Ultimate Guide to Email Deliverability

Email marketing is the most cost-effective way to reach your supporters in a digital world. Acquiring email subscribers and maintaining a good reputation with email service providers can be tricky. The last thing you want as an email marketer is to run into email deliverability issues which can impact – or even shut down – your email program.

It may appear that nonprofits and charities don’t do ‘marketing,’ but every bit of outreach from web to social media to email to advertising is indeed marketing. Email marketing is one of your strongest channels. Supporters have opt-ed into direct communication with you by email, and you can customize messages that resonate with them. It’s also incredibly affordable, can provide deep integration with other tools you use for fundraising, and typically has a good return on investment (ROI).

Email marketing builds relationships with your supporters. You can’t just hit send to everyone on your list anymore, though. There are rules.

Email deliverability is a significant problem that marketers face. In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of email deliverability, issues to watch and how to rectify the situation if needed.

What Is Email Deliverability?

Email deliverability isn’t a new term – it’s something marketers considered for many years. Recently, however, you might have noticed that the term is mentioned more often. That’s because it’s affecting more and more organizations as the rules change and become more strict.

Email deliverability essentially describes the success rate of your emails reaching the inbox of a subscriber. Higher email deliverability means more people will be able to see the emails you send them. Good email deliverability means more supporters see your messages and take action or donate.

Many use email deliverability as a marker. Some factors tell you how likely your emails are to reach the inbox of a subscriber. When it reaches their primary inbox, the chance that the email will be opened, read and acted upon becomes significantly greater. Most people don’t even bother to look in subfolders, let alone spam or junk.

Many factors affect your email deliverability that can have long-term impacts on your email marketing strategies too.

Marketers have found that certain email service providers (ESP, but not the telepathic kind) are tightening restrictions on the number of bulk emails allowed to reach subscribers on their network. The primary idea behind these rules is to ensure there is a limitation placed on spam and unwanted emails reaching the user’s inbox.

Google and Yahoo (owned by Microsoft) are among the top email service providers of interest when looking at email deliverability. When reviewing your email list, you’ll likely notice that Gmail has a strong (if not majority) presence. They have stringent rules about deliverability and also provide many tools to help marketers manage it.

Why Does Email Deliverability Matter?

By the end of 2019, around 3.9 billion people worldwide had an active email address.

In the same year, an estimated 293.6 billion emails were distributed (sent or received) every day.

By 2023, the number of active email addresses is estimated to grow to at least 4.3 billion. This means within the next three years, roughly half of the global population will have one or more email addresses. By this time, more than 347 billion emails will be delivered daily.

Things get interesting when looking at the return on investment related to email marketing. The average marketer can make up to $42 in profit for every $1 they spend on an email marketing campaign. That’s an impressive ROI.

The problem is, if the emails you send aren’t delivered to supporter inboxes, these figures hold little value for your organization or marketing efforts.

Email deliverability tells you how many of your emails are likely to land in your subscribers’ inboxes. If your email isn’t being received, there’s a problem – low (or poor) email deliverability.

High email deliverability means you are able to uphold trust among ESPs that host email accounts for your subscribers. It also means your campaigns will reach more inboxes.

Email Deliverability And Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofits operate differently from businesses in the private sector in some ways, but ultimately, they run marketing programs just like corporations (perhaps just on different budgets). Nonprofit marketing campaigns are designed to bring in supporters who will take action and donate. In 2019, Americans donated over $449 billion. Being seen by your email subscribers is essential to your bottom line.

There are many strategies that nonprofit organizations use to drive higher donations to their cause – and most depend on email in some way. The rules for email deliverability are the same regardless of the sender. The ESPs don’t care if your a multi-national corporation or a small nonprofit running state-wide advocacy.

When there is poor email deliverability in a nonprofit organization, you may encounter:

  • Your emails are not reaching subscribers, which essentially means you’re wasting staff time building and sending email
  • Inbound revenue and subscriber retention will decrease, as people don’t see your email
  • The reputation of your email marketing campaign’s IP address may at risk
  • Who are you? When you’re not reaching out to supporters… they might forget you – and later unsubscribe or report you as spam
  • In most cases, your charity doesn’t run a store, and one of your primary revenue streams is impacted

What Affects Email Deliverability?

Now that we’ve reviewed what email deliverability is and why the term is important, we need to look at what can affect it. There are several factors to consider when estimating email deliverability.

Email Content

Let’s start with an obvious one – the actual content of your email. It’s tempting to focus on creating an attractive email design and content that will help to improve the click-through rates. Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing that you need to take into consideration.

Subscribers expect personalized content – know their name and provide something relevant to their interests. And the ESPs are watching.

Make sure you address the subscriber directly in the email – make it personal. This is an important way to help improve open rates and increase the chances of getting the email into subscriber inboxes.

Need some tips on good personalization? We’ve got you covered. Read our post, ’10 Tips to Help You Get Personal with Donors’.

Avoid impersonal email content that comes across as advertising. Too many images combined with little text may interfere with your email deliverability.

Focus on the subject line of the email – this is another area that ESPs look at when filtering emails for spam and junk content. Make the subject personal without sounding like promotional content. If it gets picked up as spam, you may be blocked. Or worse, your own supporters may flag you as spam.

Reputation Of The Sender IP

When it comes to email deliverability, sender reputation is another vital factor that affects the chances of getting your email into the subscriber’s inbox. This may or may not be related to you specifically, but rather the server you use to send your email.

There is an IP address associated with the server used to submit emails to your subscribers. This is what you need to look at when considering sender reputation. If that IP address gets blacklisted that could mean trouble. In this scenario, having a good relationship with your eCRM company is invaluable. They are likely already tracking back-end performance like this and can help troubleshoot and resolve issues.

There are a few online tools that you can use to help with this particular step. MX Toolbox lets you look up IP addresses and their related information. You can also check if the IP used to send and deliver your email campaigns has been blacklisted on any servers. Simply visit the MX Toolbox Blacklists page – enter the domain you send from or the server IP.

You will be presented with a full list of ISPs and blacklist databases that are used by email providers like Google and Microsoft to check if an IP is associated with a negative reputation. Make sure all of the “status” results are marked as “OK.”

The gold standard – and its free to use – is Google’s Postmaster Tools. You can track spam complaints, IP reputation and your own domain reputation. Watch this video by 250ok to learn more about Google Postmaster and how it can help you track these tricky issues.

Subscriber Behavior

Another thing that can have an effect on your email deliverability is subscriber behavior. ESPs have implemented technologies that monitor how people behave and react to emails you send. Do supporters open your emails, trash them or do they actually read the content and click links? This tells the ESP how reputable you are and if your subscribers engage with your email.

Email list quality

The “health” of your email subscriber list affects email deliverability. ESPs tend to look at bounce rates, spam traps, and other related issues. If you have a lot of dead subscribers on your list, it means there will be a higher bounce rate.

Spam traps are fake emails that are used by ISPs to identify spam. These end up on your list through bulk acquisition campaigns or sometimes by subscribers sharing an old unused email. If there are spam trap emails on your list, it could get your IP address blacklisted quickly.

Fixing Poor Email Deliverability

Even if you’re following best practices (although the chances are much smaller) you could encounter an email deliverability problem. The good news is that you can implement steps to turn things around.

Diagnosis of the problem

The first step is to diagnose the problem. You need to know why your deliverability is low in order to take any appropriate actions.

The issue could be relatively simple or very complex. If you don’t know where to start, you could invest considerable resources fixing what may have been a simple change. Start with your Google Postmaster Tools and see if you can track down information there. Reach out to your eCRM provider to see if they can offer insight. Evaluate your deliveries and see who’s missing – Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail?

Be your own detective and track down the source of the problem as best you can. Then you can create a plan to solve it.

Why? Having an idea of the source of the problem gives you a place to start when building a plan to fix it.

Clean up Your Current Email List

Start with a strategy that helps you clean the current email list you have. This will give you an opportunity to remove bad and toxic email addresses from your list. These are essentially the email addresses that cause your server IP to be blacklisted.

There are a few useful tools that can be utilized to clean up your list. Neverbounce is considered an effective option and offers a nonprofit discount but there are others out there. It will filter through your email list and remove any email addresses that are duplicated, as well as those that are bouncing or considered a “bad email address.”

Why? This will prevent you continuing to send email to spam traps or bad emails as you’re trying to fix things. That would only perpetuate your problems.

Authenticate Your Domain

This step is a bit more complicated but basically, you need to tell the ISPs that you’re legit. While you can do just a few of these – all will get you to a resolution faster and certainly won’t hurt for a good future sender reputation.

  • Authenticate your domain with Google and follow their best practices for email deliverability (which they are very transparent about)
  • Ensure your email messages are signed with DKIM and need to use a key size of 1024 bits or longer
  • Publish an SPF record for your domain
  • Publish a DMARC record for your domain
  • Google also recommends you send your emails from a single IP address and do not frequently change the server IP used for sending email

Again, Google’s best practices for email deliverability covers this and much more and you can find it here.

Why? If the ISP’s know you’re a real organization sending real email and following the rules and best practices it puts you on the right path to a good sender reputation.

Develop A Segmentation Plan

Setting up a segmentation plan is another useful strategy that you can rely on. To dig you out of the hole of poor email deliverability, consider sending to your most engaged supporters first as they’ll click and respond to your messages. Then, send to less engaged… and less engaged. You can target supporters based on various levels of engagement in Engaging Networks using our Engagement Scoring tools. That’s a mouthful.

It’s good to exclude unengaged supporters altogether, especially as you’re fixing email deliverability. The last thing you want at this time is to be flagged as spam or have a boost in unsubscribes.

Why? Thoughtfully approaching who you email at this time is crucial and can make or break your recovery. Focus on quality and engagement.

Consider A New IP

If you find that the IP used to send your email campaigns is blacklisted, getting it removed from the blacklist can take some time and effort from your side.

For some marketers, obtaining a new IP address may be the ideal solution. You’ll need to contact your eCRM provider to discuss options. They can advise on the procedure for obtaining a new IP address on your account if it’s an option.

Why? If your IP has been blacklisted, weigh whether you have resources and time to recover that. It may be easier to get a new one even if there is a cost involved.

Maintaining Good Email Deliverability

If you already have an email campaign with a satisfactory email deliverability rate, you will want to maintain this achievement. With this in mind, you need to take appropriate steps to keep that list healthy and ensure your emails are effectively delivered to subscriber inboxes. Here’s a simple checklist for monitoring:

  • List hygiene: Develop a list hygiene checklist for your organization that includes
    • Annual (or more frequent) list scrubbing using a service that will remove bad emails
    • A plan for targeting only engaged supporters which will reduce bounces
    • Periodically purge your email file of unengaged suporter emails
    • Consider using a service to validate emails in realtime (there are several out there but many of our clients use Neverbounce) – this keeps your list clean from the moment of sign-up
  • Sender validation: If you haven’t already, take the time to add DKIM, SPF and DMARC to your email
  • Monitor sender reputation: Set a plan to check Google Postmaster regularly and keep an eye on your reputation
  • Focus on best practices: Give thought to email quality and follow the rules
    • Avoid spammy subject lines
    • Relevant content with a good balance between images and copy
    • Personalize copy
    • Never send to unsubscribe
    • Never send to anyone who has not opted into your list
    • Welcome new subscribers and keep in touch so they don’t forget they signed up with you in the first place
    • Make it easy to unsubscribe – you can also offer subscribers options to set the rules in an email preference center
Wondering how to target supporters based on engagement? Engaging Networks offers built-in Engagement Scoring that can be used to segment email subscribers based on level of activity.

That’s a lot of information. We have the benefit of having an email deliverability expert on staff at Engaging Networks. Take a breather to watch this short video where Gwynne Dixon goes over some best practices.

Wrapping it up

You’ve taken the time to educate yourself on email deliverability, bravo. Now, evaluate your email program and determine if you’re following best practices. If not, take the steps now to set up monitoring and make adjustments to your strategy as needed to avoid poor email deliverability.

If you find yourself in the scary situation of a bad sender reputation and poor email deliverability – take a deep breath and know you can recover from this. Follow the steps outlined in this guide and create a plan to move things in the right direction. If you feel overwhelmed, many of our accredited partners have experience helping clients repair reputation and return to inboxes. You can find a list of partners here who can help you.

If you have a bit of time, watch this presentation from our 2018 Engaging Networks Community Conference on how our accredited partners at Beaconfire RED turned Ocean Conservancy’s email deliverability issues around in time for year-end fundraising.

Chloe Green is a copywriter and digital campaigner with almost a decade of experience in the charity and political sectors. She’s delivered campaigns, copy and consultancy for a raft of good eggs including Anthony Nolan, the National Union of Students, St Mungo’s, and Hillary for America. She was Social Media Manager at the Labour Party between 2016–2019 and now she’s Head of Creative with the lovely team at Forward Action. She leads on fundraising emails, UX copy, and all creative facilitation. She’s an expert in email list growth, digital strategy, organic and paid-for social media, and digital mobilisation.

Rachel founded the specialist charity web agency, Rechord, in 1999. Between 1999 and 2012 they created hundreds of different web applications for organisations in the UK and internationally.
In 2013 she became the 'Donor Whisperer' and focused on helping small to medium-sized non-profits to reach new donors and activists and from there increase their income. She uses a unique process that combines the benefits of consultancy with capacity building.
Her clients include Traidcraft Exchange, the Overseas Development Institute, Jubilee Debt Coalition, the Leprosy Mission of England and Wales, Tax Justice UK, The Canary, Humanity and Inclusion, the Anti-Tribalism Movement, BRACE, New Family Social, Arseh Sevom - and that's just the last year.
She also feels weird writing about herself in the third person.

Ellen is Campaigns Manager overseeing national and local campaigning at the MS Society. She has worked at the MS Society for 2 and a half years, with roles at Scope and Guide Dogs prior to this.

Hannah is Senior Campaigns Officer at the MS Society, working on their local campaigning programme, Local Action for MS and also on social care and carers. She’s worked at the MS Society for a year and a half, and was previously at the MND Association and National Voices.

Executive Director of C6 Digital, London based agency

Emily has worked at Guide Dogs for the Blind Association since 2019, working on a range of campaign areas to empower people with vision impairments to live the life they choose. Prior to this, Emily working in parliament and severed as a borough councillor.

Brani Milosevic ia a digital consultant and coach at https://www.digitalleadership.ltd/
She helps individuals, teams and organisations to learn how to seize the opportunities offered by digital and navigate its challenges.
Brani set up the Digital Leadership Forum, is an NCVO trainer, a CharityComms mentor and a qualified executive coach.

Rhiannan Sullivan is the Vice President of strategy and partnerships of social action network, Care2.com. Over the past 10+ years, she has worked with hundreds of UK and EU charities helping them grow and develop their digital fundraising programmes. Prior to working for Care2, Rhiannan worked at then political campaigning agency Blue State Digital, a global leading digital strategy agency who has helped many organisations build and engage online communities, clients included political and advocacy campaigns, non-­‐profit organisations, cultural institutions and global consumer brands.

Calum manages social, email and some digital campaigns at CPRE, and is CPRE’s expert Engaging Networks user, working on development and helping other teams make the most of the platform. Happiest working on campaigns for change or rambling around in the countryside.

Brandon Fuller is Engaging Networks alumni and owner of Raise the Roots, a digital agency that has supported over two dozen organizations on Engaging Networks - helping them to maximize their digital engagement using this powerful platform. He previously managed global online advocacy campaigns for the Pew Charitable Trusts and has worked in the nonprofit community for nearly two decades.

I joined the Woodland Trust in 2018 and now lead on policy and engagement campaigns working to improve protection, restoration and high quality creation of woods and trees. Prior to campaigning for trees, I worked in Peterborough, tackling fuel poverty in the community. I care deeply about the climate and nature crises and the many, intersectional impacts and solutions. Endlessly inspired and energised by the dedication and passion of our supporters and the public who take action time and time again.

Hannah Mudge is Digital Innovation Manager at The Leprosy Mission England and Wales and has had the privilege of seeing the 147-year-old international development charity evolve over the last decade, from sending out its first online fundraising appeal to achieving record levels of income despite the challenges faced since the start of the pandemic. She is based in Peterborough and enjoys running, cooking and reading in her limited spare time when not parenting two lively boys. During 2020 she added ‘homeschooling’ to her skillset although what Ofsted rating she would achieve is probably best left to the imagination.

I am a campaigner in the Woods Under Threat team at the Woodland Trust. My role is to help protect ancient woods and trees from damaging developments across the UK. Ancient woods and trees are irreplaceable, so we work hard to stop any further loss of these precious habitats and ensure they are protected for the benefit of people and wildlife.

Matt Strong is the Campaigns and Engagement Officer for the Ramblers.

He has recently run campaigns on increasing the number of new green walking routes in some of our biggest cities, including London and Manchester. He has also been leading on the Ramblers’ campaigns work around the Environment Bill. Matt has a background in politics after spending a decade as an elected councillor on Manchester City Council and having previously worked for two Members of Parliament and a political party.

Claire Warner is a former charity Fundraising Director & Senior Leader, turned Culture & Wellbeing consultant.

It was in trying to throw herself back into her beloved Fundraising Director role after 12 months' treatment for aggressive breast cancer, that Claire realised the focus & memory loss and heart condition side effects she'd been left with after her treatment, plus the life-changing experience of the illness itself, meant (guttingly!) a 300% commitment, 50+hours a week Fundraising Director role was no longer an option.

On looking into what others do in this situation, Claire discovered the field of workplace wellbeing, the research work of Prof Cary Cooper, the Gallup Organisation and Simon Sinek, and hasn't looked back since.

In 2018, Claire created her own piece of research into the wellbeing of fundraisers and when it concluded in 2019, over 700 fundraisers had taken part. The results of the research were used to further inform and refine the work Claire does with organisations and individuals in the charity sector.

In 2020 Claire won the Best Digital Leader Award at the Social CEO Awards and in 2021 curated the first Charity Wellbeing Summit.

Today, Claire works on organisational culture and wellbeing projects with charities and offers coaching and mentoring programmes to sector professionals.

Becky has spent the last decade building people power and people-powered movements to hold the most powerful to account for a fairer, more just, and cleaner future.
She helped build 38 Degrees UK into a movement of over 1 million citizens and led many of the biggest campaigns. As part of OPEN’s senior team, she helped build and sustain a network across 19 different countries, by supporting, coaching, and building fast-growing digitally facilitated organisations.

She's currently Senior Strategist at The Sunrise Project leading the Global Banks Program and building grassroots activism on finance around the world. She’s on the board of Skiftet, Sweden’s biggest online campaign community and Left Foot Forward in the UK.

Andrew Taylor-Dawson is Development Manager at Liberty, where he leads on member and support engagement. He has been in fundraising for around 13 years. In this time he has worked in the human rights, homelessness and social justice sectors as well as having been a freelance consultant.

He has held board positions with Global Justice Now and the adoption support organisation We Are family.

Rebecca is a Digital Project Manager, who recently led the redesign and redevelopment of The Children's Society's website.

Rebecca worked closely with senior stakeholders, subject matter experts, and digital agencies to create a new platform that demonstrates the organisation's refreshed vision, mission and brand. There has already been astounding results in the 6-months since launch.

I have worked as a web developer for about 20 years and for Which? since 2015, primarily on their WordPress sites. This has involved integration with a variety of different APIs, most recently the Engaging Networks API, along with the creation of APIs to allow sites to talk to one another.

Glyn Thomas is a digital strategist and web developer. He built his first website in 1997 and has been working in digital communications since 2002.

For the past 12 years, Glyn has almost exclusively worked with charities and non-profit organisations. Almost all the projects he works on are focused around campaigning, fundraising or supporter recruitment, and often a mixture of all three.

Now based in Berlin, Glyn works with organisations in the UK, Europe and North America.

Rhian is the Strategic Programme Manager for Physical Activity at Versus Arthritis. Alongside Sport England under the Richmond Group ‘Movement for All’ programme, Rhian is co-developing a long-term, sustainable programme to support those living with Musculoskeletal conditions to increase their physical activity levels and improve their quality of life. Rhian has over 15 years’ experience of supporting people with long term health conditions to become more active. She is passionate about prevention, working in partnership and using an effective knowledge base to create impactful change at scale.

Having gotten his start organizing with anti-war veterans and working as Sala Labs, Sales Engineer, and Partner Manager, Bryan now brings his expertise to non-profit and mission-driven clients as 4Site Studios Director of Digital Strategy. Specializing in challenging and complex projects, Bryan works with each client to craft holistic approaches tailored to goals, budget, and outcomes.

Mary Margaret Callahan is the Chief Mission Officer for Pet Partners, where she is responsible for leading mission delivery including the therapy animal program and grassroots advocacy program. She joined Pet Partners in 2013 and has worked to establish the organization as both an influencer and a resource within the animal-assisted intervention (AAI) and human-animal bond (HAB) community. In 2018 she was named one of PetAge Magazine’s Women of Influence. Mary Margaret lives on a small farm outside Seattle with her husband, daughter and menagerie of animals including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, chickens, goats and miniature donkeys.

Joe Derry Hall is a freelancer working on creative digital and communications. His interests include tech innovation, upending power and reimagining different futures. Joe has been the winner of a Mozilla Creative Media Award and the joint winner of a BAFTA digital award. He was previously in-house in campaigning and communications roles at Amnesty International, the Climate Coalition, the Ecocide campaign, Save the Children, Scope and others. He is one of the initiators of Right Way Up, an experiment to create a radical, practical new vision for the social change sector.

Anna Chowcat is the Digital Manager at Refuge and oversees the charity’s digital function and output. Since joining Refuge, Anna has been instrumental in introducing a number of digital engagement programmes including digital campaigns, bespoke email supporter journeys and user friendly donate/campaign pages. Before joining Refuge, she has worked in digital engagement and campaign roles at The Labour Party and Leonard Cheshire Disability.

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