Mar/Apr 2008

Ask the Expert: What can we do to make sure our organization's email gets delivered to our supporter's inbox?

by Bill Pease, Chief Scientist, Convio

Q: What best practices should my organization follow to ensure our email reaches our supporters?

A: At NTEN's Nonprofit Technology Conference last month, I talked about the things that affect email delivery and the best practices required to avoid common delivery problems.

Recipient complaints are the single most important factor affecting email delivery. If recipients report your email as spam to their Internet Service Provider or email software, your organization's communications may be rejected, diverted to the spam folder, or mangled by image suppression.

To keep your organization's complaint rates low, it is critical to:

  • Acquire explicit opt-in from all individuals you add to your email list.
  • Avoid list building methods that "assume" a supporter wants to be added to your list because they donated to your organization, participated in an event, or have some offline relationship with your organization. Supporters expect to be asked for their consent before you send them email.
  • Study where your complaints are coming from to identify and avoid problematic list building practices. List building should always be permission-based — opt in, not out.

Another important parameter that influences email delivery is list hygiene. If you repeatedly send email to invalid addresses that a recipient's system has hard bounced, delivery barriers will be raised.

Keeping your list "clean" is critical to deliverability. Specifically:

  • Review email addresses that are collected offline to correct for common mistakes, such as misspelling of top level domain names, prior to import.
  • Examine your hard bounces on a quarterly basis and consider using an email change of address service to recover working addresses for unreachable supporters. The delivery status of an email address should not be reset without evidence that a hard bounce was in error or spam-policy related.

Give your supporters options, so they can choose the email communications they want to receive from your organization.

Follow these best practices for good subscription management:

  • Provide tools that enable self-serve subscription management.
  • Avoid complex log-in or email account management procedures.
  • Allow users to maintain profiles with their contact data and interest preferences.
  • Make it easier for subscribers to remove themselves from your email list rather than make spam complaints. Ensure your "remove me" procedures across all touch points are operational.

When it comes to content, use common sense. While it is rare that typical nonprofit content will trigger spam filters, it can occur even when you are sending to a fully qualified, fully opted-in list of highly engaged constituents.

Avoid content practices that can impact delivery by following these best practices:

  • Avoid overly promotional language and words associated with common spam memes.
  • Use a light, lean style with significant chunks of meaningful content (spam filters look for a high ratio of HTML tagging to actual text). Avoid single image email.
  • Design your email to render well even with images suppressed.
  • Provide a link to the online version of your HTML newsletter.
  • For quality control, test your content thoroughly before you send it.

For more information, see Dr. Pease's slide presentation on Email Deliverability from NTEN 2008 (PDF, 1.3M)

Ask the Expert: What can we do to make sure our organization's email gets delivered to our supporter's inbox? | Convio