Validate Your Email List

, Intermediate

By Jeremy Reis

“What happened to the deliverability on our monthly email newsletter? It appears we missed 35% of inboxes. Can you check to see if these numbers are correct?” Robert asked his new email marketing analyst, Todd.

A few minutes later Todd came into Robert’s office. “I made a big mistake. I imported the entire donor database into the email service provider and sent out an appeal to them. I didn’t clean the list before I imported it.”

My friend Robert, Communications Director at a large relief organization based in the midwest, told me a story about hiring a new email marketing analyst. The person he hired had some small nonprofit experience, but had not worked with a large email list before. In the middle of a transition from one email service provider to another, the organization was fixing the mistake of not syncing up their donor database with their email service provider. Robert asked Todd to validate the email list before importing it, but Todd hadn’t. He also didn’t filter out a list of really old donors and ended up importing email addresses several years old.

The first email sent was caught by several spam traps setup by email companies like Google and Yahoo. Older email addresses that are no longer in use are often setup to catch spam and Robert’s organization was quickly blacklisted by major email providers. It took three weeks to clean up the mess and get things right.

Robert’s story isn’t unique. We all run the risk of being caught by spam filters if we don’t properly sync our donor database to our email service provider and properly clean the list.

Filter Your Email List

Many organizations don’t have their donor database synced up to their email service provider. Most of the time it’s a lack of native integration between the two platforms. Sometimes it’s just a lack of technical expertise to sync the two. It’s unfortunate as the best relationship building device you have for the general donor file is email. If you haven’t been syncing automatically between your donor database and your email service provider and don’t currently have the ability to enable that, manually syncing the email list on a frequent schedule is a good place to start. So what do you do if it hasn’t been done in awhile and you have a list of email addresses you haven’t been emailing to?

First, you need to ensure you have the proper permission to email these people. If you had people opt in to your email list at time of donation or at the time you acquired the email address, you can add people to your email list.

What if the email address record is old? If it’s been longer than a few months since you acquired the email address, I recommend not simply adding them to your email list and sending them email. This is a recipe to getting spam complaints and destroying your sender reputation.

Instead, you should contact donors with old email addresses and confirm their contact information before adding them to your list. This could be via phone or post card. You could also upload the list to Facebook and run ads to this audience asking people to confirm their information or offering them a free resource.

Validate Your Email List

Once you’ve filtered your list and only exported recent email addresses or those who have a confirmed email address, using a data validation service provider to validate the email address. These services have large databases of known good email addresses, known spam traps, and questionable email addresses. They also have technology to confirm the validity of an email address. Most return your list with a score so you can filter out the ‘D’s and ‘F’s and only retain the good email addresses. These services will help protect your sender reputation. Here’s a few service providers you might us (listing them here doesn’t mean I endorse them):


Today, Robert’s organization has tripled their email list and has a clean sender reputation. They use an email validation service that integrates into their email service provider for on-going validation. Cleaning your list is one of the keys to a successful email marketing strategy.



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