Email deliverability impacts numerous facets of nonprofit operations. With fewer email messages getting into supporter inboxes these past few years, it reduces revenue for fundraising campaigns. More generally, it prevents nonprofits from connecting meaningfully on a year-round basis with stakeholders, donors, subscribers, volunteers and others. Email service provider EveryAction has estimated that $92.8 million was lost in 2018 in online fundraising revenue across the nonprofit sector. At stake is the present and future role of email engagement for nonprofits.
In 2018, the average email spam rate for organizations in the nonprofit sector was 20.18 percent, according to an EveryAction 2019 report that tracks email trends among its nonprofit customers and across the nonprofit sector more generally. Their annual study on the state of email deliverability has become a reference point to understand the impacts on nonprofit online activities. The 20.18 percent average email spam rate is actually an improvement over the previous year's rate of 24.16 percent. But the rate stood at a mere 7 percent as recently as 2015. You can see that things have shifted rapidly in the last five years in a direction that is not favorable to nonprofit communications.
"A variety of potentially terrible outcomes await those senders who ignore the changing landscape: Individual messages or campaigns could be delivered to the "spam" box, even for your best subscribers. Over time, your former active readers become lapsed and inactive, creating a cascading problem of diminished engagement," write Matt McGlynn and Randy Paynter from Care2 in The New Rules for Email Deliverability.
What Does "Email Deliverability" Mean?
Email deliverability is the metric that measures the rate of success that an organization has at getting its email messages into the inboxes of its subscribers. A lot of factors affect deliverability, but it essentially comes down to decisions being made by email service providers (ESPs) such as Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo, which control the flow of delivered email.
"If an ESP notices that emails you send are often marked as spam, deleted immediately without being read, never opened, or not engaged with in general, they may begin routing your email to spam folders, or worse, completely blocking you as a sender. Recently, ESPs have placed an increased emphasis on authentication and security, but the fundamentals like relevant content, opt-in, and list management still hold true," writes email deliverability expert Brett Schenker in EveryAction's 2019 study.
Matt McGlynn and Randy Paynter from Care2 offer some very detailed recommendations for nonprofits managing large email lists in The New Rules for Email Deliverability. Care2 has played a unique role in helping nonprofits grow their email lists by adopting the highest standards in opt-in permission and educating their customers on how to best cultivate acquired emails.
They write: "The addresses that you allow to remain on your house file significantly determine your Sender Reputation and the inbox rates for your email campaigns — which in turn determine open and click rates, which in turn determine revenue. Developing good mailing list hygiene has become one of the most critical requirements for running a successful email marketing program."
The challenge of declining email deliverability has necessitated continual adaptation and innovation by nonprofit technology professionals and their email service providers.
Here are six tactics you can apply immediately to improve your email deliverability.
1. Add Only Good Email Addresses to Your List
The key opportunity for healthy email list growth is at the time of subscription. For example, it's inappropriate for a nonprofit executive director to hand a pile of business cards to her assistant and say, "just add them to our email list." The best practice is that each and every one of those individuals should be personally invited to join your email list.
I'm a believer in double opt-in email registration, whereby a subscriber is sent a confirmation email to validate their identity. This technique is baked into many popular ESPs and advised by most digital strategists. Nevertheless, the double opt-in email registration technique continues to be controversial as it depresses registration completion rates.
The bottom line is to add only good email addresses to your list and to participate in ethical and intentional email acquisition strategies. Working with service providers such as Care2 and Change.org can play a part in those strategies since they use high standards in permission marketing and educate their customers on how to best cultivate acquired emails.
2. Remove Bad Addresses from Your List
Develop good email mailing list hygiene practices by removing all nondeliverable, obfuscated, temporary, typo, dead, and role accounts. I recommend Care2's The New Rules for Email Deliverability for a detailed description of how to identify problem email addresses on your file and how to remove them.
Good hygiene practices means regularly assigning cleanup tasks to an employee or a contractor who can go through a cleanup checklist once a month.
3. Purge Your Inactive Subscribers
Inactive subscribers are people who haven't opened one of your emails in some time and are cluttering up your email list and hurting your email deliverability, since ESPs score you on your open rates. Your goal is to remove subscribers who are no longer actively engaged or interested in reading your emails.
You should define an official inactivity period for your organization. I recommend that email addresses that are inactive for nine months should be removed from your list. Experts vary on this time frame. Care2 recommends six months, and they have found that ESPs are scoring organizations on even short periods of inactivity. If six or nine months seems too soon, then select 12 months — the important thing is to get this done so you can move on to better-performing email deliverability.
Before purging your inactive email subscribers, I often recommend a "last chance" reactivation message, which is designed to encourage the subscriber to get engaged or be unsubscribed soon thereafter.
4. Create a World-Class Email Welcome Series
Your email welcome series is one of your most important email communication tools because everything that comes after it depends upon its success. A 2015 study by Validity showed that people who open all your email welcome messages are more likely to open more email messages from you in the future. This in turn positively impacts your email deliverability.
These first emails that subscribers will receive set the tone and the voice for your communications going forward. They allow you to introduce your new subscribers to your programs and services and invite volunteers and donors.
Take advantage of marketing workflow automation tools available from your ESP to help you automate your welcome series. If your current ESP doesn't offer automation tools, maybe it's time to consider a new ESP and digital platform that can help you grow and evolve.
I recommend that you review your welcome series at the beginning of each calendar quarter to determine what needs to be updated. So let your creative juices flow, and you'll make a lasting impression on your email subscribers and a lasting impact on your email deliverability.
For additional welcome series strategies, I wrote about this topic in 2018.
5. Test and Improve Your Email Engagement
Improving your email messaging practices means a continuous process of testing and refinement so that your subscribers will continue to open your messages and click to explore your content. This means testing different types of subject lines, experimenting with varying content types, varying the messaging voice and style, and continually improving your email templates.
The more you optimize your email messages, the more your subscribers will be engaged, which means strong open rates and strong click-through rates, which positively impacts your email deliverability.
Another important aspect of improving your email engagement is segmenting your email list into smaller subgroups that have similar characteristics, such as common interest areas or geographic proximity. This means more work on your part to create messaging campaigns, but the end result is deeper relationships with your supporters, which again adds up to better email deliverability.
6. Use an Email Service Provider That Supports Your Growth
Many of the recommendations and strategies that I've discussed in this post rest on the foundation that your organization uses an ESP that you feel good about. It should be one that fits the needs of your organization, supports your growth, and provides support when you need it to resolve any email deliverability problems.
For example, pay special attention to your email bounce rate. Increased bounces are data points that indicate when something is wrong with your email deliverability and needs attention. Explore why bounces are occurring and don't hesitate to contact your ESP to get more information and support.
Your ESP can also be helpful in setting up special email authentication for your outbound email. Setting up authentication protocols known by the acronyms DKIM and SPF can help you improve your email deliverability. Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM) and Sender Policy Framework (SPF) are important because they help detect forgery, prevent spam, and consequently can have large impacts on email deliverability. Email service providers, such as Microsoft, recently started filtering email without valid DKIM and SPF protocols.
If you're unhappy with your current ESP, or feel like it's time to move up to something more fully featured, now is a good time to make a switch, long before the year-end fundraising season is upon us.