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Updated Oct 23, 2023

Hard vs. Soft Email Bounces: What They Are and How to Avoid Them

A hard bounce means an email can't be delivered for permanent reasons, while a soft bounce indicates a temporary issue. Learn the differences between the two and how to minimize bounces.

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Jamie Johnson, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
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Editor Reviewed
This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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When you get started with email marketing, you’ll realize there’s an entirely new language to learn. Email marketing comes with its own terminology, and each phrase means something different for your business.

One of the most common terms you’ll hear about email marketing is “bounced email.” Let’s look more closely at what a bounced email is, why hard and soft bounces happen, and how to avoid this common email marketing mistake.

What is a bounced email?

If one of your emails bounced, it wasn’t delivered to the intended recipient. The email was rejected by the mail server, either temporarily or permanently. When this happens, you’ll typically receive an auto-response letting you know the email bounced. 

There are a few reasons why bounced emails happen. Sometimes it’s because a subscriber gave you an incorrect email address. Emails can also bounce due to server outages or because the recipient’s inbox is full.

Editor’s note: Looking for the right email marketing solution for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

A bounced email can also indicate that there’s a problem on your end. For instance, it could mean that you’ve been flagged as spam one too many times or have a restrictive DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance) record, and your email doesn’t pass the DMARC policy

Here is the formula used to track your email bounce rate:

(Bounced emails ÷ Total emails sent) x 100 = Your email bounce rate

Did You Know?Did you know
While a certain number of bounced emails is inevitable, a high bounce rate could indicate a problem. On average, your bounce rate should be less than 2%, but the lower, the better.

Soft bounce vs. hard bounce

Your email bounce rate is a way to gauge the health of your email marketing list. While an email might bounce for different reasons, these differences are usually defined as either a soft or a hard bounce. Let’s look at the main difference between a soft bounce vs. a hard bounce.

Hard bounce

A hard bounce is an email that can’t be delivered for permanent reasons. This is usually because the recipient’s address is invalid or no longer in use. 

The subscriber could have mistyped their email address, or the domain may not exist. Hard bounces are a problem because they can hurt your email deliverability rate and sender reputation. 

Soft bounce

A soft bounce is an email that wasn’t delivered due to a temporary problem. Soft bounces can happen because the recipient’s inbox is full or due to an issue with the receiving server.

Since a soft bounce is temporary, you can retry the email a few times. If the email still fails to deliver, consider it a hard bounce and remove that subscriber from your list. 

How to improve your email bounce rate

It’s helpful to track your email bounce rate, but the most important thing you can do is fix the problems causing a high bounce rate. Here are nine steps to reduce your email bounce rate:

1. Require a double opt-in.

One of the best ways to improve the quality of your email list is to require a double opt-in for new subscribers. With a single opt-in system, new subscribers are added to your list immediately after entering their email address in an online signup form.  

A double opt-in requires a subscriber to enter their email address and then receive an email with a link. Once they click on the link and verify their email address, they’ll be added to your list.

Some businesses resist implementing a double opt-in because it takes longer to build a contact list. But if your subscribers verify their email addresses, you’ll have a higher deliverability rate and a more engaged list. 

2. Clean up your list regularly.

High bounce rates typically happen because your list is too cluttered. You may have started building your list years ago. In that time, many of your subscribers have moved on and gotten new email addresses.

That’s why it’s essential to maintain and update your email list regularly. A simple data check will help you weed out incorrect email addresses due to typos or misspellings. It’s also a good idea to periodically check your feedback loops and remove any subscribers who complain about you or report you as spam.

Every so often, go through your list and remove inactive subscribers. Removing subscribers can feel counterintuitive, but if a subscriber never opens your emails anyway, why would you want them on your list? Removing inactive subscribers ensures that your list stays healthy and that you’re only sending emails to individuals who want to receive them. 

3. Don’t send emails from a free service.

Never send marketing emails from a free email service, such as Gmail. For one thing, sending business emails from a free email account looks unprofessional and can hurt your brand.

The other issue is that free email domains often don’t pass the DMARC policy, so you’ll likely experience more hard bounces on your emails. Send emails from a custom email address instead. 

4. Send emails consistently.

One of the best ways to maintain a low bounce rate is by emailing your list consistently. If new subscribers sign up and then don’t hear from you for months, they may forget they subscribed in the first place and mark your emails as spam.

To avoid this, send an email to your subscribers at least once a week. Consistent contact will keep them engaged and ensure that you continue building a relationship with your subscribers.

If inboxing is an important factor to you for comparing email marketing service providers, then read our Constant Contact review. Both offer robust reporting that can provide insights into how you inbox.

5. Verify your domain.

DMARC, SPF and DKIM are the three primary ways to authenticate your domain. But according to a Litmus study, fewer than 40% of companies actually complete the authentication process. 

Authenticating your domain will lower your email bounce rate and improve your deliverability rate. It will also prevent security alerts from popping up when subscribers open your emails. 

6. Avoid spammy language in your emails.

This point may sound obvious, but it’s possible you’re using spammy language in your emails without realizing it. That’s because email providers look for specific words, images and phrases to label emails as spam. 

For instance, if you regularly include the following phrases that make your email look like spam, your emails may go straight to the junk folder:

  • “50% off”
  • “Act now!”
  • “Free offer”
  • “Make money”
  • “Drastically reduced”

Any excessive use of the dollar sign will also likely flag your email as spam.

7. Segment your list.

It’s not enough to build an email list; you must get to know your audience and send personalized, relevant content. According to an Experian study, personalized emails are six times more effective than generic emails. 

The easiest way to deliver personalized content is to segment your subscriber list. Group subscribers based on factors like their locations, interests and preferences, then send each segment emails that are relevant to them. 

If you're new to segmenting your subscriber list, it's OK to start small. For instance, you can start by segmenting your customers based on the types of products they've bought or how long they've been customers.

8. Monitor your email deliverability.

Just because something is working well for you now doesn’t mean it will continue to work. That’s why it’s essential to monitor your email campaigns and deliverability rate continually. 

Continue A/B testing your emails so you’re aware of the type of content that resonates with your subscribers. Keep an eye on your bounce rates, open rates, and the number of subscribers who have complained or marked you as spam.

If you keep track of these metrics, you can spot and address issues early on before they turn into significant problems.  

9. Use a preference center.

As your email list grows, it will be harder to manage your subscribers and ensure their information is up to date. At that point, you might want to add a preference center link to your emails.

A preference center is a place where your subscribers can add new information and update their email preferences. This ensures your data is accurate, and it gives your subscribers more control over the emails they receive and the information they share with you.

A basic preference center will give subscribers the option to update their email address, choose how often they want to receive your emails, and opt out of receiving emails. You can also add advanced options like the ability to include information about a user’s personal preferences. 

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
While email marketing offers many benefits to a small business, too many bounced emails mean your marketing list is unhealthy. Reduce your email bounce rate to improve customer engagement and successful outcomes.

Growing a healthy email list is an essential part of building your business. Email is one of the most effective marketing strategies available and has an incredibly high ROI.

However, you don’t want to do the hard work of building an email list only to end up with a high bounce rate. There’s no way to prevent bounced emails entirely, but you can limit the number of hard bounces you experience.

Focus on regularly removing inactive subscribers from your list and maintaining personalized and consistent contact with your subscribers. If you do that, you should be able to keep your bounce rate below 2% and experience all the benefits email marketing has to offer. 

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Jamie Johnson, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
For more than five years, Jamie Johnson has been guiding business owners on financial matters both big and small. This includes investment advice, insights on business loans and funding options, recommendations on insurance and more. Johnson excels at delivering easy-to-understand direction so entrepreneurs can make the best financial decisions for their businesses and, as a solopreneur herself, she regularly tests business strategies and services. Johnson's expertise can be found in a variety of finance publications, including InvestorPlace, Credit Karma, Insurify and Rocket Mortgage. She has also demonstrated a deep understanding of other B2B topics — including sales, payroll, marketing and social media — for the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. News & World Report, CNN, USA Today and Business Insider.
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