When sending outbound cold email to your target audience, our goal is to achieve engagement with every mail we send. Sometimes this feels extremely challenging when, over time, open rates fall and emails end up being delivered to the junk folder. Everyone offers advice about warming up your email or following a hack or two to get your domain back on track, but these rarely work. It's also not just about how to write good content as many email marketers think.

So how can we avoid the junk folder?

I would like to say it’s simple (in fact quite a lot of the steps are simple) but in reality it comes down to taking extra care when setting up our domain for cold outreach compared to warm outreach.

Let’s start with the domain itself.

You need a dedicated domain, just for cold outreach.  If your business already has and uses a domain name for your main business emails then do not use this one.  Your best bet is to order a new domain, preferably the same as your main business domain but with a different ending (known as the TLD, or domain extension).  As an example, if your main business email uses the domain “name.com” then consider using name.net or name.biz.

But, this is where it gets tricky.

If you buy a new domain, do not use it for email for at least 3 months.  A lot of spam is sent from newly registered domains, and many mailbox providers will therefore block or mark as junk anything that comes from a new domain within the first 90 days of registration.  Instead, buy the domain and shelve it for 3 months.  Patience is key here.

Before we stop for three months though, there are a few tasks we can do now whilst we wait.  We need to add the domain to a mailbox provider so that we are able to receive inbound email.  You need to set up an email address, preferably a person’s name (does not necessarily need to be genuine) rather than something generic, like sales@ or info@.  Then, sign up to a few newsletters (around 8 to 10 will do) with this new email address so that you have some inbound activity.  

Importantly though, don’t send any outbound email from this mailbox until 90 days have passed.  If your domain is older than 90 days then you don’t need to wait as the risk period would have passed.

Next, signup to an Email Service Provider (if you plan on sending more than 100 emails per day), alternatively you may be able to use the mailbox provider (depending on the sending limits of your mailbox provider).  If you use an ESP, make sure you assign a dedicated IP and check the reputation of the assigned IP here.  The IP also needs to have a reverse PTR.  This is technical, but just make sure that you check this with the ESP and add the correct records to your domain’s DNS records. 

Once this is complete, make sure you add an SPF record to your domain’s DNS. List out the include statement from your mailbox provider and ESP (if using one). For example:

“V=spf1 include:spf.mailbox.com include:spf.esp.com -all”

An SPF statement should reference all your outbound providers and must end with a -all.  You will need to get the exact include statements from each provider (mailbox and ESP).  You can have as many include statements as you like, but be careful of the rule of 10 limitation.  This is where you can only have a total of 10 DNS lookups within an SPF record.  Each include (and its child includes) use up a lookup.  You can use this tool to check you are inside this limitation once your SPF record is published. 

With each provider, make sure all outbound email is DKIM signed.  You will have to host some records in your domain DNS for this, so make sure you add them as per your mailbox and/or ESP exact instructions.

Our aim here is to make sure we have a valid SPF record and all outbound email DKIM signed.  Then we can add a DMARC record to your domain DNS with a policy of “reject”.  It is also important you sign up for a DMARC reporting parse tool, and include their reporting email in your DMARC record.  DMARC reports will tell us how much of our outbound email is passing SPF and DKIM and therefore passing DMARC.

An example DMARC record looks like this:

“v=DMARC1; p=reject; rua=mailto:dmarc_rua@guruprotect.net; ruf=mailto:dmarc_ruf@guruprotect.net; fo=1; rf=afrf;”

Notice: a DMARC record is different to an SPF statement in that each tag ends with a ; and DMARC is in capitals.  There is also a mailto: in front of any email address.

We need all outbound email to be passing DMARC (with a reject policy) in order to help us get into the inbox and not the junk folder.

But why is DMARC important?

It comes down to Spoofing.  When you have a DMARC policy of quarantine or better (best practice is reject) and all your email passes with SPF or DKIM then your domain is protected from Spoofing.  Spoofing is where someone can send email using your domain without your knowledge.  If you don’t have a DMARC policy in place, this can happen.  Mailbox providers will mark down the domain reputation where spoofing is allowed as they cannot tell legitimate email from that which is spoofed, so the whole domain reputation suffers as a result.   Therefore, adding a DMARC policy and ensuring SPF & DKIM passes, your domain reputation will be greatly enhanced with mailbox providers as a result.  Most marketeers do not go to these lengths to lock down their domains, so you will put yourself out front by adding a DMARC policy.

You can check you have the records correctly added to your domain’s DNS using this tool.

Now we wait until 3 months have passed.

At last, we can start to send emails.  At this stage, you could use a warmup service to slowly build up the number of emails sent from your domain over a 4 week period, but I don’t recommend them.  Warmup services try to trick the mailbox providers in to believing you are sending legitimate conversational emails (which they love) and I believe they will catch on to this in the coming year.  

Instead, the best warm up method is manual.  You have already had to wait 3 months so spending a little bit of extra time at this stage will pay dividends for your sending reputation.  

For the first week, start by sending emails to friends and family and ask them to reply, mark as important and forward onto other friends and family.  What you are looking for is around 10-20 emails over a 7 day period, that have replies and conversational chains (multiple replies) as well as some forwards.  You can forward some of the newsletters you received for this purpose as well.  

Then for the next 3 weeks, slowly increase the number of people you engage with by 10 a week.  This may seem like a lot, but by week 4, this is only 40 people and often everyone has more than one email account so in reality it may only be around 20 people.  Getting together with others who are at a similar stage in email marketing groups on social media can help here as well.

During this time, monitor your DMARC reporting to make sure email is passing SPF and DKIM (DKIM is the most important if you can only get one to work).   If you are using a dedicated IP, sign up to a monitoring service to alert you if it or your domain gets added to any blocklists.

After 4 weeks of warmup, you are ready to start sending to your email list.  The key is to start with very small numbers and ask for a reply to your email rather than clicking a CTA link. This way you can keep engagement high by having a 2-way conversation with your lead.  Writing good content and providing value is key at this stage to ensure that your open rates, and response rates are high.  I personally like the approach of adding 3 numbered statements and asking for a reply of either 1, 2 or 3 matching the statement that resonates the most.

Keep increasing your emails by no more than 20 a day for the first 4 weeks.  Slow and steady is the key here.

If your open rates drop it's likely that you are hitting the junk folder, so stop all cold emails and go back to your manual warmup for at least two weeks.  Domain reputation is dynamic and so will recover.  Always make sure you are checking your DMARC reports and your sending IP is not appearing on any blocklists.  You can use this tool to check your sending IP is not on any blocklists.

Now go back to the start and register another domain.  It’s always good to have 3 or 4 domains you can rotate and use at different times.  Just make sure you follow this setup guide for each one.


Nick Butcher is founder of GURU 360, and a self confessed email nerd. GURU 360 is a suite of products to help protect, maintain and monitor email domains. One product, GURU Deliver provides an automated tool for adding, tracking and maintaining SPF, DKIM and DMARC records on multiple domains without the need for constant DNS changes. Backed up with its unique reporting engine (DMARC report parsing) which helps you make sense of what is happening with your outbound email domains. You can find out more about this product and email deliverability in general by visiting www.gurudeliver.io.

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