...that none of those other posts about how to improve your email numbers have told you.

Talk to anybody who trades in a certain kind of communication (social media marketing, email marketing, direct mail, etc.) and they can quote you numbers that “prove” why their kind is of value. The email marketers tell you that email open rates are much higher than social view rates, plus you have direct access to the subscriber.

But here’s a reality: people are rapidly losing their patience for bad emails.

Most of us just get way too many emails; it’s easy to spend almost as much time deleting emails you don’t want as responding to ones you do. This is especially true of the “important” people who are probably your best donors—they’re busy, and they get literally hundreds of emails a day, just like you do.

As a result, many, many people I know have either unsubscribed from everything (there are even tools that allow them to do that en masse), or send a lot of their email newsletters straight to an archive folder (where they may or may not get back to them later), or sign up for e-newsletters with spam-catcher email addresses they never actually check. And then there are things like Gmail’s new-ish inbox tabs, which by default put mass emails in secondary tabs where they again may go unseen.

If you’re smart, you’ve been doing things like A/B testing your subject lines to maximize opens. But how much thought have you given to things from your subscribers’ perspective? To what they want? A happy subscriber is much more likely to take steps to ensure your emails make it to his inbox.

And while direct mail strategies tell you to scare the hell out of people so they’ll donate in order to save the world, email subscribers are much more likely to end up donating if you consistently give them content they actually care about reading.

Hubspot posted an interview last week with Dan Oshinsky, Buzzfeed’s email newsletter guy, that gives some good insights into what this mindset can look like. It’s harder for an organization than for an aggregator, because you only have so much content.

But here are some practical questions to ask yourself:

  • How well do you know your audience? Do your subscribers care about the same things you do?  These two are wrapped up in each other. The things that get you excited about your organization might not be the same things that get your subscribers excited—you see things every day that they don’t see; so it’s important to take concrete steps to get to know them. Have you sent out email surveys specifically designed to get a good feel for what content they care about? Have you checked the subject lines and link clicks of your past campaigns over time to look for trends? Take some steps to make sure you’re aware of your readers’ priorities before you develop (let alone sent out) content for them.
  • Are you reporting information or empowering and inspiring a community? Your readers probably aren’t foundation grant officers—they’re normal people. Oshinsky says, “When content makes them angry or happy or sad, they tend to share it.” Does your content do any of those things? (Also note: be careful about making people too angry or upset too often; not many people enjoy that, so every donation you get from an angry person might mean 10 or 20 people who stop opening your emails because they’re tired of the apocalyptic tone.)
  • What about your organization provides your subscribers with a positive identity? That sounds a little cheesy. But one study after another; in nonprofits, in politics, even in business; has demonstrated that a huge reason people get and stay involved in causes is that the cause is part of their identity. They have an idea that “people like me do this.” This is also true of their motivation to do smaller things like forward emails. So a major priority in your email communications needs to be reinforcing that identity—for example, giving them information that makes them feel important and “on the inside” when they share it with others, or creating a narrative over time that makes them feel connected to great things and valued for the part they play. Telling one story after another of a life that got changed might not quite cut it.
  • Is your imagery memorable? You have a mission statement, and probably some language you use frequently. Have you actually tested that language to see how people react to it? You want to have images and phrases (they’re called “memes”) that you use consistently; they reinforce your identity in the reader’s mind, as well as making it easy for the reader to identify with you—if your memes are well chosen.
  • How can you link your content with outside-world triggers? When something they see or talk about later that day triggers a memory of something they read in your email, you’ve probably won two battles—first, they remember your email; second, they might just mention it to somebody else. So it pays to think outside the echo chamber of your own work and remember that there is a world outside it—news, images, etc. And then incorporate it when you can!

I tend to think of nonprofit and campaign communications in terms of four stages. Maybe I’ll go into them in more detail some other time, but for now, think of them this way: the first stage is about infrastructure (yay, we have a Facebook page). The second is about developing content to sent out via that infrastructure (posting regularly, sending emails). The third and fourth are about refining your content, refining your audience (so different people might get different content depending on their interests), getting more interactive, and building a two-way relationship that reinforces and empowers your supporters' identity relative to YOU.

Hardly any nonprofits get beyond stage 2. If you do even two or three of these things, your emails will be flirting with stage 3 and be far more effective than the vast majority of the pack.

1 Comment