One of our most popular articles, fully updated March 2010. Email newsletters, action alerts, or fundraising emails can be a very cost effective way to communicate with your supporters, but it can be complex to send and track thousands of emails. We talked to eleven nonprofit technology experts to find out what eNewsletter tools have worked well for them.
So you’re looking for a way to email hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of people at once. You’ve thought through your strategy—useful, well-written information sent to a list of people eager to get it, right?—and you’ve identified your needs. Maybe you want to send fancy formatted eNewsletters, or maybe just plain text action alerts. Maybe you’re hoping for a tool that can send emails to very large, or relatively small, groups—one that can integrate with your offline database, customize the content for large donors, send emails to tailored segments of your list, or track who’s opened which email.
Regardless of your precise needs, you want a tool that is reliable, affordable and easy to use. We asked 13 nonprofit technology professionals what tools have worked well for them, and combined their thoughts with the collective wisdom of various listservs and forums to come up with a solid set of tools that might work for you.
Tools You Already Have
You can probably send broadcast emails with the software you already own. While such options won’t provide sophisticated reports or effectively deliver hundreds of emails, they might be a practical choice for a very small mailing list.
- Outlook (or other email applications): Outlook and other standard email applications will certainly work to send a couple dozen emails. However, this method has some substantial disadvantages. First, putting lots of email addresses into the BCC field (the standard procedure for emailing a large, anonymous group) may cause your email to be flagged as Spam. Second, it’s difficult to create complex formatting, like an eNews layout, that will show up in readers’ browsers as intended. And third, you’ll have to manually manage your list. There’s a lot of effort involved in adding new subscribers, deleting those who ask to be removed and monitoring returned emails—remember, you are legally responsible for removing those people who request it. If you send more than a few dozen emails at a time, or send to a list on a periodic basis, most of our contributors strongly advise you to look beyond standard email tools.
- Mailman (or other email list tools offered by your web host): If your Web site is hosted by a commercial shared hosting service, there is a good chance that your hosting package already includes Mailman—check your Web site control panel. This email list tool allows you to post a plain text or graphic message to a large distribution list by sending the message to a specific email address. However, dt Mailman is not the easiest tool to use, and it lacks several features common to other tools. For example, you can’t easily export your subscriber list, or access reports of how many readers opened an email or clicked on a link. If you’re sending more than a hundred or so emails at a time, again, look beyond these options.
While using your existing office email application or Mailman may work for you under some circumstances, there are some sizable downsides. Because they send email from your own domain and email server, you need to be concerned that your emails will be trapped by Spam filters and never make it to your subscribers. Tools designed to send millions of emails (like those listed below) work carefully with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as AOL and Yahoo to ensure their email is delivered. You can’t easily do this as an individual organization. If you send out a lot of emails, some people are likely to complain that your emails are Spam regardless of how careful you are. In fact, simply having a large number of email addresses in a BCC field can trigger Spam alerts at ISPs. If this happens, all your emails could be labeled as Spam, or your domain could be blacklisted. If that happens, major ISPs will refuse to deliver any email from you—including your organization’s day-to-day email. If you’re only sending out a hundred or two emails a month, you probably don’t need to be concerned, but at larger volumes, it is well worth looking into other options.
And one final issue: if your email is hosted through a shared server, that Web host may put a cap on the number of emails you can send per hour or per day. This could be as low as 50 or 100 per hour, and it could simply stop sending emails after this time. If you’re going to be sending out to groups of 50 or more, check with your Web host to make sure they’ll go through.
Do these methods sound problematic? They are. If you’re serious about sending emails in bulk to more than a few dozen people, there are better options.
Inexpensive and Straightforward
There are three online tools these three offer both free and straightforward emailing: Google Groups, Yahoo Groups, and Topica’s free service. These three tools are very similar in that they let you send plain text emails to an unlimited number of addresses. Most typically used for discussion lists to allow a group of people to email each other, there’s no reason you can’t use them to send text-only emails to a group.
People can subscribe or unsubscribe by sending an email to a particular address. All three tools show substantial advertisements at the top of the email messages you send, and none allow you to track how many opened an email or clicked on a link. The emails are sent off the providers’ servers, so they handle some of the issues around deliverability and spam complaints.
If you’re looking for similar functionality without the ads, consider Electric Embers by NPOGroups. This nonprofit-friendly service provides affordable pricing on a sliding scale, starting at $10/month for 2,500 subscribers, and $5 per additional 5,000, and a bit more control over your list. However, it doesn’t easily support formatting beyond text-only emails.
Online Mass Emailing Tools
One of the most common ways to send bulk emails is to use an online service set up for precisely such a function. Hosted email tools typically allow you to manage your list, create emails and view reports through a Web-based interface. Most will allow you to send formatted emails; some provide tools to let you easily format them. You can generally integrate them into your Web site so you can take subscriptions online, and the tools will automatically manage unsubscribe requests and delete email addresses that are no longer valid. Reports allow you to see useful details such as how many recipients opened a particular email, how many clicked on a link, and how many forwarded a message.
Nonprofit Specific Deals
There’s little difference between the typical needs of a nonprofit and those of a business when it comes to sending emails. However, three robust services provide special discountsfor nonprofits, making them a very attractive choice —if they’ll meet your needs.
VerticalResponse is a reliable, sophisticated and popular online service that allows 501(c)(3) nonprofits to send up to 10,000 emails per month for free. It’s strong in deliverability—ensuring your emails go into your subscribers’ inboxes rather than their Spam filters—segmentation and Web integration, and has a number of options that make it easier to integrate with constituent databases (especially Salesforce). However, the interface can be complex at times, and the built in graphic-designed templates aren’t as polished as some other tools. After the 10,000 free emails, it gets a bit expensive. If you’re sending more than 15,000 emails a month or so, compare prices to other options. VerticalResponse has been offering their free nonprofit program for about two years now, and appears quite committed to it.
EmailNow by Network for Good, powered by Emma
EmailNow is a very attractive choice if you send more than 15,000 emails per month. As of last year, they scrapped their old platform, and instead cut a deal with another service, Emma, to provide a reliable and sophisticated service at nonprofit rates. Emma is tailored to those who want to send good looking, formatted emails without knowledge of HTML coding, and provides great standard templates—or, they’ll design a custom one for you for $199. EmailNow’s feature set generally matches Vertical Response’s, with strong Web integration and segmentation. Network for Good also provides strong, nonprofit-friendly support. It’s $29.95 per month for up to 20,000 emails, with a $49 setup fee. But it’s only $2 for every 1,000 emails after your first 20,000 — making it a great deal for those with big lists. The service is available to 501c3s, c4s, and c6s only.
MailChimp offers a wide range of features at competitive rates, and offers a significant discount for nonprofits. Their services are completely free if you store less than 500 subscribers and send less than 3000 emails per month. It’s then $25 per month for nonprofits to store up to 2500 subscribers; they offer a number of tiers up through about $200 (with the nonprofit discount) to store up to 50,000 subscribers. Alternatively, you can simply pay by the email, at about $0.02 – $0.03 per email depending on volume. The interface is easy to use, support is responsive and they provide a friendly Web interface to modify a default HTML template, which has been tested with a large number of email clients. The service also offers an “Email Inspector” which lets you see how your email will look in more than 50 different email clients, and an API which you can use to send emails through MailChimp from other programs (for instance, Drupal offers a MailChimp module).
Other Online Options
Dozens, if not hundreds, of bulk emailing services cater to both businesses and nonprofits. If you’re not a tax-exempt nonprofit, or you have quite specific needs, here are some more services that our contributors recommended.
A commonly used tool in both the business and nonprofit worlds, ConstantContact provides solid templates, segmenting and reporting features. The pricing scheme is friendly to small lists, at $15 per month for under 500 subscribers, $30 per month for under 2,500, and so on, to $150 per month for up to 25,000 subscribers. However, several people mentioned trouble with Spam filters when using ConstantContact. Constant Contact recently improved their developer tools (http://developer.constantcontact.com/), which means that it’s now possible to manage your list and send emails through other programs (for instance, Drupal offers a ConstantContact module).
CampaignMonitor is directed at those who have access to someone familiar with HTML for emails, and want to create their own template. They don’t provide any template options that can be easily used without HTML skills, but offers good custom fields and reporting functionality as well as solid deliverability. At $5 per email campaign, plus $0.01 per email, the service is very affordable for small lists, but probably overpriced for large ones.
In addition to its well-known free service, Topica offers a solid paid option. The tool offers sophisticated Web site integration, lots of custom fields and powerful list-segmentation tools, as well as the standard newsletter template and report functions. It’s $50 per month for up to 5,000 subscribers (ask about an additional nonprofit discount), but goes up quickly from there—the next level is $250 per month for up to 25,000 subscribers.
WhatCounts offers premium broadcast emailing. It’s worth considering if you have a large list and are serious about investing in your email communications—it starts at $600 per month for up to 50,000 emails. Emails are sent from an IP address dedicated to your organization, which eliminates the problems of being blacklisted for other people’s emails, and WhatCounts offers several different Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs, to allow you to integrate your email list with other constituent databases.
At the premium end of the market, you will find that systems include eMarketing suites, other modules like events and surveys, pre-built integrations with leading CRM and Association Management and donor systems, and intensive consulting support. A couple options in this category include MagnetMail and BlueHornet.
For the Technically Inclined
If your staff includes someone with skill in PHP, it’s worth considering PHPList. PHPList is a free open source email application with solid subscriber management and HTML email creation tools, although it’s light on reports. It is generally similar to the basic hosted tools listed above, but needs to be installed onto your web server. It can be installed onto most shared hosts without problem.
If you’re already running Drupal (a common open source content management system), or CivicSpace (a specific package of Drupal with various Drupal plug-ins), don’t overlook the possibility of using these tools to manage your email newsletters. Both include CiviMail, a module that handles basic bulk emailing functionalities.
Remember, however, that all of these tools send emails through your own email server, so the caveats about sending eNewsletters through Outlook or Mailman apply here as well.You’ll need to consider whether you’ll be able to manage your relationships with ISPs in order to keep your emails out of subscribers’ Spam filters and to keep yourself from being blacklisted.
For More Integrated Internet Strategies
If you interact with your constituents primarily by email, the tools listed above can work well. But if you are also tracking their actions, donations or what they look at on your Web site, you’ll need to think through how you track and integrate all this data. Using a more integrated solution allows you to track not only who clicked on the donate link in the email, but what percentage of those people actually followed through and made a donation. At a minimum, look for email software that allows you to import and export data in useful formats.
You may want to consider software that can manage all of your constituent data and activities rather than using a separate broadcast tool. A number of online integrated tools handle a broad swath of Internet features. Democracy in Action’s Salsa has a particular focus on and strong support for email campaigns, and it starts at $100/month for up to 3,000 subscribers.Wild Apricot, eTapestry, Donor Perfect, Z2 by Neon, MemberClicks, Convio, and Blackbaud Sphere (formerly Kintera) are integrated tools that might also be of interest.
How to Decide
With all these options to choose from, how should you decide? As always, think through your own situation. While almost all of these options provide a solid base set of features, there are a couple of particularly important considerations to keep in mind as you weigh your choices.
- How many and how often? How many emails will you be sending? To how many people? Pricing varies dramatically depending on the size of your list, and how often you’ll send to it.
- Will you be able to integrate the email addresses?Don’t underestimate the value of synching up your list of supporters across different tools. Being able to look at all your constituents’ information in one place is very valuable. If possible, pick a broadcast email tool that works with the database you already have, or that offers strong data integration options (like an API). If you don’t already have a strong constituent tracking solution, an integrated solution that handles emailing as well as donor tracking, online payment processing and other tasks can be a great investment.
- How fancy will your emails be?Will you send simple text emails, or highly formatted eNewsletters or appeals? If the latter, do you need a tool that provides high quality packaged templates, or will you want to use your own custom template? The tools vary considerable in their support for these kinds of needs.If you’re planning substantial email campaigns that require A/B testing, conditional responses and automatic sequencing of emails, different internal approvals or highly detailed segmentation, put these features at the top of your list.
There are a lot of terrific options in the market for broadcast emailing, and now more than ever, there are solutions within the reach of any nonprofit. Whether you’re looking to send just a few dozen update emails, or fancy eNewsletters to millions of supporters, you can find a package that’s both effective and affordable.
Many thanks to the nonprofit technology professionals who offered recommendations, advice, and otherwise helped with this article:
- Evan Callahan, NPower Seattle
- Ted Fickes, The Wilderness Society
- Heather Gardner Madras, gardner -madras | strategic creative
- Paul Hagen, Kairos Strategies
- Betsy Harman, Harman Interactive LLC
- Eric Leland, Leland Design
- Shawn Michael, TACS/NPower Oregon
- Dan Shenk-Evans, Community IT Innovators (CITI)
- Jon Stahl, Sam Knox, and Steve Andersen, ONE/ Northwest
- Michael Stein, Internet Strategy Consultant
- Chris Steins, Urban Insight
This article was edited by Idealware; any errors or omissions are Idealware’s sole responsibility.