Are seed lists still relevant?


Those of you who have seen some of my talks have seen this model of email delivery before. The concept is that there are a host of factors that contribute to the reputation of a particular email, but that at many ISPs the email reputation is only one factor in email delivery. Recipient preferences drive whether an email ends up in the bulk folder or the inbox.

The individual recipient preferences can be explicit or implicit. Users who add a sender to their address book, or block a sender, or create a specific filter for an email are stating an explicit preference. Additionally, ISPs monitor some user behavior to determine how wanted an email is. A recipient who moves an email from the bulk folder to the inbox is stating a preference. A person who hits “this-is-spam” is stating a preference. Other actions are also measured to give a user specific reputation for a mail.
Seed accounts aren’t like normal accounts. They don’t send mail ever. They only download it. They don’t ever dig anything out of the junk folder, they never hit this is spam. They are different than a user account – and ISPs can track this.
This tells us we have to take inbox monitoring tools with a grain of salt. I believe, though, they’re still valuable tools in the deliverability arsenal. The best use of these tools is monitoring for changes. If seed lists show less than 100% inbox, but response rates are good, then it’s unlikely the seed boxes are correctly reporting delivery to actual recipients. But if seed lists show 100% inbox and then change and go down, then that’s the time to start looking harder at the overall program.
The other time seed lists are useful is when troubleshooting delivery. It’s nice to be able to see if changes are making a difference in delivery. Again, the results aren’t 100% accurate but they are the best we have right now.

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  • I think seeds are still quite relevant. They don’t interact with messages — but neither do a majority of subscribers. You’re still measuring the default state of how that message passes through an unpersonalized filter.
    It’s not the only measure. It’s just one of them. It goes hand in hand with things like your open rate and click rate. And panel data, if the seedlist partner has that.
    But even with those considerations in mind, I’m hard pressed to think of an example where seedlist data is “wrong” compared to overall deliverability for that send at that ISP. Does it happen? Sure, it probably does happen. But it strikes me as probably quite rare.

  • Sven is from Sweden. He likes hockey and drives a Volvo. All male Swedes like hockey and drive Volvos. If one believes in such logic, then inbox placement might still have relevance and value as a deliverability or quality-oriented metric.
    The reality is that a delivery result related to one ISP user can be completely different than to the next recipient. Unless being calculated by a Hillary Clinton pollster, any definitive ISP-specific delivery result trend per traditional (and at this point, antiquated) “inbox placement” metrics cannot be accurately calculated. Gmail is a perfect example. An inbox tab v. spam placement result can vary greatly, mostly based on the extent of the recipient’s recent interaction with the sending entity (and assuming authentication has been enabled properly). Even if you note something as “TINS”, Gmail may still supersede your decision for a while until it relents.
    But what about panel data? Isn’t it the Holy Grail of inbox behavior measurement? Still vastly incomplete. It’s calculated using mostly non-primary email accounts. Proponents will say that statistically significant usage patterns can still be gleaned. However, the ways in which people use a primary and secondary email account are often quite different. A bit like someone asking your 2nd cousin (who you only see once a year) about your current likes and beliefs. Sure they “know” some basic things you, however certainly not enough to comment about such specifics with any degree of conviction.

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