Email Marketing 101: Best Practices Are Killing Your Online Fundraising
As a young email marketer working for a major nonprofit in Chicago, one of the first projects I took on was overhauling our email marketing program and redesigning our monthly donor newsletter.
This newsletter had some serious problems. I needed some expert guidance. As any other marketer or fundraiser would do, I searched Google for terms like “email newsletters,” “best email subject lines” and “email best practices.”
After reading every article I could find, I put a plan together to improve our newsletter. Our fundraising team was thrilled, and I even got high praise from our VP. All I had done was make our emails look like every other email that we all systematically delete from our inboxes on a daily basis.
The Problem With Best Practices
I made the assumption that the best practice strategies of leading companies and organizations must be effective. If we wanted to be a cutting-edge organization, we had to use the same tactics that these big-name companies used.
Making our marketing look like everyone else’s just makes people ignore it. Best practices are often based on for-profit marketing that ultimately leads to a purchase of some sort—not a donation.
More than anything, best practices are often just pooled ignorance. They’re rarely based on data and research. And when tested against “counter-intuitive” strategies, they often hurt donations.
Optimization Is the Way Forward
Working now for a nonprofit fundraising and marketing research lab, I’ve seen countless examples where best practices fail to make any measurable difference in donations. Often times, they actually hurt our fundraising.
We recently worked with a research partner, CaringBridge, to test a heavily designed email against a plain-text style email. The first email followed traditional email design best practices, and the new email looked more like something you might get from a co-worker.
We sent the designed email to half of the donor file, and the plain-text style email to the other half. The plain-text style email saw an 80 percent increase in click-through rate, beating the “best practice.” Best practices can hurt our donation pages, too.
In an experiment with Harvest Ministries, their original donation page included a video describing why someone should donate. This is a common best practice, but we wondered if it was more effective to replace the video with copy explaining the same value proposition.
We split the traffic, so that half of the visitors saw the video page and the other half saw the page with more copy. As a result, we saw a 203 percent increase in donations. Again, the “best practice” was hurting donations.
A Challenge for 2018
After seeing the results of five years of research and over 850 fundraising experiments, I can confidently say that best practices will not grow your fundraising to where you want it to be in 2018.
But putting your fundraising intuition to the test will allow you to learn exactly what works to raise more money online. And free tools, like Google Optimize, and built-in tools in your email platform make it easier than ever to start testing right away.
If you get a moment to breathe during this year-end season, start putting a plan together to begin testing and optimizing during this next year. When done properly, this will help you uncover deep learnings about who your donors are, what inspires them to give and what you can do to remove obstacles standing in the way of their donation.
You’ll start seeing your own emails, donations pages and even direct mail through the eyes of your donors, rather than through an organizational-centric lens. Developing this level of empathy for your donors will make you a better fundraiser, inspire more generous donors and allow your organization to more fully live out its mission.