Young Asian woman sitting at desk and working at computer, learning about the difference between a hard vs soft bounce in email marketing

The Difference Between Hard Bounces and Soft Bounces in Email – Plus 9 Ways to Reduce Them

Learn the difference between hard bounces and soft bounces in email marketing, so you can protect your sender reputation and land your emails in the inbox.

When you send an email, you hope it’ll reach every one of your recipients. But that isn’t always the case.

Some emails land in spam, while others bounce, meaning they never reach your target audience.

Did you know that 31 billion emails bounce every day?

Bounces tarnish your sender reputation and ability to arrive in the inbox. But hard bounces and soft bounces affect your email deliverability in different ways. 

So, let’s try to understand the difference between the two.

What is a soft vs. hard email bounce?

When an email bounces, it means it did not get delivered to the recipient. The problem could be on either the recipient’s end or yours.

Additionally, bounces can either be temporary or permanent.

If an email bounces due to a temporary issue, it’s a soft bounce. When an email bounces for permanent reasons, it’s a hard bounce.

Both soft and hard email bounces will affect your email deliverability. Regardless of the type of bounce, keep your bounce rates below 2% to prevent your email campaigns from going to spam.

Hard bounce vs. soft bounce: breaking it down

You now know the basic difference between a hard bounce and a soft bounce. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Let’s look at each one in detail.

Why do emails hard bounce?

Hard bounces indicate a permanent issue with the email address you’re trying to reach. Here are some of the reasons why a hard email bounce could occur:

  • The email address is invalid – due to either a mistype or fake email address.
  • The email address is not in use anymore – it may have been abandoned and deactivated or deleted.
  • The email server on the recipient’s end has blocked your delivery.
Screenshot of a hard bounce email showing that the email address was not found
This is an example of a hard bounce email. Notice that Gmail also pointed out the bounce reason, specifying that the email account doesn’t exist.

“With hard bounces, the course of action is plain and simple: remove them right away,” says ZeroBounce’s Deliverability Team Leader Vlad Stoian.

Some email service providers (ESPs), like Mailchimp and HubSpot, will remove hard bounced emails from your database. That way, you can’t email them again.

“The downside, though, is that the damage is already done,” Vlad adds. “ESPs cannot predict which emails will bounce. Cleaning them after they bounce helps your future campaigns, but why risk getting bounces in the first place?”

The email deliverability pro advises:

“When your sender reputation is at stake, letting your ESP deal with your bounces isn’t enough. As a sender, it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re reaching out only to genuine email addresses.”

The best way to go about that is to remove invalid and fake emails before they can bounce and hurt your sender reputation. It takes only minutes for an email verifier like ZeroBounce to check your contacts and help you prevent hard bounces.

Try the ZeroBounce free email verifier

Why do emails soft bounce?

When your emails soft bounce, it means they haven’t reached your recipient’s inbox – but they might after several retries. Think of these emails as being somewhere in limbo. Some may make it to the mailbox, others will end up hard bouncing.

Screenshot of a soft bounce email showing that the recipient server did not accept the email
This is an example of a soft bounce email. Notice that Gmail says it will retry to deliver this email for 47 more hours. If Gmail fails to deliver it during that timeframe, it will convert this soft bounce into a hard bounce.

Here are some of the reasons your email could soft bounce:

  • The recipient’s email is full.
  • Your file may have been too large.
  • Possible server outages on either end.
  • The mailbox you’re trying to reach is inactive.
  • The domain name does not exist.
  • The recipient has spam filters that are blocking your email.
  • The recipient’s email has been suspended.
  • Your emails were reported as spam way too many times.
  • You do not meet the Domain-based Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) policy

How to handle soft email bounces

As opposed to hard bounces, soft bounces are tricky as they can convert into permanent bounces. That’s why you must monitor these addresses carefully.

Find out how many soft bounces your ESP allows

When an email soft bounces, your ESP will retry to deliver it over a period of two to three days. Each ESP has its own rules to determine when a soft bounce becomes a hard bounce.

For instance, Mailchimp will allow seven soft bounces for an email address with no previous subscriber activity before turning it into a hard bounce. For contacts who’ve engaged with your emails before, Mailchimp will allow 15 soft bounces. Contact your ESP to find out about its rules.

Soft bounces also affect your sender reputation

While soft email bounces are less harmful than hard bounces, soft bounce will still taint your sender reputation.

“Most ESPs calculate and score their individual reputations by your overall bounce rate, combining soft and hard bounces into a single metric,” says ZeroBounce Deliverability Specialist Andrei Ion.

“So, while by themselves they’re less of a threat, a high soft bounce rate can add to sender-specific reputation risks as they inflate your overall bounce rate.”

9 ways to reduce your email bounce rate

Tracking your bounce rate keeps you up to date with your email marketing performance. And reducing it can help you leverage your marketing budget effectively. 

Here are nine tactics you can use to do so.

#1. Build your email list responsibly

Building your own email list takes time and consistent effort. However, businesses do it because it pays. Your audience is familiar with your company and will engage with your emails, which is vital to your email deliverability.

So, avoid purchasing an email list and ask permission from every new subscriber you add. That way, you’ll build your email marketing program on a solid foundation.

#2. Use double opt-in

You can require your email subscribers to confirm their email addresses during sign-up. This is the double opt-in email subscription method.

With the double opt-in option, your subscribers will have to verify their emails before they’re added to your email list. This ensures that you’ve got legitimate emails and that your users are genuinely interested in signing up to your email list.

All you have to do is enable double opt-in in your lead gen platform.

Screenshot of a double opt-in confirmation email from Wincher
When you enable double opt-in, your new subscribers will get an email list this, prompting them to click a link and confirm they’d like to receive emails from you.

Single opt-in is an easier procedure that helps you build your email list faster. However, it also comes with the risk of higher bounce rates as the owners of those email addresses won’t confirm subscription.

Although it adds an extra step to the subscription process, double opt-in helps you build a healthier email list and will support your deliverability. You’ll have more confidence in the leads you gather, and people who double opt-in are more likely to engage with your emails.

#3. Actively manage your email list

To prevent hard bounces and repetitive soft bounces, you need to clean up your email list regularly. If you keep sending emails to unreachable recipients, it may put you in your Internet service provider’s bad books. As a result, they may flag your emails as spam

Screenshot of email validation results from ZeroBounce customer Image Source
ZeroBounce customer Bruce Herwig of Image Source found that more than 1,000 of his email contacts were invalid and would have bounced. Make sure to scrub bad emails off your list before they can bounce.

So, try to be proactive in identifying your invalid contacts. Some users change their email addresses over time or just stop using them. It’s important to spot these and update or remove them.

Start a ZeroBounce account and reduce bounces in minutes

If some recipients never open your emails for other reasons, you need to also remove them from your list.

Removing emails may seem like a setback but it is not. As much as the focus is on building your email list, your reach and conversions are more important. Inactive or unreachable emails impede these efforts.

Bonus tip: New subscribers can use the latest QR code technology to convert your email address, subject line and message into QR code. It automatically removes the risk of entering wrong email addresses.

#4. Use an email validation API

If you scrub your email list consistently, you’re less likely to get hard or soft bounces. But did you know you can go a step further and check all your new leads in real time – before they get on your list?

An email validation API is easy to connect to your sign-up forms and will check each new contact as it’s typed in. If someone makes a typo, the API will automatically suggest a correction, prompting the person to input a correct email address.

That’s not all: ZeroBounce’s real-time email verification API detects more than 30 types of undesirable email addresses. Adding it to your forms allows you to stay on top of your email list hygiene and avoid hard and soft bounces.

Learn more about our email verification API

#5. Be consistent with your emails

Once you have subscribers on your email list, ensure that your brand remains at the top of their minds. 

If people never receive emails from you, they’re likely to forget your brand. Worse still, when you do email them, they may report you as spam, further affecting your sender reputation and inbox reach.

Having regular communication with your audience also helps build a personal relationship with them and increases their chances of opening your emails. Showing up consistently is a good way to boost your open rates.

#6. Get a domain-based email service

Emails sent via a free service, such as Gmail or Yahoo, rarely meet requirements set by DMARC. This makes them more likely to bounce. So, there’s no denying, email addresses associated with a company domain are better.

When you send emails from a business domain, you’re boosting your brand authority and look more professional.

#7. Segment your email list

Segmenting your database ensures your emails go to the most relevant audience. Use audience demographics, purchase history and interests to split your list into segments. Then, craft more targeted messaging for them. 

As a result, your soft bounce rates decrease as your audience will find your emails relevant. They won’t block your emails or report them as spam.

You can also group your emails according to your audiences’ engagement. So, when you’re skeptical about your subscribers’ response, you can put them in a different segment.

This makes it easier to filter out hard bounces and soft bounces and improve your deliverability.

#8. Avoid spammy language

According to research, spam accounted for 45.37% of emails sent in 2021. Email service providers thus have protocols in place to filter out spam.

To avoid having your emails sent to spam, avoid using:

  • excessive use of the dollar sign ($$)
  • too many exclamation marks
  • words like sale, make money now, free offer and similar spam-like language

Such overly promotional copy signals spam and it can increase your soft bounce rates.

Bonus tip: If you’re conducting a cold email campaign, add a professional email signature to your email. Use email signature generators to create a great email signature.

#9. Use a good CAPTCHA system on sign-up forms

You can optimize your email sign-up form to reduce hard bounces and soft bounces by adding a CAPTCHA system.

This helps prevent fake email signups by bots. Having a good CAPTCHA system ensures only those who genuinely want to subscribe to your emails do so.

Track your soft bounces and hard bounces

It’s critical to track your email bounce rate regularly to understand if your efforts are paying off or not. If you haven’t managed to reduce your bounce rate, double down on your email tracking to ensure that your email list is clean. 

Finally, get some neutral third-parties to read your emails before you send them. Then, ask them for honest feedback to understand if they appear spammy. Incorporating this small step can go a long way in reducing your hard and soft bounce rates.

Author: Gaurav Sharma is the founder and CEO of Attrock, a results-driven digital marketing company. He grew an agency from 5-figure to 7-figure revenue in just two years; 10X leads; 2.8X conversions; 300K organic monthly traffic. He also contributes to top publications like HuffPost, Adweek, Business 2 Community, TechCrunch and more.

Frequently asked questions about hard email bounces vs. soft bounces

What is a hard bounce vs. soft bounce?

A hard bounce is when an email fails to reach a mailbox because of a permanent issue, while a soft bounce is when your email doesn’t get delivered due to a temporary problem. Soft bounces can turn into hard bounces and affect your sender reputation and email deliverability.

What is a hard email bounce?

A hard email bounce is when an email fails to reach a mailbox due to a permanent issue. The email address you’re trying to reach may be invalid, it may have been deactivated or deleted, or the mailbox may have blocked your delivery.

What is a soft email bounce?

A soft email bounce is when an email cannot be delivered due to a temporary problem. The recipient’s mailbox may be full, the server may be down or the recipient has spam filters that are blocking your email.

Should I remove soft bounce emails?

Soft bounces should be monitored closely. Your email service provider will retry to reach thar mailbox. If it fails, it will convert that soft bounce into a hard bounce. It’s best to remove soft bounces from your email list if they bounce several times as those email addresses may be inactive.

Do soft bounces affect sender reputation?

Soft bounces can affect your sender reputation and email deliverability. Sending emails to inactive and unengaged email contacts will cause your engagement rates to drop. Your emails may thus start going to the spam folder.

What is a good email bounce rate?

The accepted email bounce rate is lower than 2%. When your bounce rate is higher than 2%, your sender reputation takes a hit and your emails can land in spam.