Deliverability is an issue affecting nearly every campaign to some degree. Still, many candidates go through their races having no idea there’s even a problem with their mass email communication. Without recognizing the issue, they aren’t able to defend against it.
If your email program breaks out statistics by Internet service provider (ISP), you can see if there’s a problem from a sudden drop off in deliverability. But in general, you can keep an eye on overall open and click rates, and pay attention if they suddenly nose dive. If you haven’t done a list cleaning in a while (or ever), or if you have had poor opt-in email practices, it’s a good bet that you have a deliverability problem now with one or more ISPs. The good news is that there are ways to fix this.
Over the years, the major email providers have changed the way they evaluate whether an email is spam or not. They measure how people interact with the email including if they open, forward or reply to it. That helps them decide whether the message is spam, and therefore whether to deliver it to the rest of the recipients.
You can’t know ahead of time from a tool like SpamAssassin whether people will engage with your email or not. Moreover, once you hit a certain threshold of non-responders, the mail servers begin treating all email from you as “bulk” or “spam” mail, meaning none of your emails will go through.
Campaigns that swap email addresses back and forth regardless of whether the people want to hear from them compound this deliverability problem for all involved.
If you’re having a deliverability problem, here’s what you need to do about it:
1. Practice good email hygiene
Make sure everybody added to your email list has affirmatively opted in to receive email from your campaign. Better yet, set up a confirmed opt-in process (where people need to reply to an email first to be added) to weed out incorrect email addresses.
2. Use error checking for sign ups
Make sure any email sign-up forms on your website have CAPTCHA or some sort of error checking so that drive-by spam bots can’t fill up your database with nonsense records (or worse yet, fake AOL records that could hurt deliverability to your real AOL subscribers).
3. Set up SPF records
The Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is a way to validate emails allowing your mass email software provider to authoritatively send email from your domain.
4. Use a working email address
Make sure the email address you send from (email@example.com) is a real working email address. That way you can handle complaints and unsubscribe requests that come in. If somebody asks to be taken off your list, immediately remove them.
5. Handle bounces appropriately
Ensure that your mass email software is automatically disabling hard and soft bouncing emails. You’d be surprised, but this isn’t always automatic. If you find out there’s a big chunk of bouncing email addresses on your list, disable them immediately and put into place the steps to make sure this is handled automatically going forward.
6. Consider a win-back campaign
Segregate records that have shown no response for three months, six months or a year. Send one last email to them to try to re-engage. Try something like, “We miss you. Do you still want to hear from us? Reply back if you’d like us to change your email address, or click here if you want to keep receiving emails.”
That requires them to take some action to show proof of life. Disable all six month-plus inactive records after a week or so if they haven’t responded. These dead records may be driving down deliverability to the live records on your list. You could try again on the more recently-inactive records, but at least get them out of your normal email stream until they start responding.
7. Get yourself out of spam jail
To get sprung from a provider’s “spam jail,” you need to be sure to send only the best-performing emails to that provider for a few weeks — and only to the best performing records (segregate out the people who rarely open your emails). Only send along emails that will have an above-average number of opens, clicks, and so on. Once you see average open rates to that provider creep up, you could start sending a wider mix of emails and to a wider audience on that network.
8. Keep track of people’s areas of interest and their geography
That way you won’t send them emails in the future that they won’t be interested in, like events they can’t go to. Try to be sensitive to peoples’ ever-increasing amounts of email in their inboxes. Try not to email more than once a week, and hopefully less than that, unless you have breaking urgent news. You don’t want to wear out your welcome and drive people away from your campaign, unless it’s right before the election. On the flip side, you also don’t want to go silent for too long and have them forget about you, so aim for at least one email a month to keep them engaged.
9. Don’t add non opted-in email addresses to your list. Ever.
It’s better to have a smaller list of engaged supporters than a large list that isn’t even receiving your messages, because they’re going directly to the spam folder. Cutting your list can seem scary, but it can translate to more votes, volunteers, and money if done right.
Laura Packard is a partner at PowerThru Consulting, a Democratic digital strategy and web development firm. For more about spam traps, email deliverability, and practical how to tips, visit our blog at PowerThruConsulting.com.