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November 22 2011

GW Engagement Survey Section Three: Email

Groundwire Engagement Benchmarking Survey, Section Three: Email

Several years ago, we developed the Groundwire Engagement Benchmarking Survey tool to help the organizations we work with determine where they should be investing their (limited) resources. We've used it enough to know that it provides useful, actionable diagnostic information, and decided to make a DIY version that anyone could use. You, maybe.

There are ten questions in our survey. Over the next ten months, we'll present one section of our survey and related resources to help you improve your engagement foundation.

This month, we're looking at Section Number Three: Email.

Groundwire Engagement Benchmarking Survey Section Three: Email

Facebook, Twitter, and SMS may be the cool kids on the block, but email is still king when it comes to communicating with your constituents. 

With few exceptions, email is how you get your people to make contributions online, RSVP for events, sign up to volunteer, and send messages to decision makers. 

But as anyone who has been responsible for clicking the big red send button knows, running engaging email campaigns is a major investment of time, energy, and creativity. So how do you make sure it's paying off? Here are some things you can do to get the most out of your email program.

Put someone in charge. Running a good email program takes planning, focus, and time, all of which are often in short supply in resource-challenged nonprofits. It's critical that a single person is empowered and responsible for your email program. That doesn't mean they have to (or should be) doing everything themselves -- it means that one person is responsible for making sure emails get out the door on schedule. But if there's not one person ultimately responsible for getting an email out the door, it's too easy to let things slip.

Build an editorial calendar. An editorial calendar includes a schedule of upcoming email campaigns. It should include everything from your monthly newsletter, emails around established events or holidays (i.e. your big annual fundraiser and your end-of-year fundraising). Then use your calendar as an organizing tool to ensure you're budgeting enough time for staff to come up with ideas, write content, load and test the email, and review results. An editorial calendar also opens up more space to quickly respond to events as they arise.

Tell a good story (with a killer opening). Good storytelling should be the foundation of all of your communications – if you want to read more about what makes a good story, start here and here.

Like any medium, email brings its own unique set of storytelling challenges and it can take some practice to get the hang of. The primary challenge: you have just moments to catch and hold someone's attention against dozens of competitors as they work their way through their overflowing inbox. If the subject line grabs their attention, you may get them to read your first sentence or two. But the point is, you have to hook them in quickly to have a chance at getting them to take action.

The good news? You’ve got mounds of data to help you figure out what works and what doesn’t. And the more you practice, the better you’ll understand what motivates your audience.

One ask per email.  This one is hard for many organizations to stick with, but it's really important. If you want your constituents to respond to an action request (with their donation or their time), the data shows that including multiple action items in an email reduces the overall response rate to the email. If you have two important asks that are part of the same campaign, consider sending two separate emails instead of one email with two asks. If the campaign and the actions are really important, you can even send them on consecutive days.

Test. Analyze. Repeat. Broadcast email is a data nerd's dream -- you can track open rates, click though rates, unsubscribes v. new subscribers, and generally produce enough numbers to fill a very large spreadsheet with every click of the send button. This provides a lot of opportunities to improve your program, but you have to invest some time in setting it up. A few good places to start:

A/B testing means sending out two versions of your email to a test group. The easiest way to start is by sending identical emails with different subject lines. Give it a few hours, check your click-through and open rates, and then send the winning email out to the rest of your list. You’ll be amazed at how much this will improve your response rate – and how quickly your ability to craft a great subject line and opening will improve as well.

Start compiling an ongoing email stats report. Keep it simple at first: open rate, click through rate, actions completed, donations made, new subscribers, and unsubscribes are good stats to start with. Every week, add the stats for that week’s emails to the spreadsheet. Then schedule a standing meeting to discuss the numbers with your colleagues – data is useless without analysis.


Writing Email Newsletters: Best Practices, Groundwire

2011 Email Service Providers Report, Groundwire

2011 Nonprofit Benchmarks Study, NTEN and M + R Research Labs

Storytelling and the Art of Email Writing
, M + R Research Labs

Experiments in Online Advocacy Research
, New Organizing Institute

Adventures in Email Fundraising
, Idealware

Perfect Your Emails With A/B Testing, Salsa Labs

A/B Testing A Web Ad: A Case Study, Robert Blakely, The Direct Marketing Association

Seven Tips To Boost Your Email Open Rates, Frog Loop

Lisa Simpson for Nonprofits, What Science Can Teach You About Fundraising, Marketing, and Making Social Change, Katya Andresen, Alia McKee Scott and Mark Rovner

Did you miss the first two articles in this series?

GW Engagement Benchmarking Survey Section One: Theory of Change

GW Engagement Benchmarking Survey, Section Two: Website


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