Learning email deliverability essentials

Last Updated: Sep 17, 2019 01:22PM EDT

10-minute read

Some reports say that 30% of all email is sent to spam boxes. You want to keep your email deliverability rate high by landing in as many inboxes as possible. In order to separate yourself from the spammers, you need to show email providers that you are a legitimate sender.

There are a few best practices you can follow to demonstrate your legitimacy, most of which center around evaluating recipients reactions and managing your audience.

In this article, we'll cover these best practices and how you can implement them.

  • Giving us permission to send on your behalf
  • Sending from a business email address
  • Sending from an email address that exists and receives messages (i.e. don't use @noreply)
  • Only sending emails to people who have recently expressed interest them
  • Using clean HTML
  • Warming up your IP
  • Creating an opt-in strategy
  • Thinking through your email content


Key Terms for Deliverability

Here are a few key terms that will be helpful to reference:

  • Deliverability: The ability to deliver emails to subscribers' inboxes.
  • Internet Protocol Addresses (IPs or IP Addresses): An IP Address is a unique string of numbers separated by periods that identifies each computer using the Internet Protocol to communicate over a network. Devices connected to a network can identify one another using IP Addresses. Example:
  • Domain name: A domain name is an identification string that defines a realm of administrative autonomy, authority or control within the Internet. When it comes to email, the domain name is whatever comes after the @ sign (Gmail.com, etc.)
  • Domain Name System (DNS): DNS is an internet system that translates IP addresses (numeric) to domain names (alphanumeric and easier to remember). Because of DNS, we can say our email address is user@gmail.com instead of
  • Sender Policy Framework (SPF): SPF is a form of email authentication that validates an email message has been sent from an authorized email server in order to detect forgery and prevent spam. The owner of a domain name can use SPF records to identify exactly which mail servers they are able to send from.
  • DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM): DKIM records allow a sender to associate their domain name with email messages. They serve as a digital signature in the form of a snippet of code in the email so that providers know that the message is from that organization.

Essential Best Practices

These practices will help ensure high deliverability, engagement, and success. They're so important that we require them in your Terms of Service.

Give us permission to send on your behalf

Keep in mind that this is a one-time setup for each domain.

Authentication is key in today’s world of email, and you should authenticate us for each email domain that you send from by setting up SPF and DKIM records. These records give us permission to send an email from your domain. Both require some technical know-how to implement, so work with your IT team (or whoever manages your website/DNS) to set it up properly.


  • Add/modify the SPF record for clientX.com domain by including include:_spfprod.ngpvan.com in the SPF record.
  • Add a TXT DNS record for the DKIM in the clientX.com DNS zone. Add TXT record for host ngpweb3._domainkey.clientX.com with a value of:

You can check if your SPF has been set up properly through this website http://www.kitterman.com/spf/validate.html.

Once you have created SPF and DKIM records, make sure that all emails you send come from the same domain for which you created the records.

Send from your business email address, not a freemail service like Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail

Bulk email should be professional in every sense and that includes the basics such as the From and Reply To address it’s sent from. Not only is it inadvisable to use freemail addresses such as AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo in bulk email sends, but there are specific rules in some anti-spam systems and security issues that will flag such emails as spam. Gmail knows you're not sending a message from Gmail and will treat all your messages as spam if you use Gmail domain (i.e. putting Gmail.com after @) in another email tool like Targeted Email.

Also, when choosing your From domain you should pick one and stick with it. Domains need to be warmed up and build a reputation to succeed. Switching between domains can lead to delivery issues.


When setting up a message in Targeted Email, be sure to use an email with your organization's domain in the From and Reply To fields. This should be a domain that you pay for.

Send from an email that exists and receives emails

Email is a two-way conversation and email addresses used for From and Reply To must exist and must accept email – which means you should avoid using a noreply@ email addresses. Replies should be regularly read and acted upon. Many individuals will respond with requests such as being removed from a list, updating their email address, or being away from email for extended periods of time. Using a legitimate email address is important because not doing so can cause major deliverability issues and blacklisting by email providers.

Checking email replies can sometimes lead to fundraising and volunteer opportunities when people ask questions about your organization.


Check the replies to your emails - even scanning through the autoresponders is a good idea. In some cases, they may no longer be using that email address and you can unsubscribe that address. (If an email address does not exist, it will bounce and it will automatically be marked as Unsubscribed so it will no longer receive Targeted Emails.)

Only send emails to people who have recently expressed interest in receiving them

List management is one of the most important things when it comes to deliverability, a big part of that is making sure that you're only sending to people who have recently expressed interest in receiving your emails.

Following this best practice will help you avoid spam traps. Spam traps are a way for anti-spam organizations and email providers to measure if you clean your list or obtain non-opted in emails. 

There are two types of spam traps:

  • Pristine traps are email addresses never used as regular email. These are the most severe and will result in getting blocked by an email provider, or worse.
  • Recycled traps are email addresses that were valid at one point. After a length of time of inactivity, during which they hard bounce, these email addresses are turned back on as a spam trap. Enough traps of either type and you will be blocked and your email program shut down at least temporarily. If you are caught with traps on your list, you will be forced to remove inactive individuals or possibly opt-in your entire list.

This means that trading or renting lists is not advised. Remember that 97% of all email received is unwanted by users, so handing your list to someone else will only add to the amount of email your supporters receive - drowning your message out and forcing you to compete with other organizations. By using a traded list, you're relying on their list management practices and you take the risk of all the other list trades they've made.

Keep in mind that trading and renting lists is also prohibited in your Terms of Service.


To get started with this best practice, we suggest identifying the following three groups and removing them from your email lists:

  1. Inactive subscribers: Email addresses that haven't opened or clicked in the last 12 months are likely lost for the ages and can have serious impacts on your deliverability. If you're moving over from another email service, work with your previous vendor to identify those who have not opened or clicked on your emails in the last 3-6 months. If you're already using Targeted Email to send emails, you can use the Targeted Emails section in Create A List to identify people who haven't opened or click on an email in the last 3-6 months.
  2. Emails you've gotten from list trades or rentals: You don't technically have permission to send to them, and sending to them is almost certainly putting your emails into spam traps which can result in blacklisting.
  3. Emails you've gotten as email appends: Your permission to email appended emails is questionable, at best. Most appends emails that have proactively said they want your emails, but they also take emails where the recipient didn't indicate either way. The latter can have severe impacts on your deliverability and reputation.

If the inactive subscriber group seems like a lot of people to unsubscribe at once, keep in mind that you can reach out to people as they become less active, and attempt to reengage them before removing them from your lists. For example, you can create a Saved Search of people who haven't opened in a month or more, and send them an email interest survey, or ask them to join your social networks to stay in engaged in other ways.

For individuals who have been inactive for three or more months, you may want to consider a goodbye series. You can set up an Email Series in Targeted Email to automatically send them an email suggesting they'll be removed from the list if they don't take a particular action, like clicking on a link or completing another email opt-in forms.

Use clean HTML

Sending emails with HTML that's as optimized as possible is key. Too many mistakes in coding can cost you in deliverability. If you suspect you have an issue, test your emails with a program such as Email on Acid or Litmus to see if it's a coding error.


Work with the person who designs your emails to confirm whether the code is optimized.

Additional Deliverability Tips

Email deliverability best practices move beyond what's required under your Terms of Service. In order to ensure high deliverability, engagement, and success we strongly recommend organizations adopt the following best practices as well.

Warm up your email program

IP warming is the practice of gradually increasing the volume of mail sent via a dedicated IP address according to a predetermined schedule. This gradual process helps to establish a reputation with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as a legitimate email sender. (Sendgrid.com)

We'll start you off on the right foot by assigning you an IP that is already warmed up for you. However, we strongly recommend that for at least the first few blasts, you send only to people who have clicked or opened in the last 6 months to preserve and build upon the good reputation of this IP address. This introduces you to ISPs in the best way possible: as a sender of quality content to quality email addresses.

After the first few blasts, the email program can be expanded to include a wider audience. Long term, however, we do suggest organizations segment their emails (don't send everything to everybody every time) and regularly clean their list to prevent delivery issues.

If you require a dedicated IP, contact your Account Executive. Keep in mind that the process can take several months to complete.


Identify the supporters who are most engaged with your emails and start by sending to them. You can gradually expand by adding in people who have opened an email less recently. For example, you may start by targeting those who have opened an email in the last month and then try sending an email to those who opened two months ago to see if they re-engage.

You can also segment your audiences with Create A List based on almost any data that you've uploaded, including districts and addresses, contribution history, Activist Codes, and much more. If you have any questions about how to create a list of people based on particular criteria, don't hesitate to reach out to our support team and let us know what kind of list you're trying to create.

Create an opt-in (and opt-out) strategy

You cannot assume that because someone takes action, donates, or becomes a member of your organization that they want to receive your emails. All marketing emails absolutely must be opt-in, and there are two types of opt-in.

  • Explicit Opt-in: Supporters should give an explicit opt-in by checking a box on a form, or clicking on a link in an acknowledgment email that specifically states that doing so will opt them in for additional emails.
  • Tacit Opt-in: Supporters can opt-in as a side effect of taking another action, like making a donation or signing a petition. However, you must indicate somewhere on the form that completing the form will result in their email being opted-in.

While tacit opt-in is acceptable (an action like a donation or signing a petition), an explicit opt-in and especially a confirmed opt-in protects your organization from serious consequences due to poor list management or general list growth. Opt-in, especially confirmed opt-in, is also a security measure that prevents outside actors from harming your email program and database through the injection of low-quality data and email addresses.

An opt-in is not needed for transactional emails such as sending a receipt after a donation or immediately thanking someone for taking action.


Go through your Online Forms to make sure that it's clear to supporters that submitting the form will add them to your email list.

You can do this be explicitly indicating it with text at the top, or by allowing them to opt out. To provide them with an opt-out option, go to Build Page for each form, and make sure that Yes, sign me up for email updates is enabled and visible (eye icon is NOT crossed out). You can choose whether it's checked by default or not. The image below has the field toggled on, visible, and checked by default.

You may also want to consider setting up Confirmed Opt-In, which allows you to set up a follow-up email reminding people how they joined your list, letting them know what types of messages to expect, and giving them an opportunity to unsubscribe. The message is drafted in Targeted Email, and enabled on each Online Form). You can read through our Confirmed Opt-In documentation to see if that tool will suit your needs.

Another part of your opt-in strategy should be allowing recipients to self opt into or out of different types of emails. You can do this with Email Interest Activist Codes, which will appear on the subscription preferences page for supporters. Use the sidebar menu to search for Activist Codes and use the link to access the management page. Create a new Activist Code with the type Email Interest. When you send your next email, be sure to include or exclude people with those Activist Codes according to their preferences and based on the type of email you're sending out.

Think through your email content

Content has shifted from the words and phrases used, to how individuals react to it. The more people who open, click, submit forms, and reply the better. If large chunks of your list lay dormant, you will eventually run into issues, no matter how those individuals got on your list.

As a result, make sure that your email content follows best practices. Investment into a service like Litmus or Email on Acid can be helpful to test this out. For instance, image-to-text ratio matters, as does the size of the email (number of characters and pixels), so avoid very large images with no text, and always use alt text for images.


Here are a few content tips to consider:

  • Make sure email has both HTML and plain text versions. You can use Generate Plain Text Message to do this easily.
  • Always place alt-text for images. This is particularly important in emails with one large image. When you add an image in Targeted Email, there's an Alternative Text area where you can add this.
  • Ask recipients to take an action, like signing up to volunteer, donating, or contacting their representative. Focusing on action gives your recipients a reason to open your email - and the more people interact with the email, the better you’ll do in delivery. Avoid repeating content in blogs or on social networks - this decreases your recipients' need to open emails, as they can go there instead.
  • Add a welcome series to your email program to onboard new individuals. A good welcome series should remind individuals how they got on your list and layout expectations as to what they will receive from your program. You can use Email Series to do this.
  • Always provide an unsubscribe link. This is required to send an email in Targeted Email, and you can do so by inserting the Unsubscribe Link merge field in the Footer Options dropdown.


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