At PowerThru we've seen more and more non-profits and campaigns reporting trouble getting their mass emails delivered to inboxes with Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and the other major ISPs. This is a universal problem, due to the way that email service providers have shifted their spam filtering algorithms over the last couple years. But in the non-profit and political campaign communities people are not talking a lot about it, and many organizations and campaigns don't even know this problem exists.
Any list that has been around awhile has accumulated bad email addresses. People change jobs, change ISPs, change names... and even the ISPs merge or go under or just rebrand. So email addresses that once were good, decay. Then there are the email addresses that were never good - typo'd on entry. Also roving spambots are filling in online forms left and right with garbage. Plus there are the garden variety duplicate records created by people clicking forms too many times etc. If you're a candidate for office who has run in the past and carried your list through periods of inactivity or a long-established non-profit with records dating back years ago, there will be a lot of clunkers on there. This is especially true if you have received lists from other non-profits or campaigns in the past.
Did you know that some of the major email providers recycle old dead email addresses as spam traps? So emailing to the ghosts is not so harmless after all. It can get you flagged as a spammer and hurt deliverability to the real live supporters on your list.
The big ISPs like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo etc. use engagement levels (how many people open, click, mark your emails as not spam etc.) to determine whether you get shunted off to the spam folder or not. If you're sending to ghosts, there won't be any engagement... and this will hurt your deliverability to the live ones. We've seen this with many non-profits and Gmail. Read more from our email deliverability guide for non-profits and political campaigns, to learn how to handle this particular problem.
Also most mass email programs do their pricing in tiers based on how many records you have -- so you may be paying more a month for service, based on ghosts!
Whatever service you use, they are no doubt tracking hard and soft bounces. They usually (but not always) disable records once a record hits a certain number of bounces. Check with your mass email service provider to make sure this is happening, don't assume it! Good email list hygiene practices will improve your deliverability.
But you know there are some good records trapped in the bucket of bad addresses, just typo'd like hotmial.com etc. And you also know there are some duplicates in there too, unless you've painstakingly merged them.
So what can you do?
There's many consultants and paid services out there, but there's some email list cleaning you can do yourself.
Use a Welcome email or series of emails to new people on your list. Weed out the typos and spambots right away. Here's some proof of how effective a welcome email series can be for a non-profit.
Take the time to learn the ins and outs of your mass email software's de-duplicating feature, and use it regularly. Many (most?) systems will avoid sending out multiple emails if you have duplicate records with the same email address. But my inbox is ample proof that not all do this. Or do it well. And the last thing you want to do is irritate your good supporters by sending them multiple emails every time.
If your mass email program doesn't automatically disable records after a certain amount of hard (or soft) bounces, then you should do it manually. Hard bounces are pretty self-explanatory. Soft bounces sound harmless because they're just temporary, right? Well, not so much. Check with your ESP to find out what their policies are, and make sure these records are being automatically disabled. This is a basic step for good email list hygiene.
Make sure you set a SPF record for your domain. SPF stands for "Sender Policy Framework" and verifies that the email sender has permission to send email on your behalf, so email purportedly coming from firstname.lastname@example.org but sent by salsalabs.com or constantcontact.com etc. doesn't look like spam.
Re-engage your supporters. Build some queries to find out who hasn't taken an action recently, and try to get them off the fence. Send one last "we miss you" email to test for signs of life.
Then take the plunge and disable records if there's been no action and opens for a year (or six months, if you're having severe problems) and they ignore your last chance email, because those inactivities are holding you back.
Read our email list cleaning guide for non-profits for more tips you can use to clean your list and improve your email deliverability!