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Email Domains and Deliverability: How Setup Affects Your Sending

Jonathan Winters
by Jonathan Winters on December 8, 2017

Email Domains and Deliverability: How Your Setup Affects Your SendingHammering Out Which Domain To Use

When sending email, domains are a key part of how people remember and experience your brand. For example, if your company (named “ACME”) primarily sells anvils, you would be wise to include the words “acme” and “anvil” in the domain name that you send your emails from. Simple stuff, I know.

But what if your business sells multiple things or has multiple departments? What if you have multiple sub-domains to manage? And what if your company grows from a one-man consulting firm to a software team and needs to update the domain name it's been using? (Actually that's us, and we know it. Look for a domain name change in 2018.)

As you can see when it comes to domains, things can get complicated. But whether you’re getting launched on GreenArrow, or another email platform, or whether your biggest customer is Wile E. Coyote—we have some helpful tips below. (Because like the Roadrunner, GreenArrow is also known as Accelerati Incredibilus.)

What domain should I use?

One of the first questions I get asked is, “What domain should I use for sending email when setting up my new software?” to which I often respond  “What domain have you been using?” It may sound obvious, but making sure your readers know who you are is important in your effort to work against that unsubscribe/complaint instinct.

It’s probably no overstatement to say that most people these days experience a constant stream of email. This has led to a faster-than-ever knee-jerk reaction to unsubscribe—or worse, click the “SPAM!” button—at the first sign of an unwanted email.

So ideally, when they receive an email from you, they recognize you as a source they expect to receive an email from, and your domain is a big part of that recognition. This is why we recommend sticking with the domain that your recipients are used to seeing (which ideally also lines up with the branding of where they signed up for your email).

There are, as always, a few exceptions.

For example, if you’re doing any kind of business rebranding, it may be a good time to change your domain. As your business makes strategic changes, be sure to remember your email (and recipients). Before switching, consider sending an email campaign using the original branding and domain to announce the domain change so your subscribers can recognize you through the transition. 

If you’ve been using a domain that you don’t own (like @gmail.com) anywhere in your email configuration, it’s almost certainly time to make a change. With the increasing use of DMARC, providers like Gmail, AOL, Yahoo and many more are cracking down on senders who try to get their marketing emails through to the inbox using the provider’s domain reputation. DMARC pulls different aspects of email authentication together under one configuration to help verify domain ownership and email validity, which makes it very hard (and sometimes almost impossible) to use someone else’s domain in your configuration without their permission. In this case, making the switch to your own domain will be an essential step toward improving your email marketing.

Regardless of the reasoning, there are right and wrong ways to go about switching up domains. Making sure your readers know about the upcoming change before it happens will help them recognize the new domain when it starts showing up in their inbox. There may also be some additional IP warm-up and domain reputation building that needs to happen. If you find yourself needing to change domains, I would recommend discussing the email portion of that strategy with a qualified deliverability expert.

How Dedicated Is Your Domain?

Another question you need to consider during the setup is whether your domain is 100% dedicated to sending email. Your answer is significant because you'll have to make a number of DNS changes to make your domain work with the software. If the domain is being used elsewhere, some of these DNS changes can conflict with your business' primary website or email and more. For example, our domain is used for our website, our email, documentation site, CRM, phones and more! So the consequence of answering this question wrong could mean implications to your corporate website and email! You know, no biggie.

If you’re still not sure, ask yourself a simple question:

“Am I ever going to want to do anything else ever with this domain, other than use it to send email with my chosen email platform (e.g. GreenArrow)?”

If the answer is “No”, then the domain is 100% dedicated to that email platform, and should only ever be used as such from that point forward. 

If the answer is “Yes”, then it is not dedicated. That’s OK; you can still use the domain with your chosen email platform. In this case, we’ll simply need to choose a subdomain (a prefix on the domain) which will be dedicated. This allows us to use the subdomain to reference everything related to email while the actual primary domain remains untouched.

For example, if your business uses the domain example.com for your primary online presence, we can set up GreenArrow to use mailer.example.com for any configurations that require the domain to be dedicated to GreenArrow. This allows the website http://example.com/ and emails sent to user@example.com addresses to still continue functioning for all of your existing purposes while allowing GreenArrow to function in parallel on the subdomain (still recognizable with your business’ branding).

Most email subscribers recognize the function of a subdomain, so even if they see it in your emails instead of just your domain, they’ll still recognize it as you.

Different Tools for Different Jobs

As I mentioned above, domains show up in many places throughout an email and serve a variety of needs. In GreenArrow, we allow you to manage each domain configuration separately as well as group them together into similar functions.

So, what kinds of domains are there, and what functions do they serve? I’m glad you asked!

Primary Server Domain

This is the domain that will be available to be used everywhere within the server, and needs to be dedicated to GreenArrow. Your recipients won’t necessarily ever really see this domain (unless they start looking in the headers of their emails). This domain is used:

  • In the URL to access your GreenArrow application
  • As the base hostname of your IP addresses
  • In the IP-Based Feedback Loop Applications
  • Optionally in any of the places listed below in the “Branding Domain” section

Branding Domain

A branding domain is only used in select places in your emails, used specifically to change the branding of the email in the places where a recipient of the email would see a domain. These are optionally set up for Full, Basic, and Third Party Branding.

Full Branding Domain (the most commonly used option):

As the name implies, the “Full” Branding Domain changes the branding of the entire email (everywhere except in some of the headers). To get this degree of branding, there are additional configuration and DNS changes that need to be made. But since most business or marketing teams won’t need too many full branded domains, investing the extra time could be worth it for the additional brand consistency throughout the email.

A Full Branding Domain can be used in the following places:

  • From Address Domain
  • Reply-To Address Domain
  • Sender Address Domain
  • Bounce Address Domain [dedicated]
  • URL Domain [dedicated]

The Bounce Address and URL Domain have a [dedicated] designation because they do require the domain or subdomain to be dedicated. This is because of the A and MX record changes necessary to make them function.

Basic Branding Domain:

This option is good if you want just a minimal setup with very few DNS changes. This is often used when different departments (with different branding) in the same company are using the same email platform. This allows them to share some aspects of the configuration without confusing the subscriber about the source of the email.

A basic branding domain does not need to be 100% dedicated to sending email, which allows for some flexibility. But since it can only be used in the From Address, Reply-To Address and/or Sender Address—the branding will be mixed. One of the Full Branding Domains will be present in certain less visible places (like the bounce address), so bear that in mind.

Third Party Branding:

This option is good for businesses who resell email services to their clients (called Email Service Providers or “ESPs”). Third Party branding allows for a quick and easy way to simplify the whole domain management piece for your clients, while still taking advantage of some key email best practices.

ESPs’ customers typically all have different domains, and as the ESP grows, managing all of those clients, their DNS and configurations (even for just a Basic Branding Domain) can quickly become time consuming and filled with incorrect configurations. Consider the litany of settings you need to configure for just one domain—choosing a dedicated domain or sub-domain, managing authentication, etc. Now multiply that by hundreds or thousands for each customer, and you can feel the headache begin.

Third Party Branding works by using the branding and reputation of the ESP to carry emails through the entire delivery, as a sort of “cloak” that the email wears as it is sent. The emails sent in this way will use the ESP’s Primary Server Domain or a Full Branding Domain for everything, completely removing the need for any client-side DNS or configuration changes. When the subscriber opens the email, they’ll see both brands (the ESP, and the business that asked the ESP to send the email for them).

If you’ve ever received an email from someone using Constant Contact, then you’ve seen this in action. Their Return-Path Address, Email Authentication, and URLs (click, open, and unsubscribe) all use Constant Contact domains. Some services like Gmail will expose this ESP relationship by adding notifications in their webmail interface like “sent on behalf of:”. There isn’t anything wrong with this; it is just another way to manage sending emails.

Third Party Branding domains are the best way to onboard customers who require the most simple configuration or fastest deployment. It also gives the ESP options for adding premium “Full Branding Domain” services to the customers who want that extra brand recognition and consistency through their emails (or if they just don’t want the ESP’s branding to show up in their emails).

However, this configuration may not work well for an ESP that does not want to actively manage their own reputation. Since an ESP’s customers are essentially sharing aspects of its reputation, anything short of proactive management of your customer’s sending could result in one bad apple damaging delivery for all of your customers.

In our experience, we have found reputation management work can be done up front, before ever letting a new sender on your network. For example, potential customers who would like access to send from our GreenArrow Cloud network must submit an application with a variety of content samples, AUP acceptance review, and sometimes additional calls to discuss email practices. This level of management is not right for every ESP, but it is what we have found to be the most effective to achieve our desired results.

Good Deliverability Doesn’t Fall From The Sky

Choosing a domain is just one step in the process of setting up and managing your email, but it’s a big one! The right (or wrong) setup can impact your results year-over-year. So how do you know if your domain was configured for the best deliverability and brand recognition? I have three suggestions.

First, begin by identifying your goals for your domain. Are you planning on a domain change due to business growth or company rebranding? Is your goal to fix deliverability or reputation issues? Are you trying to improve brand recognition or decrease brand confusion? Do you have too many domains and need to consolidate? 

Second, ask an expert. Consult an email professional who can affirm your decisions or help redirect your efforts. I'm always happy to respond to any questions or comments you might have, so drop me a line! 

Third, when it's time for new software and support, consider GreenArrow. With each license of GreenArrow you'll have a dedicated systems administrator to manage the installation and setup, as well as an email delivery expert to walk you through your launch. You’ll answer a few questions about your goals and preferences, and we'll do the heavy lifting for you. 

Regardless of what email platform you’re using, give your domain, your branding and configuration the setup it deserves. Happy sending!

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Jonathan Winters
Written by Jonathan Winters
Have an email problem that needs solving or BBQ that needs smoking? Say hello to Jonathan Winters, System Administrator extraordinaire.

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