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How Email Actually Gets From You to Your Subscriber

July 27, 2011  

"Before I started my career in email delivery," writes Art Quanstrom at the Emma blog, "I imagined sending emails looked like some sort of Rube Goldberg Machine: a bowling ball rolling down a track, opening a door that pushes a knife into a string, releasing a mouse that takes the cheese off of a scale, which then unweights and causes a small explosion … to propel said email to the other side of the Internet."

We might chuckle at the low-tech visual, but Quanstrom says it's not a bad way to envision the actual complicated process of sending your offer or newsletter to a subscriber. He maps out the typical route:

  • First, your email service provider (ESP) formats your message and sends it to a mailer (MTA). The MTA adds header information about the sender (RSVP address), the ESP (IP address) and the recipient (email address).
  • Next, the MTA connects with the MX record for the DNS of the domain (e.g., gmail, or companyname) to which you're sending. "A domain's DNS is a one-stop location that other machines use to communicate with the domain's various servers, and the MX record is there to process any incoming mail,"  he notes.
  • If no connection can be made, it might indicate a permanent issue (e.g., the domain doesn't exist) or a temporary issue (e.g., a bad connection).
  • A successful connection triggers the four-step Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) process: 1) Identifying the sending and receiving servers; 2) Identifying your RSVP address; 3) Identifying the recipient's email address; and 4) Transferring the data.

Now, that's a strong argument for keeping your email lists clean.


The Po!nt: Consider the long and winding road. Sending a marketing message from Point A to Point B might take only a few seconds—but its journey is anything but simple.

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  • by rgreenfield Fri Jul 29, 2011 via web

    Assuming I don't get a hard/soft bounce notification, is there any way to know e-mail sent through an ESP reached the Inbox if it isn't opened? What are some of the possible paths a message could follow once an email reaches the intended server (spam filter, address valid but not active, etc.).

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