Be the Author of Email Delivery

Email marketers are the authors of a very particular story:

Email marketers are the authors of a very particular story: the story of their email’s deliverability. Your own story starts when you turn on your computer screen and open the message editor in your web browser. So begins your email’s quest for the inbox.

ISPs, spam filters and your subscribers themselves all stand between your email and the inbox. The decisions you make will determine whether your email prevails against its obstacles or meets its untimely demise in spam folder limbo.

To help you practice making the right decisions, we’re going to walk through a little exercise. Read the following passages, and at the end of each, make your choice and click to the related page to see where your email ends up!

Chapter One: Character Introductions

Character Introductions1
You squint at your computer screen and contemplate your From name. Here comes your first plot point.Catchy. It’s gotta be catchy. Something your subscribers will instantly connect with, right? Like Bangarang Bob. Man, that’s catchy!

If you stick with this name, turn to page 4.
If you’d rather keep brainstorming, turn to page 15.

Character Introductions4
Catchy, sure. Related to your brand or company? Not so much. Your company is called Red Delicious Apples, Inc. and your name isn’t Bob. This from name – despite its, er, distinct sound – is entirely inconsistent with your existing branding.When your newest subscriber receives your message, she doesn’t recognize the sender name and treats it like some annoying spammer who thinks his alliteration is clever. She clicks the spam button, murdering your message and your reputation without a second thought.

Your email’s quest – nearly successful – has met a violent end. Go back to page 1 to start again.

Character Introductions15
It’s catchy, and that alliteration is killer! But your name’s not Bob, and it really does nothing to reflect your company, Red Delicious Apples, Inc.Hmmmmm… you think (or perhaps hum aloud if you’re thinking alone). That sounds like a good place to start. “Red Delicious Apples, Inc” “Red Delicious Emails” Now we’re on to something. You enter “Red Delicious Emails” into the text field.

Later, when your newest subscriber sees your message in her inbox, she recognizes “Red Delicious” in your sender name and instantly knows that it’s the information she requested from your site’s web form.

Your email has conquered its first delivery obstacle.

Chapter Two: Spam Filter Battle Action

Spam Filter Battle Action22
That blinking black curser taunts you again, this time winking at you from the message editor’s “Subject” line like it’s reading all your weaknesses. But you”ll beat it this time.You recall finding a blog somewhere that unlocked the secret of subject lines. Something about being compelling to entice subscribers to read your content.

You sip your coffee and stare contemplatively into your mug. Maybe the cream swirls in your coffee can help you divine the magic formula. Exclamation points are compelling. So are loud statements.

If you make a big statement, turn to page 27.
If you keep it simple and direct, turn to page 8.

Spam Filter Battle Action27
CAPS LOCK GRABS ATTENTION!!!! AND PUNCTUATION REALLY DRIVES YOUR POINT HOME, RIGHT??!!?!!!Wrong. Your email accidentally sets off its emergency flare in the dark, attracting the attention of spam filters and several grues. It’s not eaten, but the spam filters are hot on its trail. The ISP locks your email in the spam folder for good.

Spam Filter Battle Action8
Tread carefully, because phrasing is everything. A wrong move might not tip off the spam filters, but could have subscribers blowing the spam whistle themselves. Every issued spam complaint hurts your reputation and can interrupt the deliverability quest of your future emails.

You crack your knuckles and dab a bead of sweat from your brow. It’s now or never. “Red Delicious Newsletter: Top 10 Orchards plus Tips for Baking with Apples.” This sounds like a good one. It summarizes your message and teases at valuable content your subscribers should want to read.

Things are looking good for successful completion of your email’s quest.

You’ve slain the subject line, securing safe passage for your email over the Mountain of Design Elements. How do you equip your email for the trip?

If one big image will do just fine, turn to page 30.
If you add some text in for additional security, turn to page 21.

Spam Filter Battle Action30
The mountain passage can be treacherous and spam filter bandits often waylay emails traveling this way. Especially the unarmed pretty ones. Not to mention that all images and no text are in fashion for unsolicited email these days. Spammers think it’s clever to try outsmarting content filters with a lack of text.The filters pounce on your email and drag it away through the woods, locking it high up in a tower until a subscriber recognizes your sender name and rescues it, like a damsel in distress.

Spam Filter Battle Action21
You’ve heard the warnings about spam filter bandits traveling this way, and arm your email with some extra content to make sure it passes through safely.Balancing your images with text shows the spam filters that your email has nothing to hide, and the ISP calls off its hired bandits, allowing your email clear passage to the inbox.

After crossing the mountain safely, your HTML email meets a traveling adventurer who calls himself Plain Text. Plain Text suggests they form a party and combine their strengths to blaze through to the inbox together.

Do you combine the powers of HTML and plain text messages? If yes, turn to page 35.
If not, turn to page 12.

Spam Filter Battle Action12
You email has made it this far on its own. What does it need plain text for? You ignore the beckoning text box in the message editor and send your HTML email on its way alone.No one warned you that spam filter bandits are stronger on this side of the mountain. They see your HTML email traveling alone without a plain text companion and easily ambush it. They’re too strong for your email to fight off alone. Your email’s journey ends as it’s tossed in the spam folder.

Spam Filter Battle Action35
You consider the power that a plain text companion could add to your email’s survival skills, and agree that forming a team is a smart proposition. You copy the text from your HTML message into the plain text box, joining their deliverability strengths. When HTML and plain text travel together, they’re less likely to be mistaken for spam impersonators.Not all inboxes can accept HTML emails, so sending an additional plain text version allows the ISP to choose which format is most appropriate, allowing your message clear inbox passage. The powers of HTML and plain text combined face the spam filter bandits head-on and conquer them, reaching the inbox successfully.

Chapter 3: Engaged Listeners

Engaged Listeners39
Since your email campaign’s maiden voyage, you’ve sent several more emails on successful journeys to your subscribers’ inboxes. As months pass, you notice some subscribers on your list who haven’t opened any of your emails. You’re not sure what to make of it.Do you investigate the issue or leave your subscribers alone?

If you ignore it, turn to page 17.
If you want to take a further look, turn to page 41.

Engaged Listeners17
It’s good to stay positive, right? This feels like rejection, but it should work itself out in time if you just keep sending emails. Persistence is everything. Those subscribers will open your message eventually.Or they’ll get fed up and report your emails as spam. Some people aren’t interested enough in apples to read weekly offers and updates about them. Your reputation takes another hit. And you just ran out of healing potions. Your future delivery quests may end in defeat.

Engaged Listeners41
You send you emails on a treacherous quest against spam filters to reach your subscribers’ inboxes. You owe it to future adventurers to understand why some subscribers aren’t opening their messages. You send in your best delegate to help with reengaging.Your reengagement delegate asks some pointed questions like, “Are you still interested in receiving emails from Red Delicious Apples, Inc.?” and “Is there something we could do better?” He even presents an option to unsubscribe to the customers whose fruit preferences have changed.

Letting disengaged subscribers opt-out cleans up your list, and your emails now go only to the inboxes that really want them.

Turn to the epilogue for your campaign’s successful conclusion.


Your email escaped the spam filters by delivering value and relevance to your subscribers’ inboxes. Best practices upheld your sender reputation, which means that future emails should complete their quests, too.What choices will you make for your next email’s story?

Author’s Note
There are more variables that effect deliverability than the decisions you make about your email’s content. AWeber takes care of the technical side of deliverability – like authentication, certification and bounce rates – but here are some additional deliverability resources if you’re sending on your own without an email service provider:

Email Delivery Terms ExplainedISP Summary Information from Word To The Wise, with everything you need to know about sending to specific ISPs


  1. Jeff

    11/21/2011 8:09 pm


    Thanks for sharing your insights here. While I’m an experienced marketer, you’ve been instrumental in assisting me understand the nuances of this email game… in quite the creative way!


  2. anmari

    11/21/2011 10:38 pm

    Well done Rebekah – what fun to read.

    I had been wondering how best to explain to certain individuals i help (not sending marketing newsletters, just their own business emails) why they needed to get their domains properly setup, look at spf records, how they send emails (always use their proper smtp server) etc etc.

    Using an analogy for the email journey may be a way to get the message without losing them in the technicalities.

  3. Johnn

    11/22/2011 11:15 am

    Great game format for the tutorial. Nicely done.

    My name really is Bangarang Bob, though. My ancestors are insulted.

  4. Victor

    11/22/2011 1:52 pm

    I agree with Johnn fun format and entertaining reading. Also informative. I just realized the mistake I was making by only sending Text, for fear of the spam filters. Now I will include HTML along also.

  5. Johnn

    11/22/2011 2:30 pm

    I also only send plain text newsletters. I’ve long been thinking I should offer HTML. When I polled my readers, response was 50/50 – each group preferred one format over the other.

    So, if I do create an HTML version, how do you think I should handle it? How do I avoid losing the people who replied they prefer plain text only because of their email client or pure format preference?

  6. Rebekah Henson

    11/22/2011 2:56 pm

    Johnn –

    If you send plain text and HTML together, your subscribers’ email clients will decide which one to display. If a subscriber’s email program can’t display HTML emails, it will show the plain text version instead.

    If you polled your subscribers through email, you can segment them based on which link they clicked for their answer, sending plain text to the ones who prefer plain text and HTML to the ones who prefer HTML. If you used an outside polling source, you’ll have to manually update your subscribers’ preferences.

    Hope that helps!

    P.S. Bangarang Bob is a fine, sturdy name indeed. I did not mean to incur the wrath of far-reaching generations! 😛

  7. Johnn

    11/22/2011 6:44 pm

    Thanks for the reply, Rebekah.

    > If you polled your subscribers through email, you can segment them based on which link they clicked for their answer

    That sounds great! Where can I find out more about that?

  8. Rebekah Henson

    11/23/2011 9:06 am

    No problem, Johnn! Here’s a blog post that explains how to segment your subscribers with a survey in AWeber, which should tell you everything you need to know:

  9. Johnn

    11/23/2011 9:40 pm

    Thanks for the links, Rebekah!