A recent study published in May 2017 by digital tool provider EveryAction reported that over 18 percent of nonprofit fundraising emails ended up in junk folders in 2016. That number jumped to 36 percent during #GivingTuesday, seriously hindering fundraising campaigns during the biggest giving season of the year.
This issue of email deliverability — the percentage of email that actually makes it into inboxes and not spam folders — is becoming a critical issue for nonprofits of all sizes. Nonprofit staffers across the country are taking notice.
This problem doesn't only impact fundraising campaigns. It also prevents nonprofits from connecting meaningfully on a year-round basis with stakeholders, donors, subscribers, volunteers, and others.
What causes poor deliverability? Often it's decisions made by email service providers (ESPs) about whether to deliver your email. Those decisions are based on hundreds of different metrics.
Brett Schenker writes in the 2017 Nonprofit Email Deliverability Study: "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. Once your IP address has been flagged by an ISP as a bad sender, it can take months or even years to recover."
This assessment by Schenker has some profound repercussions for nonprofits of all sizes, who need to do some soul searching about their email messaging programs. Gone are the days when a nonprofit can keep dumping emails onto its list, message monthly, and hope for the best.
The truth about email management is that unless nonprofits change their ways, email deliverability will continue to decline. Therefore, nonprofit administrators and technologists must be committed to improving their email acquisition strategy and messaging practices.
Here are six tactics you can apply immediately to improve your email deliverability:
It's no longer acceptable for the executive director to hand a pile of business cards to her assistant and say, "Add them to our email list." Each and every one of those individuals should be personally invited to join the list and go through your double opt-in email registration process. This new technique will reduce the age-old problem of people not remembering how and why they're receiving email communications.
Also, double opt-in email registration is no longer optional. It's necessary and it's cool, especially if you make the messaging fun and interesting. Your subscribers will respect you for respecting them and appreciate the concern for their privacy.
Your email welcome series is your most important email communications. I repeat: the MOST important — because everything that comes after it depends upon its success. A study by Return Path showed that people who open all your email welcome messages are more likely to open more email messages, which in turn impacts your email deliverability.
Create a welcome series team. This team will be responsible for not just creating a great welcome series, but reviewing it at the beginning of each business quarter to determine what needs to be updated. The first emails that subscribers will receive set the tone and the voice for your communications going forward. So, let your creative juices flow, and you'll make a lasting impact.
Improving your email messaging practices means a continuous process of testing and refinement so that your subscribers will open your messages and find interesting content. To figure out how to improve, test different types of subject lines, and experiment with varying content types. Vary your messaging voice and style, and continually improve your email templates.
Another critical facet of improving your email engagement is segmenting your email list. Segmenting means you make smaller subgroups that have similar characteristics such as common interest areas or geographic proximity. Sure, this means more work on your part to create messaging campaigns, but the end result is deeper relationships with your supporters.
Bounces are data points that notify us when something is wrong and needs attention. Explore why bounces are occurring and contact your ESP to get more information if needed. If bounces happen repeatedly with certain subscribers, remove those subscribers from your list, because repeated bounces are danger flags for ESPs.
Inactive subscribers are people who haven't opened an email in some time and are ultimately just cluttering up your email list and hurting your email deliverability. Email addresses that are inactive for nine months should be removed from your list.
TechSoup offers donated products from Informz, an online email marketing platform for sending and tracking email communication.
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Michael Stein has been a writer and digital strategist for progressive social causes for over two decades. He is the author of three books and numerous articles chronicling the rise of digital marketing, mobile, and online fundraising. He works as a consultant and coach to nonprofits, foundations, and educators, with a focus on marketing and fundraising in a multichannel and multiscreen world. Find Michael Stein on Twitter at @mstein63.
Image 1: Maialisa / CC0
Image 2: Michael Stein
Two additional easy wins are: 1. setting up DKIM and SPF records.
2. Checking emails with an email spam tester. I like the one at http://www.mail-tester.com/
Those are all great strategies. And all of them consider the campaign management. But there is another critical technical step that can be taken and it's not a budget changer. If you are sending email from your own domain (not using a cloud based service) then you should consider an outbound SMTP service. Essentially, it allows your email to come from a well managed and "known safe" IP domain and utilizes more than the standard ports for delivery. This increases your chances that your mail will not be seen as spam or junk and that your domain does not get black listed. You can read more about it at www.duocircle.com/.../outbound-smtp
This explains as to why I get more "unopened". Thank you for the recommendations. I used to leave the "bounces" without cleaning but now I understand to importance of managing the email list.
Forgive me if this is a stupid question -- it's something I've lost track of over the years -- but what counts as an open? We've worked very hard to have our entire weekly enewsletter appear in a preview screen so that it's not necessary to click on it to read it. We also know that in chatting with our users, that a significant number save our newsletters in a folder and use them for future reference -- i.e., I may not need to know about the topic now, but if I save the email, information about that topic will come up in email search later. (We're a legal newsletter so we find that lawyers tend to save and use information that way.)
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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