Email Authentication 101: Everything You Should Know
Email authentication covers everything, including security, reputation, email deliverability, and conversions–things you, as a marketer, definitely care about.
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You send brilliant emails to your perfectly qualified list and yet, over 30% of your emails don’t get delivered. They either end up in junk or bulk email folders or get blocked by an internet service provider (ISP) altogether.
Why is that happening?
There’s something that goes beyond your email content and design, but fully impacts your email deliverability—it’s email authentication.
No, email authentication isn’t just dull stuff for paranoid tech-savvy admins. Nor is it a new fad engineered to make you buy new tools or get more work done. The core of email authentication pertains to security, reputation, email deliverability, and conversions—things you, as a marketer, definitely care about.
What is Email Authentication?
Email authentication is a technical solution that verifies the sender’s authenticity. Whenever you send an email, it’s there to verify that you’re really you. Сustomer interaction is definitely a big deal for your marketing efforts. However, at the end of the day, it’s the machine that decides whether your emails will be successfully delivered to your subscribers.
If you want to improve customer confidence in your emails and preserve email as a valuable marketing communications tool for yourself, email authentication is must-have.
For an awesome email authentication tool that’s currently in the AppSumo store, check out KDMARC. It’s an email authentication and anti-spoofing tool designed to help you secure and enhance outbound mail ﬂow. You can get lifetime access for just $59.
How Does Email Authentication Work?
Ever wonder what happens to your email once you click send?
Imagine you’re expecting a UPS delivery and you hear the doorbell ring. Who would you more likely trust? Some guy in a bathrobe holding a torn up box or an employee in uniform who arrived in a branded truck? The answer should be obvious.
The same goes for your subscribers’ inboxes. The delivery person represents your email and the incoming email server acts as the lock on your door, “deciding” whether to give your email a pass or boot it out.
So where does email authentication play into this analogy? It’s the branded truck and uniform, giving your emails credibility and making them look trustworthy in the eyes of the receiving email servers.
Why All The Fuss?
Highway robbers attacking mailcoaches have always been there. Nowadays, we call these mail hijackers cybercriminals. Spam and malware go hand in hand because email provides a convenient way to reach victims on a global scale. It’s remarkably easy to fake an email from almost anyone—especially email headers, including the “From” and “Reply to” lines.
The number of cyberattacks across the world is only increasing by the day. Spammers and phishers are getting smarter and their tools and tricks, more sophisticated. Statistically, approximately 53% of all emails sent worldwide consist of spam.
According to the FBI, the estimated monetary harm from one type of phishing attack is around $3 billion collectively per year.
Take the story of MacEwan University. The institution transferred $11.8 million to a bank account that belonged to hackers in Canada and Hong Kong, believing they were paying fees to their known reliable vendor.
Many companies fall victim to phishers every year. And there’s no guarantee that cybercriminals aren’t targeting you right now.
To safeguard your company’s reputation and ensure security, you’ve got to apply an authentication protocol. Prevention is better than finding a cure.
The Core of Email Authentication
SMTP, the basic protocol for sending emails, does not provide any mechanisms for sender identification or domain validation. That’s why additional methods of email authentication were designed to step up SMTP.
Here are the three most common standards that help filter the wheat from the chaff: SPF, DKIM, and DMARC.
All three of these standards address complementary aspects of email authentication. In a nutshell:
- SPF (Sender Policy Framework) is a record of the authorized IP address
- DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail) checks the message using cryptographic authentication
- DMARC is everything rolled into one. It ensures that the “header from” address is credible.
You may be wondering, “Do I need all three or is one enough?”
Well, in this case, the more the better. It is really the best practice to set up multiple methods and regularly track their effect on your emails.
To be able to apply them effectively, let’s take a closer look at how each of these standards works to protect you and your customers from email spoofers.
The first attempt in securing your emails is to use SPF.
It’s a simple TXT file, where you specify the list of IP addresses (mail servers) that can send emails from your domain. When an email arrives at a server, SPF performs a quick check and says, “Hey, if the email isn’t from one of these servers that I’ve listed here, then it’s being spoofed.”
Think of SPF as the bouncer at a VIP event. If someone’s not on the list, they’re not getting in.
SPF is the most widespread standard that immediately increases the chances of valid email delivery. However, it still doesn’t guarantee that your message will pass authentication. You’ll need to involve the other methods.
DKIM is another effort you can use to cut down on the number of spoofed emails.
DomainKeys Identified Mail uses cryptography to check whether an email was modified on its way to an inbox. Practically, it operates on the “lock-and-key” principle.
DKIM starts by providing the sender with a private cryptographic key. Every time a user of a DKIM domain sends an email, the email server uses the private key to create a digital signature of that email and then encodes the header of the message. From there, the receiving email server compares the signature in the header with that key. If they don’t align, then the email has likely been spoofed. Recipients are able to open these emails via a public key hosted on the DNS server.
While any recipient can see the email message, only someone with a private key can send it from that address (DKIM is unique for each domain). It’s pretty much like an old-timey wax seal used to protect letters from forgery.
However, DKIM doesn’t tell a server how to handle failed matches, so it only offers one aspect of phishing prevention. This is why the best practice is still to combine with SPF and DMARC.
DMARC is the most sophisticated method out of the three standards.
It builds upon earlier efforts by SPF and DKIM, but also adds extra opportunities like reporting, policy definition, and identity alignment.
DMARC performs SPF and/or DKIM tests, and then runs an additional alignment check. You should have at least SPF or DKIM set up for DMARC—but to be safe, it’s always better to have both present. That way, you can use DMARC to its full potential and rest assured that your emails are secure.
DMARC also provides instructions on how to treat unauthentic messages that appear to be sent from your domain. Another useful feature of DMARC is that you can track failures via performance reports and set up specific policies.
Additionally, the email sender can instruct the recipient on how to handle messages that fail the DMARC authentication test.
Overall, DMARC brings a human touch to the authentication system, ensuring a way more flexible process while still preserving security.
Email Authentication and Email Deliverability
When people first hear about email authentication, they usually think it’s not a big deal. Hopefully, you’re starting to see why it’s so crucial!
Technical issues can have an immense impact on many critical marketing metrics. As we mentioned in the beginning, email authentication also covers domain reputation, customer engagement and acquisition, open rates, and conversions.
That’s because email authentication and email deliverability go hand-in-hand. Deliverability is the grand metric that deals with the question, “Do my emails reach subscribers’ inboxes?”
If you want the answer to be yes,then you should carefully monitor your emails to ensure that they’re not marked as spam or bounced. Most times, basic deliverability issues are solved by using a credible tool. Still, it’s not a 100% guarantee.
How Can Customer Engagement Be Affected?
Without email authentication, you’re missing out on a major aspect of engaging your audience. And without emails being delivered… well, say goodbye to that pristine email content you worked so hard on!
More importantly, an email deliverability issue means low ROI on your efforts, a faulty marketing strategy, and lost revenue for your business. Not ideal.
That’s why if you want to drive your emails directly to your clients’ inboxes without fear, set up those SPF, DKIM, and DMARC records!
If correctly implemented, all three basic authentication methods will improve email deliverability and positively influence customer engagement.
Don’t forget to check out the KDMARC lifetime deal for an easy way to implement SPF, DKIM, and DMARC records.
36% of businesses report that email remains the most important channel of communication with their customers. And if you’re among those businesses, you can’t afford for your emails not to be delivered. Email authentication is something definitely worth prioritizing—it’s easy to set up and easy to manage with massive payoffs.
If you want to explore more software and stand out from your competitors, check out the AppSumo store!
Dmytro Zaichenko is a Marketing Specialist at Mailtrap, a product that helps test emails at the developmental stages. He has more than 5 years of experience in creating content. Apart from writing, he’s a huge NBA fan. Connect with Dmytro on LinkedIn!