How to optimize your email deliverability

Email blasting is a key tool for any organization. It is a powerful source for raising funds or volunteers, and has a reliably high conversion rate. 

However, email blasts are highly regulated by major email providers like Google, Yahoo, and other ISPs. These providers monitor your blasts to measure email deliverability.

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Email deliverability is the metric of your email campaign’s success. It is rated by how many of your emails reach your supporters’ inboxes. The metric is affected by many factors, including:

  • Low open rates
  • Unsubscribes 
  • Spam reports
  • Bounced & bad emails

Think of your email deliverability as a reputation. If recipients open and engage with your emails, you will gain a reputation as a good sender and providers will ensure your email gets to the right inbox. Delivery to the correct inbox is crucial given that the average open rate is less than 20%. 

Any indication that your email is spam-like will be carefully observed by email providers and tarnish your reputation. As your reputation is affected, email providers will limit your emails from being delivered, send blasts to the junk folder, or in the worst cases – block your email address entirely.

NationBuilder monitors your email deliverability and will pause your email capabilities if you are in danger of damaging your reputation. Learning good deliverability practices, like those covered in this article, will help avoid disruption to your email service. 

Every provider has their own formula for determining if an email is spam, which is not publicly shared. There is no way to know exactly how to avoid their criteria, but if you are hoping to keep your reputation clean, there are steps you can take.

Learning how to achieve high email deliverability requires a lot of work, but you will forge excellent relationships with email providers, so that more of your emails are delivered. Additionally, there is a clear human advantage to keeping your email deliverability high – an engaged email list is capable of more action: they donate more, they volunteer more, and they are more responsive to the asks you make of them. 


Main principles

There are a few main principles to consider when building your email deliverability practices. As you begin sending blasts, use these principles as guides.

Email deliverability image 2

1. Consent is crucialYou need to have your supporters' permission to send emails in the frequency and subject desired. Having consent means that your supporters have an expectation to hear from you. This ensures that few people will feel the need to unsubscribe or mark your emails as spam.

2. Quality over quantityIt is better to have an engaged list of one thousand people than an apathetic list of ten thousand. Over time, people who remain un-engaged on your list will damage your reputation and prevent emails from getting to those who have shown interest.

3. Personalize your contentThe more personal you make your emails and calls to action, the more likely your email is to be opened. Personalizing your content will help deliverability and build strong relationships with your supporters.

Now, before you send a blast, double check – is your broadcaster configured correctly? Are you using a custom domain? These are vital steps in preparing your nation for sending emails. 


Consent is the single most important element in setting yourself up for email deliverability success. Please take a moment to review this article on email consent.

An easy test to see if you have consent from your audience:

  1. Do your recipients have a reasonable expectation to receive email from you? This means that they requested to be put on your email list, or have opted in to be on your list.
  2. Are you sending blasts with the content and frequency requested by your recipients?

If you answered “yes” to both questions, you likely have consent from your list. If you answered “no”, there are multiple methods for you to achieve consent successfully.

Having consent from your supporters is the best way to influence your engagement scores, produce higher conversion rates, and build stronger relationships. Remember, an engaged email list takes more action.

Important reminder: It is never a good idea to buy a list. Purchased lists are often outdated and contain bad addresses that could get you flagged as spam, or blacklisted, and could lead to having your NationBuilder email capabilities paused. Sending to people who never opted in to receive your emails inevitably hurts your brand and deliverability.


Content strategy

You have configured your broadcaster and determined the type of consent needed from your supporters. The next step is to come up with a detailed content strategy plan. 

     Plan ahead

Your recipients have an expectation of how often they will hear from you and about what topics. Fulfill these expectations by creating a content strategy. Try to plan at least five blasts in the future.

For example, here is a sample content strategy for a nonprofit:

Blast order  Day of week  Email type
1 1st Monday Reconfirmation email
2 2nd Tuesday Weekly newsletter
3 2nd Thursday Bi-annual appeal
4 3rd Tuesday Weekly newsletter
5 3rd Thursday Volunteer updates

Planning ahead allows you to know what you are offering to your supporters and be in dialogue with them about what they want. Consider creating a preference management page and customizing your nation's unsubscribe page

     Test

Testing your content goes hand-in-hand with a good strategy.

Even for your first blast, test the blast with a small group of supporters before you send to the larger pool. This allows you to gauge the reception of the email and predict future performance. For example, if you find that engagement is low for your test blast, you can easily adjust the calls to action, content, style, or subject line to spurn your recipients to action.

Large lists will require testing on a bigger scale. Learn more about NationBuilder’s A/B testing tool.

A thoughtful and tested content strategy will keep your list engaged and motivated while providing you with better open, click, and donation rates.


Segment & target

Even with a carefully planned content strategy, it is crucial that you send content that is specific and targeted to small, segmented groups. If your email list is several thousand people, it is unlikely that one message is going to resonate with every individual. To get the best results from your blasts you will want segment your email list using your nation's filter tool.

You can segment via demographic information including location, age, or gender. However, the best segmentation is based on:

  1. The recipient’s previous relationship to you. For example, if someone signed up to be a volunteer, they probably want to be on the volunteer email list. 
  2. The recipient’s stated email preferences. Give your supporters content based on what they requested in your preference management center.

Take another look at the content strategy from above. Here it is with the actual recipient list filled out: 

Blast order Day of week  Email type  Recipient list
1 1st Monday Reconfirmation email All supporters broken into small, manageable segments.
2 2nd Tuesday Weekly newsletter Anyone who signed up for “newsletter” in their preferences
3 2nd Thursday Bi-annual appeal All donors + Anyone who signed up for “donor list” in their preferences
4 3rd Tuesday Weekly newsletter Anyone who signed up for the “newsletter” in their preferences
5 3rd Thursday Volunteer updates All volunteers + Anyone who signed up for “volunteer list” in their preferences

Don’t forget to segment your audience based on the results of your testing. Message testing is how you will develop a language with your recipients, so they feel comfortable with your voice and feel like you are speaking to them personally.

For really granular email personalization you have the ability to pull information from recipients' profiles using liquid variables in your email templates. This allows you to reference information specific to each recipient using a single blast. Learn more about using liquid in emails.


Email layout

Although your reputation is the most important aspect of email deliverability, the layout of your email can also have an effect.

Every blast will go through spam filters created by providers like Google, AOL, Comcast, Yahoo, etc. Spam filters look at the elements of an email and flag any messages that might be spam before they reach an inbox. It is not clear what email providers use to classify a message as spam, but there are some general criteria that could have an email flagged:

  • Badly written subject lines and content
  • Broken hyperlinks
  • Large images and graphics
  • A high ratio of images and links to text
  • Plain text version of the email not available

Generally, emails with less images and links are not as likely to be flagged as spam. 


Being successful

There are a lot of steps to conquer, but the results are more than worth it. Not only will you avoid deliverability trouble with email providers, but you will build lasting relationships with your supporters.

Signs of a good email reputation include:

  • Open rates at or above 20%
  • Click rates at or above 2%
  • Good percentage of emails that result in donation

Signs of a bad reputation include:  

  • Open rates below 10%
  • Unsubscribe rates above 0.75% per blast
  • Spam reports above 0.05% per blast
  • Bad & bounced emails at 3% or more per blast

These statistics can help as guides for the messages you send to your recipients. Remember, always ask for consent and personalize content for recipients who are engaging with your emails. Remove bad, bounced, or unsubscribed emails from your list.

A bad reputation will affect how email providers deliver email to your recipients' inboxes. NationBuilder will pause your email capabilities if you are in danger of severely damaging your reputation, but building a strong deliverability reputation will go a long way to ensuring your email outreach is effective.

Before you start building your blast, take some time to review our article on consent. It further outlines how to build the best email deliverability standards for your nation. 


Understanding email consent

How to maintain a healthy email list

How to set up email blasts

Understanding the results of your email blast

Understanding spam

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