Winning the Internet

Maximizing the deliverability of your organization’s mass email

After a great run, the Winning the Internet blog has been retired. However, you can still keep in touch with New Media Mentors here.

In the past year we’ve seen more and more organizations reporting trouble getting their mass emails delivered to inboxes with Gmail, Hotmail, or both. The email deliverability problems range from the relatively benign – 1-3% of the list not getting email that they should – to the extreme, where up to 90% of all Gmail messages are not delivered.

This is a universal problem, due to the way that email service providers have shifted their spam filtering algorithms. But in the non-profit and campaign communities people are not talking a lot about it, and many organizations and campaigns don’t even know this problem exists.

Getting real

Right at the start, we should acknowledge that if you’re running a blast email problem, you HAVE a problem with Gmail and Hotmail. These are the #1 and #2 email platforms in the US and in the world, and odds are they’re the email provider for 20-30% or more of your supporters.

So what’s up?

Over the last year Gmail and Hotmail have changed the way they track spam emails, and in particular the sub-set of ‘spam-like’ emails referred to as ‘bulk mail’.

Even Yahoo is getting into this now too.

These providers now evaluate the behavior of individual email recipients – whether they open the mail, click on links, add the sender to their address book etc – in evaluating the message as spam or not spam. This is a significant departure from previous rules that evaluated only the content of the message (subject line, code and words in the email). Even if you do everything ‘right’ in your writing, code and email design, and even if the Email on Acid test or a Spam Assassin score rates your emails as ‘safe’, you can still be evaluated as spam if people do not react by opening, clicking, etc.

Compounding the challenge, once you hit a certain threshold of Gmail or Hotmail users who are not responding, the mail services begin treating all email from your address as ‘bulk’ or ‘spam’ mail. So even if some people open and click on every email, if the ratio of people opening and clicking is too low as compared to those deleting the mail without reading it, you will be less likely to get delivered to ALL Gmail and Hotmail users.

Note that the changes discussed above are proprietary to the companies involved. So while we know Gmail and Hotmail are evaluating behaviors like opens and clicks, we cannot know exactly how they are weighing those different actions (is a click twice as good as an open? Or the same?). We also can’t know exactly what ratio or how many people need to behave in a ‘good’ way before more or all the mail gets delivered.

Holy carp! Is this happening to me?

Here’s a quick test to see if you are having trouble getting mail delivered to Gmail or Hotmail:

  1. First create two groups: one that identifies all users with an email address that contains the txt ‘gmail.com’ and one for Hotmail users where the email field contains the text ‘hotmail.com’ OR ‘msn.com’.
  2. Next, use the Salsa Labs stats by group or Convio’s Email Group Performance by Message Report to evaluate the open and click rates of the Gmail and/or Hotmail group compared to a control group of all the people who got the emails.
  3. If Gmail and/or Hotmail users report a meaningfully lower open rate – you’ve got a problem. Note – you may want to grab a statistical significance calculator to make sure the results you’re observing are really about deliverability, and not just the normal variation in open and click rates.

O Nos! What do we do now?

Don’t panic, we can spring you from spam jail (or get you back on the straight and narrow) with a few simple steps:

  1. Make sure you’re set up to automatically disable addresses that hard bounce, or soft bounce 2-4 times. This is a fundamental email deliverability best practice. It will prevent you from sending email that we KNOW can’t get delivered (and dragging down your response rates overall). If you’re a Salsa customer a lot of this is already built into your system (yay!), but there is an additional free package to add – the bounce limits package. Read our email list cleaning guide for more ideas.
  2. Stop sending mail to users who are unlikely to open them. We recommend marking all users who have not opened an email in the last year (or EVER, if their record is 6 months to a year old) as undeliverable. Now, this can be scary since it amounts to taking thousands or tens of thousands of addresses off your list. If it helps, it’s fine to just take these people ‘out of circulation’, and not delete them. You can do that by adding inactive addresses to a group that gets excluded from most of your email sends. But especially if you’re already in spam jail, it’s really important to stop the bleeding by re-shelving these people into an unused part of your list until you can solve the broader email deliverability issue, and then re-activate them later (maybe, but probably not — for the most part these addresses are just dead, or people who don’t want to hear from you).
  3. Just for Salsa Users – since you can target emails based on past email opens (email history), it’s also easy and smart to make a smart group of “live” emails, by querying or blast targeting on “last open date greater than or equal to 3 months ago” – you can even get super-targeted by requiring people to be a member of your Gmail and Hotmail groups, so you’re only excluding inactive people whose inactivity will penalize you.
  4. Be cautious in targeting mail. Set up groups and opt-ins for your top campaigns or issues areas (one group might be “medicare” for example or “climate change” or “oil subsidies”) and then send most email on those campaigns to people who’ve taken an action on that campaign in the last 3 months. When you want to launch a new issues area or campaign, send it as a test first to a sub-set of your most active members – people who’ve taken 2 or more actions in the last 3 or 6 months, for example. If it goes well with that group, send the new campaign more widely AFTER the test (having a high open rate on Monday will make the Tuesday email more likely to get delivered, even to inactive people)
  5. Re-send emails that perform well above average to Gmail and Hotmail users outside their usual issue and active groups in order to improve the open and click rates on those networks. If you think of list management like ‘curating’ this is like putting the best-sellers on a table display near the front of the store. By putting our most popular stuff in front of members, we improve the open and click rates on that campaign, and consequently get more mail delivered all the time. This is a way to work yourself out of spam jail with good behavior.

The underlying email deliverability principle is to treat your email program like a library that needs a curator, instead of a newspaper that needs to get published daily.

In the newspaper model – we try and publish the best stuff we can every day (good writing, nice images, well designed templates) and trust that a decent percentage of people will pick it up and interact if we do that well. But in the new paradigm, we can’t assume that everyone wants to read the same paper every day – we have to treat each member like a beautiful unique snowflake and respond to their interests as expressed by which emails they open, read and act on. In the new paradigm, we suffer a consequence for putting out news that people don’t read and act on. So even if you’re certain you’re publishing the New York Times every day – great writing, amazing photos, solid design – if nobody buys it at the newsstand, you don’t just fail to get the customer – you get banned from distributing your news to 20-30% of all readers.

So instead, think of your job as being a curator. You have all this information, but you’re not just going to shove it at anyone who walks in the door. Instead, you want to direct people to the specific stuff they’re most likely to be interested in. You always read mystery novels? Try aisle 4. But just because I like sci-fi doesn’t mean I get to stock the library with hundreds of titles you won’t read.

It also means that if people aren’t reading at all – not opening any emails – that it’s ok, in fact it’s essential, to stop emailing them. It’s better to have an email list of 10,000 people who really care and are interested – than to pretend to have a list of 100,000, 90% of whom aren’t paying attention because pretty soon – the 90% will get you flagged as spam and then even the 10% won’t be able to read what you send them any more.

This post is based on two original posts from the PowerThru blog: Are you in spam jail with Gmail & Hotmail? (And how to bust out by improving your email deliverability) by Drew and Spring cleaning your email list for deliverability by Laura.


About Laura Packard

I'm a partner at PowerThru Consulting. We're a new media consulting firm for progressive non-profits & political campaigns. We'll help you build a winning strategy online.