Tips to Energize Your Donor Newsletter
Donors want newsletters. Research has told us so. But most donor newsletters go unread.
In last month’s Forum For Fundraising webinar on creating highly profitable donor newsletters, Tom Ahern, principal at Ahern | Communications | Ink, explained the disconnect and the reader psychology behind it, told attendees how to speak to donors' personalities, and shared some key secrets behind great donor newsletters.
"I see hundreds of donors newsletters. Almost all are fatally flawed," Ahern said, noting these top seven flaws, in descending order of impact:
Flaw 7: You say it's a donor newsletter, but it lacks the kinds of news that donors care about most. Instead, it's a self-absorbed sales brochure for the organization.
A newsletter isn't a sales medium, Ahern said. Rather, it's a place where you report to donors on what and how your organization is doing in terms of fulfilling its mission. A specific newsletter mistake is running the prototypical "letter from the executive director." In an effort not to offend anyone, these often are bland and not exactly the thing that will draw people to and into the newsletter.
The front page is prime real estate and should be reserved for news of the greatest importance to donors. Donors are interested in:
- accomplishments (What did you do with my money? What did I help do?);
- opportunities (What could you do with my money? What are other ways to help?);
- recognition (Did my support matter? Am I important?) and;
- efficiency (Can I trust you with my money?).
Donors want to get behind what it is you're fighting to achieve. Ask yourself what fight is it that you're, and be sure to tell donors how they’re helping you win.
Flaw 6: Your newsletter fails the "you" test. A good newsletter is friendly, even intimate, in tone — not an institutional voice, Ahern said. "'You' is the most powerful word in the marketing lexicon," he added. He recommended doing the "you" test: Get a red pen and go through your newsletter materials, beginning with the outer envelope, and circle every time the word "you" appears to see if you need improvement in this regard. You don't know where people's eyes will land first within your newsletter, so he recommended using the word “you” as often as you can and in many different locations.
Flaw 5: Your newsletter skimps on emotional triggers. Neuroscientists have found that all decisions start with an emotional impulse, Ahern said. Organizations need to be aware of what these emotional triggers are and put them to use — photos of children for a food bank, for examples, or photos of endangered animals for animal-welfare organizations. He noted that people are more responsive to the possibility of saving something than of gaining something.
When focusing on emotional triggers, begin with the name of your newsletter — a high-visibility location that's the first thing donors see — and go from there.
Flaw 4: Your newsletter is not "donor centered," i.e., it doesn't make donors feel needed or wanted. Ahern said your organization should consistently reinforce the idea that donors are essential to your mission. The newsletter is the place where you can tune in your donor base to the problems the organization faces and make it clear to them that their support is going to make a difference. Make the theme of your communications be "your support is essential to [insert your mission]."
Flaw 3: The newsletter isn't set up for rapid skimming and browsing, i.e., your articles are long. People don't read articles, Ahern said, adding, "The loneliest place on the planet is paragraph three of an article. No one ever visits."
Enable newsletter recipients to get the information as fast as possible by writing copy at the "browser level." Eye-motion studies have found that a reader's eyes will go initially and involuntarily to the biggest things. "Browser level" is all of the bigger, bolder, briefer content that's easiest to read, such as headlines, subheads, tables of contents, lead sentences, pull quotes, captions, bullet lists, and photos and other art. Just a few words in a caption underneath a photo can convey a story. This information, Ahern said, is what will get through to readers.
Flaw 2: Your newsletter likes statistics more than anecdotes. Trophy numbers often are meaningless to donors, Ahern said. But anecdotes — text and images — "put pictures in the theater of my forehead," he added. An example of a powerful anecdote used by one of Ahern's clients was, "When she entered our 3rd grade she couldn't spell 'cat.' At the end of the year, she could spell 'Tchaikovsky.'" Anecdotes help people understand what you're talking about, he said.
Flaw 1: The biggest flaw of donor newsletters is weak or "fake" headlines. "Big type is not a headline," Ahern said. A headline should tell readers what the story is about so they don't have to even read the story. Ahern said elements of a good headline are enticing words, action verbs, a summary of the content and a hook that pulls readers in. He recommended using a deck (or subhead) or eyebrow (above the headline) to supplement the headline and to not be afraid to use longer headlines. The typical Wall Street Journal headline is 25 to 30 words, he said.
Writing a good headline
Ahern suggested these three tips:
- Write down the key points of the story.
- Figure out why a donor would care. What's the WIIFM (What's In It For Me)?
- Summarize the gist and the donor angle in 25 to 40 words and two sentences, using plain English and small words that are clear and simple. That's your headline. Ahern said the bottom-line goal is to be as clear as possible as fast as possible.
Ahern said most nonprofit newsletter headlines use boring verbs such as establish, list, win, use, write, reach, give back, plan, unify and build, and he suggested alternatives like those he sampled from issues of The Wall Street Journal, including loom, spark, threaten, embrace and sputter.
He said the point of a donor newsletter, first and foremost, is to cultivate and retain donors. According to recent figures from Mal Warwick Associates, seven out of 10 first-time donors do not make a second gift, Ahern said. Organizations can — and should — use their newsletters to step up donor cultivation by:
- reporting results;
- thanking donors copiously for making a difference in the world;
- offering donors other ways to give, volunteer and make a difference; and
- showing that the need is still great.
He shared Merkle's tried-and-true newsletter formula, which specifies sending the newsletter in an 11-inch-by-17-inch format that folds to four 8.5-inch-by-11-inch pages; not using glossy paper; mailing in a No. 10 envelope — not a self-mailer — that has a teaser like "Your Newsletter Enclosed"; sending exclusively to current donors; including a reply envelope and reply device; and using the newsletter for "accomplishment reporting."
Keep content fresh
Organizations should be sure that the content they include in newsletters is new, not recycled from other sources or organization publications. Ahern recommended 15 potential story ideas nonprofits can include in their newsletters that would be of interest to donors. They are:
- Program news. What are your recent accomplishments? Is your organization growing, shrinking, updating or changing in any way? Do you have anecdotes that reveal success or promise? Do you have a new program? If so, what problem does it solve? What are your hopes for it?
- Tips and how-tos. Each organization has a unique body of knowledge. Share it with donors in the form of interesting stories, e.g., "The 10 Warning Signs of Childhood Depression" or "12 Things You Can Do Today That Will Save the Environment Tomorrow."
- Trend spotting. Articles that look ahead at coming major developments, e.g., "Looking at Next Year: Where We See Healthcare Needed."
- Client case histories. How have your programs changed a life for the better? Include conflict, tension, doubt and obstacles, as well as triumph.
- Research and development. The world is constantly changing. Does your organization have plans for the changes? Talk about them.
- Behind the scenes. Show readers something they wouldn't ordinarily get to see if they weren't donors.
- In another's shoes. A "what it's really like" testimony can stir empathy in donors. Both anecdotes and testimonial build trust quickly.
- Financial news. "People are surprisingly curious about your finances," Ahern said. "Show that you have nothing to hide." A pie chart or graph that shows your financial breakdown will work.
- Photos with captions. And never without, Ahern said.
- Columns. Be an authority on topics related to your cause. What myths can you explode? E.g., frequently asked questions, myths and facts, a donor talking about why she gives, letters, and comments from your blog.
- The "update" story. Is there a story related to your cause or that was in the media that originated with your organization? If so, build on it and keep donors informed.
- "Did you know?" story. For example, a breakout of "How $25 Can Make a Difference."
- Other ways to give. "Your newsletter is critical for promoting online and planned giving," Ahern said. Keep donors in the loop about other giving options, e.g., challenge grants.
- Teasers for your Web site. "Your Web site can store vast amounts of information," Ahern said. "Use the newsletter to send people there." He noted that research has found that the No. 1 reason people don't give online is because they didn't know they could.
- Offers. Information and publications; a tour; special events; classes; sign-up for an e-newsletter; etc.
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