Email is one of the most important tools for fundraising today. But a successful fundraising campaign isn’t as easy as just hitting send and watching the money pour in. The dreaded spam folder can make or break even the greatest of email fundraising campaigns, causing organizations to lose thousands of dollars as a result.

According to Return Path’s 2016 Deliverability Benchmark Report, worldwide deliverability rates are declining and reaching the inbox is as challenging as ever. Only 76% of emails sent were delivered to the inbox in the second quarter of 2016, declining from 81% during the same period in 2015, with the remainder either being blocked or filtered as spam. If your messages aren’t making it to the inbox, your subscribers will likely never see them, and never open, click, or donate either.

The good news is many organizations are able to achieve high deliverability rates by understanding and improving their sender reputation, growing and maintaining a quality subscriber list and focusing on keeping subscribers engaged and happy.

Reputation is everything

Email senders have a reputation score, even if they don’t know it. In order to classify and keep more spam out of our inboxes, email providers track the sending characteristics from email coming from any IP address or domain. Sending from a new IP address or domain, sending to spam traps, sending to a high number of invalid addresses and having a high subscriber spam complaint rate are just a few of the signals of spammers. In the simplest of terms, your sending behaviors + what your subscribers say about you = your sending reputation.

Even good senders can look like spammers from time to time. And most of the time, it’s completely avoidable. Just look at U.S. Republican nominee Donald Trump. For Trump’s first fundraising campaign, the problem was a lack of reputation. Just as a bank won’t issue a loan to someone without credit history, email providers won’t accept high volumes of email from a new IP address or domain with no previous sending history. And that’s exactly what the Trump campaign did. They emailed their first campaign from not only a new domain name, but also a brand new IP address. With no information at hand to determine whether or not a sender is legitimate, spam filters treat new IP addresses and domains like a dog on a short leash until the sending reputation can be determined.

List quality trumps list quantity

For obvious reasons, growing an email list is the most important part of email marketing. The more donors you have to communicate with, the more chances you have to get more donations. But if not properly maintained, email lists can cause more damage than good. First, email providers look at the number of inactive email addresses an organization is sending to. Too high and email providers assume you’re a spammer sending to addresses scraped from the internet. Email providers also set up decoy accounts, or spam traps, to lure spammers. Since these addresses aren’t owned by real people, they don’t sign up for email. If email is seen in these mailboxes, it’s considered spam since the address was probably acquired in a not-so-great way.

Again, we can look at the recent U.S. election as an example. Hillary Clinton’s list has been notably larger than Trump’s, providing more opportunities to ask for donations. Her list is also free of subscriber complaints, spam traps and invalid addresses. As a result, Clinton’s emails see higher inbox placement. Trump, in an effort to grow his list, appears to have purchased email lists. Subscriber complaints skyrocketed to nine per cent and people aired their frustrations on social sites about being spammed by Trump. To make matters worse, foreign nationals complained about receiving the email, which violates fundraising laws. You can probably guess what happened next. Instead of establishing a positive sending reputation, spam filters saw high subscriber complaints and spam traps coming from a new domain and aggressively filtered future campaigns.

Deliverability gets personal

Over the past five years, email providers have gone beyond sender reputation and now look at subscriber behaviors and engagement over time to make personalized spam filtering decisions. If Jane consistently deletes an email from a sender without opening it, it will eventually be delivered to Jane’s spam folder. If John consistently opens emails from a particular sender, those emails will consistently be sent to John’s inbox. To avoid being penalized for poor engagement, email marketers should focus on pruning their list of inactive subscribers, A/B testing subject lines and segmentation.

Clinton provides a good example of how to do this. Active subscribers receive email on a daily basis while inactive subscribers receive one every other day

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. To keep subscribers interested and opening emails, the Clinton team A/B tests subject lines to a sample of their database every morning and then sends the “winner” to the rest of the list. The Clinton camp also segments their list based on previous donations. Taken all together, this provides a good subscriber experience, which is also reflected in Clinton’s subscriber complaint rate which stands at zero per cent.

When it comes to improving your email fundraising efforts, don’t forget about your deliverability. By focusing on lowering your spam rate first, you’ll make more money in the process.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Direct Marketing.

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Tim Sather

Tom Sather is senior director of research at Return Path.