Tips to Strengthen Your E-mail Campaigns
E-mail is a great option for fundraising communications because it's inexpensive and provides virtually instant access to friends and supporters. What's more, it's measurable.
In the session "The Right Message: Making the Most of E-mail Marketing in a Down Economy" at the DMA Nonprofit Federation's 2009 New York Nonprofit Conference, Allison Van Diest, senior product marketing manager for Blackbaud, shared best practices for creating strong positioning and message architecture.
Van Diest said today's nonprofit supporters:
- read e-mail before direct mail;
- satisfy their interests on their own schedule;
- expect information to be personalized;
- expect immediate feedback;
- expect information on progress/stewardship; and
- expect to share online experiences with others.
The first step to successful e-mail marketing is establishing a plan. Start with a calendar, think about the types of messages you send and include every department that wants to send messages. How can messages be combined or complement each other? What data do you need to collect to improve your coordination? Ensure that you have a healthy mix of messages.
The next step is building an e-mail list. The key to growing a loyal e-mail audience, Van Diest said, is hooking them early and keeping them engaged over time. Optimize your welcome message and send a follow-up message within a week (or less). After a few months of active e-mail, survey your list to see if you are meeting its expectations.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for example, used poll data to subtly drive content and creative on its site and in e-mails, and saw online giving increase 12 percent in 2008.
Once you have an established e-mail list, the next step is segmenting that list. Segmentation can be done based on:
- Demographic and lifestyle (what can be observed);
- Preference and opinion (what someone tells you they care about); and
- Behavior (what people do, which Van Diest said is the best segmentation strategy).
Common e-mail segments include:
- New sign-ups — Introduce the organization, engage with prospective supporters
- Best addresses — Thank them, and keep them happy.
- Middle donors — How can you motivate them to do more?
- Lapsed — Re-engage or drop them.
Organizations also can segment by generation, keeping in mind the following general traits of each generational group:
- Boomers (born between 1947 and 1966). Detail-oriented. Don't be afraid to get "in the weeds," Van Diest said. Emotional storytelling is key. Include multiple anecdotes leading to a softly put ask late in the e-mail. Make your message come from an individual they'll come to know over time.
- Bust (1967-1979). Action-oriented. Describe tangible results of their help. Spell out ROI for gifts as part of your ask. Go with shorter messaging with brief callouts.
- Echo (1980-1994). Consumption-oriented. Feel free to send more messages in a shorter timeframe than to any other group, Van Diest said. Get to your point quickly, include frequent and direct calls to action, and think about including involvement devices like e-cards.
Van Diest said when in doubt, segment your e-mail list like you would for direct mail. And she stressed not to segment unless you have plans or ability to act on it.
Freshen up your message by focusing on something "new and improved," a "limited time offer," a "buy one get one" or urgency. Go back to Marketing 101, Van Diest said. This means considering the four Ps: product, placement, price and promotion.
Your product is what is given in exchange for support; placement is where you let people participate; price is the amount you’re seeking from supporters; and promotion is how you reach out to people. Are you articulating these things well?
These four Ps are what combine to position your message. Van Diest recommended organizations answer the following questions in what she called a "positioning exercise":
- What do your supporters get back when they support you?
- What is at stake — for the supporter, not just the organization — if they don't support you?
- How does supporting your organization differ from supporting another cause? Or from spending money or time another way?
Some e-mail content basics she stressed:
- Think about your audience.
- Keep content short and to the point.
- Use bulleted lists for improved scanability.
- Use stories to engage readers.
- Demonstrate a clear purpose and a clear call to action.
- Use statistics, testimonials, case studies and expert opinions to support your point.
The header you use in your e-mail communications is extremely important. Eighty percent of respondents to a 2007 Email Sender and Provider Coalition study said they decide whether to click on the "Report Spam" or "Junk" button without opening a message.
Van Diest shared the following subject line tips:
- Limit the subject line to 25 to 35 characters.
- Avoid using symbols like "$" and "!" and all caps.
- Personalize whenever possible.
- Use colons to place the most important keywords first.
- Tell what's inside, don't sell what's inside.
Also important in e-mail messaging is a compelling call to action. Your call to action should compel your readers to do something. Give readers a sense of excitement and urgency; use specific, action-oriented language; and state your call to action early and repeat it often.
Be mindful of designing your e-mails for the preview pane, where, Van Diest says, roughly 65 percent of e-mail users view their messages. Avoid calls to action within images and large blocks of text as you work toward scanability. Also remember to include a link to a Web-based version of your e-mail at the top of the message. And be sure to test e-mail campaigns in multiple browsers before sending to your list, namely Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari.
Nonprofits also should consider designing e-mails for mobile devices. Keep in mind that mobile readers are more likely to scan e-mails rather than read them. Include a compelling call to action in the first 15 to 25 characters of your subject line, avoid using top-heavy images and use alt-tags on images. And be sure to test messages on handheld devices.
Van Diest stressed the importance of testing, noting that testing:
- makes you smarter over time;
- can help keep you out of spam filters;
- ensures you get the most "bang for your buck" or at least the most predictable response; and
- allows you to develop a proven concept online before spending money offline.
Test metrics like open rates, clickthroughs and conversion, as well as elements like your header, message and timing. A/B tests test one variable at a time against a control, while multivariate tests test multiple variables within multiple versions of an e-mail. Van Diest said multivariate tests are best for when you're just starting out, and as you find a winning control piece, A/B tests can help refine it.
When testing, be sure to send all your e-mails at the same time, and make clear notes about what you're testing and which group is getting the control version. Also make sure your test groups are a significant quantity.
According to MarketingSherpa, 50 percent of people will open an e-mail in the first nine hours after they receive it; 75 percent of people will open it in the first 28 hours; and the remaining 25 percent may take several days to open it. They also report that the average e-mail campaign has its peak open rate in 14 days, Van Diest said.
Van Diest recommended waiting at least 48 hours before declaring a test winner.
"Remember," she said, "the more you test, the more you'll learn. Be sure to use what you learn."
The most important e-mail metric to focus on is conversion rate, which shows the percent of clickthroughs that resulted in an action, whether that action is making a donation, registering for an event, taking a survey, renewing a membership, etc.
Van Diest recommended the following five things that organizations can do now to strengthen their e-mail marketing efforts:
- Audit one of your e-mails for the four Ps.
- Plan to test an item in your next e-mail. "The subject line is easy and sometimes has dramatic results," Van Diest said.
- Check your next (or last) e-mail in a different browser or on a mobile unit.
- Write (or rewrite) your welcome e-mail. Make sure it offers something or motivates a next action.
- Create a new segment to test in your next campaign. Try a completely unique message to people who have given you their e-mail addresses but never taken action, Van Diest said.