There are many different reasons why your emails might not make it to their destination, but the thing they all have in common is that returned emails are important to understand for your marketing strategy. Obviously you want your message to have the best possible chance of being received, so what can you do to ensure that this is the case?

Turns out it helps to know not just that your message was rejected or generated a auto-reply, but why it was returned so that you can take appropriate action. After you better understand the why behind your responses, you can be proactive about making sure it doesn't happen again to improve database health and deliverability.

The Difference Between Hard Bounces, Soft Bounces, and Auto-Replies

An email bounce is what happens when your message is not delivered, regardless of the reason why. When this happens the sender generally gets an automatic notice that their message was unable to be delivered. Sometimes the automatic bounce notice will contain information about why the message wasn't delivered; whether the recipient email address was wrong, the mailbox was full, etc. The reason for the bounce is what classifies it as a soft bounce or a hard bounce. A soft bounce is more of a short-term issue whereas hard bounce is a much bigger deal. Auto-replies are a different beast, but have a seat at the table in this analysis.

  • Soft Bounce. According to SendGrid, a soft bounce means that the email address was valid and the email message reached the recipient's mail server. Some reasons it bounced could be that the recipient's mailbox was full, the server was down, or the message was too large to fit in the recipient's inbox.
  • Hard Bounce. A hard bounce means that the email was permanently rejected (hence why it's considered more of a long-term problem). This could be because the recipient's email address is either invalid or it doesn't exist. Perhaps the email address was deleted when the person left the company and/or created a new email address (this is pretty common) or the email never existed in the first place. Your lead could have given you a fake email address, or maybe they gave you their real one but you recorded it incorrectly.
  • Auto Replies. Auto replies aren't a true bounce because your email technically made it to the inbox, but many people consider these a similar signal (many marketers even refer to replies as “bounce-backs”). These messages reached your recipients inbox, but you get back an automatic notification stating the reason why the recipient wasn't there, whether it be a vacation notice, job change, out of office reply, etc. There are 7 types of auto-replies, each of them giving you a different bit of intelligence about your recipient and requiring different action. For handling these at scale, tools like Siftrock can plug-in to your marketing automation platform to help manage and mine auto-replies for database updates.

More Reasons Why Emails Bounce

Blocked email

Some institutions have strict block features, like schools and government organizations, so your email could end up being blocked through no fault of your own. If this happens just try contacting the system administrator, explain to them who you are and who you're trying to contact, and ask them to remove you from the block list. As long as your background checks out this is a relatively easy thing for them to do.

Aggressive spam filters

Spam filters are constantly evolving as spammers are constantly finding ways to get around them, which makes it challenging for legitimate businesses trying to send emails. Some businesses have particularly aggressive spam filters and firewalls built in, and so your email could easily get identified as spam by their algorithm and bounced back. The definition of spam also changes pretty frequently. Every year there is a DMARC conference (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance) to establish best practices to protect consumers from annoying and dangerous emails (aka spam) and they constantly update their best practices which will affect bounce rates.

The Takeaway

So why does the different between hard bounces, soft bounces, and auto-replies matt? In general, bounce rate matters because if your emails bounce then your message isn't getting through to your audience. In turn, this hurts the communication with your consumers and can damage your reputation as a professional. More specifically, the reason why your email was returned should lead you to take different actions to rectify the problem.

How to Reduce Your Bounce Rate

  1. Scrub your contact list. Go through your list and remove any invalid contacts or email addresses continuously, rather than as a one-time project. It's always good to be proactive and delete any invalid contacts before they become a hard bounce.
  2. Temporarily suspend the email addresses of any out-of-office replies and soft bounces. Tools like Siftrock can be particularly helpful by sorting through the auto-replies and determining which accounts to suspend and which ones to delete. Aside from using an automated tool, you can manually keep track of who is on vacation or out of the office and needs to be suspended.
  3. Send a confirmation email when you receive a new email subscriber. This will tell you right away whether or not their email address is valid and will prevent hard bounces, though there is still the potential for soft bounces in the future.
  4. Monitor your bounce rates vs. your response rates. Be proactive and try to catch and fix any problems before they become a major issue. If your bounce rate is above 1% chances are you need to make some of the improvements discussed above.
  5. Monitor the blacklists. There are major spam databases called blacklists, and you don't want your email address to end up on one. It's important to actively check these sites because if you are added to the list, you won't receive any kind of bounce message or notification. Your messages just won't go through, and you'll be left wondering why you're not receiving replies.

What have you done to improve your company's bounce rate?

Amanda DiSilvestro
Amanda DiSilvestro
#DigitalMarketing & #SEO writer. Chicago native living in San Diego, CA.
Published Tuesday, July 11th 2017