I hosted a session at #15NTC a month ago in Austin on email deliverability, and since this is such an important topic for campaigns and non-profits alike I wanted to do an updated blog post on it with tips. Deliverability is an issue affecting nearly every campaign and organization to some degree. Still, many have no idea there’s even a problem with their mass email communication. Without recognizing the issue, they aren’t able to defend against it.
If your email program breaks out statistics by Internet service provider (ISP), you can see if there’s a problem from a sudden drop off in deliverability. But in general, you can keep an eye on overall open and click rates, and pay attention if they suddenly nose dive. (What’s a good/healthy rate? Check out the M+R E-Benchmarks Study for the latest 2015 numbers for non-profits.)
If you haven’t done a list cleaning in a while (or ever), or if you have had poor opt-in email practices, it’s a good bet that you have a deliverability problem now with one or more ISPs. The good news is that there are ways to fix this.
Over the years, the major email providers have changed the way they evaluate whether an email is spam or not. They measure how people interact with the email including if they open, forward or reply to it. That helps them decide whether the message is spam, and therefore whether to deliver it to the rest of the recipients. More about email deliverability.
You can’t know ahead of time from a tool like SpamAssassin whether people will engage with your email or not. Moreover, once you hit a certain threshold of non-responders, the mail servers begin treating all email from you as “bulk” or “spam” mail, meaning none of your emails will go through.
Organizations that swap email addresses back and forth regardless of whether the people want to hear from them (campaigns are especially notorious for this) compound the deliverability problem for all involved.
If you’re having a deliverability problem, here’s what you need to do about it:
Practice good email hygiene
Make sure everybody added to your email list has affirmatively opted in to receive email from your campaign. Better yet, set up a confirmed opt-in process (where people need to reply to an email first to be added) to weed out incorrect email addresses.
Onboard people correctly
Use a welcome email or series of emails to onboard people appropriately to your list. Remind them how they signed up for your list, and what you’re about, and set expectations for how often they’ll hear from you.
Use error checking for sign ups
Make sure any email sign-up forms on your website have CAPTCHA or some sort of error checking so that drive-by spam bots can’t fill up your database with nonsense records (or worse yet, fake AOL or Gmail etc. records that could hurt deliverability to your real subscribers). Also make sure whatever online actions you use are passing email addresses into the forms for 1-click signups, this will drastically cut down on typo’d email addresses clogging up your database.
Set up SPF records
The Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is a way to validate emails allowing your mass email software provider to authoritatively send email from your domain. There are other various technical tricks you can use to show that your mass email sender has permission to send under your organization’s name.
Use a working email address for replies
Make sure the email address you send from (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a real working email address. That way you can handle complaints and unsubscribe requests that come in. If somebody asks to be taken off your list, immediately remove them. If you don’t do this, they are more likely to mark you as spam and you can face repercussions.
Handle bounces appropriately
Ensure that your mass email software is automatically disabling hard and soft bouncing emails. You’d be surprised, but this isn’t always automatic. If you find out there’s a big chunk of bouncing email addresses on your list, disable them immediately and put into place the steps to make sure this is handled automatically going forward. More about how to do a full list cleaning, which is a good idea if your list has been around awhile.
Consider a win-back campaign
Segregate records that have shown no response (opens or clicks) for three months, six months or a year. Send one last email to them to try to re-engage. Try something like, “We miss you. Do you still want to hear from us? Reply back if you’d like us to change your email address, or click here if you want to keep receiving emails.”
That requires them to take some action to show proof of life. Disable all 1 year or six month-plus inactive records after a week or so if they haven’t responded. These dead records may be driving down deliverability to the live records on your list. (It might also save you some money if your email provider charges per amount of records in their database.)
You could try again on the more recently-inactive records, but at least get them out of your normal email stream until they start responding.
You’ll see more and more organizations trying this step, once you’re looking for it.
Get yourself out of spam jail
If you’re seeing very low open rates on one specific ISP, it looks like you might be in “spam jail”. To get sprung from a provider’s “spam jail,” you’ll need to be sure to send only the best-performing emails to that provider for a few weeks — and only to the best performing records (segregate out the people who rarely open your emails). Only send along emails that will have an above-average number of opens, clicks, and so on. Once you see average open rates to that provider creep up, you could start sending a wider mix of emails and to a wider audience on that network.
Keep track of people’s areas of interest and their geography
That way you won’t send them emails in the future that they won’t be interested in, like events they can’t go to or issues they don’t care about. Try to be sensitive to peoples’ ever-increasing amounts of email in their inboxes. Try not to email more than once a week, and hopefully less than that, unless you have breaking urgent news. You don’t want to wear out your welcome and drive people away from your campaign or non-profit. On the flip side, you also don’t want to go silent for too long and have them forget about you, so aim for at least one email a month to keep them engaged.
Don’t add non opted-in email addresses to your list. Ever.
It’s better to have a smaller list of engaged supporters than a large list that isn’t even receiving your messages, because they’re going directly to the spam folder. Cutting your list can seem scary, but it can translate to more votes, volunteers, and money if done right.
Have more questions or need help improving email deliverability for your non-profit or political campaign? Contact PowerThru to get your list in tip top shape.