Sept/Oct 2006

How do I ensure my email is permission-based?

by David Crooke, Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Convio

With increasing public antipathy toward unsolicited email — less politely known as spam — it's important for nonprofits to ensure that people on their email lists are people who actually want to receive that organization's email. This impacts the organization's reputation not only in the usual sense, but also in regard to its "electronic reputation," which Internet service providers (ISPs) use in deciding whether to accept and deliver the organization's email.

Spam is in the eye of the beholder

It's important to always keep in mind that the interpretation of email as spam is a purely human one, and it is not objective — it varies for each recipient, as does their level of tolerance and their reaction when they feel spammed. A nonprofit's constituents typically are passionate about the organization's cause, but to someone who is not interested, that newsletter is just spam. For an organization's reputation, whom it emails is as important — if not more — than its email content.

The rules are different online

Although some fundraising and marketing campaign strategies from postal direct mail translate well to the online world, email is a different medium. The biggest difference involves consent. Junk postal mail is generally tolerated; the US Postal Service does not even offer the public any legally-enforced way to opt out of it. Unsolicited email, though, engenders a highly negative reaction in its recipients, and as private enterprises, ISPs take steps to block it. Therefore, it is essential to obtain opt-in consent from someone before adding them to an email list. Most reputable email service providers (ESPs), including Convio, contractually require it.

Obtaining consent

The easiest and least controversial way to grow an email file is organically. At every opportunity, ask individuals for their email addresses and invite them to opt in. Put an email newsletter sign-up on your Web site, as well as a space for email addresses on paper donation forms. Always explicitly state that the constituent is signing up to receive email. If the form has a different primary purpose (such as making an online donation), provide a check-box where people can indicate their preference not to opt in.

List rentals and appends

List rentals and purchases are much-used features of direct mail, but are taboo in the email world — they simply are not tolerated. However, you can successfully have a third-party list owner cross-promote your organization. They should do so by sending the email themselves with their brand leading, and including a link to your Web site for interested parties to opt in to your email list.

There are a growing number of "email append" services that will take a postal mail address and attempt to find a matching email address. These services will typically provide (and charge for) all email addresses from their database that don't bounce. The problem with this service is that the process does not obtain permission for you to add the email addresses to your list. Even if a constituent has a relatively strong offline relationship with your organization, that does not necessarily mean they are happy to receive email. The safe way to use an append service is by having the service send an email driving people to your Web site, and obtaining an explicit opt in from site visitors. This results in a smaller list, but one of much higher quality.

List hygiene

An opt in is not forever, and people's interests do vary over time. It's essential that you make it as easy as possible for people to select among your various types of emails, or to opt out entirely. Good email marketing tools make this as easy as a couple of clicks.

Also, it's important to cleanse your list of stale addresses. People change email addresses quite frequently, either because they switch ISPs or employers, or simply to avoid spam. It's painful to see a hard-won email address file evaporate. But, once an address goes bad, it's important to stop mailing to it since ISPs use poor list hygiene as a way to identify spammers. Once again, your ESP should automate this process for you.


As a communications medium, email has unique ethical and process challenges for nonprofit marketers, but with careful policies and use of the right tools, it is possible to employ email strategically to improve an organization's reach while preserving its reputation.


How do I ensure my email is permission-based? | Convio