How do you aggressively grow your email list but not deep-six your email deliverability? It’s a careful balance and not for the faint of heart. Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) will walk you through their year of crisis (including GDPR, spambots, and more), their strategic approach to fixing the problem, and the success they found. They’ll share with you the mistakes they made and the best practices they learned the hard way to keep their list and quality score healthy while still meeting key business goals. You’ll get tips on email stewardship, engagement, email validation, and audience suppression strategies that will help you create a healthy and reliable responding list.

Slide Deck


Joe: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us. We’re really excited to have you all with us. My name is Joe McLaughlin. I’m the director of analytics and optimization at the Allegiance Group. And I also work as a senior digital strategist for a number of our fundraising and marketing clients. And one of my very favorite clients is joining me here today, Ashley Anewalt.

Ashley: Hi. My name is Ashley Anewalt. I’m the assistant director of digital communications for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. In addition to working with my team and Joe’s team on marketing and promoting our brand mission and programs, I also mainly support our online fundraising program and oversee the health of our email marketing program.

Joe: And so Ashley and I have been working together now as part of this Allegiance Group/Chesapeake Bay Foundation partnership for the last oh, three and a half, four years at this point. For the most part we’ve been very successful, I think. We’ve shown a lot of great growth in the program. But we’re not going to spend our time talking about that today, we’re going to spend some time going into some of the challenges that we’ve faced and what we learned from them, how we overcame them and hopefully how they’ve set us up for success going forward.

First and foremost, when it comes to the session today, we’re really going to do a little bit of a dive into what is email deliverability. And why is it important? Why should I care about it? So we’ll do that as just setting the stage background information before we really dive into some of the issues that CBF ran into over the last handful of years followed by a walkthrough of some of the best practices and long-term solutions that we’ve tried to put in place to really set the program up for success over the long term.

And then we’ll save some time, obviously at the end for. Q & A

First off, what is email delivery and what is email deliverability? Email delivery is really just a measure of how often are your emails being sent successfully to each email service providers’, servers? So is your message getting to Google at all? Is Yahoo receiving your email at all? So that’s email delivery.

Email deliverability is an added measure that tells you whether or not those emails that are reaching those servers are actually getting into inboxes. It’s a fine distinction and we may accidentally use the terms, delivery and deliverability interchangeably at times, but there is that kind of difference and it’s really important that we’re able to master both of them in order to really ensure that you have a healthy email program that will set you up for overall marketing success.

One important thing to note also here is that it’s possible to have very good email delivery rates, but still have terrible email deliverability. So just being good in one of them does not necessarily mean you will be good in both. And we’ll go into each of those and identify how to understand what your current performance is and what your numbers should look like in order to be successful.

So why should I care about email deliverability? Every email service provider, so every Gmail, every Yahoo, every Outlook, all these platforms, they monitor the performance of everyone who’s sending messages to their servers. They then use that to assign sender scores to each and every sender that’s mailing to them.

And those sender scores are what helped to define whether or not a message is delivered to a recipient’s inbox rather than going to a spam folder or a promotions folder or somewhere else that just has a de-prioritized real estate. Obviously if your emails, aren’t making it in front of your subscribers and aren’t making it into their inboxes, all of the incredibly hard work that you’ve done up to that point of developing copy, of developing the proper segmentation strategy, of identifying what your offer is going to be, everything that you’ve done to develop your creative could all really be in vain if obviously your messages just aren’t getting into inboxes and being read.

So just some very baseline metrics for what is the norm within the industry. So email delivery rates, just as a reminder, this is the rate at which your emails are actually getting sent to the Google servers or to Yahoo’s servers, just getting them to the front door. A good email delivery rates is usually in that 95 plus range. And as we go through this presentation, you’ll see CBF regularly had numbers significantly higher than that in the 98, 99% range for much of their time.

Another important metric to know when we’re talking about email delivery is your bounce rates. The one place where your email delivery stats are going to get impacted is if you have high bounce rates. There are two different types of bounces. You can obviously have a hard bounce, which is if I send an email to an email address that just doesn’t exist. Either it was somebody who had a typo when they typed it into your subscription box or their account has been closed out, or it just doesn’t exist anymore. Your email sender will get a message that says, “There’s nobody here by that name”. And that, will ding your email delivery scores.

There’s also a soft bounce, which is like a delayed delivery. And usually this happens if for some reason the email service provider, Gmail, Yahoo, whomever, identifies a potential issue with your message. So if they think that you may be bulk sending to people who don’t want your emails, they’ll hold them in a quarantine for a little while as they do a little more analysis and start to see if messages get through. So they’re not immediate messages that say, there’s nobody here by that name. They’re usually being sent to a good email address, but there’s some reason why an email service provider would want to delay that.

And so when you add those two numbers up, the hard and soft bounce rates, you really don’t want to be any higher than the 3% range. Once you start to get higher than that, the email providers are really going to look at you as a suspect sender and that you may just not be as trustworthy as you ought to be.

And another good indicator, lastly for email delivery, is around your unsubscribe rates. These can vary across the board, so you really want to measure the trends of your messages over time. You don’t want to look at any one message and say, hey, that was a particularly high or a particularly low unsubscribe rate and take too much away from it.

But if you’re monitoring over time, a good benchmark for an unsubscribe rate is somewhere right around that 0.18%. Now that being said, if your unsubscribed rates are too much higher than that, it could indicate that you’re on your way to a deliverability problem. So if you have super high unsub rates for a long period of time, Gmail may say, this organization is sending a lot of messages that people clearly don’t want. There’s a feedback loop involved that says these are not good messages, I don’t want them anymore. They might start to hamper your deliverability scores later on. Somewhat paradoxically though, you may also think obviously that a low unsubscribe rate is a good sign. And sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s also a bad sign.

It can be an indication that you already have a deliverability problem or that your subscribers are just zoning you out completely, and just filtering your messages on their own. And it may just mean that people aren’t opening and interacting with your messages.

And so you really want to be right in that sweet spot, which is always hard to define and identify as a specific number, but you really want to have high open rates and benchmark-ish range unsubscribed rates. That means that people are obviously reading your messages and they’re finding them interesting enough that they don’t want to unsubscribe.

So that was delivery. Now we’re going to transition to deliverability and please forgive me again if I start to use the terms interchangeably. But there are a number of things that really go into impacting your deliverability score. Some of the key factors are list hygiene, are you sending only to good email addresses?

And so this one will pop up, obviously, as we talked about in the email delivery side with our bounces and soft bounces keeping your list clean is really paramount to making sure that your messages are getting through to the people who want to read them and to see them and interact with them. And obviously, the more you’re able to capitalize on that, the greater success you’re going to see from your email marketing program.

A second piece that impacts your deliverability scores is going to be your domain and IP authentication. Most email senders and whatever platform you’re using, whether it’s a Blackbaud product, Engaging Networks, MailChimp, any of these types of bulk email senders provide some type of authentication.

And what this authentication does is it passes along some information with each email that goes out that lets Google and Yahoo and MSN and the whomever else, know that you are a reputable sender and that this message coming from this IP address is in fact, an email from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

And that way they know that you’re not really a spammer. no way. If you don’t happen to know whether or not you have this domain and IP authentication in place, reach out to your bulky mail sender. Your account reps will definitely know where to point you to get that set up properly.

And then the last big thing that impacts your deliverability is this kind of nebulous idea of sender reputation. So does the email service provider think that you’re sending engaging and interesting messages to your users? Do your users want those messages? Do they actually engage with them, et cetera?

And so the reason for this is obviously Google wants its Gmail users to continue to using Gmail, right? It’s in Google’s interest to get interesting and engaging emails to the top of the inbox for their people so that their users will continue to use their product. So the way that they do that is really monitoring those open rates, click through rates, the volume of email that you’re sending on a regular basis. They identify do their users want your emails? If yes, great. They’re going to bump you up to the top of the list. If they don’t, they may relegate you to the promotions tab. If you don’t have a number of these things in place, that’s when you’re going to start to land in junk folders.

And so it’s always a little tough, it’s a dance that you’re always doing to try and make sure that your messages are interesting enough that you’re getting opens and clicks. But obviously getting those messages to the tops of priority inbox delivery is going to have a huge impact, especially when we’re talking about really important business goals, whether it’s fundraising, advocacy brand building, engagement, special event registrations, all of these things are hugely impacted by whether or not your messages are actually getting into inboxes and getting to the top of that inbox.

So now based on that, the logical next question is, what is my deliverability score? How do I find that out? How do I know what Google thinks of me? How do I know what Outlook thinks of me, et cetera?

And the unfortunate secret is that there’s no single score that’s going to tell you, yes, you have a high sender reputation across all platforms. Google has their own proprietary scoring system. Yahoo has its own proprietary scoring. And so you’re never going to be able to get a single number that says, yes, you’re doing a great job and all email platforms love you. But there are a number of third-party tools that you can use to get a sense across multiple platforms or across multiple email providers. But it is important to remember that no, single one of these is going to tell you the whole story. And so it is really important to be obviously monitoring your delivery metrics of your messages. Seeing if people are opening your messages, are you getting clicks through?

Are people whatever donating or registering for the event, or whatever your key business goal is. In addition, as I mentioned, there’s a number of these third-party tools. is one that you can reach out to. They have a way of monitoring delivery across multiple email platforms, and they can give you a sense of, are your messages getting into inboxes?

Additionally Google does have a tool that they call Postmaster Tools where you can log in and see how your IP addresses are performing, how they’re rated, et cetera. Microsoft has a similar tool. They don’t give you all of the information that they have about you as a sender, but they have enough that will probably point you in the right direction, and let you know if there is a problem and identify some of the things that you can do to address those. And then lastly, a lot of your emailing platforms probably also provide sender reputation services. And we’ll get into this a little bit when we talked about CBFs story, but Blackbaud provides sender reputation services.

I know that if you’re using and Engaging Networks or a MailChimp or something along those lines, reps with them can also help you look into additional services in terms of monitoring your reputation.

All right. So now with that, we’re going to turn to, I think, the more interesting chunk of our presentation here, but we want to learn a lot about Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s story, and how did email deliverability become an issue that Ashley and I spent a lot of time working through over the course of many months. So Ashley, take it away.

Ashley: That’s right. Thanks. So CBF is over 50 years. We are the largest independent conservation organization dedicated to saving the Chesapeake Bay. And that’s our mission, actually is saved the bay. It’s a three-word mission. My team, the digital communications team supports a really wide range of programs and communications across our organization.

That includes advocacy, fundraising and promotions, registrations for volunteer and educational opportunities, as well as general updates about the state of the Tuscan Bay, and any active litigation we might be working on. And I’m sure like many of your organizations, we have a lot of competing priorities, and it can sometimes feel like a really big challenge to explain to our colleagues when we’re balancing meeting goals, via email marketing for their individual programs, and then protecting the health of the email marketing program as a whole.

And in order to feel really confident in that balancing act at CBF, we unfortunately had to learn the fragility of email deliverability firsthand. And we did that twice.

Joe: I think that’s a really good point though, Ashley, that obviously, when you have all these multiple stakeholders, the impacts of an email deliverability problem are not relegated to just one of those areas. It’s not just that we had bad deliverability on a single special event message. And so only the special events team was impacted. It has ripple effects. It impacts your fundraising team, your advocacy team, your marketing team, your communications team. And so having a plan in place ahead of time for how to deal with these things, and obviously trying to lay the groundwork and have best practices in place ahead of time, it’s going to save everyone a mountain of headaches, I believe.

Ashley: Absolutely. So a little while ago, we accidentally sent an email to our full list without excluding any sort of suppressions. So while our system won’t email to opt outs or hard bounces, we did end up sending to users that we had previously identified as inactive or unengaged which definitely put our program in danger.

We generally aim to keep our delivery rates 97 to 98%. But after that mistake, we went from a 98% delivery send of one message, to a 69% delivery of the following email the very next day. And it did not help that these were for our fiscal year-end fundraising campaign.

Joe: And you can see here too in that middle bullet, that your soft bounce rate was nearly 6%. And so those soft bounces were messages that were identified by Google, Yahoo, whomever as, hey, something’s not right here. These should not have all come at this one period all within this big spike. And so those are all delayed deliveries, which when you’re talking about a priority campaign, like a fiscal year-end where you’ve got a deadline, you’ve got a matching gift offer that you have to reach, delays themselves or are bad enough, let alone the fact that you’re also then going to be talking about just messages not being sent. Just getting held back completely.

Ashley: But fortunately, we had already been working with Blackbaud to set up engagement factors, which would help us identify our most active users based on the interactions that they’ve had with us, like how many emails they’ve opened or clicked. And then we were able to create dynamic segments to target those users for inclusions or exclusions.

We immediately put them to use in responding to this issue by sending the next email, which was a very targeted topic, to users who have opened emails in the last two months, and that actually bumped delivery back up to 98% for that individual email. And after seeing that we continued to throttle the sends. We focused on sending first to the users who we described as most active, they had opened an email in the last three months. And then we separately sent that same email to the remainder of the list.

Joe: CBF uses Luminate Online as their bulk email sender. And so Luminate Blackbaud has these engagement scores that you can build and assigned to every contact within your database.

It’s really just a bulk process that they can run that says, hey, how many emails has this person opened in the last 3 months, 6 months, et cetera? How many advocacy actions have they taken? How many donations have they made? Lot of emailing platforms that are in use today have some similar type of capabilities where they either have an engagement score built in natively, you can layer it on top of what’s already there, or you can build custom queries to create a group and to create your own audience that way. But the reason that throttling works to boost your delivery scores is the reputation that email providers have on you is always in flux. It changes based on every message that you’re sending. So it’s a living number. You have one email that goes out that has a terrible delivery score, and immediately you get dinged, and your score is going to decrease with them. But if you go out with the very next message that only goes to super engaged people, people who you can feel pretty confident are going to open your message. They’re going to click through on your message. They’re going to convert potentially. The email providers see that as well, and they say, hey, this message that came from Chesapeake Bay Foundation and went to 10,000 people was opened by 8,500 people. This must be a super, super important and super interesting and super engaging topic that their supporters want. And because that sender reputation score is a living number, they will bump you back up, your number will start to flow back up.

And so that’s how we were able to goose the system a little bit to make sure that we’re able to get the emails both in front of these super engaged people, but by sending to them first and bringing your reputation scores up, it helped with the subsequent send that went to the slightly less engaged people, who probably would have then brought the sender reputation back down slightly. But doing that for a sustained period over a number of weeks can have a huge impact when they see that, hey, CBF has great emails. So when they go out in the morning with, this message, it goes to exactly who wants to hear from them.

Ashley: So within the month we were able to get our delivery rates back up to the 95% range using a strategy. And we of course, kept pushing forward with implementing best practices that would help us protect our deliverables. We explored email verification tools. Then we settled on a contract. We use never NeverBounce, and we bought the credits needed to run a verification on our full files.

So we uploaded our list securely. And within a day we received a report that identified if the emails on the list were valid or invalid or unknown. And then we worked with our development and IT teams to effectively remove or suppress bad addresses. We also worked with Blackbaud on a deliverability report, as Joe mentioned as possible with some providers and that helped highlight some more practices that we could lean on to both increase the health of our file and prevent other deliverability catastrophes from popping up.

Joe: Let’s not skip over the second bullet here that given that you’re responding in real time to a crisis, you’re still able to hit your fiscal year-end fundraising goals, largely because of the hard work that you put in as soon as the issue was identified.

It is important to remember that even when there is a crisis and it feels like everything is going terribly at the moment, It’s not the end of the battle. Because those reputations are living numbers, your actions today will help impact what happens tomorrow as well.

Ashley: Yeah. And I would definitely say that while you surely want to take advantage of any opportunity to reach anyone who has expressed interest in your mission, the beauty of the throttle is that we were first reaching the people who are most engaged, who are most likely to convert anyway.

It was very helpful in still meeting a really important fundraising goal.

And that’s a great point that we’ll get into a little bit later also about the importance of keeping people in that super engaged group and growing that group of super engaged folks rather than letting them slip into a moderately engaged or less engaged because they’re going to be the ones who help to save you when a crisis can strike as well.

All right. We weathered that crisis. We made it through that storm, and then?

And we thought we were on the right track. And then as soon as our rates were really solid again, we hit a spam trap with our welcome series.

We suspected that it had come onto the file from a bot via a quiz we were using for list acquisition right before yet another very critical fundraising campaign. And it was actually just days after we had used an email verification tool to validate our entire file, which proves that spam traps can and do look like valid addresses.

Joe: Yeah. That’s a great point. So let’s just take a minute to talk about what is a spam trap. There’s a couple of different types of spam traps that are worth discussing here. One is what’s called a recycled spam trap, which you can see here in RST. This is an email address that was valid at some point, belonged to a real-life human being, and for one reason or another, they stopped using that email address. This has definitely happened to me. I have an old Hotmail address. I have an old Yahoo address. I haven’t logged into them in years. So what happens with them is the email provider recognizes you haven’t logged in, you’re not using their service.

They shut down that email address. They will typically put up hard bounce error on those recycled addresses. They’ll put up a hard bounce for a little while, which will allow anybody who is actually still sending to those addresses to know that they’re bad addresses and they should stop sending to them.

And then after something in the neighborhood of 30 to 90 days, they’ll take down the hard bounce alert. And if somebody continues to send to this address, they’ll know that you have not been consistently sending to them or you’re not using best practices and suppressing your hard bounces because you should have gotten a hard bounce from this address multiple times over the last couple of months.

And so any messages that come through, they will immediately start to get dinged as spam, even though they were clearly real addresses, they very well may have been on your email file for a long period. And you may have been actively sending to them and they just turned into this.

There’s also the what’s called the pristine spam trap. And so these are rather than ever having belonged to real life human beings. These are addresses that Google or Yahoo or whomever will create on their own platform. They look like a very real email address that they could very well appear to be a proper inbox, but that email provider knows this doesn’t belong to a human.

This belongs to our pristine spam traps in house. And so any message that gets sent to those addresses, they know is almost certainly spam and most likely coming from bots at that point. And then the last piece is these role account traps or functional email account traps. These are often very closely associated with either a job, title or department title, webmaster at sales at support at these email providers, they can tell these are not real people that you’re sending to. And so messages that are going to these types of addresses will sometimes get dinged as spam or unreliable, or they’re just being sent by a sender who’s a little less reputable perhaps then they want to delivered to their inboxes. And so what can frequently happen obviously is if you hit one of these spam traps, which look exactly like a real email address, you may not know about it immediately. So Ashley, how did you find out about this?

Ashley: Yeah, so it was actually Blackbaud who reached out to us and informed us sternly that we had hit a spam trap and that we were really responsible for figuring out how to identify it and clean it up.

I don’t think the spam houses they don’t even tell Blackbaud or other providers. They won’t identify them.

Joe: Yeah, that’s a good point too. Even when you know, you’ve hit a spam trap, you may not know which email address within your database is that spam trap.

And so there’s a lot of guess work that goes into trying to figure this out after the fact. You mentioned Blackbaud’s message to you being a stern one. I just want to explain why. So, Blackbaud has probably dozens or hundreds of clients who are all sending from the same IP addresses when they send out emails. And so every email that CBF sends has an impact on every other one of those shared IP clients. Obviously it’s in Blackbaud’s interest to make sure that all of their clients, all of their client organizations are sending out following most reputable best practices and such, and to protect their other clients as well.

And so that’s why they were the first ones to recognize that this was a spam trap. And they were so quick on the ball really to let you guys know. But I’m curious, can you talk us through what the next steps were? So you don’t know which email address it was that was the stamp trap.

You’ve got X number of addresses it could be. Where do you go from there?

Ashley: So we were very fortunate looking back that it was the welcome series that we know. And so they were able to tell us what email had hit the spam trap. And it was a welcome series. And so we were able to look back and see the timeframe by which we hit the spam trap.

So it wasn’t a full-list email. It could have been anyone on the file. We were able to narrow it down to a specific timeframe. In addition to just immediately shutting down the welcome series for a period while we could figure this out, we also closed all of our web forms, including our email signup.

And we took that group of people who it could have been in the welcome series who hit the spam trap. And we just purged them from the list. And then we escalated our need to secure all of our forums with recapture. It was something that we were already working on again, but we really wanted to curb that bot infestation that we were experiencing. And then we reviewed our inactive query to tighten things up. From the previous slide, Joe, you were talking about the recycled spam traps. It’s thought that an email can turn into one of those in just six months. So we really looked back, and we tightened things up even more on our inactives.

To say that if you hadn’t done any other heavier lift engagement with us, like a donation or an advocacy action, that you basically have six months to open an email or you’re considered inactive, because then you could be a danger to our list. So we then confirmed with Blackbaud that we had done everything we were able to and responsible for as a response.

And we were able to really dodge some pretty severe consequences, even though it’s of course really unfortunate that we had to potentially lose a lot of good, qualified leads as a result, because we had to purge everyone.

Joe: Yeah, that’s a good point. So you mentioned having to throw those people overboard.

Was that a hard decision internally? Obviously we’re talking about potentially dozens or hundreds of people that it could have impacted, almost all of whom are going to be real people and real email addresses.

Ashley: It was definitely a challenge. All of it’s a challenge trying to tighten up the inactives and getting everyone really on board and selling that delivery and deliverability are critical to meeting our goals.

It was definitely a challenge, but fortunately, I think CBF with the help of Allegiance we had gotten through crisis number one, by the time we were hitting crisis number two, I think we were all very realistic about the dangers that we could be facing. And so while it did hurt a lot to toss those people right before a fundraising campaign, we knew it was in the best interest of the email marketing program and then CBF as a whole.

Joe: All right. So we survived crisis one, we survived crisis two. We want to avoid ever having to run into crisis three again. So what do we do? So we start to look at best practices and implementing long-term solutions. The initial recommendations out of the gate that we ran with was implementing a re-engagement series.

This was designed specifically to improve the overall list health for the organization. And so what we did was we worked together to create a four-message series. And set it up as an automated delivery. So it would regularly send to people who have just fallen into that inactive group that Ashley mentioned earlier.

Every day people are becoming inactive. They’ve been on the file, but they just hit their six-month mark of not having opened an email, or not having made a donation, or not taking an advocacy action. And they hit that period, the system immediately triggers the series of messages that has the content that we’ve identified as being potentially most interesting to somebody who maybe hasn’t opened an email in a while. So we want to really take a big swing and say, hey, come on back, we’ve got some good stuff here, take a look. And so we’ve got a video, there’s a special promotional offer from the CBF store if you make it that far. So try all the tactics and gimmicks and things like that, that we could really just to get people to open up an email again, and say that, hey, there is a real person here and yes, I am still interested in the messages that you’re sending.

But obviously if you’ve made it six months without having opened an email from an organization, another three or four emails is probably not going to get you back at that point. You’ve already had an opportunity to read a lot of emails from us and have decided not to. And so the important thing at that point is identify the people who you have little to no chance of ever re-engaging and get them off the file before they really start to turn into one of these recycled spam traps that we’ve seen before.

And so we’ve got a couple of messages in here that have a slightly more intriguing or provocative subject line than some of the other messages that go out from CBF, but then they also are really just something that says, we know we’ve noticed that you haven’t opened a message in quite some time, do you really want to still be on this file? Trying to really level with people. And you can see it on the top left here. There’re just two buttons. Once you open that message that says, Yes, count me in, or No, count me out. And if you click the, No, Count Me Out, it takes you right to the unsubscribe page. No fuss, no muss, you can get off the file. We recognize like we said earlier, having people unsubscribed from your list is not a bad thing if they don’t want your messages. And so getting them funneled into that inactive and unsubscribed group is actually a good thing. Now that said, obviously we do see somewhere in the range of 1% to 4% of the people that received these messages, open them, click through, re-engage take some kind of action.

And so there are still some people at that six-month mark who have been inactive for a long time, but all of a sudden say, hey, that’s an interesting subject line. Or that message came at just the right time in my day. I’m going to open it up and see what’s going on. And you can basically reactivate them and funnel them back into your regular communication stream at that point, because obviously as with all types of marketing, fundraising, et cetera, it’s always cheaper and better to keep the people that you have, who are supporting you than to have to go out and acquire a new one to replace them. And so if you can find those people within your recently inactive folks, great. Keep them on the file and get them back in. And they’ll probably continue to support over a period of time as well.

Another longer term, best practice or solution that we’ve invested quite a bit of time with CBF on is looking back at really all of our acquisition sources, where are email’s coming from, and saying are they worth it? Are they worth the effort to get them? Are they worth the costs associated with acquiring them, with trying to nurture them, if at a certain point, a large percentage of these people are just going to become inactive anyway? And this runs the gamut of paid lead generation that we’ve done on Care2 or Facebook or other sources, but also organic lead generation.

And saying, how can we optimize the email signup process on our organic website so that we’re getting the most qualified people without getting a lot of people who are just going to drop off the file within six months? And the reason really for this is we recognize that growing the email file is an important goal. And obviously you’re going to have some number of people falling off your email file all the time. And so you want to replace them. But the important thing is not to just replace them for the sake of replacing them, but it’s to find other high quality engaged people who are going to stick around on the file and stay most importantly, in that highly engaged group of people who are opening multiple emails within every two-to-three-month period so that they can help boost your sender scores and, keep up your overall deliverability.

Ashley: I talked to leadership about that point a lot. Growing our email file is important to meeting our business goals or engaging with our users and stewarding members.

And it’s something that every organization should put time and resources into. But growing your file with qualified leads has to be priority number one. And that kind of growth will always be incremental compared to growing your list in a way that could put it and your email marketing program and subsequently those business goals at risk. Getting unqualified, unengaged users on your list, like you said, Joe will not only slow the return for your fundraising and advocacy goals, but it’s also going to drag down your email rates and then endanger your deliverability.

Joe: And you mentioned this a little bit earlier when we talked about the fiscal year-end campaign, but obviously you’re still able to hit your goals. Your business goals are still reachable even with a more tempered or slower email list acquisition.

Ashley: And it definitely, I think after these two crisis situations I feel like that was the point in which we really did settle into our email marketing and list health strategy, which certainly included, like you just talked about, reviewing these different ways that we acquire and whether we invest more in lead gen or direct to donate in order to really boost up return, but also do it in a way that makes sense for our file and protects marketing.

Joe: So in summary, there’s a number of best practices and tactics that you can put in place more or less immediately that will help to protect your delivery scores and your deliverability scores. One big one is confirming IP and DNS authorization and authentication. So if you don’t know if you’re authenticated, reach out to the people who manage that relationship with your email senders. They’ll be able to figure it out and get you set up. No problem.

And just as a reminder, that lets Google and Yahoo and whomever know that you are who you say you are and that emails that come from you are reputable. So that’s just the first step in getting your foot in the door. The second item is doing that kind of throttled sending, so leveraging your email providers’ ability to use engagement scores or quality scores or whatever terminology they happen to use for this, but in essence, finding your most engaged people, the people most likely to open an email and being able to throttle your sending so that those super engaged folks get the message first. It’ll help, not just get money in the door quickly from a fundraising campaign or get signups in the door right away, it’ll also help boost the longer-term impact of those messages because your lesser engaged audiences will also see more of their messages hitting the inbox as well.

Email verification services are great and are a great tool to use, especially if you have a large and potentially many years old email file, and you have no idea how many of those emails are still active, still real, and if you don’t have a great other way of identifying whether or not they’ve been turned into spam traps, all that sort of thing.

There are a number of email verification tools out there that you can look into. We mentioned NeverBounce, which was what CBF had used. You just take your full email file, and you upload it to their platform, they scrub it and analyze it and they tell you which ones are good, which ones are suspect and which ones they don’t know.

And so you can use that as another indicator, of who should be within that kind of super engaged group as well. When you run into problems and if you can isolate them to specific pages or forms or sources as CBF was able to, the engagement quiz that we had set up that seemed to be generating a lot of bot traffic, you can implement reCAPTCHA, or you could do a double opt-in process with your email provider to make sure that the people who are actually submitting those forms are real people and that they really want to get your messages so that you’re not just adding spam to your list.

And then a big one here is removing what we call deadwood email addresses from the file. These are the people who are not opening emails for a long period of time. They’re not donating, they’re not taking advocacy actions. They are sending you a pretty clear indication that they don’t want your emails at that point.

So if they don’t want them, why send them? They’re only going to hurt your scores and they’re going to make it harder to get the messages to the people who do.

You can use marketing automation. These are triggered email sends whether it’s a welcome series or a re-engagement series, like we talked about. These are the built-in scheduled messages that your email platform can send on your behalf. You just have to identify your content once you set it up and then you can really let it run for a while and do most of the heavy work of keeping people who either are new to the file, engaged, or reactivating those deeper lapsed audiences, those people who are sliding into that inactive zone, either reactivating them or shuttling them into an inactive group at that point. Always pay attention to your sources of your new email addresses. Know where these people are coming from. If you start to see huge spikes and organic signups on your website, it means that something is probably weird, and you may be seeing some bot traffic that way.

But then obviously over the long term, really, you want to be monitoring the level of engagement that each of these sources is generating over time. There are sources where we can get a whole bunch of new email addresses quickly, but if they don’t open an email address ever, or they only opened the first message in your welcome series and then immediately stopped opening messages, are they really valuable to you? Probably not. They’re just going to drag down a lot of your scores.

So you want to be able to make sure that you’ve tagged all of your new sources of records and that sort of thing so that you can track them over time and know is the preponderance of them becoming inactive? Are they unsubscribing? Are they harming our deliverability and our delivery scores? If so, let’s reassess. Maybe we don’t want to do that going forward. And then I think this last one is one of the most important, but also one of the most difficult actually. So I think I’m going to let you explain how you went about reviewing with leadership the importance of quality over quantity.

Ashley: Yeah. So it is a hard sell. It took us a long time and it took us a lot of going over the potential danger that we would face if we didn’t implement these best practices and really think about how we were acquiring email addresses for our file and growing our files.

And reminding leadership that first and foremost, we are focused on our business goals and even engagement of members and having the high number of users on our file or even them engaging with the emails. Ultimately we need to be able to convert these users. Like Joe said, if we aren’t able to reach the most important ones who helped us still reach our goal for this year in fundraising, even though we were in the middle of a deliverability issue, then we’re really facing a bigger problem in meeting the organization’s goals and advancing the mission.

So it’s just important to remind leadership and ask why the goals are what they are for email growth when you’re still meeting your business goals and really come up with a plan, I think to identify the sweet spot or identify the red alert spot rather to say okay, now we’re seeing a decrease in our business goals or we’re not meeting our, budget and we need to reassess now are our acquisition goals.

And that kind of brings a really important point that I don’t think we spent much time discussing, but it’s super important to have an advocate for list health. Someone whose mandate is really, to watch out for the red flags internally, because it is an issue that can impact and absolutely will impact the entire organization.

If it’s everyone’s job to pay attention to it, no one’s going to pay attention to it. And so I think having that one key stakeholder and in this case, you were that key stakeholder who really owns this topic and knows the ins and outs of how these systems work and talk to one another and why it’s important and how it impacts everybody else at the organization, because you do really need somebody who can speak up on behalf of the whole organization, even when it means you have to say no to your boss or another one of those stakeholders and say, we really can’t send that email, or we should not be investing in this list growth strategy, because we’re not getting the right people onto our file.

And from the other side of it, it also gives the comfort I hope of the organization knowing that someone is able to raise a flag when the flag needs to be raised.

Joe: Yeah, that’s a great point. And that brings us to the end of our presentation. So I want to just say thank you to everyone who’s joined us but thank you especially to Ashley for being such a wonderful partner in this year of email deliverability hell and a real leader in terms of helping get CBF out of the fire.

Ashley: I couldn’t have done it without you, Joe.