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What You Need To Know

This chapter outlines some key concepts and questions that are useful for planning the use of CiviCRM's email capabilities. This chapter should be read before you start sending emails to contacts. Detailed information on how to carry out the activities mentioned can be found in the Everyday Tasks section.

Key Concepts

As you might expect for a web-based CRM, email plays a central role in CiviCRM. Broadly speaking, there are three situations in which email is sent from CiviCRM:

  • to individuals and small groups of people via the Send Email action
  • to a large group of people as a mass mailing via CiviMail
  • to individuals who trigger an email as part of workflows in other components, for example, an event registration confirmation email

The advantage of sending email through CiviCRM (rather than through your email client or through a bulk email tool other than CiviMail) is that every email sent, via the Send Email action or using CiviMail, is treated as an activity and stored in the activity history of each recipient. This allows you to see, for example, that John Doe made a donation three days after he received your April newsletter, or that your volunteer coordinator emailed Jane Smith and asked her to staff the information table at an upcoming event.

Send Email versus CiviMail

CiviCRM offers two options for sending email to contacts:

  • Send an email as an activity for a contact: this is suitable for sending emails to individuals and small groups.
  • Send a mailing to a group using CiviMail: this is ideal for mass mailings or scheduled emails to small groups.

In order to send mass emails, you'll first need to set up CiviMail. The Send Email action is available even when the CiviMail component is disabled.

There are crucial differences between the Send Email action and the CiviMail component:

  • Emails sent via the Send Email action are limited to a maximum of 50 email addresses, and there is no reporting other than an activity record for each recipient.
  • CiviMail emails have sophisticated bounce processing and reporting.
  • CiviMail allows recipients to manage their own subscriptions.
  • CiviMail can be configured to automatically track replies.

CiviMail requires more work to configure, and there are more steps involved; however, once you have enabled and configured CiviMail, you will have greatly enhanced mass email capabilities.

Working out which method to use for each email might not be immediately apparent. Over time, the best practices and the right tool for each situation will become more obvious and can be shared among your users.

When to use the Send Email action

As long as you are contacting fewer than 50 recipients and you don't need to track whether recipients opened the email or clicked on any links, the Send Email action is quicker and easier than sending a mass mailing in CiviMail.

The Send Email activity offers all the functionality of sending through an email client: you can attach files, CC and BCC contacts, and use message templates.

Note that CiviCRM records only the messages you send; replies from the recipient come to your email address and are not recorded in the database. For this reason, you should not rely on the Send Email action for conducting extended email exchanges. If you want to record the fact that you had an email exchange with somebody, you could create an activity called Email Exchange and copy and paste your email conversation in the body as you would a record of a telephone call.

You can also record emails sent through your email client using the autofiling outbound email option described below.

When to use CiviMail

If you want to send mail to 50 or more contacts at once, you must use CiviMail.

You also should use CiviMail whenever you want to capture statistics about the success of your mailing, including bounce statistics and click-throughs. For more information on this, see Reporting and Analysis.

CiviMail also enables people to sign up for your mailing lists on your website, and automatically keeps track of their unsubscription or opt-out requests. It also lets you file any emails that your recipients send as replies to the mailing, and send them an autoresponse to their replies.

Choosing recipients

Send Email allows you to choose recipients in two ways: from a contact record and from search results.

CiviMail also allows you to choose recipients in two ways: with Groups marked as Mailing Lists, which must be created prior to setting up your mailing, and from search results. However, there is one complication with using search results: All mail sent from CiviMail must have an unsubscribe link. If recipients are included in a Group, any unsubscribe requests simply remove them from the mailing list for that Group. But if they are not in a Group, they must be added to one when they unsubscribe so the unsubscription request can be recorded in CiviCRM.

Personalisation with tokens

Emails sent with both Send Email and CiviMail can include personalised text, such as a person's name. This is done with tokens, which are placeholders that CiviCRM recognizes and replaces with an appropriate value when sending each message. Note that there are some tokens available in CiviMail that are not available in the Send Email activity.

From Email Addresses

Both mass and regular email can be sent from your personal address, from a general email address associated with your organisation, or from another person's address. For example, an assistant can send official email messages under the name of his manager.

Headers and Footers

In mass mailings only, you can include customised headers and footers. You can configure custom headers and footers under Administer > CiviMail > Headers, Footers, and Automated Messages.


Templates for emails or parts of emails help to streamline your communications by reusing entire emails or parts of emails such as headers and footers. Email templates can be created either beforehand or when you send an email, and edited at any time.


CiviMail can track mass mailings, providing useful information to help you understand the areas your recipients are interested in and gauge the effectiveness of your communications. You can track how many recipients opened the email and which links in the email were popular.

Mailing List Sign-Up and Unsubscribing

CiviCRM allows you to publish a sign-up page or form (called a profile) where people can sign up for your mailing list on your website. It requires that you allow recipients to unsubscribe from any mailing list and opt out of ever getting email from you, and CiviCRM will automatically keep track of these requests. For more information, see the Set-Up chapter.

Autofiling external emails in CiviCRM

CiviCRM lets you automatically record email sent via your email client in contact records in your database. To do this, you need to set up a special email address that you include in the BCC field of an email you are sending. This will be read by the database and converted into an activity. This activity gets filed in the record of the contact that matches the email address. If that email address does not exist in your database a new contact record will be created. See the Email System Configuration chapter of the Intial Setup section for details.

Other Considerations

Key Questions

When planning your use of CiviCRM's email capabilities, it may be helpful to answer these questions to guide your setup and use:

  • Are there any types of emails that you send again and again and thus want to create templates for?
  • Is there content you'd like to include in the header and/or footer in every mailing?
  • Do you want a web page where people can sign up for your emails?
  • What kinds of emails are important to you to store in recipients' contact records?

When planning to send a specific email through CiviCRM, it is helpful to consider the following:

  • How many people are you sending your email to?
  • Do you want to know who is opening your email and clicking on links in it?
  • Have you created a list (a Group or Smart Group) to which to send your email?
  • Do you want recipients to be able to view your mailing in a browser window if they have trouble viewing it from their email browser?
  • Who should be the sender of the email? This could be a generic organisation address, or personalised with someone's name.

Interaction with other tools

Many CiviCRM components interact with email functionality and with CiviMail, for example to send confirmation, thank-you and receipt emails. The sections of this book relating to each component will include some information about customising these emails, and should be read in conjunction with this section in order to give you a full understanding of how email works in the broader context of CiviCRM.

Privacy issues

We encourage you to consider privacy issues. Different countries have different laws relating to email privacy, including opt out/unsubscribe options. There may also be issues related to CiviMail's tracking tools; for instance, you may wish to avoid tracking who has clicked on the "how to deal with drug issues" link on a specific mailing.

Spam and email deliverability

When sending mass emails, there is always a risk that your emails will be marked as spam. This affects both the delivery of your current email and also the future delivery of all emails sent from your server. Managing these issues is complex and outside the scope of this book. If your organisation does not have a system administrator, consultant, or email hosting service that is knowledgeable about these issues, you may want to seek the advice of an expert.

Email and template design/layout

The success of your email will depend in part on your design and layout, as much as your content. A well designed email will be clean, organized, and adapt well to the many different ways people read emails (smart phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, browsers, applications, etc.). The following are some tips and suggested best practices when designing your emails.

  • Create well-designed base templates and encourage (or enforce) their use. These may be as simple as creating a single column table layout with a header image and text footer, or a series of progressively more structured layouts users can choose from. Creating a consistent look and feel for your emails is critical for organization and communication branding.
  • Responsive email design can be very challenging — in ways much more challenging than response web design — as there are many more varieties of environments and applications used to read email. Email applications also lack a universally accepted set of standards for how the design should be rendered, making it very difficult to create a layout that is consistent across devices. Consider acquiring a responsive template to use as your base, rather than construct your own from scratch. There are a number of free email templates available that have been well-tested on the most commonly used devices and applications.
  • Keep your layout relatively simple. The more complex your structure, the more likely it will begin to have problems on various devices. If you do develop more complex layouts, be sure to test thoroughly or make use of some of the email testing services available.
  • Use tables for layouts. Unlike on websites, where div tags are more appropriate as a layout tool, tables are more universally and consistently rendered in email clients.
  • Use inline CSS. This is admittedly one of the more frustrating aspects of email design. Many of the more commonly used email clients still do not support externally referenced CSS styles or those defined in style blocks. To ensure your styles are recognized, insert them inline with the element tags.
  • Do some research. Because of discrepancies between email applications, you may find certain tags or CSS styles render in different ways from one environment to the next. You may need to do some research to understand why a certain style is ignored in various contexts.
  • Understand and appreciate the interdependency between design and content. Too often organizations either spend all their effort on design, and neglect the content, or focus entirely on the content to the neglect of presentation. The two are closely interrelated, and failure to invest time into either aspect may compromise your message.