What Agencies Need to Know about Deliverability & Cold Email Warm-up

by Michael Morckos in June 17th, 2020
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Cold email is a powerful addition to any outreach campaign, a great way to reach people where they spend most of their workday: their inbox.

However, even the best cold email in the world is no good if it doesn't reach the inbox. Deliverability is vital, and something you have to consider before you write a single word of that email. To get your cold clients' emails delivered, you need to make sure you've done all the preparation work necessary.

The good news is that the preparation doesn't have to be hard work. Although it might seem complicated at first, agencies can dramatically reduce the chances of their clients' emails getting flagged as spam by following a few simple steps. 

This guide is intended to help everyone—including those with no technical background—get their client's domains and email accounts set up correctly and improve the chance they'll end up in their prospects' inbox.

Table of Contents

  • Set up Burner Domains
  • Authenticate & Verify your Domains
  • Check your Domain Reputation
  • Setup Redirects and Automatic Forwarding
  • Know your Limits
  • Warm-up your Email Accounts
  • Send Emails that Follow Best Practices

Set up Burner Domains

The first thing you should do before starting a new cold email campaign is registering multiple burner domains.

A burner domain should look similar to your client's primary domain but is still a separate, distinct entity. This domain protects your client's primary domain in the event anything goes wrong. So, let's say your agency is working with ABC Inc. They're the proud owners of ABC.com, and they want to start a cold email outreach campaign.

You could start sending those emails from ABC.com, but if something goes wrong and the domain is blacklisted, all the emails from that domain could be affected. That includes all those essential transactional emails and any other business messages. This means your client's sales team would be unable to follow up on leads, their support team couldn't help existing customers, and so on. 

The smart move is to make sure your cold emails come from a different domain to prevent this. For our fictitious client ABC Inc, you might use ABC.co, ABC.io, or GetABC.com. Sending emails from these burner domains protects your primary domain in the event of blacklisting or too many spam complaints, preventing interrupting your non-outreach related email activities. If they get burned, you can throw them away and move on to a different domain.

While this might seem like overkill, it's easy for a fast-growing company to quickly get in lots of trouble. If you're looking after their outreach and several new reps are suddenly sending lots of messages from new emails on a new domain, that sharp spike in activity could kill a domain before you know it, causing plenty of headaches.

Setting up different burner domains eliminates those risks.

Authenticate & Verify your domains

You wouldn't last long at a party if you turned up without the right kit: no shoes, no shirt, no service. For your client's domains, this means you need to have the proper authentication in place. To be more accurate, that's three pieces of authentication you need: the snappily named SPF, DKIM, and DMARC. 

SPF stands for Sender Policy Framework, an email validation system that verifies the sender's IP address. Even if that sentence makes no sense to you, all you need to know is that this (and the other systems) make your domain look less spammy and are easy to setup. 

SPF setup guide for G Suite

SPF setup guide for Microsoft 365

DKIM stands for DomainKeys Identified Mail, used to indicate that you sent the email, and not someone pretending to be you. 

DKIM setup guide for G Suite

DKIM setup guide for Microsoft 365

Finally, the latest of the bunch is 'Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance,' or DMARC to its friends. Building off the previous two systems, this is designed to protect against direct domain spoofing.

DMARC setup for G Suite

DMARC setup for Microsoft 365

Check your Domain Reputation

If you're using brand new domains for your client, then you have a blank slate. Your reputation is neither good nor bad; just neutral. 

However, like an unknown guest at a party, your domain will be closely watched. Anything suspicious, anything spammy, and you'll be kicked out of the party before you can take a sip of your drink. Therefore, it's important to make an excellent first impression. 

For new domains, as a general rule, you should keep to one email address to start with. Even with a proper warm-up (more on that shortly), multiple new email accounts sending multiple emails can quickly add up and harm that reputation we're working so hard to protect here.

If you're working with an established domain, you should check its reputation. It's pointless trying to use a domain that's already been blacklisted and unwelcome at every party in town. Sites like MX Toolbox can quickly tell you if your domain has ended up on anyone's naughty list. 

Hopefully, it's nothing but green ticks. However, if you've somehow ended up blacklisted, you'll either need to start fresh with a new burner domain or you can try getting yourself delisted. The process will vary between blacklists, but sometimes it's as simple as emailing and asking nicely. 

For example, if you get on the wrong side of the Spamhaus block list, you can visit their Blocklist Removal Center, which will guide you through the process. Look into the procedure for your site and hope they're feeling generous.

Setup Redirects and Automatic Forwarding

With your disposable domains in place, you should do a little-housekeeping to help manage them. 

First of all, make sure your burner domains redirect to your client's primary domain. It doesn't look good if people who've received your email go looking for a non-existent website. This is usually a matter of logging onto your burner domain's hosting panel and adding a redirect to the main domain.

Likewise, you'll also want to set up automatic forwarding, so that responses to messages from your burner domain accounts end up in your primary inbox, rather than a burner inbox that's never checked. 

Remember, though, having burner domains is a precaution, protection in the event of anything going wrong. By themselves, they don't improve deliverability. To enhance the chances of your emails being delivered, you need to make sure that the domains are properly configured.

Know your Limits

Your email service provider has limits on how many emails you can send each day. For example, G Suite has a limit of 2,000 messages per day, applied over a rolling 24-hour period. Microsoft 365 users can send messages to up to 10,000 recipients per day, but at a maximum of 30 per minute.

However, that doesn't mean you should go straight for 2,000 messages or 10,000 recipients on day one. Instead, you need to build that good reputation before sending any significant number of emails. 

Once you've warmed up your email address, you can start consistently sending a higher number, but that still doesn't mean you should send as many as possible. If you're operating at the limit, that leaves no room for replies or other types of messages. I still keep it to 70 emails per email account per domain.

Secondly, regularly operating at the limits is going to raise red flags. Those limits are far beyond what a typical email user needs, and attempting to exceed those limits is going to bring your account unwanted attention. 

Remember, just because you can send 2,000 emails, it doesn't mean you should.

Warm-up your Email Accounts

Now you're finally ready to start sending emails. You still need to build that positive domain reputation, though, so you need to start slowly. This is all about sending the right signals to the email hosts, that you're human, and fun to have around at parties. 

One of the most important signals is volume. Nothing screams' spammer' quite like sending 1,000 emails in one day from a brand new account. You need to warm-up your accounts, gradually increasing the number of emails you send on behalf of your clients. For a brand new account, that might mean waiting 12 weeks or more before starting a cold email outreach campaign. The exact time will vary from host to host, but the longer you can spend on building a good reputation, the better. 

Start by sending out just a few emails every day. I start with ten emails. Over time, you can gradually increase this number. After the first week, I increase the volume to 20 emails per day, then 30 the week after, and so on until I send 70 emails a day. 

While this might seem frustrating and slow-paced, this gradual increase and consistency—coupled with the right authentication and additional positive signals—tell email hosts that you're one of the good guys and not aiming to spam anyone.

Send Emails that Follow Best Practices

When warming up your email account, not all emails are created equal. Even with the low numbers involved in a warm-up campaign, too many of the wrong kind of email can still get you in trouble. That's why it's important to send the right kind of warm-up emails that send the right signals. 

Some activities will send positive signals. If people open your email, that's a good sign. If they reply to it, that's an even better sign. On the other hand, emails can send negative signals too. If your email isn't delivered, that's a bad sign. If the recipient reports it as spam, that's bad. 

The goal is to generate as many positive signals as possible while keeping those negative signals minimum. This is true for all emails you send, but it's essential when warming up your inbox; too many negative signals early on could shut down your client's domain before you have a chance to use it properly. 

Here's how to keep things positive. 

Only send emails to valid addresses. Bounced emails don't look good and will harm your domain's reputation. While some bounces are inevitable, too many make it clear you're reaching out to strangers. For best results, always verify your addresses before adding them to a campaign. 

Send emails that get responses. This is where friends and family come in handy. Send your first campaigns to people you know personally and then ask them to respond. Start a conversation. This kind of back and forth goes a long way in adding legitimacy to your email account. 

Send emails to business addresses (but only if you can guarantee a positive response). Having good engagement with other business addresses sends positive signals for when you're reaching out to other businesses in the future.

Avoid sending emails with lots of people CC/BCC'd. This is a common way for spammers to send bulk email, so should be avoided at all costs.

Sign up for newsletters. It's not only about the emails you send. Remember, you're trying to signal to the email service providers that you're human, and every human I know has a long list of newsletters that they're signed up for. Don't forget to confirm your email address!

Send personalized emails. When your friends and family have grown sick of replying to your emails, you still need to get responses. The easiest way to do this to send emails that are worth responding to. Make them relevant. Show some empathy. When you're only sending a small number of emails in the warm-up phase, it's a perfect opportunity to spend some extra time researching your prospects so you can send emails they'll want to read.

Send plain text emails. Remember, we're doing everything we can to prove we're a cool human, not a spammer. Many spam messages are HTML and image-heavy, so keeping it plain and text-based is a smart move. 

Include an unsubscribe link. This might sound counter-productive. Surely we don't want people to unsubscribe from our client's amazing emails? However, if the recipient doesn't value the message, for whatever reason, it's far better that they unsubscribe via a link than the alternative: marking the email as spam.

Final Thoughts

Getting a high email deliverability rate is important, both for connecting with your customers and ensuring that their domains aren't blacklisted. Fortunately, by planning ahead, it's easy to keep your domain reputation healthy while still sending cold emails. 

By ensuring you have the proper authentication setup and thoroughly warming your email account, by slowly increasing the number of emails you send while also sending positive signals, you'll build a strong reputation for your account that will be a strong foundation for your client’s cold email outreach. 

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