If you read anything in this entire guide, read this section about things you MUST do.
You’ve spent hours working on one email. You’ve had several rounds of edits, and you got approval to send. Your subject line is catchy, you tested your links, and your button looks great. You hit send. But some recipients don’t see the email in their inboxes — your email, the one you worked so hard on, went to the dreaded spam folder. You watch as your open rates fail to top 5%.
This is an email deliverability problem. Email deliverability is about making the most of your email program and ensuring your email arrives in the inbox of the recipient as intended (and not the spam folder).
Improving your email deliverability isn’t just something that ‘would be nice to do’. Good email deliverability is critical to your mission. And all it takes is just a few bad email sends to hurt your email deliverability
But wait, you say, I run a great email program. My email content is a work of art. This doesn’t matter to me.
I hate to break it to you, but your content isn’t everything. The definition of spam has changed over time, and just because you aren’t advertising life insurance, delivery prescription meds, or a long lost wealthy relative doesn’t mean you’ll stay out of the spam folder. In fact, in the past year you’ve probably heard a lot more about deliverability. Since 2018, we’ve seen email providers (like Gmail, Yahoo, iCloud, Hotmail, etc.) become stricter about what gets sorted into the spam folder. And since 2022, that's gotten even stricter.
In the past, spam used to be defined by the question, “Is this email unrequested?” Now spam is defined by “Is this email likely to be engaged with?” With engagement now the priority, it’s more important than ever to prioritize deliverability.
That’s why we’re here today! This guide will discuss what deliverability is and how it works. Read on to discover strategies to improve (or maintain) your deliverability.
- FAQs and Definitions
- Strategies for Improving (and Maintaining) Good Deliverability
- Advanced Strategies
FAQs and Definitions
What is deliverability? Why is it important?
Deliverability is your email arriving in the inbox of the recipient as intended (not the spam folder). What could be more important than making sure people actually see your work-of-art email?
What is spam actually? What ends up in the spam folder?
The definition of spam has changed a lot in the past decade. In the past, spam used to be defined by the question, “Is this email unrequested?”
Now, in 2019, there are 490 BILLION emails sent every day.1 Every. Single. Day. And 85% of those emails are malicious spam. With that many emails, email providers (like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, iCloud, and so on) needed better filters to keep their customers happy. So the machines got smarter. The new definition of spam is, “Is this email likely to be engaged with?”
Engagement is the key to good email deliverability. If you send an email to an activist and they consistently don’t engage (open, click, reply, take action), after a while, your emails will be considered spam for that activist even if they never hit the spam button.
On a larger scale, if you consistently send emails to activists who don’t engage with your content, your organization’s sender reputation will be negatively impacted, and more of your emails will be sorted into spam across the board.
How do the email providers decide what goes into spam?
Determining engagement goes beyond the statistics you can see on your CRM. The machines at Google, Hotmail, Yahoo, Apple, etc. can see a lot more data than you can. They develop a fingerprint for an organization. It takes all that engagement data you know (like actions, opens, clicks, spam complaints, bounces, and unsubscribes) AND looks at content size, IP address, authenticatication, email templates, subject lines, from address, email content, headers and footers, and more.
The key to good deliverability isn’t to send the email that the email providers want — the key is to send emails your recipients want.
Let’s review: Good deliverability = engagement = sending emails your recipients want
What does good deliverability look like?
While you should aim for a higher open rate (think 30-40% on your best emails), an open rate of 10% or higher means your emails are getting delivered.
*These metrics will vary heavily depending on the makeup of your list and how many people have Mail Privacy Protection turned on. Make sure to look at other stats!
Hint: You can see some of these stats on your deliverability dashboard (emails tab of your group manage page)
Let’s break each of these elements down:
- Open (unique): the number of recipients who have opened your email at least once
- Aggregate open: the number of times your email was opened (if Brian opens your email three times, that counts as 3 aggregate opens, but one unique open)
- Click (unique): the number of recipients who clicked in your email at least once
- Hard bounce: the recipient’s email address is invalid or doesn’t exist. Remember: the lifespan of an email address is only three years.
- Soft bounce: the recipient’s email address is valid, but there was a short-term issue. Maybe the mailbox was full, the server was down, or the message was too large.
- Unsubscribe: the recipient hit the unsubscribe button and removed themself from your list
- Spam report: the recipient marked the email as spam
The metric most of us focus on is open rate, but clicks, unsubscribes, spam complaints, and action rates are also key. We recommend that you work to maintain at least a 40% open rate over a 24-hour rolling period.
That means your deliverability looks good if, for example:
- You send out one email on Thursday with a 40% open rate.
- You send out one email to 10,000 people on Thursday morning with a 50% open rate and another Thursday night to 5,000 people with a 35% open rate (average is still above 40%)
- You send out an email on Wednesday night to 5,000 people with an open rate of 45% and an email on Thursday morning to 5,000 people with an open rate of 38%.
Note that this is proportional — sending one email to 100 people with a 45% open rate and then a second email to 100,000 people with a 5% open rate does not result in a 25% open rate overall (it would only come to 5.045%). The number of people you’re emailing is important!
If you’re struggling with deliverability, aim for a ~45% average to get things back on track.
Deliverability is all about looking for trends. Take note if you send out an email with wildly different stats, but really pay attention if your open rate starts to decline or your unsubscribe rate goes up over a period of time.
- My open rate is high, but my click rate is low?
- Your recipients want emails from you, but they don’t like your content or your call to action (CTA).
- Try testing your subject lines or adding CTA buttons.
- My click rate is high, but my open rate is low?
- Your emails are likely going to spam, but the emails that do end up in the inbox are performing well.
- Time to start improving your deliverability — read on!
- My bounce rate is high?
- Your list might be out of date. Time to do a list clean-up!
- My unsubscribe rate is high?
- Your content is not appealing to your activists. Try varying it or segmenting your list using tags.
And remember: An unsubscribe will not hurt your deliverability, but a spam complaint will.
|What counts as bouncing on Action Network?
|How does Action Network handle bounces and spam complaints?
|Only hard bounces. If a message bounces, we will automatically keep trying to deliver the email for 72 hours to determine if it’s a soft or hard bounce. So that means soft bounces (auto-responses, full email inboxes, or temporary server outages) will not count as a bounce on Action Network, and they will not be placed on the global block list.
|Activists whose email addresses bounce or who report your email as spam will be automatically unsubscribed from your email list and placed on the global block list. They will no longer receive any emails coming through Action Network, from any organization or group. Email us to remove bouncing activists right away (so they can be resubscribed to your list). If someone is submitting a spam complaint, they’ll need to fill out a pledge to never mark an Action Network email as spam again before we will take them off the global block list. More here.
Strategies for Improving (and Maintaining) Good Deliverability
There are three things that YOU control that affect your deliverability:
- Who you send to
- What you send
- How often you send
The Basics (100% necessary)
These are baseline things everyone should do, regardless of your metrics:
Step 1: Set up your sender authentication
- Buy your own domain. It’s like $20/year and is necessary! Good deliverability over a long period of time will not be possible without DKIM and DMARC, which are themselves only possible if you send from your own domain.
- Install DKIM and SPF records. DKIM stands for DomainKeys Identified Mail. It links your domain to the emails you send, which allows your organization to take responsibility for a message that can be verified by mailbox providers. It’s pretty complicated, but it basically prevents the “bad guys” from impersonating you as an email sender by letting the recipient’s server check if the sender was really you or not. This means your emails are more likely to get delivered (and not go to spam). All you have to do is email us with the email address you use in your reply-to, and we’ll send you text records to install.
- Install DMARC records. DMARC stands for Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance. It tells email providers what to do if an email fails DKIM authentication. As of February 2024, major email providers require organizations who have over 5,000 people on their email lists to have some sort of DMARC set up. Send us your reply to email and we can send you the records to install. We encourage you to set this up at the same time as DKIM!
Step 2: Ensure you have good opt-in policies (100% opt-ins!)
What’s your take on opt-ins?
- I like my lists large and my opt-in policies loose
- Opting-in is good, but they can always unsubscribe
- Sure, let’s opt people in most of the time
- OPT-INS ARE MY LIFE
Let’s be honest: We’ve all been subscribed to email lists we don’t remember opting-in to. It’s confusing and frustrating, and maybe it’s so frustrating that you hit the spam button. The progressive movement tends to have a “a big list is a better list” mentality. But sending emails to people who aren’t expecting them is bad for your deliverability. The recipients will be less engaged and might even hit the spam button. When you send unexpected emails repeatedly, email providers can tell you have some shady opt-in practices (remember how the email providers know everything?) and will start sorting your emails into the spam folder.
So before you send an email to someone, ask yourself: is this person expecting an email from me?
- Affirmative opt-ins (make people check a box or radio button indicate they’re subscribing)
- A welcome series of emails that introduces people to your list (who your organization is)
- Segment your recipients based on how they signed up
|So what about joint actions, are those folks opted-in?
While having people check off a box affirming their opt-in status is a best practice, opting people into your list isn’t always black and white. From purchased lists to confirmed opt-ins, there’s a spectrum of ways people can get on your list. The way someone signed up to your list is a good predictor of future engagement and deliverability. But there are two things you should never do:
|Yes! People taking joint actions, using the additional sponsors tool on Action Network, are opted-in to your email list. However, recipients don’t always read the checkbox listing all the co-sponsors they’re opting-in to. Because of that, recipients from joint actions are “riskier” than those gathered through a sign-up form on your website or collected from an event.
Step 3: Remove Inactives with a Sunset Policy
Since engagement is what determines if your email gets sent to spam, emailing people who haven’t engaged in a long time can be the kiss of death for your sender reputation. That’s why it’s important to implement a sunset policy, where you remove inactive people from your email list after a period of time — typically 6 months to a year depending on how often you send emails (but definitely no more than a year).
You can do this easily on Action Network! Here’s how to unsubscribe people who haven’t engaged in the past year:
- Create an ‘actives’ query like the one below, targeting people who have taken action, opened or clicked an email, or subscribed in the past year. More on queries here.
- Create a report, excluding the actives query. More on reports here.
- Generate a new report, and click the red ‘unsubscribe all activists from lists’ button.
- Automate it! Go to the ‘recurring reports’ tab and set the interval to ‘monthly’ starting next month. Each month, you’ll get an email with the report, which will remind you to unsubscribe your inactive. You can even use ladders and mass operations on reports to automate this for you (ooooh ahhhh)
Step 4: Monitor Your Email Content
Your email content also affects your reputational fingerprint. Here are some things to watch for:
- Ever had your email cut off by Gmail, omitting entire sections of the email you worked so hard on? Your email is getting truncated because it’s too long and the file size is too big, which is another trigger for spam filters. Keep your emails below 102kb. Most emails won’t reach this, but double check longer emails (anything you have to scroll for). You can check by downloading a test email then looking at the file size on your computer.
- No shortened links
- Links like bit.ly/example or tiny.url/example are a huge trigger for spam filters. Spammers use them because they redirect people from one website to another but disguise the link in really sketchy ways. Don’t use these!
- Image size
- You may have an excellent National Geographic award-winning image, but large image sizes are a huge trigger for spam filters. Your images should be no wider than 700px, and don’t make an image (like a flier) be the only content in your entire email.
- Good HTML
- Easy Unsubscribe
- An unsubscribe is always better than a spam complaint. Make sure your unsubscribe link can be easily located (in Action Network, it’s automatically in the footer of all your emails — you’re welcome). When you start emailing people, especially ‘riskier’ recipients, maybe even include an unsubscribe link in the body of your email (you can do that using the 'unsubscribe link' clip).
Step 5: Engagement Targeting
If your list has ~20,000 activists or more, you should definitely use engagement targeting and never send to the full list in one segment. This means that you'll only send emails to the most active people on your list, and only send to less active people if the email performs super super well. There's a handy dandy "engagement" filter on email/report/mobile messaging targeting you can use! This is similar to testing down the list (read more about that here).
You will see a warning message at the bottom of the Email Targeting page if you don't select any targeting filters. If you still wish to proceed, tick the box to indicate you understand it may cause deliverability issues and wish to send to the full list anyway.
Low-Medium Capacity Organizations
If your organization doesn’t have a lot of capacity, automating strategies to improve your deliverability is a must! Welcome series, re-engagement/reactivation campaigns, and engagement targeting are great strategies to implement.
Simple Welcome Series
- A welcome series is the best time to introduce someone to your organization and give them an idea of what kind of content to expect from you. You can automate this using our Ladders tool! In a welcome series, after someone subscribes to your email list, they’ll receive an email one day later. The email gives the recipient more information about your organization. Then a few days later, the person receives another email asking them to sign a petition supporting your cause. You can see a step-by-step guide to creating a welcome series here.
List Segmenting: Engagement-Based Targeting
- Smaller list sends that do well are a great way to improve your deliverability. The most efficient way to do this is with engagement-based targeting, where you only send your email to your most engaged activists.
- You can do this by decreasing the number of emails to people who are less engaged. You would create an ‘actives’ query (like the one in Step 3) for your 60- or 120-day actives (which you choose depends on your list size and email frequency). You’ll use that query when you send out most of your emails, so only your more engaged activists receive all your emails. If an email does really well or is really important, then you can click ‘duplicate with exclude’ and send it to the rest of your email list.
- A reactivation campaign automates the sunsetting policy for you. Using the Ladders tool, people will be triggered into the ladder each time they receive an email. After waiting a period of 120 days, we will evaluate if they have engaged (clicked, opened, or taken action) with any of our emails. If they have not, we will send them an email prompting them to re-engage. When people want your emails, they will let you know! If they still haven’t engaged after seven days, we will send them a final email asking them if they want our emails before unsubscribing them from our list. Here's a step-by-step guide to setting up a reactivation campaign.
The hard truth is that not everyone wants all your emails. I know — it’s sad. There are a few ways to segment your list to cut down on full list sends and only send people content that is relevant to them:
- By tags (topic, types of emails they like, etc.)
- Do you work on several different issues? Segment by the topics you work on, like reproductive rights, climate change, and so on.
- Do you send different types of emails? Create a specific sign-up and tag for your newsletter, rapid response, and/or fundraising communications.
- By geography
Are some of your actions only relevant to people in certain areas? Target the email by state/province, county, legislative districts, zip/postal code radius, and more.
Medium-High Capacity Organizations
Do you have a larger team? Try out these tactics that require some more maintenance.
Advanced Source-Based Welcome Series
- This is similar to the simple welcome series, but people receive different messages based on how they sign up. It’s all about meeting your new subscribers where they’re at and moving them up the ladder of engagement. Did they subscribe from a ‘learn more’ form on your website? Send them some more information about your organization. Did they subscribe from a ‘volunteer’ form? Send them resources to volunteer. Did they subscribe from a certain type of action, like a petition? Send them another ask, like writing a letter through a letter campaign.
Testing down the list
- Create different tiers of actives and use the random limit to test each email to a portion of your first tier of most engaged people. If it does well, send it to the rest of the first tier and send it to a portion of your second tier of most engaged people. If that does well, send it to the rest of the second tier and a portion of the third tier and so on.
- You can now automate testing down the list using the 'automate testing' feature, which will test how your email will perform among activists who were active on your list during different time periods, and send a "winning" email just to activists in those cohorts. More here.
No matter how sophisticated your digital program is, good email deliverability is vital to sharing your message. High engagement is the key to good deliverability, so monitor your actives and inactives, segment your email list, and send the content your recipients want.
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