83: Kate Nowrouzi: Mailgun’s VP of Deliverability on email subdomain strategies and inbox placement tools

What’s up everyone, today we’re joined by Kate Nowrouzi, VP of Deliverability at Mailgun by Sinch.

Summary: Kate brilliantly dissected the complex realm of email marketing deliverability, highlighting the critical need for strategic decision-making and a meticulous, step-by-step approach to restore domain reputation. Drawing upon her unique shift from fighting spam to aiding marketers land in inboxes, she illuminated the nuanced layers of deliverability. Reinforcing the superiority of genuine engagement over manufactured interactions, Kate underlined the importance of understanding audience needs, continuously refining strategies, and valuing quality over quantity. She also acknowledged the transformative potential of new technologies like BIMI, AMP, and machine learning, suggesting a forward-thinking approach for marketers willing to navigate the growing tech-driven competition.

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About Kate

About Kate Nowrouzi - Episode 83 of the Humans of Martech Podcast - Kate Nowrouzi: Mailgun's VP of Deliverability on email subdomain strategies and inbox placement tools
  • Kate started her career in network and anti-spam engineering roles at two major ISPs; Verizon and AOL
  • She then moved to the vendor side at Fishbowl, a Customer engagement platform for restaurant marketers where she led email deliverability operations 
  • Kate’s profound experience in email deliverability then guided her to the role of SVP of Deliverability and Email Compliance at SparkPost
  • Kate’s also been Co-Chair of the Complaint Feedback Loop Committee at the
    Messaging Anti Abuse Working Group
  • She’s an Advisor and Investor for various startups
  • She’s also an Advisory Board member of Persian Women in Tech, with a mission to close the diversity and gender gap in STEM
  • Today, Kate serves as the VP of Deliverability & Product Strategy at Sinch, a public Customer Communications company that acquired Mailgun 2 years ago

Harnessing the Power of Insider Knowledge in Email Marketing

Kate highlighted the value she gained from her tenure at AOL where she spent four vital years in the realm of anti-spam operations, an experience that she later brought to her roles at email service providers like SparkPost and Mailgun.

Kate began her career in the early 2000s as an anti-spam engineer at AOL, at a time when email marketing was gaining momentum. AOL led the way by offering one of the first robust spam report options to their members, a trend quickly picked up by other industry titans like Microsoft and Yahoo. However, her transition from ISP to the marketing side or Email Service Providers (ESPs), required a significant shift in mindset.

Working on the ISP side, Kate’s primary focus had been on shielding members from malicious actors intent on infiltrating their inboxes. Yet, as she transitioned to the ESP environment, her role morphed. Now, she was aiding brands and marketers in ensuring their emails didn’t raise spam red flags.

This drastic change in problem sets and operational goals required some adaptation. Kate noted the initial challenges of transitioning from one end of the business to another. However, she affirmed that her experience on the ISP side provided invaluable insights that helped guide brands away from appearing spammy in their email marketing efforts.

Takeaway: The shift from battling spammers to helping marketers get their emails into inboxes was a challenging, but enlightening journey for Kate. Her early career experience as an anti-spam engineer provided her with an insider’s understanding of what brands should avoid to not come across as spammy, proving to be an indispensable asset in her later roles at ESPs.

Shifting Perspectives From Spam Prevention to Marketing Delivery

Kate recalls an intriguing philosophical debate that arose during her transition from an anti-spam role to an ESP environment. Essentially moving from fortress to business.

A memorable instance arose when Kate moved from AOL to Fishbowl, an email marketing platform for restaurants. One night, she was roused from sleep by an urgent issue: a major client’s birthday campaign was being blocked by AOL or Yahoo. The client considered the blocking of their campaign a very serious matter. Kate, however, found this jarring. Was it worth losing sleep over a blocked birthday campaign, when her previous role had conditioned her to respond to potentially harmful breaches of privacy?

But as her colleagues stressed, the situation was indeed significant. The client was a top-tier customer and the success of their birthday campaign mattered. This incident served as a defining moment for Kate, reinforcing the fact that she was indeed on the other side of the business now, with a new set of priorities to consider.

Takeaway: Kate’s anecdote about a client incident underlines the drastic shift in perspectives that can occur within the same industry. A blocked marketing campaign might not seem critical to someone from an anti-spam background, but in the world of ESPs and email marketing, it can be a major concern. It’s a poignant reminder of the nuanced complexities inherent in the world of email communication.

The Battle of Formats: HTML vs Text in Emails

When asked about the age-old debate between HTML and text in emails, Kate laid out her perspective, which leans towards simplicity. While marketers might be attracted to the visual appeal and richness of HTML emails, Kate warns against overwhelming the end user with too much information and too many distractions. In line with studies indicating that simpler emails often perform better, she suggests focusing on the most critical points and avoiding excessive complexity.

Kate also highlights the importance of adaptability based on the nature of the campaign and the audience. For instance, AMP and interactive emails might be perfect for a webinar invite, as it can eliminate unnecessary steps for the user, such as clicking on links and visiting external websites for registration. However, interactive emails might not be the best fit for all marketing campaigns.

As every inbox and device displays emails differently, it’s essential to keep up with technology and perform rigorous testing before launching any campaign, major or minor. With various rendering tools available, like Email on Acid, marketers can preview how an email looks across over a hundred devices. A/B testing is highly recommended to fine-tune the decision between text, HTML, or interactive formats.

Takeaway: Email format is not a one-size-fits-all decision. It’s about understanding your audience, the purpose of your campaign, and the compatibility with various devices. Keeping your emails simple, clear, and focused is often the best route, but never shy away from testing and refining your approach based on your specific needs and results.

The Emergence of BIMI and AMP: A New Era for Email Marketing?

When asked about the rise of new email technologies like BIMI (Brand Indicators for Message Identification) and AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), Kate expressed an optimistic outlook. These frameworks aim to improve brand visibility, confirm authenticity, and enhance interactive features in emails, all of which can potentially boost engagement and conversion rates for businesses. However, the implementation of these technologies is not without challenges.

There are roadblocks, especially with BIMI, that teams and working groups are actively trying to overcome. For instance, registering a trademark logo, a requirement for BIMI, can be a significant challenge for brands. Additionally, the responsibility doesn’t only rest on brands; Internet Service Providers (ISPs) also need to simplify their processes to facilitate wider adoption of these technologies.

Google’s role in this transition is also crucial. As Kate noted, a large portion of marketing traffic today is either Gmail or Google-hosted domains. While Google introduced both BIMI and AMP, their promotion of these technologies has been relatively quiet recently.

Despite the difficulties, there’s a reason for excitement. Kate firmly believes that these technologies hold immense potential to transform email marketing and hopes that in a year or two, the implementation will be far less challenging.

Takeaway: New technologies like BIMI and AMP may require significant effort to implement and have limited client support, but they represent a potentially transformative shift in email marketing. With the ongoing efforts to overcome current roadblocks, it’s a space worth watching for marketers looking for more effective ways to engage their audience and boost conversions.

Embracing AI and Self-Optimized Email Campaigns

When asked about the potential role of self-optimized campaigns powered by machine learning and natural language processing in email marketing, Kate strongly urged marketers to pay attention to these emerging technologies. The idea of AI taking the wheel for orchestrating the most effective message, sent at the most optimal time to the most fitting user, is not a far-fetched concept anymore.

According to Kate, marketers who shy away from experimenting with these technologies will find themselves at a disadvantage. Whether it’s using AI for A/B testing, choosing the best subject line for each campaign, or crafting personalized marketing content, it’s essential for marketers to embrace these developments rather than reject them. After all, the impact of these technologies may vary across businesses, but the potential for improvement is vast.

For instance, Kate cited the practice of tracking consumer behavior for insights to customize future marketing content. Brands like Nordstrom have been successful in precisely targeting customers with the right content at the right time, significantly boosting their customer engagement.

Kate also discussed the role of AI in ‘send time optimization’, a practice that has been part of the industry for a few years. It involves analyzing a user’s engagement behavior to determine the best time for sending emails, which has proven to significantly improve engagement rates.

Takeaway: Technologies like machine learning and natural language processing are reshaping the email marketing landscape. Marketers who are open to experimenting with these technologies and integrating them into their strategies can potentially enhance personalization, optimize email sending times, and ultimately drive better engagement. Ignoring this shift could risk falling behind in an industry that is becoming increasingly competitive and technology-driven.

A Strategic Approach to Recovering Domain Reputation

When asked about domain reputation recovery in email marketing, Kate emphasized the importance of not hastily setting up a new domain or switching traffic to new IPs. According to her, this sort of action is exactly what a spammer would do. Instead, the key lies in strategic traffic segmentation and taking a thoughtful approach to managing a brand’s online reputation.

Addressing a situation where a single domain is used for all communications, from receipts and transactional messages to marketing content, Kate pointed out the risks associated with such a practice. If the domain gets blocked due to poor marketing practices, it can impact all types of communications, including critical transactional emails.

Kate recommended the segmentation of traffic on different subdomains to minimize risk. This includes sorting subscribers into categories like most engaged, less engaged, and non-engaged, and assigning them to different subdomains. While the organizational domain does carry a reputation, the reputation of the subdomain is prioritized by major Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Further, Kate stressed that it’s not just the domain reputation that matters but the combination of domain and IP. Even if an organization has a strong reputation, a poorly performing subdomain can damage this reputation. Moving to new IPs requires warming them up, which is not an easy task, hence why Kate recommends against it.

Takeaway: The restoration of domain reputation is not an overnight job; it’s a strategic process that involves traffic segmentation, consistent engagement, and adherence to best practices. Instead of jumping to new IPs or domains, a meticulous approach to repairing reputation can yield better results and maintain the integrity of your brand’s communications.

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When asked about domain and subdomain strategies for maintaining email deliverability, Kate offered insights based on her extensive experience. Her comments focused on debunking misconceptions and providing nuanced recommendations for complex scenarios, such as when stakeholders push for a quick fix to domain reputation issues.

Kate shared that spammers typically don’t invest time in developing subdomain strategies. When they experience domain issues, they are more likely to shift to new domains altogether, often switching to a cousin domain or changing IPs. However, Kate warned against this approach for reputable marketers, especially under pressure to deliver quick results.

Should a marketing or sales team be pushing for rapid improvements, Kate suggested creating a new subdomain rather than a cousin domain or entirely new domain. The key here is a slow and steady approach, rather than sending a mass email on day one, which would essentially recreate the initial problem.

She emphasized the importance of the first week of activity on Google, recommending to start with a small number of emails and gradually increase. Regular monitoring and adjustments based on where emails land, in the inbox or the spam folder, are critical.

Kate also mentioned that while Google may not directly respond to form submission when you are trying to fix your emails from landing in spam, but it does monitor and act on the issues raised. They care about the quality of the traffic, as over 70% of marketing traffic runs through Google. Therefore, even if marketers don’t receive direct responses, it’s worth filling out that form.

In response to the question about the limit on subdomains under a brand, Kate clarified that there’s no specific limit. She added that the reputation of a subdomain is separate from the root domain. While smaller ISPs may not separate the two as distinctly, Google sees them as separate entities, which means the reputation of one will never impact the other.

Takeaway: In the complex world of email deliverability, the key lies in strategic decision-making. Rather than succumbing to pressure for immediate fixes, marketers should focus on a gradual, controlled approach. Careful segmentation, consistent monitoring, and open communication with ISPs can help improve email deliverability and domain reputation without risking long-term damage.

Unpacking Inbox Placement Tools and Seed List Testing

One of the topics we covered extensively was the significance and effectiveness of email warm-up vendors and inbox placement platforms. The query focused particularly on the platforms that utilize a network of verified inboxes to simulate engagement, creating an environment that mimics genuine human interaction to improve deliverability.

Kate’s response to this was quite revealing. She acknowledged the existence of such tools, colloquially known as “Intelli-seeds”, but warned against their use for long-term results. According to her, Google’s systems are extremely adept at distinguishing between genuine and simulated interactions. Once they perceive an attempt to game the system, it could potentially tarnish your domain reputation in the long run.

As for the perceived benefits of these tools, Kate offered a level-headed evaluation. She shared an experience of a short-lived improvement in engagement after the use of these platforms. However, she emphasized the importance of not relying solely on these tools and questioned their alignment with privacy laws. Google, she pointed out, is not a big fan of such practices and hasn’t vouched for their efficacy.

Kate touched on seed testing, acknowledging its usefulness as one of the many ways to troubleshoot email deliverability issues. However, she stressed that it’s not the end-all-be-all. A good or bad result in seed testing doesn’t guarantee the same outcome in real-world situations, since actual engagement is often quite different.

Despite the buzz around Inbox Placement Tools, Kate’s perspective remained cautious, not entirely supportive of their use. She expressed a preference for focusing on the end user’s actual preferences and feedback, the real determinants of long-term email campaign success.

Takeaway: In the realm of email marketing, using automated tools that simulate human engagement can bring short-term gains but may potentially harm your domain reputation in the long run. In the end, genuine user engagement remains the most reliable indicator of a successful email strategy. Real feedback over simulated responses – that’s the game.

Walking the Thin Line of Cold Email Outreach in Marketing

When asked about the prevalent yet contentious practice of cold email outreach in marketing, the conversation took an interesting turn. The question highlighted the sometimes unavoidable reality of outbound emails and prospecting in many marketing and revenue operations roles. This is despite the fact that the ideal scenario for any email marketer is to send valuable content to an audience that has willingly opted in to receive such content.

Kate offered a rather candid response. She recounted her experience with cold outreach, mentioning that it didn’t yield as much success as they had hoped for. The inundation of emails from vendors that one typically finds in their inbox is evidence of this widely used tactic. This increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as businesses sought to maximize email use given the rise in remote work and the lucrative return on investment that emails offer.

Despite using platforms that sent emails on her behalf, Kate explained how Google’s sophisticated systems could detect and flag these messages as inauthentic. This could result in the emails landing in the spam folder, diluting their effectiveness. Kate emphasized the risk of overwhelming end-users with unsolicited emails, stating that marketers already struggle with engaging those who willingly shared their contact details.

She expressed a clear aversion to cold outreach strategies. Internally, she’s been very vocal about this stance with her marketing team. For Kate, the priority remains on providing value to an engaged audience rather than intruding on unwelcoming inboxes with cold emails or calls.

Takeaway: Cold email outreach may sometimes seem like a necessary evil in marketing, but it’s crucial to consider the potential pitfalls. These include not only the risk of emails being flagged as spam, but also the possibility of alienating your audience. Quality engagement with an opted-in audience takes precedence over quantity through unsolicited messages.

Unraveling the True Value of Email Deliverability and Engagement

When asked about the unconventional notion of email performance and deliverability, the conversation touched on a fascinating perspective about email marketing’s impact. The question, inspired by Penny Aquele’s unique idea, “Where do emails go when the lake freezes?” challenges the conventional metrics used to measure email marketing success – click-through and purchase rates.

In response, Kate offered a nuanced view. She shared her own habits as an email recipient, highlighting the power of a compelling subject line. Just like a catchy billboard on a highway, a strong subject line can drive her to a vendor’s website without her having to open the email. Kate emphasized the importance of considering the entire customer journey and maintaining transparency in the sender’s intent. She mentioned that while a well-crafted subject line might be more important than the email content itself, a successful campaign shouldn’t be solely defined by clicks and opens.

Kate likened deliverability and inboxing rate in email marketing to impressions in paid social advertising. Even without a click or an open, an email landing in a recipient’s inbox raises brand awareness – a facet often overlooked in email marketing.

Moreover, she hinted at the potential for other forms of engagement, such as website activity, that can complement email engagement data. She mentioned a tool used by Sinch to consider the engagement factor when sending emails, stressing the importance of not hastily discarding non-click or non-open interactions.

Takeaway: A broader perspective on email performance can shed light on the value of various engagement forms and deliverability. The idea that an email’s worth extends beyond clicks and opens prompts marketers to consider holding incremental tests to truly grasp their emails’ value. It’s about the awareness an email generates, not just the direct response it triggers.

Finding Balance and Happiness Amid Career and Personal Obligations

When asked about maintaining happiness and balance amidst a multitude of professional commitments and personal interests, Kate shared personal anecdotes that illuminated her approach.

In the early stages of her career, Kate acknowledged that her work often took precedence over family time, with business trips and late work hours becoming the norm. However, as her children grew up and her career progressed, her priorities underwent a significant shift.
These days, Kate prioritizes spending quality time with her family, now home from college for the summer. She’s adjusted her work schedule to wrap up by late afternoon, a notable change from her past routine that stretched into the evening.

Kate’s approach to balance and happiness also involves a conscious effort to distance herself from situations or commitments that no longer contribute positively to her life. Reflecting on past experiences, she admits staying in an unsatisfying career for longer than necessary and encourages others not to delay leaving environments that don’t contribute to their happiness.
As a final note, Kate shares her new-found focus on heart-led decisions. By listening to her heart more, she has found an increased sense of happiness and satisfaction in her work and personal life.

Takeaway: Balance and happiness, as seen through Kate’s journey, are deeply intertwined with personal priorities, professional boundaries, and the courage to walk away from unfulfilling situations. Taking heart-led decisions and prioritizing family and personal happiness contribute significantly to finding a satisfying equilibrium in life’s varied demands.

Episode Recap

This episode with Kate offered a wealth of practical insights into the multi-faceted realm of email marketing. Diving into the intricacies of deliverability, domain reputation, new technologies, and more, Kate drew upon her unique experience—shifting from fighting spam to helping marketers reach inboxes—to guide listeners through the email marketing landscape.

A key theme that emerged from the conversation was the importance of strategic decision-making in email deliverability. Kate emphasized that restoring domain reputation is a meticulous, not overnight, process. The solution doesn’t lie in hasty measures like jumping to new IPs or domains. Instead, a careful, controlled approach—featuring traffic segmentation, consistent engagement, and best practices adherence—can prove more effective. Kate’s perspective highlights the nuanced complexities and considerations that often go unnoticed outside the world of ESPs and email marketing.

Kate touches on the role of inbox placement tools and their impact on deliverability. These platforms are becoming increasingly sophisticated, simulating human engagement and may offer immediate advantages, but it risks long-term harm to your domain reputation as these inbox platforms could identify and penalize such inauthentic behaviors. Genuine user engagement, therefore, is still the most dependable marker of an effective email strategy. The real game is about earning authentic feedback, not manufacturing simulated responses. 

An additional takeaway centered on understanding your audience and tailoring email formats accordingly. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach; it’s about simplicity, clarity, focus, and continuous testing and refining. Quality engagement with an opted-in audience surpasses quantity through unsolicited messages, reinforcing that real feedback trumps simulated responses for gauging a successful email strategy.

Kate’s insights didn’t stop at current strategies. She spoke to the potential of new technologies like BIMI and AMP, machine learning, and natural language processing. Despite implementation challenges, these innovations promise transformative shifts in email marketing, enhancing personalization, optimizing email sending times, and driving better engagement. Marketers willing to embrace these technologies may gain an edge in an industry growing increasingly competitive and tech-driven.

Listen below for a comprehensive, nuanced, and accessible journey through the world of email deliverability. 🎧

Follow Kate and Sinch 👇


Intro music by Wowa via Unminus
Cover art created with Midjourney

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