One of the most frequently asked questions we receive from our clients at thedatabank is “Why didn’t this person, who’s subscribed and has a valid address, receive our email blast?”

It’s a seemingly straightforward question for which one demands and expects a logical, scientific answer. But I’m here to argue that it’s a question that sometimes requires a more philosophical approach to address.

This question of email delivery and reliability (or lack thereof) has become even more commonplace recently. As Yahoo puts it in their FAQ article on mail deliverability, “The short answer is there’s no way to ensure consistent inbox delivery.”

Yes, you read that right.

Now, I understand if that statement is depressing and anxiety-inducing enough to send chills down the spine of every professional in the business of sending bulk email. But there’s more.

According to Return Path’s 2016 Deliverability Benchmark Report, inbox delivery rates are trending downward globally and nationally. In the U.S., the percentage of emails that made it all the way to an inbox decreased from 78% in 2015 to 69% in 2016.

So you may ask, what’s the point if there’s no way to ensure that the important messages we send get delivered to the inboxes of our supporters? How do we in the nonprofit sector — for whom email is the communication lifeblood of what we do — come to grips with such a stark and pessimistic reality of email delivery?

A few words about the Stoics

Now that I’ve made the case that email delivery is an imperfect, even harsh, beast, let me step back and offer some actual answers for dealing with the crux of the problem.

Let me explain a little bit about something called stoicism. The Stoics were a school of ancient Greek philosophers, and its teachings became the guiding philosophy of many including the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

One of the core beliefs of the Stoics is understanding the difference between things that are within our control and things which are beyond our control – and not allowing our thoughts and concerns to be negatively impacted by those things which are not within our control.

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens”   – Epictetus, Greco-Roman stoic philosopher

How much of email deliverability is in your control?

When it comes to maximizing email delivery to your supporters, there are many factors which are in your control, starting with the basics of email design and content. Here are a few design best practices that can positively impact your delivery:

  • Design your message with more text than images
  • Include a plain text version, not just HTML
  • Avoid excessive punctuation and common spam trigger words (a huge list can be found on the Automational Blog)
  • Make sure your email contains no broken links
  • Limit your number of fonts, colored text, and links
  • Make it easy to unsubscribe, but also consider a double unsubscribe link which includes both “Unsubscribe All” and “Update Your Subscription Preferences”
  • Test your emails for spam content, rendering, and performance (A/B testing)

The second big thing that’s mostly within your control is your email reputation, which is affected by some of the design and content tips above, but encompasses much more.

Like a credit score in the realm of personal finance, your email sender reputation is a measure of the trustworthiness of your IP address as rated by your recipient’s email providers. Your reputation score can be impacted by things like engagement metrics, spam complaints, and both Whitelists and Blacklists.

Here are some ways to boost your email reputation and maximize your email deliverability:

  • If you send bulk email through a service provider, make sure to add their mail server’s IP address to your domain’s SPF record, so that they are listed as being authorized to send on your behalf (clients of thedatabank can find out how to do this on our support page)
  • Following the regulations established for electronic communications in the US CAN-SPAM Act, including telling recipients how to opt out of receiving your emails and honoring those requests quickly
  • Purge your list by removing inactive subscribers, for whom sending repeated messages can negatively impact your email reputation
  • Drive engagement by segmenting your communications so that subscribers are receiving only email messages that are relevant to them (clients can read our article on subscription management on our support page)
  • Ask subscribers to add you to their address book and/or contact their email service provider to have them whitelist your service providers IP address (clients of thedatabank can learn more on our support page)

Only concern yourself with what you can control

As you can see, when it comes to maximizing your organization’s email deliverability, there are a lot of factors that are within your control within the realms of email design and practices affecting your sender reputation.

But in the end, the fact remains that much of email is recipient-dependent. It’s your subscribers’ email providers which ultimately will decide what messages get rejected or filtered, and what makes it into the inbox. There are also industry-wide trends at play, as we have seen from Return Path’s reported inbox delivery dip in 2016.

Thus, there is always going to be a degree of email that’s opaque, infuriating, and not perfectly within our control. You can either let that fact keep you up at night, or you can be an email stoic and rest easy knowing that you virtuously did all those things which are within your control.

Sources and further reading: