Email Delivery Vs Email Deliverability: What’s The Difference?

Email Delivery Vs Email Deliverability: What’s The Difference?

Oct 29

There has been lots of talk about email deliverability as of late with talk of spam complaints, too many bounces and people not receiving emails which has had a negative impact on ROI from email marketing efforts.

In all of this talk of email deliverability, I am seeing a lot of fundamental terminology being misused or misunderstood.  With that being said, I want to dive into the most basic of concepts and terminology today and set the record straight as it pertains to "email delivery" and "email deliverability".

Though the two above terms are being used interchangeably, they have very different meanings.

Mail Being Delivered

Email Delivery vs. Email Deliverability

Let's first start as they say in sports with the X's and O's or "the basics".  What is the difference between email delivery and deliverability?  Here are some simple definitions:

  • Email Delivery: To be considered “delivered”, your email simply has to be accepted by the recipient’s server. Sounds easy, right? If you answer yes, you are unfortunately incorrect. Delivered doesn’t necessarily mean to the inbox. It just means it didn’t get rejected and completely blocked by the ISP.  The question, "was an email delivered" answer means: Can the email message be accepted by the ISP.
  • Email Deliverability:  Email Deliverability or "Inbox Placement", simply put, very simply refers to where your email message actually ends up after it was accepted by the ISP.  The options here are the inbox, the spam folder or the promotions folder.

Think of the journey of your email like this, after you send the email, it hits the first checkpoint with the ISP.  The Question that is answered here is "Will the ISP accept the email?"  If the message is accepted and delivered (email delivery), then it hits checkpoint 2.  At checkpoint 2, otherwise known as the spam filter, the ISP determines where inside of this mailbox your email should be placed.  The Inbox, the spam folder or the promotions folder. 

The journey of an email on it's way to the inbox

Let's now break this down a bit further so you can understand what is going on.  

How Does Email Delivery Work?

At its most basic level, email can be delivered or bounced.  A bounce is when the email does not arrive in the intended mailbox (their inbox, spam, or otherwise). Bounces can be a soft bounce, where the server will continue to try to deliver the message again or hard bounce when an email message is considered permanently undeliverable.  

So the question now is what can impact email delivery?  Here is a list of some items that can cause an email to bounce and not be delivered:

  1. Poor Email Infrastructure:  No SPF or DKIM record validation your emails
  2. Hard Bounce: The email address does not exist
  3. Soft Bounce:  The mailbox is full, the message is too large, or a mail block (Mail Blocks can be caused by the following: email reputation as a known spammer, SPF issues, The email is seen as spam by the spam filters, email attachments detected)

Now that we have a basic understanding of delivery, let's dive into email deliverability.

How Does Email Deliverability Work?

Email deliverability is also referred to as inbox placement.  Where in the inbox did the email land?

Email Deliverability is dependent on three things: Identification, Reputation, and Content.

  1. Identification:  ISP's want to know it’s actually you that is sending an email.  Think of email authentication the same way you would a drivers license, or a passport.  When you go to the airport, the TSA checks your license or passport to ensure that you are the same person listed on the ticket.  Authentication of your emails works the same way, but instead of a passport or ID, the ISP's use frameworks such as SPF, DKIM or DMARC to validate that the server the email is being sent from matches the from address in the email field.
  2. Content:  Your emails have t be appropriate and relevant to your subscribers.  If your emails aren't appropriate or relevant, your email subscribers will either opt-out (if you're lucky), stop opening your emails (this has a negative impact on reputation) or in the worst case report you as spam.  Other items that can affect your deliverability from a content perspective are excessive use of exclamation points, subject lines, awkward formatting of your emails and the use of URL shorteners like (yes URL shorteners are bad!!!!!!)  When writing your content you really need to put yourself in the shoes of your target customer and ask yourself, would I really open this or would this email be valuable and provide value to me.
  3. Reputation:  Sender reputation or sender score basically shows how trustworthy of a sender you are.  Every email you send has a positive or negative affect on your overall sender reputation.  Sender reputation looks at spam complaints, how often you hit spam traps, how many of your emails bounce, how many recipients unsubscribe, how many emails are opened, are emails replied to or forwarded, how many links are in emails, mailing to unknown emails (unsolicited email sending such as purchasing a list and mailing it) being blacklisted.  

How to improve email Delivery.

Delivery issues are typically related to one of two root causes.  First is a poor internal infrastructure.  Take the time to ensure your SPF, DKIM and DMARC records within your DNS settings are configured properly and tested.  If you do not have the technical expertise to do this, then hire a professional who specializes in email deliverabilityThe second issue is your list hygiene practices.  Good email addresses turn bad if they are not logged into or the domain is terminated.  By having good list hygiene in place you can minimize the number of bounces that occur that have a negative impact on your email delivery and sender reputation.  You should be cleaning your lists at a minimum of every quarter in order to keep bad email addresses out of your lists.  

How To Make It Into The Inbox.

Now that you know the difference between deliverability and delivery, here are tips on how to improve your deliverability and make it into the inbox.

  1.  Setup your email infrastructure properly: (see #1 above)
  2. Maintain a clean email list:  You need to keep a regular watch on the health and engagement of your email list.  Permission to market (when they opt-in) is great, but there is much more to it.  Keeping a clean list is made up of two key components, email hygiene and engagement.  As discussed above, run regular list scrubs (monthly if you can or at the minimum quarterly) to ensure you have a verified and clean list.  Poor engagement has a negative impact on your sender score and reputation.  Running monthly check on your email engagement will give you a birds eye view on what is going on and then give you the ability to run re-engagement campaigns to get them back before they forget who you are.
  3. Let them Unsubscribe:  When it comes to email deliverability, an unsubscribe is not a bad thing.  It is much better than the alternatives of them not opening your email, just deleting your email or marking the email as spam.  Let it be easy for them to unsubscribe, which means do not bury the required cans-pam opt out with a bunch of spacers at the end of your email.  If they can't find the unsubscribe button, then they will mark you as spam.
  4.   Keep your content relevant and personal:  The question you need to ask yourself before you hit that lovely send or publish button is, are you sending content that matters to the subscriber?  Make sure that you are sending personalized emails that will resonate with the subscriber, emails that provide value to the subscriber and emails that are engaging with the subscriber.  Relevancy matters.  Set expectations on what you will be sending and tick to those expectations.  Put your self on the receiving end of the emails and ask the question, is this engaging to me and relevant to the topic I requested information on?  By doing this, it will not only improve your engagement, but it will build better relationships with your contacts and result in better ROI on your email marketing efforts.

I hope this helps clear the air on the difference between email delivery vs email deliverability and gives you a few ways to improve both.  There is a lot that goes into getting emails delivered and into the inbox, but if you follow the tips below and get a solid foundation in place, you will see great improvements in your email marketing efforts.

If you have questions and want to take a deeper look at your email deliverability, comment below or feel free to schedule a time to go over your email infrastructure and practices.


About the Author

Evan Samurin is a third generation entrepreneur with a passion for helping business move from transactional to transformational. Having worked with entrepreneurs over the last 9 years, Evan is a wealth of knowledge. Evan leverages passion, compassion and wit to help entrepreneurs thrive.