a clearer understanding on, you have these resources to look to. It’s reassuring to have a company that offers support and assistance when you need it the most. Recommended changes and insights into your delivery failures by your ESP can be a game changer by the time your next campaign deploys.

Do Your Homework

Ask around. We tend to be swayed by other people’s opinions more often than not, and that can provide true insight on someone else’s experience with the ESP you’re looking into. Read reviews on the company and the feedback given by satisfied and unsatisfied clients. This provides great insight on what you will and will not tolerate when it comes to a partnering ESP.

Don’t expect overnight results. We understand that everyone wants their emails in the inbox as quickly as possible. In regards to your email deliverability, there are things that happen when you migrate to a new ESP and start sending from new IP addresses. It’s unlikely to see overnight improvements in your deliverability rates, no matter what they claim. I would even expect something of the opposite to happen, but only at first. If you have been sending from an IP for a while, you have built a [hopefully] good reputation with the ISPs. They recognize that you have been sending from “X” IP address and now suddenly you’re sending from “Y” IP address. When you switch ESPs, you also switch IP addresses, and the ISPs will be on alert and cautious at first. They might start placing fewer emails in the inbox until you have properly warmed your IP to the standards of the ISPs. ISPs do this because senders who have proven to have poor reputation refuse to invest in fixing it and set up new IPs to continue to send spam emails.  Your potential ESP should also be bringing these things up to you as possibilities when you start new sending.

Know the language. Email can be complicated, and sometimes we don’t understand what’s being told to us and just nod our head because it sounds good. Don’t do that anymore. If you are on the brink of spending thousands of dollars for a partnering ESP and putting heavy man hours into your emails, there is a level of understanding to be had when email jargon is thrown around surrounding your reputation and deliverability.

Here are some resources that highlight deliverability and email marketing terms:

27 Deliverability Terms Every Email Marketer Should Know

Deliverability Glossary

The Ultimate Email Marketing Glossary

ESP Migration and IP Warming

There are some situations where it does become beneficial to migrate over and switch ESPs. Some clients do see better deliverability when they switch, due to the poor reputation their prior ESP may have had. ESP migration is a process and requires strategy and patience.  As deliverability experts, this is one of the services we offer when switching from one to another. To help make the transition run as smoothly as possible, we take a white-glove approach so you understand what’s happening every step of the way. If you’re switching ESPs or are a new sender, warming your dedicated IP is crucial and we are more than happy to help with that, too.

Contact a deliverability expert today!


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About the Author(s)

Jenna Moye

Hard rock and metal enthusiast. Dissectologist- it’s a thing. Aussie owner & lover. Fan of crime documentaries and books. Philanthropist. Follow Jenna on LinkedIn

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