Using Gmail or a personal email account to send a few work emails is fine. Using it to send a message to your organization’s entire email list is not. If this has been your approach to your email marketing to date, this post is for you. You need an email service provider for nonprofits.
Email marketing is a great way to further engage people interested in your nonprofit. It allows you to keep in touch and deepen your relationship with them. But, when your email list is hundreds of names long, this can’t be accomplished through individual emails, and it can’t be done from your personal account. In fact, in many cases, it may be illegal to send mass emails in this way.
Email service providers (ESPs) make keeping in touch with your subscribers easy. More than that though, they help you stay organized and allow you to be more strategic with your communications. While this is true of all ESPs, it’s important to note that no two providers are exactly the same. You’ll need to do your homework and find the one that best fits your nonprofit’s needs.
Choosing an Email Service Provider for Nonprofits
If you’re not sure where to get started, we can help. Here are ten essential questions to ask yourself when evaluating your options.
What’s your budget?
The price tag attached to email service providers varies. Many offer their services for free up to a certain number of subscribers or the number of emails you send. Depending on your budget, the size of your email list and how frequently you’re planning to send emails, this could be an important factor to consider. Shop around. Find the best deal from the provider best suited to fit your needs.
How will you organize your contacts?
While you might start with one big list, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll want to segment your email contacts based on their relationship to you: newsletter subscriber, donor, volunteer, event attendee and more. As a best practice, list segmentation ensures that you send relevant messages to the right people. And as your email list grows, it becomes increasingly important to keep your contacts in order.
You don’t have to have it all figured out right now, but it’s helpful to think about list organization when you’re evaluating different ESPs. Some will base their pricing based on the number of contacts or the number of mailing lists you have in the account. For example, Mailchimp allows you to have multiple lists, but the service doesn’t take into account that some contacts are duplicated, like someone who is on the newsletter list and the donor list. They end up being double-counted, which means you end up paying more or hitting your limit on a free plan faster.
What’s the email builder like?
If at all possible, get a free trial of potential email services before you commit. Anyone who will be involved in creating and sending emails, from design to list management, should take it for a test run to see how you like it.
Take a look at how core features work, the process for importing your contacts, and the user experience of building an email. If it feels clunky, slow, buggy or outdated, take that as a sign of what you’d be committing to in the long term.
How advanced do you want to get with your campaigns?
Depending on what you’re looking to do, you’ll want to pay attention to the different features they offer. Things like the ability to run A/B tests, enable social sharing, build subscriber information profiles, and more can play a big role in helping you reach your goals.
Don’t get too caught up in those features though. We’re not recommending you choose the provider with the longest laundry list. Focus on your specific goals for the near future, and pick the provider who offers features that will best help you meet them.
How’s their email deliverability?
To clear up some jargon, “deliverability” just refers to the number of emails that make it into your subscribers’ inboxes rather than being marked as junk mail. You’re using an ESP to deliver your emails for you. You want one with a good track record of actually getting emails into inboxes.
For the majority of the more well-known email service providers, this isn’t an issue. Some even offer message testing so you can check on whether or not your message is likely to be marked as spam. But if you’re going with a “bargain brand” provider to save a couple of bucks, check out what they have to say about their deliverability.
What templates do they offer?
One great thing about email service providers is that most come with templates. You don’t have to design your emails or email newsletter from scratch. This not only improves efficiency, but it also ensures your emails will always look clean, professional and have a consistent design. Many of them are also responsive, so they’ll adapt to phone screens and tablets.
Take a look at the different email templates and designs available with the various email service providers you’re considering. One might match your needs better than the rest, even if you’re planning to experiment with plain text emails from time to time.
And don’t forget to look into whether or not the ESP requires their own branding or logo to be included within the designs, especially on free plans. That could be a dealbreaker depending on your style preferences.
Is marketing automation on your horizon?
If marketing automation is something your nonprofit is interested in pursuing, take it into account when looking at the different email service providers out there. Many offer more advanced automation services along with their traditional emails. This could make life a little easier when you decide to jump into automated email campaigns like a welcome series for new subscribers or cultivation emails for fundraising.
Will it integrate with your website?
Ideally, any email service provider for nonprofits will work with your website. It makes life easier for both you and your visitors, meaning more subscribers sign up and you don’t have to be as hands-on with list management.
There are four common ways the relationship between your website and your email service provider can go:
- Full Integration – You create forms on your website so they match your site’s style perfectly, and information transfers seamlessly between the two.
- Partial Integration – You create the forms in your ESP and embed them in your site, so while the styles may not match perfectly it allows information to flow between the two.
- Website Links to Email Service Provider – You link from your site to forms hosted on your ESP, which often leads to a negative user experience and contributes to visitors leaving without signing up.
- No Integration – The process is entirely manual, meaning your ESP and website don’t work together at all and you have to manually import subscribers to your mailing list.
What kinds of customer support are offered?
Even the tech-savvy folks run into email marketing questions from time to time, especially when you’re moving to a new piece of software and getting to know its capabilities. Depending on how you prefer to learn and handle any stressful situations that might arise (email mistakes and tech fails happen!), consider the level of support you get with each ESP.
For example, do they have a self-serve library of support articles? Chat, email or phone-based support with customer representatives? Opportunities for ongoing training? And how does your access to these support services vary based on your plan?
How will you measure email performance and engagement?
Most services will offer some basic metrics and data about email campaign performance, like open and click rates plus the number of unsubscribes or spam reports. If you’re hoping for more in-depth analysis about the behavior of email subscribers, like the ability to track them on your website or to build subscriber profiles, be sure to look into what’s possible with integrations like Google Analytics and customer relationship management (CRM) tools.
Investing in an email service provider will help you take your email marketing to the next level and make your email marketing campaigns a lot easier to manage. Hopefully, these questions help you figure out which provider is going to be the best choice for your nonprofit. It’s not about how many frills and features they offer, it’s about whether or not they provide the services you need to meet your goals.
Does your nonprofit use an email service provider? How have they helped you with your email marketing? Do you have a service you’d recommend or steer clear of? We recommend Mailchimp to our clients, but we’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Originally published on 10/7/15 by Britt Vogel. Updated with new information and additional email service provider considerations on 1/19/22.