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Using Seed Testing to Predict Inbox Placement

If you were given a crystal ball that showed you everything you needed to know about your inbox placement, would you use it?

First, if you’re asking what inbox placement is, you’ve come to the right place. Inbox placement is a critical email marketing metric that tells you how much of your mail landed in the end-users’ inboxes.

Inbox placement is one of the things that keep marketers up at night. While metrics like opens, bounce, complaint, and click rates can tell you quite a bit about a campaign’s performance (and the sender’s reputation), it doesn’t quite tell you everything.

Information about inbox placement isn’t returned to the sender the same way those other metrics are. In fact, inbox placement is not reported on at all.

Now, back to that crystal ball…of course you’d use it!

What if I told you that you have the next best thing to a crystal ball available to you right now? But, instead of a crystal ball, we call it seed testing.

What is Seed Testing?

I admit, I might be slightly overpromising, but when done properly and strategically, seed testing can provide a deeper look into how mailbox providers (like Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, etc.) feel about your brand’s emails before you send them.

At its most basic level, seed testing is the practice of sending an email to a group of email addresses for the purpose of observing whether it landed in the inbox, the spam folder, or went missing.

Anyone can do this with a handful of addresses that they manage. Since they are domains you own and control, you could even use those addresses for other forms of testing—checking that the campaigns rendered properly in your browser, clicking links to make sure they go to the correct places, etc. The problem with using test addresses like this is that you’re engaging with the emails and, therefore, creating a history with the sending infrastructure, which can then impact inbox placement.

Seed testing works a little differently when using a deliverability platform such as Everest. In this case, while you’re still sending to a group of email addresses to understand inbox placement at a given time, those recipients aren’t meant to engage with the mail, meaning they are not opening and clicking. This is an important distinction because they don’t build the same kind of history with your sending infrastructure that your regular audience (or even the addresses you own and use for the other testing) does.

Seed testing ultimately designs a neutral playing field, allowing you to gain insight into inbox placement. If your inbox placement is strong, you can carry on with your email marketing strategy as intended. If your spam placement is strong, it’s time to make some adjustments to audience or frequency (or both).

Future Inbox Placement Based on Past Behavior

Mailbox providers have their own specific criteria when deciding whether to let an email into a customer’s inbox. For many, engagement history is a vital factor in determining if any given user will receive an email. If a user fails to open an email from a sender over a long period of time, for example, mail from that sender will often start to go to that user’s spam folder.

Conversely, if a user regularly opens and clicks, that user will reliably receive email from that sender in their inbox even despite other potentially negative factors. However, many users will have little to no engagement history, especially if they are recently subscribed, thus creating a window for you to see into how mailbox providers treat users with no engagement history.

If a large percentage of your audience regularly engages negatively with your mail (for instance, ignoring or deleting the mail without reading it, or marking it as spam), the likelihood of a majority of that mail (or even all of it) going to the spam folder in the future is high.

Future placement is based on past behavior and when a large portion of your audience is behaving a certain way, mailbox providers take note and take action. This is why it is vital that the sender puts their best foot forward even when sending to previously engaged users.

How Often Should You Seed Test?

Mailbox providers are watching senders’ practices and user interactions to determine what to do with mail sent to users with little or no history—like new subscribers. This is why using seed addresses that have no history of engagement with your sending infrastructure is important—it’s meant to represent those new-to-file email addresses.

Because seed testing provides placement feedback for a particular sending infrastructure, it’s not necessary to seed test every day. It’s rare that placement changes drastically day-to-day. Performing one test per sending infrastructure/mail stream once every week or two is usually sufficient.

There are times, however, when one send can upset inbox placement and more frequent testing is suggested. One example is after a large mandated email is sent to your entire customer base. These types of emails don’t often have CTAs calling for engagement of some sort so they can often be ignored or deleted without reading, so it’s a good idea to perform a seed test following a send like this to see if anything in your inbox placement changed as a result.

Understanding Seed Testing Results

Generally, seed test results are straightforward—the mail either went to the inbox, the spam folder, or went missing (usually due to a block). Sometimes, though, partial inbox delivery and partial spam filtering occurs and can indicate that the recipient’s mailbox provider has doubts about the sender.

In this case, they’ll watch closely to determine if users retrieve it from the spam folder and/or interact, as well as watching for other indicators of positive or negative engagement. When this happens, pay close attention to list engagement and segmentation to reassure mailbox providers and filtering companies that you are a responsible sender.

If you’re already an Iterable customer, reach out to your CSM for more info on seed testing. If you haven’t joined the over 1000 brands using Iterable, schedule a demo today.

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