The Secret Science of Email Deliverability

For this month’s Connect theme, a number of speakers are previewing the great breakout sessions they are preparing for the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Austin, TX March 4-6. Following is a preview of one of over 100 breakout sessions.

I work with a wide variety of nonprofits around the country. They all tend to have one thing in common, though: organizations are having a harder and harder time reaching their supporters’ inboxes.

In part this has to do with the wild success of email activism and fundraising. With it being such an effective medium for activism and fundraising, everyone has ramped up their programs (sometimes to excess). In the campaign world, as we’ve seen this past election, campaigns have also used and abused their lists. This can have trickle down effects to other organizations. The kinds of people who sign up for your email list don’t live in a vacuum: they are likely to be on several other email lists. There can be a “tragedy of the commons” effect, in which people get burned out on entire segments of email based on patterns of organizing.

There’s not much you can do about how others use their lists, except to keep to the highest standards for joint online organizing, and to avoid partnering with organizations that do not treat their lists well. However, there are several steps you can take with your own list to get the best performance.

Over the years, the major email providers (e.g., Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc.) have changed the way they evaluate whether an email is spam or not. They take a look at whether individual email recipients are engaging with an email—opens and clicks, for example—to decide whether the message is spam and therefore whether to deliver to the rest of the recipients. You can’t know ahead of time from a tool like Spam Assassin whether people will engage with your email or not, meaning this can be close to impossible to predict ahead of time. Once you hit a certain threshold of non-responders, the mail servers begin treating all email from you as “bulk” or “spam” mail, meaning none of your emails will go through.

This can tank your response rate and, as mentioned before, it can catch you unprepared.

How to Handle It
1. Make sure you are handling bouncing emails appropriately: that your mass email software is automatically disabling hard and soft bouncing emails. You’d be surprised, but this isn’t always automatic. If you find out there’s a big chunk of bouncing email addresses on your list, disable them immediately and put into place the steps to make sure this is handled automatically going forward.

2. Segregate records that have shown no response for 6 months or a year. Send one last email to them, something to the tune of, “We miss you. Do you still want to hear from us? Reply back if you’d like us to change your email address, or click here if you want to keep receiving emails,” which requires them to take some action to show proof of life. Disable all records after a week or so that show no signs of life. These dead records may be driving down deliverability to the live records on your list. More list cleaning tips are available from the PowerThru blog.

3. Keep track of people’s areas of interest, and try not to send them emails in the future that they won’t be interested in. Also try to be sensitive to peoples’ ever-increasing amounts of email in their inboxes overall; try not to email more than once a week and hopefully less than that, unless you have breaking urgent news. You don’t want to wear out your welcome and drive people away from your organization. (Note: you also don’t want to go silent for too long and have them forget about you, so aim for at least one email a month to keep them engaged.)

4. To get yourself out of “spam jail” with any one mass email provider, be sure to send only the best performing emails to that provider for a few weeks—and only to the best performing records (segregate out the people who rarely open your emails). Only send along emails that will have an above-average number of opens, clicks, and so on. Once you see average open rates to that provider creep up, you could start sending a wider mix of emails and to a wider audience on that network.  Here are more email deliverability tips.

Be sure to attend our 15NTC session, “The Secret Science of Email Deliverability,” in March to hear more from the email deliverability wizards at NationBuilder, NGP VAN, and Salsa Labs. Bring your burning questions, and we will have answers!

Laura Packard
PowerThru Consulting
Laura Packard is a small business owner and award-winning digital/communications strategist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s a partner at PowerThru Consulting ( , a growing national progressive digital consulting shop. At PowerThru, she helps nonprofits use technology to spread their message and organize and activate their supporters online, to create change offline. You can find Laura on Twitter @lpackard (