Does Your Email Marketing Program Deliver?

Nonprofits say that email deliverability is a key thing for them, but a lot of that depends on your list. A few ways to keep your list in tip-top shape include making lists easy to unsubscribe from, doing the occasional purge of disengaged users, and—of course—keeping out the spam.

All the negative chatter about social media at the moment might have your organization running into the arms of email.

While email has some big benefits from a marketing standpoint—stronger control of the list, for one thing—the strength of that list can wilt without efforts to nurture the subscribers on that list. And when emails aren’t getting delivered properly, you might have an even bigger problem on your hands than a wacky algorithm.

Deliverability, which refers to the ability of an email to correctly show up in an inbox (rather than the spam folder or elsewhere), has proven a big headache for many markets in recent months, but associations and nonprofits feel the pain more than most.

Case in point: Last month, when nonprofit vendors Care2, NTEN, hjc, and The Resource Alliance released their 2018 Digital Outlook Report [registration], the first section was dedicated to email deliverability, something they put on the same plane as mobile optimization and website conversion.

“Pundits claim that no one uses email anywhere and that its time has passed. But according to what we’ve seen in our research, this ‘demise’ has been greatly exaggerated,” the report states. “In fact, for fundraising success, it’s more important than ever that nonprofit emails reach their intended inboxes.”

The report offers a variety of tips on the deliverability issue for different types of organizations, with many of them based around resourcing, rather than tactics. For organizations just getting their footing on the issue, the report recommends that you “start talking to your boss about why email deliverability and email list health needs to be on your organization’s radar.”

For those a bit deeper in, the report suggests testing spam rates, dedicating a specific team member to list monitoring, focusing on list segmentation, and optimizing the content you put in your messages for things that are more likely to engage subscribers.

Opting Out Without Unsubscribing

Of course, taking a close look at things like whether an address that signed up to your list is spammy or not is one thing. But there are more nuanced issues that have come up with email deliverability over the years, such as when someone opts out of your list but doesn’t tell you—something called a passive opt-out.

Here’s how it usually happens: Your message buries the all-important unsubscribe button at the very bottom, in an effort to hold on to people your messages perhaps wouldn’t otherwise. Your disengaged users then, essentially, unsubscribe without unsubscribing—perhaps by rounding up the message in a tool like, burying the message in a folder somewhere, or simply ignoring the message entirely.

In recent years, providers like Gmail have taken steps to make it easy for users to more actively unsubscribe, which led to a big outcry inititally. But in a piece for MarketingLand, Kyle Henderick of Yes Lifecycle Marketing noted that such moves actually helped marketers by clearing their lists of disengaged subscribers.

“Instead, marketers discovered that easy unsubscribe buttons actually helped weed out unengaged subscribers and non-purchasers lingering within marketers’ email database,” Henderick wrote. “And that led to improved deliverability.”

Those results certainly make the case for making the unsubscribe button easy to find. But, even with these efforts, the problem is that people still fall dormant. It’s bound to happen—in an era when “Inbox Zero” is a fantasy rather than a realistic goal, there simply isn’t enough energy to go around.

For marketers looking to keep the quality of their lists high, this means putting the work into re-engagement campaigns for subscribers that they think they can win back—and cleaning the lists of subscribers that they can’t.

Keep the Email Spammers Out

Speaking of cleaning lists, we need to spend a little time talking about spam accounts here. It’s inevitable that you will deal with spammers trying to muck up your email sign-ups—especially if those sign-ups are merely member prospects rather than actual members.

But if you structure your email sign-up process properly, you may be able to avoid a lot of pain—and become more compliant with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation at the same time.

While options like adding a CAPTCHA to your form are certainly possible, the best option for preventing spam is through the use of a double opt-in process for new sign-ups to your list. That way, anyone who signs up to a list is required to prove that they’re a human being.

This also is great for GDPR because it creates a paper trail for confirming that they intended to sign up for your list. (MailChimp long required double opt-in by default and still recommends it for users trying to comply with GDPR—their knowledge base page is a great explainer for anyone considering shifting their approach.)

Of course, you could be wasting a lot of resources if you’re dealing with a lot of spam sign-ups, so make sure your sign-up forms are coded with a “honeypot”—in other words, an intentionally blank space in a form that will trap spammers but let everyone else by. Online marketer Jenna Molby has an example of one on her website, but your dev team might prefer to roll their own.

A Need for List Hygiene

Inevitably, though, you may find it necessary to clean your lists altogether, especially if you have evidence that they’ve been infected by spam or you’re seeing a decline in open rates from old users.

You could probably work with your AMS provider on this, but if you’d prefer to use a dedicated tool, lots of services online allow you to do this with different levels of depth like ZeroBounce and ListWise. While these services are generally inexpensive, they aren’t a silver bullet. You’ll still want to look through the list yourself to confirm that you didn’t catch false positives in the mix.

If the re-engagements fail, this might be the step you want to take, espeically if there is no formal or financial history between you and the person on your list. The job of cleaning things up is easier at the top of the funnel than at the bottom—though it’s more likely that you’re dealing with actual humans if they’ve decided to become a member.

What strategies do you use to keep your email lists clean? Share ‘em in the comments.

(GoodLifeStudio/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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