by Jean O’Brien

1.      Send more emails

  • A lot of non-profits under-contact their lists.  If you’re not contacting them regularly, you won’t be at the top of your supporter’s minds. Digital moves quickly: stay in touch or you will get drowned out.
  • Also, if you’re not in regular contact, your subscribers can forget that they signed up to you. And then when they do finally get an email, they’re likely to think that it’s spam.
  • Make sure you’re not just sending asks: don’t be that friend who only gets in touch when they want a favour
  • Send more short, engaging emails: share interesting content, or just say thanks
  • Engaging Networks have analysed over 400 charities’ email results and they say: “Organisations who have the most engaged supporter lists ALSO send the most email”

2.      Use a friendly, informal tone

  • Email is a personal medium. You are directly communicating with a human being. So your emails should use a friendly, personal, human tone.
  • This doesn’t mean your writing should be unprofessional. Just try to write like a person, not a corporation.

3.      Use personalisation

  • To keep emails personal, always use a real person’s name in the sender and signoff
  • I’ve tested this: using a real person’s name as the sender on a daily news email resulted in a 5% increase in open rates
  • Open your emails with a friendly salutation, personalised with your subscriber’s name
  • Don’t start emails with ‘Dear Supporter’ or equivalent: it’s really impersonal and immediately reminds them that they’re getting a mass mailout.

4.      Use a simple template

  • Avoid heavily branded and formal email templates
  • A simple template is easier to read, looks better on mobiles, and is more deliverable

While you’re here, subscribe to Digital Charity Lab’s emails! We practice what we preach, and send useful and interesting emails with a nice simple template 🙂

5.      Send more mailshots

  • Mailshot = an email with just 1 piece of content
  • Don’t just send newsletters* – they’re too formal
  • Send short, engaging emails. Share interesting content, or just say thank you.
  • When you’re sending an ask, use a mailshot. Just one ask per email. The Paradox of Choice means that asking people to do multiple things reduces the chance that they’ll do anything at all. There’s more about this below.

*snoozeletters, more like

6.      Set up a welcome journey

  • This is an easy win: it’s quick and easy to do, and they get great results
  • An automated welcome series will warm up and nurture your new subscribers
  • Welcome journeys get really strong engagement – because they respond to a new subscriber while their interest is high
  • Once the journey is set up, it goes out automatically

7.      Have a stand-alone signup page on your website

  • Email signups are often in a footer or pop up. This is ok, but you should also have a stand-alone email signup page.
  • A sign up page is easier for users to find and handy for promotion of your list. It’s also much more measurable.

8.      Don’t ask your subscribers to put themselves into boxes

  • If your email form asks people to segment themselves by interest, change it. Because chances are, they don’t know what they’re interested in yet.
  • Keep permissions broad, send them a range of topics and see what they engage with
  • Too many choices at the outset will confuse people and reduce sign ups. This is called The Paradox of Choice. I recommend reading up on it, it’s really interesting!

9.      If you’re not convinced by this advice: run some split tests

  • Split testing is easy – it’s built into many email platforms
  • You can test all kinds of things: more frequent emails, shorter emails, mailshots with 1 ask, a simple template
  • Test them against your usual tactics, and compare performance

Useful resources for your work with email

Evidence: the case for changing your email strategy

Glyn Thomas‘ fantastic experiment where he signed up to 100 charity email lists and analysed the results: there is an absolute wealth of insight in here, on strategy, content, deliverability and more.

This increase in open and click rates came about when I implemented the steps above for an Irish NGO in late 2019.

Keira Roth of Engaging Networks shared some results from their benchmarking of approx. 400 non-profit email programmes:

Organisations who have the most engaged supporter lists ALSO send the most email.

Why is this? Lots of reasons, but mainly I see it as these organisations are more likely to drip-feed interesting content frequently, meaning that communication is more digestible, much fresher and has therefore more urgency and excitement about it. Something great/important/exciting happened? These organisations aren’t scared to send an email there and then, regardless of what the schedule says.

And you guessed it, the opposite is also true:

Organisations who have the least engaged lists are sending the fewest emails.

Think subject “January Monthly Newsletter” – plenty of organisations are doing this still, alas. I’ve seen an increasing number of organisations who at the outset say things like “It’s OK, we’re not going to spam you!”, which suggests they are stepping into email sign-ups with the idea that their email comms will be a load of rubbish. That’s no way to start a relationship.

This one is huge:

Organisations with the most engaged lists are using MULTIPLE Marketing Automations

Marketing automations are HUGE when it comes to creating a really engaged supporter email list. First off, think about your Welcome Journey, as this is your time to put your best foot forward and use your shiniest evergreen content to welcome new supporters into the family. But crucially, there are so many ways in which you can use Marketing Automations… reactivation series, birthdays, I could go on about Marketing Automations (and frequently do, see my Ignite talk at the ECF conference)

(Thank you Keira for generously sharing these insights!)

Learn & improve


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