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.

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:

  • as part of workflows that happen in other components, for example, an event registration confirmation email
  • to individuals and small groups of people (via the Send email action)
  • as a mass mailing via CiviMail.

A substantial part of this section deals with CiviMail, but it will also be useful if you are using other components of CiviCRM that interact with email without enabling CiviMail.   

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 so you can see, for example, that John Doe made a donation three days after he received your April newsletter. 

Send email and CiviMail 

When the CiviMail component is enabled, 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.

 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 in sending each email than using the core email functionality within CiviCRM; 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

The advantage of sending emails to your contacts via CiviCRM is that each email is recorded as an activity with a contact, allowing other staff members to easily determine whether a contact was sent a particular message. It is also a quicker option than setting up a mass mailing as long as you are contacting fewer than 50 recipients.

The Send email activity offers all the functionality of an email client: you can attach files, CC and BCC contacts, and use message templates. This option is available even when the CiviMail component is disabled. 

Note that CiviCRM is not suitable for conducting extended email exchanges. For those, you need to use your regular email client. 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 use the Autofiling outbound email option described below.

You can record this Send an email activity for multiple contacts at one time. However, it is recommended that you use CiviMail's Scheduled Mailing tool if you want to message more than about 50 contacts to avoid having your email marked as spam. 

When to use CiviMail Mailings  

Mass mailings to groups of contacts should always be sent using the Mailings tool provided by the CiviMail component. This will enable you capture statistics about the success of your mailing, including bounce statistics and click-throughs. CiviMail will also ensure that a mailing to a large group does not overwhelm your email server, and lets you set up a specific automatic response to each mailing.

Choosing recipients 

Both methods of sending email have two options for choosing recipients: one from the tool's interface and the other based on search results.

  • Sending an email as an activity allows you to choose recipients after you start the mailing, as you would in a regular email client. You can choose direct recipients and recipients marked as CC or BCC. It is also possible to send email to recipients chosen based on search results, as long as there are fewer than 50.
  • Mass mailings can only be sent to groups marked as Mailing Lists, which must be created prior to sending an email. (Read more in the Tags & Groups chapter). It is possible to send a mass Mailing to contacts based on search results, but CiviCRM will create a special group for each such mailing. 

Tokens and personalisation

Tokens can be used to insert personalised text, such as a person's name, into an email. Tokens are placeholders that CiviCRM recognizes and replaces with an appropriate value when sending each message. The list of tokens available to you will include tokens for custom data fields that you may have created for individual data, such as gender or ethnicity. Note that not all tokens available in CiviMail are also available in the Send email activity.

You can include a direct link to the person's contact dashboard so that they can review their registration details after logging in, or you can use the checksum token to allow them to edit a specific profile or submit a contribution without logging in.

See more details about Tokens in the Tokens and Mail Merge chapter in the Working with Your Data section.

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 & Footers

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


CiviCRM requires that you allow recipients to unsubscribe from any mailing list and opt out of ever getting email from you. See the chapter on Set-up to learn how to easily include an unsubscribe link in each mailing. 


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.

A word of warning about email opening statistics: CiviMail tracks the opening of a message by inserting an invisible image in the body of the email. The majority of email clients have the display of images disabled by default and unless the user chooses to display images, their email will not be recorded as opened. You will therefore definitely have more readers than the number reported. In our experience, a 30% reported opening rate can be considered good. This is obviously different for each organisation and each group you send emails to.

Don't focus too much on the absolute numbers, but rather use them as a way of comparing different mailings you send. You might want to use them to experiment with different layouts, writing styles, and lengths and see what works best for your constituents.

Autofiling external emails in CiviCRM

CiviCRM lets you file email sent via your email client against contacts in your database. 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 Set-up chapter for details.

Key Questions

  • For a given message, do you need to send it to more than 50 contacts?
  • Does your organisation send out regular email newsletters?
  • Have you created a list (a Group or Smart Group) to which to send your email?
  • Do you want to know who is opening your email and clicking on links in it? 
  • Will you want to track replies to your mass mailing?
  • 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.
  • Is there content you'd like to include in the header and/or footer in every mailing? 
  • Would you like to allow people to sign up for your newsletter online?
  • Would it be useful to create standardized email templates that can be used again and again for newsletters and the like?

Other Considerations

Many CiviCRM components interact with email functionality and with CiviMail, for example to send confirmation, thank-you and receipting 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.