Email marketing is the biggest channel for nonprofit crowdfunding site DonorsChoose.org. That’s why when the team was suddenly facing a huge deliverability issue, being blocked from sending to any Microsoft addresses, it was a rush to figure out what had happened, why, and how to correct it.
Read below how the team was able to get to a 100% deliverability rate with Microsoft and 99% with Yahoo.
DonorsChoose.org is a crowdfunding platform where public school teachers can request supplies they need for their students but don't have the budget for.
“We’re trying to solve the problem of teachers spending their own money on school supplies and kids going without the supplies they need,” said Katie Bisbee, Chief Marketing Officer, DonorsChoose.org.
Through DonorsChoose.org, school teachers from across the country can request any sort of supplies or field trips they need for their students. Teachers at 75% of public schools across the country have used the site.
“We vet their requests, and we put them up on our site. And when their requests are funded, we'll ship the supplies directly to the classroom. So, if a teacher is requesting dictionaries for her students, we'll actually ship those dictionaries instead of sending money to the classroom,” Bisbee said.
The company uses an e-procurement system that features 20 approved vendors. Teachers can go through the vendor network and choose the exact items they need, before posting it live.
Then, the minute the project is fully funded, the order is sent out to the vendor and shipped directly to the classroom.
“During the back-to-school season this fall, which is kind of our peak, we had as many as 60,000 classroom projects waiting for funding at one time. So, each one has been read through and vetted to make sure that what the teacher is describing is actually what's in their cart,” she said.
“Email is just such a huge driver, such a huge foundation of our business. Our ability to connect to our donors and teachers all happens through email, and … about 25% of the donations we'll get from individuals this year will be in response to emails we send,” Bisbee said.
She and her team use email to maintain a direct connection between donors and the teachers they are supporting. That connection builds trust and a relationship that is critical to the DonorsChoose.org projects.
“We’ll send a message from the donor to the classroom when that donor funds the project. And then, in turn, we'll send a thank you note from the teacher and an impact letter describing how the dictionaries were helpful to her classroom, and then we'll even send photos of the kids using the dictionaries, all through email, from the classroom back to the donor,” she said.
Trust and accountability are so important in the nonprofit space, and email is a vital part of building and keeping that trust.
“A donor being able to hear directly from the classroom and actually see the supplies in action, really leads to a higher level of trust and makes them more likely to come back and support the classroom again,” she said.
The email channel is foundational for the nonprofit, and it is “like a workhorse for us in terms of getting people to donate to classrooms and feeling engaged with our site,” she said.
That’s why it was especially nerve-wracking when she and her team realized they were facing a deliverability issue.
Every morning, the nonprofit’s engineers get a dashboard from their deliverability partner that “basically shows green or red — green being you're not having a deliverability problem, red meaning you are having a problem,” Bisbee said.
Every month, the team sends an email that recommends classroom projects that they believe a donor will care about, based on giving history. For example, if someone had given to that teacher before, or made a donation to a similar project in the same area.
“We were getting a red dashboard when [we sent] our monthly recommendation emails, in part because as our list grew, the more emails we were sending, the more at risk you are for them getting marked as spam. So, we were able to discover really quickly that this email was causing problems,” she said.
Step #1. Understand and address the issue
Brisbee and her team began working with an expert from their deliverability partner, and they realized that they were sending the recommendation email to anyone who had ever given to DonorsChoose.org, whether or not they were currently giving.
It’s sent out over three days, with one batch going out a day in order of people who have given most recently to people who have given least recently. That meant that on the third day, DonorsChoose.org was sending out the email to unengaged donors all in one batch.
“It was on that day that we were getting suspended, and it was because we were sending such a large number of emails with unengaged users,” she said.
Bisbee and her team believed there were many reasons for why it made sense to send it to the most engaged donor’s first.
The biggest reason being that a donor can only fund one classroom project at a time, and they can only donate until that project is funded.
“When we're sending out that one perfect project that matches the donor's interest, if it gets funded, we can't send it to another donor. So, that's why we had decided to spend the first day with engaged donors. They're the ones most likely to fund projects, and then there'd be a whole other day before we sent a batch of brand new projects to the second tier of engaged donors,” she said.
The team made the decision to only send the monthly email to donors who have engaged with the site within the past three years and cut off those unengaged donors altogether.
The team had tried different methods over the years to try and re-engage people, she said, but it was time to finally cut that group loose for the overall health of the email program.
“I think this population that we needed to take off our email list … was so latent that it was maybe their way of saying they didn't want to engage with us anymore,” she said.
Unfortunately, by the time the team understood the deliverability danger, Microsoft had already suspended the DonorsChoose.org account entirely.
The team had to begin building up credibility to be determined a safe sender whose emails could get through to inboxes.
“The good news is, we send a lot of emails, and we send them seven days a week, 365 days a year. We send a lot of transactional emails because every day we have people donating, so we're sending email receipts and thank you notes from the classroom. We send emails also to teachers,” she said.
As soon as the team cut out the latent people who had been sent to on that last day of the monthly send, they were able to start rebuilding credibility quickly through the sheer volume of their high-quality emails.
“By the time it hit a month where we were going to send out the recommendation email again, we had built back our credibility so that we were allowed to send to all email providers,” she said.
Step #2. Test to evolve email channel
Bisbee and her team have made some improvements to how people can unsubscribe from the Donors Choose email list, making it easier.
They removed bulky and unnecessary parts of the paragraph in the footer of emails: “We now have only four words and links in there as opposed to we used to have — this full long paragraph. Also, when you get to our site, we basically had ten options of what you can unsubscribe from, and we just made that much more clear and much [easier] for users to understand.”
With deliverability being so high up on the team’s priority list now, making unsubscribing simple was a critical step. In the future, she added, they will be adding in options for people to customize their email cadence.
“You want to make it much easier for someone to unsubscribe because you'd rather them unsubscribe than mark you as spam,” she said. “I think we went from a really bad experience to like a decent or average experience, but … it's not yet a lovely user experience.”
Alongside simplifying unsubscribing, the team has done a lot of testing — including time of day testing — to improve the email channel experience for donors.
“We figured out the best time of day when we were … most likely to get the most opens, which for us is between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.,” she said. “That’s really helped as well. We can get [an email] to someone right when they're ready to open it.”
The team tests rigorously, she added, everything from the copy inside of the email to subject line and pre-header text.
“We've tested out mobile responsive design elements, like how many photos we should include, [and] if we should make something a text email or an image-based email,” she said.
Testing is systemic, but the team will also test on a one-off basis. For example, she said, “For our back-to-school appeal that we send every year, say we're going to send it to a million donors. The day before we send it, we'll send it to just 50,000 donors, and we'll try five different subject lines. And, whichever subject line has the highest open rate, we'll send it to the remaining 950,000 donors the following day.”
“I think the most important thing for us is being able to monitor [deliverability] every single day,” Brisbee said.
Through the team’s efforts, they improved to a 99% inbox placement rate with Yahoo and 100% with Microsoft — the platform that had previously blocked them.
Having both a marketing person and an engineer monitoring the email deliverability dashboard every morning was extremely helpful in recognizing and diagnosing the problem early.
“That’s one of those things, had it gone on and we didn't realize what was happening and we weren't able to act fast, it could have gotten way worse than it was. It could have affected much more than that one recommendation email,” she said.
ReturnPath – DonorsChoose.org’s deliverability partner
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