Don’t Be a Spammer! Lessons from our MailChimp Lunch

By Elyse Klova Follow me on Twitter: @eklova
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Last week I attended our first-ever professional development event, which featured Jes Fern from MailChimp, an Atlanta-based email service provider. You can find dozens, probably hundreds, of classes and workshops and webinars and blog posts about how to do email marketing for your nonprofit, but this class was awesome thanks to Jes's unique perspective: Jes serves as mentor to MailChimp's compliance department and knows everything there is to know about proper email etiquette and how to stay on the right side of the law. Also, did I mention we got monkey hats and MailChimp stickers?
My biggest takeaway from the event: It's really, really easy to be a spammer. Your organization may be spamming its mailing list regularly, and you may not even be aware. Nonprofit marketers, development officers, and directors need to be savvy about their mailing, because the consequences of getting labeled as a spammer can really damage your organization's longterm ability to get the word out.
So what is spam? The definition is broader than I realized: Jes defined it as ANY unsolicited bulk email. If the recipient has not granted permission for the mail to be sent, it is considered spam. What this means for organizations is that you should not be adding people will-nilly to your email list. Those people who signed up for a giveaway at the last conference you attended? Nope, unless you specified that they were signing up for your mailing list. What about that group that visited your offices for a tour? Also nope. Even if you get a list of important people from your executive director or even the board, you should not put these addresses right on your mailing list.
The best rule is to refrain from adding anyone to your email list that did not very explicitly opt-in to join the list. Also, as an organization, it's important to keep proof of these opt-ins in case there's ever a dispute. Legitimate email service providers require at least a single opt-in, and prefer double opt-in, meaning that the individuals signed up for the mailing list and then confirmed that they wanted to receive mail.  Double opt-in systems have the added effect of ensuring that the people who are getting your mail really want to hear from you, giving you a more engaged, effective list over time. You can also add people to your mailing list who have written your organization to request it, and who have purchased a product or made a donation.
These may seem like stringent requirements, considering all the spam piling up in people's inboxes daily, but remember: your mailing list is a really powerful tool, and therefore you should protect it and make sure it is as effective as possible. Poor email practices can have some pretty ugly consequences. Among the penalties that Jes mentioned:
  • Your email service provider can drop your organization for violating spamming laws and terms of service.
  • Other email service providers (ESPs) and internet service providers (ISPs) will blacklist your IP address, meaning that if they see mail coming from your address they will automatically block you from reaching the intended recipients.
  • You can pay some serious fines. According to the Bureau of Consumer Protection, "each separate email in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act is subject to penalties of up to $16,000." That can add up quickly.
These penalties come from people hitting the "spam" button in their inboxes too often (which actually does do something besides delete the email!), and from making complaints to your ESP/ISP or even to the government if the problem gets bad enough. Opt-in signup systems go a long way toward preventing these issues, but the content of your email is important too: if your email looks "spammy" or your recipients don't recognize who the sender is, they might mark it as spam without even opening it--after all, there are only so many hours in a day. Spammy emails might also get caught in your recipients' spam filters. Some tips from Jes to help you avoid these issues:
  • Always send from the email address and name that your audience is most likely to recognize.
  • Spam filters have a scoring system, in which a given email gets points for spammy aspects. Too high a score results in getting dumped into the Spam folder. Points come from the header, subject line, content, and who the email is being sent to.
  • Be careful with your subject line: it needs to match the content of the email and should not be misleading.
For more about how spam filters think and what constitutes a "spammy"-looking email, check out How Spam Filters Think from MailChimp. Being conscious of how your emails appear to your recipients can go a long way toward making your email campaigns more effective and toward avoiding any compliance issues.
Throughout the presentation, Jes advocated for well-thought-out, responsible email processes and a tight, highly engaged mailing list. To achieve that, she even suggested pruning your mailing list every 5-6 months to remove people who are disengaged (i.e. not opening any of your mail). That seemed a little counterintuitive to me--after all, don't you want to reach as many people as possible? But she countered by saying that at MailChimp, they've found that email addresses expire in 6-12 months and permission expires in as little as three (shocker, I know)! People can disengage quickly, and the goal should be to reach people who aren't just going to open your emails, they're going to read them and act on them to support your organization. At the end of the day, isn't that what we all want?