HubSpot's Bold Email Purge and What Nonprofits Can Learn About Email Calls to Action

6 Strategies for Improving Email Click-Through Rates

Keeping your messages out of spam folders

image source: Used with permission.

image source: Used with permission.

In a very bold move this week, Hubspot, a leading online marketer, purged more than 250,000 email addresses. As I’ve previously written, email addresses are very valuable to your organization. According to Blackbaud’s annual Luminated study, in fact, each individual email address is worth an average $12.46 in donations.

So one might think that purging 45% of your company’s email list is either truly inspired or totally crazy. Then, again, it might just be completely practical.

The Problem of “GrayMail”

When asked about the great purge, Hubspot explained that it was an issue of “GrayMail.” GrayMail is mail that is legal. It is sent to addresses that were legally obtained to people who knowingly opted-in, but to people who probably didn’t really want to opt-in. They were enticed—bribed, if you will—to opt-in by some content offer—perhaps a coupon, ebook, or other download offer. They wanted the download offer, but not the enews subscription that came as a pre-condition of the download so they “opted in” reluctantly.

Subsequently, your email messages to them may well be going to them and straight to their “junk mail” boxes because they’ve told their email client reader (like Microsoft Outlook or Gmail) that your email messages are unwelcome or they may be deleting them without ever reading them. This makes your messages “graymail,” a form of legal junk mail. When ISP’s perceive that you send a high proportion of graymail, they may route your emails to a “promotions” folder of some sort so that your recipient doesn’t ever even see it.

Clicks, Not Opens

Interestingly, in making its move, Hubspot didn’t decide to retain the email addresses of those who had opened its emails in the last six months or year. It decided to only retain the email addresses of those who had clicked through on one of the links in one of its email messages in the last six months. Think about this. This is a tough measure. According to Mail Chimp, the average nonprofit organization has a click-through rate of between 2 and 3% (2.89%) on any given mailing. Assuming it’s not the same 3% clicking through on each email sent (although there is likely some overlap of engaged recipients from mailing to mailing), deleting all who had not clicked through in the last six months would mean deleting a sizable proportion of recipients. This would probably put our email list attrition rates lower than those of our other donor rosters, forcing us to delete about 85%+ of all of our email addresses every six months. Can you imagine?

Why clicks and not opens? One of Hubspot’s Marketing Managers, Pamela Vaughan writes that “opens” is actually an unreliable metric that often is accurate. It’s clicks that really show engagement with the material. Hubspot determined that, for them, they weren’t really losing anything. The people they were deleting weren’t really engaged with their content and weren’t really good candidates for sales—their ultimate goal—anyway.

As nonprofit organizations with many communication goals (advocacy, volunteer recruitment, public education, social change, donations) we might not want to be quite so impatient or draconian. We might want to give our “wallflowers” a little extra time to get to know us before we purge them from our lists, especially if their numbers aren’t taking us over our budgeted subscriber account limits for email marketing service.

Improving Click-Rates

Instead of taking a hatchet to your list, try these strategies instead:

  1. Better list segmentation: Make sure you are targeting your emails to the right people. You don’t want to send a “general” newsletter to a “general” list. Break your constituency down into natural segments. Are there people who are interested in particular programs? For example, a friend who works in an animal shelter tells me there are dog people and cat people. She speaks to one or the other. Segment your email list. Dog people email addresses. Cat people email addresses. Or, are there constituencies that come from particular professions (doctors, nurses, teachers, etc.)? Can you define your email addresses by the type of relationship they have to your organization (donor, volunteer, peer-to-peer fundraiser, board member and former board member, client and former client, etc.)? These are natural segments.
  2. Keep your list clean: While you may not want to purge everyone who hasn’t clicked in six months, you do want to engage in regular list maintenance, removing those who have “hard” bounces (non-existent addresses) regularly. You might also want to consider routinely removing those who regularly have “soft” bounces. These bounce rates reflect negatively on your deliverability. You don’t want to increase your likelihood of ending up in “promotional” or “junk mail” folders.
  3. Compelling email subject lines: Whether or not your emails get opened, read, and clicked through all begins with whether or not your subject line is sufficiently interesting to entice your readers to open. In 50 characters or less, you’ve got to persuade someone who, no doubt, receives too much email that your message is worth the time to open. Compelling email subject lines means avoid spam filters and choosing words that are personal, specific, clear, concise, urgent, and interesting.  See these examples: 101 Best Email Subject Lines from 2015 
  4. Brief emails: If your readers get bored before they get to the links (the “calls to action” or CTA’s), they won’t click on them. Less is more in email marketing. Make your messages shorter.
  5. Optimize for conversion: This is just a fancy way of saying, follow the best practices research on where to place your links, whether or not to use buttons, what your buttons should looks like, what colors your buttons should be and all those other things that make a difference in clickability.  See this good, brief article from Litmus on buttons vs. text and how to make sure that your links are clickable for mobile viewing (hint: make them big and surround them white space): 
  6. Consistency: It may be tempting to experiment. What would this color look like? How about a new heading or font? While occasional testing of new ideas and formats is a good thing, the more regularly your constituents can count on your email schedule and format, the more likely they are to recognize it as coming from you and not overlook it in their inbox. Limiting the number of people from your organization who send messages so that your constituents receive messages from only a handful of addresses will also help.

Nonprofits don't want to be plagued by graymail deliverability problems. However, they might feel that they have more to lose than to gain by taking the HubSpot "nuclear" option of deleting nearly half or more of their email addresses—especially when it has taken so many of us so long to accumulate these addresses.

Instead, we might want to work harder to make our email marketing efforts more effective by making our messages:

  • More targeted, getting the right messages to the right people
  • More consistent in frequency, scheduling, and format
  • More compelling and valuable to our readers.


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