5 Steps to Finding the Right Email Service Provider

Have you ever felt trapped by your email provider—Dissatisfied with the features and/or service, but daunted by figuring out how and where to move?


That was our situation 18 months ago and I was completely flummoxed by it. But before I get to that, let me start at the beginning.

Why You Need an Email Service Provider

For most nonprofit organizations, bulk email—email newsletters, action alerts or fundraising outreach—is one of the most productive communications approaches there is.

There’s no better way (yet) for a nonprofit to hit the communications trifecta—reach, engagement and action. And, despite the constant focus on social media, research shows time and time again that email remains a potent communications tool for those audiences who use it (e.g. not 20-somethings and younger, not 80-somethings and older).

But here’s the challenge—despite the centrality of bulk email outreach in nonprofit communications strategies, most organizations don’t do the required due diligence to find the right email service provider (ESP) to send out their emails, or use the selected tool—when they do find it—for all it’s worth.

Understanding the operation and range of features incorporated by most ESPs can be daunting before and after you sign up. Here’s how to find the right ESP for your organization and to manage them to get the most from your bulk email campaigns.

NOTE: If you’re still sending bulk emails from your own email, stop immediately. This is the best way I know to have your organization’s domain (such as redcross.org) nailed as a spammer which will make it impossible for your one-to-one emails to get through, much less your bulk emails.

But First, Back to Our Situation

Our organization (GettingAttention.org) relies heavily on bulk email to our e-news readers. Our community of readers is our lifeline; sharing back with us their nonprofit marketing wants and needs plus advice for us to share with their peers.

But our ESP, which we’d used since 2005, just wasn’t up to the job. Despite the fact that we had invested a lot of time and sweat in learning the tool and making it work for us, we felt that we couldn’t rely on it.

There were two main problems: We thought the most significant gap was that the customer service team was impossible to reach. When we had started working with this ESP, we got a human on the help line about 50% of the time. But four years later we were lucky to get a call back within three or four days. That, in addition to the lack of some of the features we wanted, seemed like good enough reason to look elsewhere.

But when the ESP lost our email lists (which we backed up weekly, thank goodness), we knew we had to change.

There are probably 5,000 ESPs out there, many of which market their services with the exact same language. Here’s the process we used to select our current ESP, Network for Good’s EmailNow.


Disclosure: Please note that Network for Good allowed us to use the service at no charge for one year. But nothing, including price, was more important than finding a reliable, flexible ESP. Now, one year later, we are using the service on a fee basis.


The 5-Step Path to Finding the Best Email Service Provider (ESP) for Your Nonprofit

1. Define Your Email Service Provider (ESP) Needs

It’s human nature to look elsewhere for an answer. But in the case of selecting an ESP, as in so many other challenges, you need to start with your organization’s needs.

Here are the primary factors to consider:

  • Where do you want to be, three years from now, with your email functionality? With your list size?
  • Do you need to integrate the ESP with third-party databases such as your fundraising or CRM systems? And/or with Google analytics, form creation, registration or other tools?
  • Will you need opt-in (completing a form to be added to your list) versus double opt-in (completing a form then clicking an emailed confirmation link to be added to your list)?
  • Do you plan to send a series of timed emails (a.k.a. auto-responders) or emails triggered by a specific action (such as registering for an event)?
  • What usage stats do you need to track to measure results?
  • What is your budget? There are all types of services, at all price points. This is important so I urge you to be as ambitious as you can with funding the ESP. Some organizations slave over creating just the right email, but their ESPs let them down in getting the right email to the right person in the right format. That’s a real waste.
  • What is your skill and comfort level with online tools such as ESPs? If it’s on the low side, is there any available help on staff (e.g. a colleague skilled in online tool usage) or will you be taking it on yourself, with the help of the ESP support team?

2. Get trusted recommendations from organizations like yours

When it was time for us to find a new ESP, I didn’t make a move before querying my most trusted colleagues in the field for their recommendations. I focused on those with bulk email needs similar to ours and harvested seven strong recommendations.

I moved on to cross-reference those recommendations against trusted online sources from NTEN and Idealware. That helped me cut the list to four firms.

After a quick scan of each ESP’s website to get a sense of the features and pricing structure of each (pricing is generally by number of contacts or by number of emails sent per month), I called the colleagues to dig into their referrals. The questions I asked were:

  • What is working well for you?
  • What isn’t?
  • What do you know now that you wish you knew when you contracted with this ESP?

3. Dig Into the nitty-gritty with online research

Based on what I had learned to date, our manager dug into the websites of the four ESPs still standing. She reviewed these selection criteria for each and entered each element in a spreadsheet for easy scanning:

Focus on these Critical Factors

  • Reliability: Multiple, high-speed connections to the Internets, nearly 100% up time. The last thing you want is for the ESP to be down when you have an email that needs to be sent.
  • Flexibility: As detailed as your needs may be now, there will be changes you want to make in the future. You may want to change from all-HTML all the time to some HTML emails and some text or to segment your lists in a completely different way (e.g. by zip instead of by date of registration). Also, you’ll want flexibility in formatting your emails, whether you riff off a provided template or use your own custom HTML template.
  • Good reporting: One of the greatest benefits ESPs provide is the capture of quantifiable results. Make sure your e-newsletter provider tracks how many people (and who) get it, open it and/or click through to your website.
  • Value (but reliability is more important): Look at the pricing structure and the hidden costs. Are surveys included or available at an extra fee? Estimate your costs over one and two years.
  • Ease of use: In general, the simpler the features provided, the easier the ESP is to use. But some ESPs provide amazing functionality that is fairly easy to use. And others provide limited functionality that’s a real headache to figure out.
  • Customer-oriented with good support via email, chat and phone.
  • Knows the email delivery world. None of these factors matter a bit if the ESP doesn’t do whatever it can to ensure the highest probability of email receipt. Ideally, this includes a strict anti-spam policy, automatic SPAM cleaners, ISP-specific controls and white-list approvals
  • Provides a free trial for a period of at least two weeks: DO NOT sign on before you put an ESP to the test.
  • No-term contract—Despite the pain of it all, you want to be able to switch if the service isn’t working out for you.

This process is likely to help you winnow down your list. At this point, just three ESPs remained on our list of options.

4. Probe more deeply in phone conversations with semi-finalist ESPs, including some open-ended questions

There’s nothing like a conversation to show one’s true self. And the same goes with ESPs. I knew that phone conversations with reps at each ESP would give me a sense of the customer service experience as well as immediate answers on features.

I took these conversations on personally, as I knew customer support was a vital element in my selection process. As a small organization, it has to be. That’s bound to be true for most small- to medium-sized nonprofits as well.

Instead of pummeling the rep right up front with all of my detailed questions, I shared a bit about our needs then asked these open-ended questions that ensured the rep showed his stuff (or lack thereof):

  • What services do you offer?
    • I knew the broad answer in most cases but wanted to hear what each rep defined as the ESP’s target customers (organizations like mine or behemoths) and their needs.
  • What happens when I run into a problem?
    • I wanted to know who I’d talk to, how they’d be available to me (via phone, email and/or chat) and when. Also, the nature of their expertise and the back up plan if they can’t help me solve my problem.
  • Why should we work with your ESP rather than one of the others out there?
    • I’m always interested in hearing what a rep emphasizes as unique strengths.
  • What do you do to ensure the highest probability of delivery?
    • This is the key question. None of the other elements matter if the emails don’t get to their destinations.
  • How much does it cost to start up? On an ongoing basis? Run your numbers now and what you project in another year by the rep.
  • Who is your typical user on your clients’ staffs; their focus and skills?
    • You want to hear that this person is like you and your colleagues in terms of technological skill level and job focus. That will tell you that the support team will be able to pick up quickly in helping you solve problems that arise.
  • What else should I know?

These calls helped me cut my list to two finalist ESPs.

5. Test, test, test your finalists to make your selection

Once you’ve reduced your list of prospective ESPs to a couple of finalists, it’s time to try them out.

I advise you to test the services with all of the email configurations you have, and a few that are still on the front burner. Look for ease of use and functionality that matches your needs. Ask colleagues likely to join you in using the ESP to test it out as well.

There’s no way you’ll figure out everything that might not work, but you want to surface as many gaps and glitches as possible.

In most cases, the trial will lead you to your ESP. But in all cases, if there are still two decent contenders, I urge you to reach back out to the original referral source and discuss any remaining questions and concerns. There’s no such thing as being too diligent in selecting your ESP.

Our trials left us with only one strong contender. We reached out to the colleague who had referred the tool to us to inquire on most recent experiences and confirm we were going in the right direction. So we signed on.

Reporting Back One Year Later: Did We Make the Right Choice?

I credit our success in finding the ESP that is right for us to the five-step path outlined above. In particular, this process clarified that EmailNow was focused on small to medium organizations like us. That was a strong indication that the customer support would be strong and the service easy to use.

But what comes as an unanticipated bonus is the service’s customer-driven flexibility and drive to satisfy. If we want a feature or function that isn’t built into the service, the customer service team will always dive into the challenge to try to find a solution. The EmailNow team is a true partner.

If you’ve been delaying your search for a new or first-time email service provider, follow these five steps to ESP selection success. When you do, I guarantee you’ll end up with an ESP that’s a true partner in advancing your communications impact.

Go to it!

Unleash the Power of Your Email Signature

Email signatures (a.k.a. sig lines) are powerful, low-cost, high-return marketing tools (a virtual business card or ad) for your foundation or organization. What’s interesting is how seldom sig lines are used.

Consider this: If your organization has 30 employees, each of whom sends 15 emails daily outside the organization, then (assuming 250 business days) that’s 112,500 business cards or ads distributed annually, at no cost. If you have 100 employees, that’s 375,000 cards or ads annually.

What Is an Email Signature?

In general, your email signature is information automatically added as the last few lines of your outgoing email to let people know who/where/what you are. Consider your sig line as your online business card with “callback” abilities.

Here are a few examples:

Alison N. Smith
Operational Excellence for Global Impact
19 South Compo Road
Westport, CT 06880

Julie Stofer
Nonprofit Marketing Manager
202.270.1339 (cell)
AIM: jestofer

Nancy E. Schwartz
Helping Nonprofits Succeed through Effective Marketing

Holly Ross, Executive Director
NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network
www.nten.org | holly@nten.org
p) 415.397.9000 f) 415.814.4056
twitter: http://twitter.com/ntenhross

What a Strong Email Signature Does for Your Organization

Making the most of your sig lines, for yourself and every colleague in your organization, is analogous to leaving your business cards — but even more powerful.

Most importantly, in this age when we’re all inundated with too many emails, your email signature is a clear signal to your recipient that the message is from you and provides the context (e.g., job title, organization name, and web site) that reminds that person who you are and enriches their understanding of your message. That’s a lot more than can quickly be deciphered from your email address in the “from” field.

Beyond this most basic benefit, your email signature is a business card or ad that alerts the recipient to special news and enables them to have direct access to your web site or send email back to you with the swift click of a mouse.

How a Consistent Email Signature Style Benefits Your Organization

What’s critical is that everyone in your organization uses the same sig line format. Specifics such as name, title, email, and direct phone line obviously will change. However, certain elements (organization name, web site address, tagline) and the order of elements should be standard for all staff sig lines.

Sig line consistency benefits your organization in the following ways:

  • Builds a brand or recognizable identity for your organization. The sig line becomes a key element of overall branding.
  • Serves as a cognitive flag, enabling email recipients to make connections among emails received from various members of your organization.

Case Study

Here is an example of a good email sig and a recommendation to make it even stronger. To protect the innocent, I’ll use a generic version of the sample I was analyzing for this example.

Example (9 lines):

Organization Name
Street Address
City, State, Zip Code


I recommend cutting the street address (2 lines), line space, fax number, and email address and adding the organization’s web address.

Recommendation (6 lines):

Organization Name
Organization Web Address (URL)
Twitter, Facebook and/or IM here (optional)

How to Create an Effective Email Sig Line

First of all, keep it brief. A general rule of thumb is that a good sig line is four-six lines in length. Eight lines is the maximum length, but that is pushing it. Remember, those to whom you email frequently see your email signature line again and again.

  • Musts include:
    • Name
    • Title
    • Organization name
    • Phone number
    • Web address
  • Optional elements include:
    • Tagline (organizational or specific event, campaign, etc.
    • Social media contacts (Twitter, Facebook) and/or IM
    • Graphical elements such as a horizontal line to distinguish your sig line from the rest of the email.

Inclusion of your email address is not recommended, since it’s in the “from” field of the email and gets forwarded with an email that’s passed on. Best to drive audiences to your web site for more contact information details such as your mailing address and fax number.

More Creative Uses for Your Sig Line

A signature line can be used much like a classified ad if you’re trying to motivate clients to use your services or register for your workshop. Add one line and/or a link. Examples include:

  • A quotation to share your organization’s point of view.
  • A call to contribute to a capital campaign or other fundraising focus.
  • An issue-oriented tagline to promote an advocacy campaign.
  • An announcement of a new program, service, or publication.
  • An invitation to a special event, conference, or to subscribe to your organization’s email newsletter.

Just make sure to keep sig lines up to date.

Adding Your Sig Line to Your Emails

Once you’ve decided on sig line content and format, you’ll need to add it to your email program. Remember to train all staff members in creating their sig line as per organizational style and in adding it to the email program.

Check your email program’s HELP menu and search for signatures. You should be able to find some information there about how to set one up on your program.

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Reactivate Your Email List (Case Study)

Since 1996, Karla Capers has been working for advocacy organizations, figuring out ways to use the internet to raise visibility for progressive issues, engage people in campaigns, and try to make the world a better place.

Note from Nancy: I came upon Karla’s terrific guidance for re-engaging folks on the Progressive Exchange list serv, and got her permission to repost here.

I’m Online Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and we were faced with a real challenge—how to re-engage the many folks who were not reading or acting on our emails.

Here’s our three-part reactivation method:

We Segmented Our Inactives
We defined “inactive” as anyone who’s never given the organization a donation (online or off) and hadn’t opened, clicked, or taken any action online in the last year.

Then, in February, we started to segment out the “inactive” people on our list and excluding them from all outgoing messages. That “inactive” segment turned out to be about 25% of our deliverable email file.

Then Sent Our Campaign
Next, we set up a three-part series of emails to try to re-engage those inactive people:

1. Initial email

  • Goes out when someone first falls into the “inactive” file.
  • Subject line: “We miss you [first name]”
  • Asks them to click on a link to let us know they still want to receive emails from UCS.
  • The landing page that click gets them to says something like “Thanks and welcome back….” and automatically adds them back into the “Active” file.

2. Second email (if recipient doesn’t click on first email)

  • Goes out one week later.
  • Subject line: “Science still needs you [firstname]”
  • Tries to re-engage people with an action alert, talks about recent attacks on science and asks the person to sign a generic pledge to “stand with science”.

3. Third email (if recipient doesn’t click on second email)

  • Goes out one week later.
  • Subject line: “thanks and goodbye”
  • Informs the person that since we haven’t heard from them in a long time we are going to unsubscribe them and offers one last chance to click to still receive emails from us.
  • The landing page is a survey where they can update their email subscriptions by issue topic and type of message and give us feedback on why they have been out of touch.

Our Results—Good But Want to Do Better
Since February, we have re-engaged almost 5% of our inactive file. That’s a value of about $13,000 if we were paying for those names so that seems worth it to me.

Of the three emails, the third email performed the best re-engaging 3.17% of the inactive file. Email one re-engaged 1.56% and email two only 0.88%.

Next Steps—Before Inaction
One thing I would like to do is add another email to the series to try to re-engage people *before* they fall into the inactive pool–so maybe when they haven’t clicked or acted on anything in 3 months or 6 months. I think if we tried to reconnect with them sooner we might pull even more people back into the active file.

How do you reengage inactive supporters, whether those on your email list who don’t respond or lapsed donors?

How to Create Enough Good Content
(Case Study)

Guest blogger Holly Ross has spent seven+ years at the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), working with community members to identify technology trends that are reshaping the nonprofit sector. Brett Meyer, NTEN Communications Director, co-authored this post.

As nonprofits have flocked to the e-newsletter as an inexpensive and timely way to communicate with stakeholders, the number of newsletter tips has also proliferated. While subject lines, “from” addresses, and your template design are all important, they aren’t the biggest challenge to putting out a quality newsletter.  The most difficult part is creating good content, content your subscribers want to read.

For many organizations, simply getting an e-newsletter out regularly, with enough  content — let alone enough good content — is a win. That was certainly true for NTEN a few years ago. But since then, we’ve developed loftier goals for our e-news NTEN Connect, transforming it from a chore we had to cross off the monthly to-do list to a blockbuster driver of traffic to our blog. And we managed to reinforce our values and culture while doing so. Here’s how:


NTEN is a small organization. With just a handful of staff members, we felt the pain of the e-news challenge intensely.

Writing enough good, timely content to fill a monthly newsletter was simply not an option for our overburdened staff. Instead, in 2007, we started stocking it with articles written by members of our community .

While we selected the topics and the authors for each issue, producing the newsletter itself became a matter of curation rather than creation. This shift also aligned nicely with one of our core values: providing a platform for our community’s views. And we took one step further to publish our newsletter stories on our blog (on our website). Readers of the newsletter received a teaser for the article – usually the first paragraph or two – and a link to read the entire article on our site.

We very quickly saw a jump in the website metrics we track. Traffic started to rise and we got lots of compliments on the new format. At that point, we knew we had something good on our hands, but knew we could do even better.


We shook up our e-news format again in November 2008. Rather than hand-picking topics and authors, we invited the community to write about anything they wanted. Submissions flowed in, including quite a few we couldn’t use. While we put out an interesting issue, it didn’t drive traffic quite the way we had hoped it would.

Then we added a twist to the experiment in Fall 2009. We had always used the newsletter to “break” stories, publishing all of the new articles at once on our website, on the day we sent out the newsletter. This time, we posted the articles on our website as they were submitted, letting the authors know that the most successful posts — those that generated the greatest usage as measured by page views, time spent on the site, and comments — would be included in the November newsletter.

By this time, of course, social media had burst upon the scene. Being that the NTEN community is generally pretty tech savvy, we saw them using blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to share news, likes and their own accomplishments. So we tapped the power and reach of the community for the newsletter, leveraging our authors’ social networks to drive traffic to our site and increase newsletter subscriptions.

Our incentive strategy worked! That November, we saw an 80% increase in blog traffic over November 2008. We watched our authors using their social networks to highlight their accomplishment – “Look! I have an article on the NTEN site!” – driving traffic our way. That single month was a huge factor in our 22% increase in blog traffic in 2009.

Unfortunately, blog traffic in every other month (when we curated newsletter content) flatlined.

We continued experimenting with the e-news throughout 2010 to boost site traffic, redesigning the template and removing less-popular features. Nothing helped us reach the boost that the social network November 2009 edition created.


So, in September 2010, we moved to our Community Guided Content model. We still ask authors to write about specific topics, but we post new articles to our website almost daily, then use the stats to determine what goes into the actual newsletter. Since this shift, blog traffic is up 37% year-over-year  and shows a fairly steady month-to-month growth rate. Plus time spent on web pages on page is up – a modest but welcome increase of three seconds.

This new strategy means we’re driving a lot of traffic to NTEN.org overall: We’re up 24% year-over-year in 2011. The blog/newsletter strategy drives most of that, as you can see from the increase in blog traffic as a percentage of total site traffic for the last few years:

2008: 17%
2009: 19%
2010: 22%
2011: 25%

Most importantly,  publishing more and more diverse content on the blog gives us a sense of what the NTEN community is most interested in. Then, when we compose NTEN Connect each month, instead of guessing what we should send out to our 30,000 subscribers, we can look at our blog and social media analytics data to learn what our blog readers have already found most engaging.


We now have a successful newsletter strategy in place — one that aligns our values and goals, and has significantly expanded our visibility and prominence in the sector. This year alone, our newsletter subscriber base has increased 50%.

Next, we’re hoping to match newsletter content even more closely with our audiences’ wants and interests. We’ve begun experimenting more with segmentation: instead of sending out one issue to our full list, we deliver seven different versions based on job function, e.g. Executive Directors receive different content than IT staff members.

Going forward, we’ll be able to tailor newsletter content based on the articles our readers have interacted with over time. Already, we’ve seen the potential for this level of segmentation by including dynamic content based on our subscribers’ membership status and activity levels. And we expect to continue refining our content strategy on an ongoing basis to ensure it meets the needs of the NTEN community. That’s what makes a successful e-newsletter!

What are your strategies for creating content that’s valued by your audiences and advances your organization’s mission — for your e-news, blog, or other channels — when it’s just one of many must-do tasks?

Email Subject Lines: 6 Cardinal Sins to Avoid

Welcome to our newest guest blogger, Kerri Karvetski. As owner of Company K Media, Kerri helps nonprofits communicate online.

Email subject lines have one main job—to get your email opened. You have two seconds to grab your reader’s attention. That’s a lot of pressure. So avoid these avoidable mistakes.

Writing subject lines is mostly art, but there’s some science to it as well. If you steer clear of these subject line sins, there’s a world of opportunity available to you.

Sin #1: Too Long
At 50 characters, most email programs cut off the subject line preview in the inbox. Subject line real estate is extremely valuable, so go shorter when possible. Your readers will thank you, especially mobile readers.

You are absolved of this sin if…you have a highly targeted audience. MailChimp analyzed millions of headlines and found that these audiences appreciate the extra detail you can put in a longer subject line.

Sin #2: Too Short
One-word subject lines used to be the hot new technique, but the party’s over. A few political campaigns still use them, but most nonprofits can’t pull it off. Too vague and gimmicky. Skip them.

Sin #3: Boring
Nothing makes me reach for the “delete” button faster than subject lines like, “March Newsletter.” I know you’ve got a monthly newsletter; I signed up for it. I also know it’s March.

Give me a reason to read this newsletter. Tell me your best story.

Sin #4: Personalization Abuse
Personalization is great, but you can get too much of a good thing. Use personalization in subject lines wisely and sparingly.

Sin #5: Sticking Your Tongue Out at the Spam Filters
Gone are the days when the word “free” automatically flags your message as spam, but you still have to be careful. Avoid these content spam triggers:

  • AVOID ALL CAPS. It’s shouting and tempting fate.
  • Holy $%*&^$!!!???? Excessive use of punctuation and symbols will surely get you in trouble.
  • If you can, look in your spam folder. Cringe. Be offended. Have a chuckle. Don’t write stuff like that. (Learn more at MailChimp’s How Spam Filters Think.)

Sin #6: Betting the Farm on the Subject Line
High open rates are great, but high conversion rates (getting people to take action) are better. Once you get the reader to open the email, you need to quickly and convincingly deliver on the promise of your subject line. And never trick your supporters into opening an email. No one likes a bait and switch.

Great subject lines don’t always have to be clever or witty to work. Experiment. Accept failure as part of the learning process. And, most importantly, keep trying.

More Ways to Strengthen Your Email Impact