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.
Email Deliverability Defined
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.
How Your Emails Become Spam
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.
Six Tactics to Improve Email Deliverability
Here are six tactics you can apply immediately to improve your email deliverability.
1. Go the Extra Distance to Confirm Email Subscriptions
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.
2. Create a World-Class Email "Welcome Series"
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.
3. Test and Improve Your Email Engagement
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.
4. Segment Your Email List
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.
5. Pay Attention to Bounces
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.
6. Manage Your Inactive Subscribers
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.
Key Email Deliverability Resources
About the Author
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.