Getting your email messages flagged as spam used to be as simple as using capitalization, exclamation points or the words “Free Viagra” in the subject line. As communication becomes increasingly Web-based, staying out of trouble with the email police has become more complex, with Internet service provider (ISP) algorithms and security provisions changing daily.
Andrew O’Halloran, chief privacy officer and manager of Industry Relations at Cypra Media in Montreal, said there are three main steps a nonprofit should follow in ensuring it does not get blacklisted for alleged spamming. First, an organization should state why it wants to collect a constituent’s email address and the reasons for the emails. Second, have a “captcha” on your Web site to have the person enter a phrase, which prevents people automatically signing up for emails when that is not their intent, as well as blocking “bots” or automated computer programs from signing up for your email lists.
The third idea is having a double opt-in process, in where the recipient must confirm they want to receive emails from your organization by opening a confirmation email through the address they have given, and clicking a link. “The subscription process is key, and you really want to focus on targeting,” O’Halloran said. “Not everyone is interested in blanket newsletters. Some are content-specific, and you want to be analyzing the information you get in terms of opens, clicks and complaints.”
Testing is always necessary before any email is sent out to reduce the risk of getting flagged, said Michael Quigley, vice president of Email Services at Cypra. Any successful mailer will put an email through several rounds of tests before deployment, such as sSending small test mailings and troubleshooting from there,” Quigley said.
“All ISPs have different mechanisms in place to filter inbound emails, and its important to realize the way they measure and make those decisions is not static, it’s very dynamic,” he said. “Unless you are monitoring what’s happening, no one is going to call you and say, ‘You have a problem.’”
Today, the sender’s reputation is in the hands of the email service provider (ESP) a nonprofit chooses to work with, rather than the nonprofit itself, according to Nick Allen, founder and CEO of Donordigital, in Berkeley, Calif. If an ESP is vigilant in ensuring its clients are not spamming or sending to people who have not signed up to receive its emails, it will develop a good sender reputation and a nonprofit’s emails should be making it to their intended recipient’s in-boxes.
Although saving money and managing lists independently might seem appealing for many charities, enlisting a third-party ESP like Constant Contact or MailChimp is well worth the money, even for small nonprofits, Allen said.
“An email company works closely with ISPs so as Yahoo changes its rules and algorithms (for spamming), they make the adjustments needed to stay on the white list for big companies,” Allen said. “It’s hard to get the level of deliverability that a big vendor can get. It could be theoretically cheaper to do it yourself, but can you really keep up with constantly changing systems big mail servers are using to decide what’s spam?”
Working with an ESP will create a proper HTML body for a charity’s message, instead of including attachments, and can also keep track of data in ways programs like Microsoft Outlook can’t, Quigley explained.
Charities should also make sure the people on their lists have intentionally signed up to receive emails with opt-in services. Purchasing lists is often not an effective way to grow your own email list, Allen said.
An organization’s physical address should be included in the body of an email, as well as an unsubscribe option for those who no longer wish to receive emails or signed up accidentally, said Lara Franklin, marketing manager at TechSoup in San Francisco, Calif. The subject line should also match the content of the email. Even if a nonprofit uses an ESP to manage its email marketing, it is still held accountable to the regulations set forth in 2003’s CAN-SPAM Act, Franklin said.
“You can’t be deceptive in marketing,” she said. “When email clients receive these emails, these are the things they look for.”Laura Quinn, founder and director of Idealware in Portland, Maine, said emailing your donors and constituents periodically and consistently is another way to avoid being detected as potentialspam.
“If you don’t send out an email for three months, and then send out three emails in a week, people will be more likely to hit the spam button because they forget they are on your list,” Quinn said.
Creating email that is optimized for smartphone use is a new challenge. In the near future, nonprofits and ESPs will have to determine how their recipients will be reading their emails.
“Do you ask people if they will read on a mobile phone, or include a link for mobile phone readers?” Allen asked. “You can’t make 10 different versions of the email. On an iPhone an email can look decent, but on a Blackberry it can look pretty bad.”
Above all, nonprofits should be respectful of constituents’ requests and privacy, Franklin said. Emailing too frequently or not honoring opt-out requests can lead to flagging, high unsubscribe rates and even hefty fines.
“Just keep in mind how much communication you think is too much, and what would annoy you,” she said.