Making sure that your organizationís emails reach the intended recipients is key for effective email marketing. There are many ways an email can be derailed on its journey from your organization to targeted constituents. A filter could mis-classify it as spam before the constituent ever sees it; constituents could misinterpret it as spam and delete it; or, constituents could simply overlook it in an inbox clogged with junk email.
Here are a few tips to ensure your emails get through:
1. Check the content
While you should keep the following points in mind when creating email messages, also use a spam checker which alerts you if your email contains words or other elements likely to trigger today's spam filters. Run email messages through the checker, then view and correct potential spam violations. To reduce the risk of having your email get caught in a spam filter:
- Use a concise subject line to catch the reader's eye so your email stands out in the recipient's inbox, which probably is packed with both legitimate emails and a growing volume of spam.
- The subject line should be concise -- 40-60 characters -- so it shows up completely in the inbox list.
- If you send an email newsletter or other ongoing communication, always start each subject with the same prefix, e.g. "MyOrg e-News:".
- Don't use sensationalized headlines or overuse capitalization and punctuation -- that will make your message look like spam to both humans and automated filters.
- Choose both a display name and email address for the "From:" line that accurately identify your organization. The name should also be concise (20-30 characters). Avoid using an individual's name, as most spam appears to be from individuals. Also make sure that your organization has people available to read and answer any replies to that address.
- Be conscious of current spam themes, including mortgages, medications and pornography, and avoid using words that might be associated with them.
- Format content with some graphics to make your message more appealing. However, avoid sending a flashy email composed solely of images -- again, features typical of spam.
- Include prominent calls to action, with multiple links (but no more than 10-20). An excessive ratio of links to content is typical of spam.
- Provide a plain text version, even if it is just a paragraph and a link to Web site copy.
2. Test the email message
Set up test email accounts with some of the biggest email providers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Yahoo! and Hotmail are free; the most important for-fee ISP is AOL because it is the largest (AOL users constitute a quarter of most nonprofit email lists) and because the email software it supplies to members is proprietary. Then, test your message two ways:
- Send an email to your test accounts, logging in and checking that the email has been delivered to each account and is not being mis-classified as spam.
- Look at your email in a range of email clients. This is especially important when using a new design style or letterhead for the first time. Set one of your test accounts to receive the plain text version of the email so you can check that as well.
3. Consider timing
People who read their email frequently tend to do so at certain times of day and on certain days of the week. When they do so, a recent email is more likely to grab their attention than one that is a day or two old. Time emails to arrive in the early morning hours for the start of people's email reading day (this also makes for faster delivery since ISP servers are less busy at this time), or to arrive in the late morning to be read over lunchtime, (a peak time for Web traffic for many nonprofits).
4. Be consistent
Communications are more likely to be read and less likely to be mistaken for spam if they are expected and have a consistent appearance. (This does not preclude ad hoc emails in response to current events -- a powerful outreach tool.)
- Send newsletters on a regular schedule -- for example, on the same day every week at approximately the same time.
- Always use the same "From:" address, and use a consistent element in the subject line.
- Use a consistent style, layout and appearance, with a letterhead that brands the organization.
5. Handle "challenge-response" systems
A growing trend in spam filtering is the use of a challenge-response system (a tiny fraction of Internet users currently employ one, but its popularity is increasing). The first time an email is sent to one of these recipients, the email will be held from delivery and a "challenge" message will be sent back to the "Reply-To:" or "From:" address, with a task designed to be comprehensible only to a human so that it can defeat spammers' attempts at automation.
Typically, this requires clicking on a link and transcribing a word on a Web form. Once the task has been completed, the original email is delivered, as are all subsequent ones from the same source (another reason to use the same "From:" address in every email).
How your organization handles these challenges depends on the lifetime value of an email address. In a typical nonprofit email file, this value is more than $1.00, so it may be worth having a staff member spend 60-90 seconds each to respond to these challenges.
Although using these techniques will not guarantee email delivery 100 percent of the time, they help ensure that the vast majority of your emails will get delivered. Remember, too, that the Internet environment for email marketing is changing rapidly. Look to your email software provider to update you frequently on technology changes and best practices to keep the email flowing.
About the author: Dr. David Crooke is a cofounder and Chief Technology Officer of Austin-based Convio, Inc. Prior to Convio, Crooke was a senior consultant at Trilogy Software and also worked for the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence, where he provided an integrated computing environment ranging from desktops to supercomputers. For more information, please visit www.convio.com
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