The Spam Folder is Lava: Improving Inbox Placement with Email Engagement

Kids are great at creating games on the fly. When we were younger, we would endlessly invent games that kept us entertained all day. Games with rules that, to outside observers, probably seemed totally arbitrary.

This tree is base, that pole is your base, and the floor is LAVA. The floor is ALWAYS lava. Do NOT step in the lava.

Without close observation, it can seem like the rules that govern inbox placement are equally arbitrary. Why did this email make it to the inbox, but that email didn’t? Why is Yahoo delivering this email, but Gmail is chucking it into the spam folder? Don’t they know the spam folder is lava?

Far from the simple keyword filters of old, mailbox providers now incorporate sender reputation and engagement metrics into the mix. But when subscriber engagement shapes spam filtering, each send can have lasting effects on your inbox placement for future campaigns. After all, the spam folder might not really be lava, but most readers tend to avoid it like it is. That means engaging emails aren’t just a goal in an effective email program; they’re a necessity.

With these ten tips, you can send more engaging email campaigns, improve your inbox placement, and maybe even win your next game of “Stay out of That Lava!"


1. First, check for other deliverability issues in your email program.

Before you tackle engagement, you need to make sure there aren’t any issues preventing readers from engaging with your emails in the first place. Have you drastically altered your sending frequency? Are you seeing a lot of hard bounces, perhaps a result of buying an old email list? Is your shared sending IP dragging you down? Once you’ve addressed deliverability issues stemming from sender reputation, you can start tackling email engagement.


2. Start things off on the right foot with a strong welcome email.

In addition to just being polite, a welcome email can positively impact future deliverability. First, it shows readers what they can expect from your messaging. Do it right, and they’ll keep opening. Plus, the welcome email typically has a high open rate. Readers want to confirm that their subscription went through, and they’re probably a bit curious how your emails look. Sending a strong welcome email engages your readers immediately, signalling a good relationship to mailbox providers and ensuring future emails make it to the inbox.


3. Use a sender name that subscribers recognize.

What’s the one factor that has the most impact on whether subscribers open your emails? It’s who’s sending them! Use a friendly-from name that people trust enough to open. Some senders might use a funny “from” name as part of a lighthearted email campaign, but you have to make sure readers are in on the joke. If readers don’t recognize the sender, there’s a good chance they’ll delete your email before reading it. These unopened emails indicate to mailbox providers that readers aren’t terribly interested in them, which can increase their chances of being sent to spam in the future.


4. Write email subject lines that invite engagement.

The sender name may be the most important factor in getting emails opened, but the subject line is a close second. The more likely they are to open your emails, the more likely they are to find content they connect with. Or perhaps, find content that they think one of their friends will enjoy. Forwarding emails is another engagement signal that tells mailbox providers, “Hey! Make sure the recipient sees this great email!"

5. Use segmentation and personalization to send relevant messaging.

Maybe the emails you send are so amazing that everybody on your email list wants to see them as often as you can churn them out. But if you have any data on your email list, you probably know that your subscribers don’t share everything in common. You can segment your lists and change your messaging based on demographics, interests, and even just how they interact with your emails. Using data to provide personalization with a purpose increases relevance, and in turn, engagement.


6. Don’t let sending frequency sink your engagement metrics.

If you rapidly increase sending frequency out of nowhere, mailbox providers might interpret these messages as spam. But even if they make it to the inbox, extra emails can turn off subscribers who aren’t expecting an inbox assault. While some readers love daily emails from their favorite brands, others might only prefer them weekly or monthly. Instead of blasting everyone with email, let subscribers select a sending frequency that’s comfortable for them.


7. Use preference centers to let readers choose their email content.

Frequency isn’t the only way you can let subscribers self-select the email they receive. If you offer multiple email products, you can empower subscribers to choose their own content with email preference centers. You could also let them choose to only receive occasional communication, such as when special sales are running (like holiday promotions). Sometimes people’s email interests change, and they’ll want to leave your email list. That’s understandable. If you have a backup plan with different kinds of content, maybe you can convince them to stick around. If that’s not the case then…


8. Make it easy for people to unsubscribe from your emails.

Hiding your legally-required unsubscribe link won’t help you retain subscribers. After all, if people don’t want your email, they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they don’t see it. That includes marking you as spam. Enough spam complaints, and your email program’s deliverability suffers. An effortless unsubscribe process minimizes the odds that readers resort to drastic measures on their way out. The best thing to do is let those subscribers leave. It just means your remaining list will be that much more engaged.


9. Gain insight by monitoring your unsubscribes.

It might sound bad to hear readers are unsubscribing from your email. It might even hurt a little bit. But chin up, there’s a silver lining in every opt-out: it gives you a chance to assess your email program. It’s like going over game tapes the morning after a tough football game, breaking down the replays to see what went wrong. Did one email underperform? Are you consistently racking up opt-outs? Evaluating what turns readers away can ensure you convince more of them to stay. Speaking of assessment…


10. Test your emails to see what engages your subscribers.

You can learn a lot from mistakes, but you don’t have to wait until things go wrong to make them better. Email is a process of continual improvement. Test your subject lines. Sending times. Creative. Anything! Tap into the same imagination that created those imaginary lava games and apply it to your email strategy. A rigorous testing program puts you on the path towards an email program that can keep practically anyone engaged.


If you’re having trouble making it to the inbox, these ten steps might get you back on the right track, or you can download our Deliverability Solution Guide for even more inbox success. That way, you can stop worrying about your email deliverability. In fact, you can rest easy about your email program in general. You’ll be able to breathe. To smile. Maybe even play around a bit. You’ll feel like a kid again. Just don’t step on the floor.


Editor, PostUp PlayBook