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Get the basics right, and inbox placement will follow - Change.org’s deliverability story

Change.org's, Alice Cornell, Director of Email Deliverability, shares some true gems of real-world experience in email deliverability and explains how change.org achieved consistent inbox placement once they got the basics nailed down.

by Alice CornellMay 13, 20225 minutes reading time

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Introduction

As part of our Deliverability 101 series, we’re inviting experts from across the industry to share their email sending wisdom, starting with the highly respected Alice Cornell. Alice is the Director of Email Deliverability at Change.org, and she’s sharing her experiences, explaining how change.org achieved consistent inbox placement once they got the basics nailed!The art of deliverability is all about reaching your customer/user inbox by only sending email to people who want it, when they want to receive it and only sending email they want. In theory, this is a neat definition, but it can be a lot more complicated in practice.

Change.org is a great example of how challenging that little sentence can be to implement.  With nearly half a billion users spanning all 196 countries and as an open platform whose mission is to empower everyone everywhere to make the change they want to see, making sure we reach the right people with the right message at the right time is definitely an art as well as a science.

Getting the basics right is absolutely essential.

When I started at Change.org nearly nine years ago, our email program was a very different animal.  As I began to get to know its lists and metrics and tackle immediate deliverability issues, I couldn’t understand why some of our metrics seemed out of kilter when we were sharing campaigns with folks that clearly cared about them and were keen to take action.

Through detective work (and believe me, deliverability skills involve a lot of detective work), I discovered that when people tried to unsubscribe, we sent them to a broken landing page. Because there was no way to confirm that Change.org had unsubscribed them, users began marking the email as spam in an effort to be removed from our list. Simply fixing the unsubscription landing page reduced user complaints and increased successful inbox placement.

This is a perfect illustration of what it looks like to “get the basics right”.  Unsubscribes do not damage deliverability. In fact, a higher than usual unsubscribe rate can be a useful indicator that there is something you, as a sender, need to be doing better.

Meanwhile, the folks hitting the ‘this is spam’ button (aka spam complaints) are the clearest indicator to mailbox providers (like Gmail or Yahoo) that your mail is unwanted and belongs in the spam folder.

Most email professionals know what basic deliverability best practices for avoiding the spam folder are (if you’re unsure, you can read this excellent Spamhaus blog). Still, they also know it is not always as easy as it might seem to actually implement them.

A struggle that we often come up against is persuading other parts of the organisation about how important data quality is. Good data is the cornerstone of any email program, but it’s easy for people to assume more is better. Actually, keeping your data clean and current is essential for good deliverability.

A few years ago, a listing on the Spamhaus Blocklist (SBL) quickly focused Change.org’s attention on this very issue.

The company had to move quickly to make some impactful changes. This meant being clear on what these changes would mean for the business.

What helped with the escalation internally was

  • Remembering that our lists are made up of real people, not just email addresses
  • Explaining the abuse landscape – bad actors are constantly trying to take advantage of areas of weakness, whatever your business
  • Emphasizing that we had to fix the root of the problem if we wanted to stop the issue from reoccurring and worsening; quick fixes would not be sufficient
  • Business and security have to find a balance.  If the business cannot operate securely, it is time to question the operating model
  • Maintaining the commitment to empowering our users and our responsibility to protect them and keep Change.org a safe space

Change.org has come a long way from those early days of high inbox user complaints. The company has really tightened up data hygiene as a critical element of improving our sender reputation.

We now have many different layers of security to prevent bad actors from impersonating users while continuing to wage the constant battle as spammers persist in trying to find new ways of abusing organizations across the world.

And sender reputation really matters.

For Change.org, agile campaigning is essential as our users respond to real world events.  The war in Ukraine has had our team rapidly mobilizing to support the massive numbers of people coming to the site. This can lead to unpredictable send volumes – a red flag for many mailbox providers.

Back in the first week of the conflict, our UK team also received the fantastic news that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was due to be released from prison in Iran.  We knew that her supporters would want to hear this right away and our already increased email volume was suddenly about to be doubled that week.  However, deliverability remained steady due to the strong trust we have built with mailbox providers by implementing solid best practices.

No matter what your brand’s business, a stable sender reputation is essential if mailbox providers are to trust your engagement programs and deliver the inbox experience your customers or users deserve by focusing on the basics:

  • Remembering that real users make up your lists
  • Fixing the root cause of the problem of spam and other inbox complaints
  • Finding the right balance between efficient business operations and keeping users and customers safe

Those senders will be well-positioned to win the never-ending fight against email abuse and spammers. It’s the only way to keep brand communications out of the spam folder and into the users’ inboxes who want to hear from the brands they love the most.