Okay, not really. The recent rate increase was a real kick in the butt (and the budget)*. But, I’ll tell you one thing—my mail generally gets delivered.
Of course, we play a pretty big role in making sure the mail gets to our donors. We NCOA and CASS-certify our files, we immediately remove people who ask to be taken off our list. And, we pretty much stop mailing people who haven’t responded in a while (in some cases, that could be a long while, but eventually, we stop).
Now let’s talk about email. Email deliverability has become a hot topic recently. The nonprofit world is a bit late to the game — the commercial world has been working on deliverability for years now — but check out @Agitator for a recent post and a great report from Brett Schenker @EveryAction.
Based on some early grumblings, it looks like email deliverability reared its ugly head for a lot of people this year end. Even though it didn’t cost us a lot of money to send the emails, poor deliverability sure lost us a ton of revenue those last few days of the year.
So, what do we do about email deliverability?
First, do you know what counts as delivered? Not delivered generally means it bounced (hard or soft) and never made it to an email address. But the other 98% of your messages? Those made it into one of your constituent’s email folders – their inbox, their promotions tab, their clutter tab, and … their spam folder. On December 31, 12 organizations ended up in my spam folder – and I’m a donor to all of them. I could go back for weeks and see even more organizations who are sitting there — some consistently and some not.
But wait? I’m a donor! I want these emails. Why are they in my spam box? Because once an email platform starts recognizing your domain or IP (the address — or addresses — used for sending out emails) as having reputation issues, it will start funneling more and more of your emails to spam—regardless who the email is going to. And from there, it’s just a downward and dizzying spiral that can spread like wildfire.
So, what’s a potential spammer to do?
While I could get all techie on you with terms like DMARC, DKIM, SMTP Error Logs (and I will, but no need to jump into the deep end), let’s start with some of the basics:
1. Figure out if you have a deliverability problem. Remember, with many systems you can’t rely on the reported delivered numbers. And, don’t just look holistically at your entire list or program-wide. Delivery issues could be sporadic or specific to just one or two email clients like Gmail, Outlook or AOL (yes, it still exists — see direct mail, above). Plummeting open rates (overall or by email client) are a good tip-off. There are also some great tools to help you determine your true deliverability.
2. Remove bounces. Hard bounces should be removed immediately. Soft bounces should be removed after two or three tries (if you’re having deliverability issues, remove those immediately, too). This may seem like a no-brainer, but from some of the conversations I’m having, I think it’s worth repeating. Sending to an email address that bounced degrades your reputation.
3. Clean your list! We do it with our offline files, why aren’t we doing it with our online files as well? Some ESPs (email service providers — the tool that sends out your bulk emails) have this functionality built in, but many nonprofits use ESPs that don’t regularly scrub your email file for invalid addresses, spam traps and forced sign-ups. Just like NCOA, there are services that will clean your email file for you. Depending on how large your file is and how much email acquisition you do, you may want to do this quarterly, monthly or every send.
4. Stop emailing people who don’t like you anymore. Seriously. Just stop. It’s time to cut the cord. There’s no one best practice for what an engaged subscriber looks like, because different platforms use different algorithms. But if a constituent hasn’t opened an email within 6-months, they are probably stale. Gmail’s threshold for engagement is much higher — its algorithm looks at your send schedule versus the constituent’s open rate (for some senders, this window can be as short as 30-days) and its algorithm also includes time spent reading the email and links clicked.
5. Don’t buy email names. Ever.
6. Run your emails through a spam checker before sending. It will evaluate your code, subject lines and content for anything that could be read as spam. Some ESPs have spam checkers built into their tool set; if yours doesn’t, there are a lot of great products out there.
7. Keep your email under 100kb – it’s a good rule of thumb for passing through spam filters.
8. Have your constituents opt-in. Preferably double-opt-in. I know this is the “technique that shall not be named”, but it does ensure you’re only adding people who really want to receive emails from you. Since our privacy laws haven’t changed like in the EU (yet), you can always store the other emails (i.e., non-double opt-ins) and retarget them in digital advertising.
If you’re like, “Jess — tell me something I didn’t know”, then don’t miss my next installment on email deliverability—when Jess learned that DMARC was not the rebranded DMV.
*PS—the USPS is offering some incentives for reducing your postage rates when you use different techniques. They are all different and they don’t last long – if you have any questions, please reach out to the fabulous Cheryl Keedy to talk more about them and ideas for mailing smelly paper!