March 11, 2014
Case Study

Email Marketing: Nonprofit cleans list and lifts open rate 225%

SUMMARY: Every marketer wants a big email list, but is bigger always better? According to the marketers at this nonprofit, big results can come in small packages.

This think tank doubled its clickthrough rate and tripled its open rate by cutting its big list more than 75%. See how the team cut names, grew the list and redesigned the email template to drive performance.
by Adam Sutton, Senior Reporter


A large email list is often a point of pride for marketers, and John Andrews, Director, Centennial Institute, was no different.

In several years, he gathered about 45,000 contacts for Centennial, a public policy think tank associated with Colorado Christian University.

However, Andrews worried about the list's validity. He had no way of checking whether the addresses were active, but he knew he received a flood of bounce notices each time he sent a newsletter.

"We began to realize that we had a hellacious bounce rate and that our list was quantitatively impressive, yet deceptively so, because a lot of our emails were going into the ether and reaching nobody," he said.

Email was Centennial's "lifeline," Andrews said.

The channel helped convinced people to attend monthly events and buy tickets to the group's large annual conference. Andrews worried that if he did not act, the channel would not be viable for much longer.


Centennial set out to realign its email marketing strategy, beginning with an overhaul of its list and moving on to a redesign of its email newsletter template and schedule.

Step #1. Get executive support

Andrews is the director of his organization, but not every marketer has that luxury. Some have multiple superiors and lack absolute authority over their email marketing and lists.

Since Centennial planned a complete overhaul, marketers who wish to do the same should gain support from executives or other departments. This will help prevent you from stepping on toes or interfering with the work of others.

Explain to your colleagues that no stone will be left unturned and to speak up if they need certain aspects of the program changed or maintained.

Step #2. Clean the list

Centennial previously sent its newsletter blindly without tracking or reports. After partnering with a service provider, the team began receiving performance metrics and reviewing them after each campaign.

The team continued to send its newsletter as usual, but now they could see the performance metrics of the list. Each month, the team reviewed performance and made the following changes to its list.

Change #1. Remove hard bounces

A "hard bounce" is a notice that an email is permanently undeliverable. Email servers typically send these notices when they receive an email that is sent to an address that doesn't exist. Any addresses that caused a hard bounce for Centennial were immediately removed from the list.

Change #2. Three strikes for soft bounces

Soft bounces are notices that an email cannot be delivered now but may be deliverable later. For example, the inbox may be full. Centennial assumed that a person with such an address might want its emails, so the team created a rule to remove addresses if they caused three consecutive bounces.

Change #3. Remove inactive subscribers

After six months of sending the newsletter and reviewing performance, Centennial had a long list of addresses that did not open or click an email for the entire period. The team chose to remove these names from the list, as it was hurting overall performance and undermining the program’s deliverability.

This was not an easy decision to make.

"I've got to say, that was like cutting off my arm," Andrews joked.

Make it easy to join and leave

The team also made it easier to join and leave the list. A simple form on Centennial's site allowed visitors to join, and the team added an unsubscribe link to the bottom of the email that allowed recipients to opt-out with a few clicks.

Step #3. Grow the list

Centennial cut more than 75% of its list through the steps above, but the team felt confident that the new list was stronger. The nonprofit now had to find new subscribers.

Event registrations

The team partnered with the internal events management team, which is responsible for running Centennial's annual Western Conservative Summit. Together, they enabled registrants to enter the email program during registration.

"A big part of the newsletter is associated with our summit, so when anyone registers, their address is sent to us and they get on the list," Andrews said.

Other sources

The team also gathered opt-ins by hand at regular monthly events and mentioned its newsletter in its Facebook and Twitter profiles. Additional work to build the list through social media is in the planning stages at the time of this article.

Step #4. Redesign the email template

Before the overhaul, creating and sending an email was a manual, inconsistent process.

"I was composing them on my own screen, slapping some text in there, grabbing some photos, and occasionally putting in a link. There was nothing disciplined or systematized about it," Andrews said.

The team wanted to eliminate the "play it by ear" approach and instead send a consistent newsletter design. Here’s what the new design included:

  • Consistent header — The team used a header graphic to begin each email with a rich design and sharp logo.

  • Consistent sections — The design is broken into sections, and the sections are maintained for every campaign. Readers know where to look to find the introductory letter, upcoming events schedule and information about the annual summit.

  • Event promotion — Centennial's annual summit is a major event for the team, so it is given special mention at the bottom of every newsletter. Readers receive updates about the event’s date and other information as it’s released.

"We realized that that's worthy of being in the 12 months out of the year because it's never too far-fetched to be bragging on the last one and or talking about the next one," Andrews said.

Step #5. Commit to a schedule

Instead of sending the newsletter whenever the team got a chance, Centennial committed to a twice-monthly schedule that always delivered emails on a Wednesday. This required emails to be written and proofed several days beforehand.

Always test subject lines

Centennial also started testing subject lines in every campaign. The team wrote two subject lines and sent them to different segments, each to 10% of the list. The best performer was then used to reach the remaining 80% of subscribers.

Regular tests helped the team uncover phrases and topics that sparked interest with readers.

"We look at the results of every email to see what is really hitting home with the audience. For example, one time we mentioned a political figure in the subject line and got a huge spike," Andrews said.

In addition to the sending schedule, the team also committed to a monthly review of the program's performance and agreed internally to proactively improve performance in the future.


Six months into the effort, after Centennial dropped the inactive subscribers from its list, its list size shrunk an eye-popping 78%. The performance of the list, however, had skyrocketed.

Results since the overhaul:

  • Open rate up to 225% higher (previous average: 12%; now as high as 39%).

  • Clickthrough rate up to 117% higher (previous average: 6%; new average: 9%; now as high as 13%).

  • Bounce rate fell 96.5% (began at 18%; now down to 0.62%).

Centennial is seeing impact on its event registrations as well. Ticket sales to its biggest event in 2013, the annual Western Conservative Summit, reached an all-time-high of 2,100. While the team cannot directly attribute that growth to the email overhaul, Andrews said there is no doubt of a correlation.

For example, the team tracked more than 1,300 email clicks to the event's registration page during a period where 1,000 registrations were received.

"I'm absolutely sure that the attractive and persuasive face that we're presenting through our email is part of that overall growing success that we have," he said.

Looking ahead, Centennial hopes to see more action on the "donate" button it added to its email template.

"The right kind of pitch, especially if it's low-dollar and well-motivated action, I'm sure will be giving us more cash flow coming off of our email relationships," Andrews concluded.

Creative Samples

  1. Sign-up form

  2. New email template


Centennial Institute

Digital Fusion — planned and executed the email strategy overhaul and redesign

Related Resources

Email Deliverability: 8 tactics help you overcome rising B2B challenges

Email Marketing: Inactive lists and deliverability

Email Marketing: Four short emails boost year-end revenue 50% for nonprofit organization

Nonprofit Marketing: What you can learn from B2B and consumer marketing

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