Who’s Afraid of the Spam Folder? How to Always Reach the Inbox

by Pam Neely last updated on

How many of your emails reach your subscribers’ inboxes? 100%? 90% 80%? It might be less than you think. Many of us – me included, until recently – think that when we talk about emails reaching the inbox, we’re talking about email deliverability. But we’re not.

Editor’s note:
We’ve recently published three articles that explore this topic a bit further. If your emails are going into spam and you’re struggling to reach the inbox, you’ll probably want to read them. The first one lists the key reasons why emails go to spam and what you can do to stop that from happening. The other two focus on what you can do to improve your email deliverability and email list management best practices.

Sneaky little thing about deliverability rates… They include the emails that go to spam folders. Wha?

It’s true. Email deliverability rates are certainly important. But what we all ought to be focused on is inbox placement. Inbox placement is just what it sounds like. It refers to the emails that actually reach your subscribers’ inboxes – not the emails that go to their spam folders, or to their promotional folders if they’re using Gmail.

This infographic from the email analytics company 250OK.com tells the story of what’s going on with email deliverability versus inbox placement rate.


Still suspicious of this idea of email deliverability rates including emails that go to the spam folder? I’ve got another authoritative source to back it up.

It’s from the email data solutions company Return Path. Their Inbox Placement Benchmark report clearly shows the difference between deliverability rate and inbox placement rate. As you can see below, one in six email messages never makes the inbox. 6% go to the spam folder, 11% simply go missing. The remaining 83% reach their intended inboxes.


Inbox placement varies by which country you’re in. The United Kingdom and the USA both enjoy 87% inbox placement. Germany and Australia do even better with 89%. But poor Brazil. They get stung with only 60% inbox placement.

What industry you’re in also affects inbox placement. As you can see below, most industries hover between 80-90% for inbox placement. But if you’re in Software and the Internet (and I bet a lot of people reading this are), your typical inbox placement is 43%. Ugh! Even a sister industry, “Technology”, only comes in with 70% inbox placement rates.


Another issue that comes up with inbox placement rates is Gmail’s promotion tabs. These were hailed as a potential marketing disaster when they first came out. The tabs certainly weren’t “the end of email marketing as we know it”, but they have had an effect.


Don’t try to sneak promotional emails into the Primary tab

While it’s frustrating to not get your emails delivered directly to your subscribers’ inboxes (they did sign up and ask for your emails!), don’t try to evade the Gmail tab system.

As Return Path says in their report,  “Senders that followed Google’s suggestion not to ask subscribers to redirect promotional messages into their Primary tabs have been collectively successful at reaching and engaging their audiences, but contrarians have not.“ I know it’s a pain, play by Google’s rules: Don’t ask your subscribers to send your emails to their Primary tabs.

How to Improve Your Inbox Placement Rates

Now you know the difference between inbox placement and deliverability rates. The next thing is how to improve inbox placement. So here’s how to get more of your emails into the inbox.

Remember that 250OK.com infographic from above? It said bad inbox placement rates are caused by:

  • Invalid addresses
  • Poor email reputation
  • Poor content
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How to fix invalid addresses

Invalid addresses come from bad email hygiene, and sometimes from bad list-building practices. Here are a few ways to clean them up:

  • Remove hard bounces (emails sent to addresses that no longer exist) on the first bounce. GetResponse does this for you. Alternatively, you can use external tools to remove hard bounces even before sending them a message.
  • Remove soft bounces (emails sent to address accounts that are full or temporarily unavailable) after 3-4 tries. This is done automatically too, if you’re using GetResponse as your email service provider.
  • Remove malformed email addresses from your list. This would include domain misspellings like gnail.com and yaho.com.
  • Use double opt-in for your list building to make sure you’re not adding misspelled email addresses – or worse, spam traps – to your list.
  • Remove anyone on your list who has not opened or clicked one of your emails in the last year. This may cost you a few real subscribers. But it’s also a way to be sure you’ve got an engaged, high-quality list. If you really don’t want to cut this group, try sending them a re-engagement email message before you cut them loose. Just don’t expect to get any more than about 15% of them back.

How to get a squeaky-clean reputation, aka “Sender Score”

For email senders, your reputation largely means your Sender Score. It’s a number between zero and 100 that’s calculated by the company Return Path. You can check your Sender Score here for free after you’ve registered on the site. Just paste in the IP address from one of your last emails to get your Sender Score report. It will look a bit like this:


You can influence your Sender Score by generating more engagement for your emails (more on that in a moment), but much of what determines Sender Score is up to your email service provider. If you’re a GetResponse customer, we’ve got all the technical details covered for you in this post.

Your Sender Score is directly tied to inbox placement performance, and to your deliverability rates. In Return Path’s 2014 Sender Score Benchmark Report, they’ve documented the correlation between high Sender Scores and inbox placement:


How to pass the “poor content” test

The last group of signals that determine your inbox placement rate are about how your subscribers engage with your emails. Admittedly, some of these signals also can affect your Sender Score, but it’s best to think of these metrics as their own category.

Here are a few of the subscriber actions and metrics that ISPs use to tell if you’re sending poor content:

  • Open rates
  • Click-through rates
  • Saving email messages to a folder
  • Forwarding email messages
  • Replying to email messages
  • Marking the sender as a preferred sender, also known as “whitelisting” the sender

Basically, this all comes down to one thing: Make your subscribers happy. That means sending valuable, relevant information to them.

Creating valuable information is reasonably straightforward: You can ask them what they want to know by sending a survey. Or you can just track your email performance reports and see what they respond to best.

Sending relevant information is pretty easy, too. It means segmenting your list so you can send information that is even more carefully targeted to your subscribers’ interest. Ideally, you might even go all the way to emails with dynamic content that’s selected based on a subscriber’s behavior.

That would be great, but you don’t have to go crazy. Just pick 2-3 ways to segment your list, then send them the most relevant, useful, high-quality content you can. After that, watch your reporting. Follow the clues it gives you about how to improve.

This is all pretty much just general email marketing best practices. But they became best practices for a reason: They work. Remember, the ISPs who decide whether or not your emails reach the inbox are just trying to do their job. They’re trying to keep low-value, spammy emails out of their customers’ inboxes.

So long as your emails aren’t treated like they’re spammy or low-value, the ISPs won’t hassle you. If your subscribers love your emails, and click them and open them and forward and save them, the ISPs can actually become your allies.

Back to you

Do you have any questions about email deliverability or inbox placement? Are you happy with your inbox placement rates? Feel free to post them below in the comments.

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