Why Political Fundraising Emails Work (and What Charities Can Learn From Them)
Last week, NPR published an article titled "'Bill Wants to Meet You': Why Political Fundraising Emails Work," detailing some of the tactics presidential campaign fundraisers are using to raise money and support through email. The timing couldn't have been better—just a few days after the article ran, news broke that the Bernie Sanders campaign had amassed a record-setting 2.3 million donations, most of them via the Internet.
Clearly, there are some major differences between political fundraising and other nonprofit fundraising—for starters, charities don't have the benefit of super PACs raising and spending unlimited sums of money on their behalf—but there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the way political fundraisers are using email. Here, we break down three of the big ones from NPR's story.
1. Testing. Most direct-response fundraisers understand that testing is critical, but it's impossible to understate its importance. NPR spoke to Toby Fallsgraff, email director for President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, who noted that the campaign routinely tested "anywhere from 12 to 18 variations" of each message for every email it sent. Fallsgraff's team compiled open rates, unsubscribe rates and response rates, using the data to inform each decision. The Obama campaign raised $500 million from email fundraising alone. The lesson? Test often and for as many variables as you can.
2. Subject lines. Using data from email marketing firm Return Path, NPR analyzed the 50 different subject lines the Hillary Clinton campaign used in November of this year, to determine those with the highest open rates. Five of the six types of subject lines had similar results—event invites yielded a 17 percent open rate, followed by merchandise announcements (16 percent), general messages (15 percent), calls to action (14 percent) and event announcements (13 percent). Reactions to news outperformed them all, with a 23 percent open rate.
The results are a bit surprising. Many email fundraising experts advise including a call to action in the subject line, but in the above (admittedly small) sample, those emails had the second-lowest open rates. That's not to say that calls to action aren't effective, but they aren't necessarily a sure thing. Other options, notably reactions to news, are worth considering and testing—and while it's much easier for a major political figure to use those kinds of subject lines than it is for your average nonprofit, there are still opportunities there. Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and National Geographic, for example, each saw a huge uptick in donations during the Cecil the Lion fiasco by seizing on the massive news coverage and adjusting their messaging in kind. Knowing what news donors care about in your sector and finding ways to apply it to your subject lines can have a massive payoff.
3. Getting personal. Make it about the donor. Use "you" often. Include donors in your mission. These are some of the most important tenets of fundraising, the foundation of a donor-centric mindset that prioritizes relationships and personal connections. And these rules apply to email, too. "Emails that are effective—that we've seen be effective—are human," Fallsgraff told NPR. "They feel like a human interaction."
But, be wary of getting too personal. NPR outlined the account of a Rand Paul supporter named Mark English who was turned off by an October email from the campaign. The email's subject line—"Fw: Please reach out to Mark"—contained fairly standard personalization, but its body text was ... creepy? Via NPR:
Earlier in the email chain, a note allegedly from Paul himself read:
Please do me a quick favor and contact Mark English.
I've emailed Mark multiple times this past week about my TV and Radio Ad Blitz in Iowa and still haven't heard back yet.
It's pretty clear that this is a mock exchange created to make the reader feel special (if Rand Paul is personally corresponding with his staff about each individual on his donor list, he probably has too much time on his hands), but it comes off as disingenuous at best and invasive at worst. It's like walking into the break room to find your coworkers whispering about you—even if they're not saying anything bad, it's still an awkward situation. That's the opposite of personal.
So, keep making it about the donor and using "you" liberally. Just don't overdo it.