Why has email become such a critical channel of communication for nonprofits? Today's donor is more comfortable online and needs information now — they read email before snail mail; they expect personalized information that's immediate and available to them on their own schedule. Organizations that interact with each constituent in terms that are relevant to him or her find it easier to cultivate affinity and support. With email, organizations can send more relevant information more frequently, thanks to the channel's cost effectiveness and measurability.
Is your organization using email as effectively as you'd like? The average organization is experiencing around a 4 percent conversion rate on calls to action, raising 5 percent of total funds online, growing the email subscriber list at 17 percent each year, and retaining at least 81 percent of those subscribers. If your organization is falling short on these metrics, you may need to revisit your strategic plan to identify areas where you can improve. To begin:
- Think about your audience. Who are you writing to? Are you breaking your audience into segments? Do you have their permission to contact them?
- Think about what you want to say. What does each audience segment need to hear from you? How is email enhancing your multi-channel (online, offline, in person) marketing strategy? Are you using a healthy mix of messages (balancing asks with acknowledgements and news)?
- Think about when they should hear from you. When do you need to reach out? How often should you reach out? Are you giving people enough time to take action? Are you following up quickly enough when you have something positive (or negative) to share?
Your strategy should be driven by an understanding of what are you trying to accomplish, long term. Is your organization more focused on acquiring new constituents or on cultivating more support out of former supporters? Many organizations answer, "Both." But even if you'd like to accomplish both, you are probably guided by one more than the other. Consider this: Which does your boss ask you about first — how many email addresses have been added to your list this week? Or, how much more did your organization raise online this month versus the same period last month? The first question is driven by an acquisition strategy, the second by a cultivation strategy.
If acquisition is your strategy, you need to send email messages frequently on a wide variety of subjects, making your "Forward to a Friend" request highly visible. You should use more of an e-newsletter format, with multiple calls to action, raising your chances that a contact you don't know very well (yet) will find something compelling to react to.
If, on the other hand, you are more interested in increasing year-over-year donations through your e-marketing efforts, then you are driven by a cultivation strategy. This type of organization needs to spend more time on segmentation and on building a logical flow of communication that responds to the needs of each segment. The surest way to get someone to give again is to give them information on what their gift accomplished and to ask them for future support that builds on the first gift.
Either way, a well crafted message will ensure the highest click-through and conversion rates. To make sure your messages are as powerful as they can be, think back to your Marketing 101 class and the "4 Ps": Product, Place, Price, and Promotion. These basic principles can be just as effective at helping you craft compelling messages as they are at selling toothpaste. In short, your messages should clearly convey:
- A clear description of your "product." What does your audience get back when they respond to you? What is given in exchange for support? If the "product" is the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from knowing you are doing something great for the community, make sure that is articulated fully. Sell that philanthropic rush to your audience.
- An obvious "place" to take action. Where/how does you organization let people participate? If you are advertising an event through email, the ability to register should be one click away and fully enabled online. You will lose a large number of potential participants if you make them switch to offline response methods (like a fax-back or call-in).
- The "price" of participation. State clearly what you want people to do. Create value. How does supporting your organization differ from supporting another cause? Or from spending money or time another way?
- An explanation of the "promotion." Why should the audience respond now? What is at stake — for the audience, not just the organization — if they do not respond to your request today?
Once the content is in order, it becomes critical to focus on the design of the message. Online messages may be intended to convey the same information as traditional marketing pieces, but they must be tailored to the medium of delivery. Your tone should be more conversational online. You can also improve the odds of being read by adopting these stylistic elements:
- Keep content short and to the point.
- Use bulleted lists for improved scan-ability.
- Use stories and first-hand accounts with photos to engage readers.
- Keep paragraphs short: 1-2 sentences, not 4-5.
- Use statistics, testimonials, case studies, and expert opinions to support your point and call them out graphically to break up blocks of text.
- Use specific, action-oriented language to give readers a sense of excitement and urgency.
- Repeat the call to action several places in the email, graphically, in navigation, and in line with body copy.
- If you have more to say, use a landing page. Use the email message to provide highlights/teasers with links to the full article or a page where readers can learn more. This is an especially useful technique because the landing page can be updated on the fly if readers are clicking (but not taking further action).
Throughout, take advantage of the most exciting benefit email offers your organization — real-time results. Monitor your deliverability, click-through, and conversion rates. Take note of the growth and retention of your subscription list. Keep an eye on visit duration. And remember: Online communication allows you to communicate more effectively with a larger audience than any other medium because of the ability it gives you to review these metrics and respond nimbly to problems they may highlight or further optimize whatever is working. Good luck!