The basics of retention

I had the pleasure of speaking on an excellent panel last week with NonProfit Pro on the topic of donor retention, so instead of our regularly scheduled week, let’s look at retaining our donors.

As direct marketers, we often have every bit of data about an appeal or campaign at our fingertips.  We can track average gift and response rate, test versus control packages, open rates, click-throughs, conversions, and so on.

The thing that is often forgotten is that each number represents people.  Everyone who gets a piece of mail, email, phone call, or text (or fax blast, carrier pigeon, telegram, etc.) votes on it by their action or lack thereof.

Lost in the numbers of an appeal or campaign performance are the metrics that matter in the long-term: are our strategies helping you love those who support you more and/or helping your supporters love you more?

Yes, it sounds a bit hippie-ish, as if I’m going to get the drum circle out any moment.  And part of it is – these are the people who make our work possible.

But even if we must look at this from under our green eye shades through our decidedly non-rose-colored glasses, it makes both sense and cents to make donor retention a top priority.

Our direct marketing programs are like a bucket with a hole in the bottom of it.  If you want the water level to rise, you can only do one of two things – poor more water into the bucket, or decrease the size of the hole.  Given this analogy, you might wonder why you would bother to pour water into a bucket with a big hole in it.

Hand pouring water from a glass into a leaking pail
The image of a leaky pail of water that is legally required
to accompany all retention commentary.

And you would be right – retaining the donors we have is of greater importance than acquiring new ones.  While you certainly can’t stop acquiring to focus on retention (less you get down to one very very very loyal donor), keeping with donors with your organization is vital for several reasons:

  • It’s cheaper. There are very figures for this.  Some say it’s twice as expensive to acquire a donor as to retain one.  Others say it’s 12 times as expensive.  Someone out there right now is working on a study that definitely concludes that it is a hillion jillion times more expensive.  Bottom line, it’s cheaper to retain a donor than to acquire one, by a factor of X, where X is big enough to be important.
  • It’s easier. Picture addressing your acquisition package, email, or phone call to someone that you know already knows what your organization is, what you do, and kinda likes it.  Cuts a few sentences, maybe paragraphs, out of it, no?
  • Retained donors are of greater value than new donors. We’ll talk retention rates tomorrow, in that people who have only given one gift are far less likely to stay with your organization.  They also tend to give more gifts and more per gift.
  • Retained donors are of greater value, part 2. Major donors rarely come from the ranks of people who made one gift to your organization; that’s something that comes from a longer-term association with you.  Additionally, more than half of bequest givers have given to an organization 15 times or more.

So this week, we’ll talk about donor retention: how to measure it, why people stop giving, how to get that elusive second gift, and how to reactivate a lapsed donor.  Like many of these topics, each one of these could be its own book (and some are), so if there are areas of particular interest to you, let me know by email or in the comments and I will work to dedicate a week to the topic.

The basics of retention

Ask strings (a.k.a. why you have $18 donations)

There is no platonic ideal for an ask string.  It varies organization to organization, piece to piece.  Testing is really is the only way to determine what asks work best for your organization.

Nor is it a place where asks translate well by medium.  Generally speaking, an average online gift can be 2-3 times higher than an average mail gift (why, you ask, would you then bother with mail?  Because retention rates on online giving are much, much lower than mail or telemarketing).

There are two types of ask strings – one fixed, when you don’t know who is going to give what, and one variable, when you have a history with a donor.

Tests that work for both

  • Generally, you want at least three options.  Probably no more than seven.  In there is a lot of room for testing.
  • You will more often see ask strings ascend, but testing descending can frequently add value.  Sometimes having them somewhat out of order works best – I’ve seen controls that ask for $15, $10, $25, or $50.
  • No dollar sign. There is some psychological evidence that seeing signs of money actually make people thriftier (hence why they are omitted on pricey restaurant menus). Try without
  • What do you call your other category? Some say an indicator like “Your most generous gift:” or “Your best gift:” strikes a better chord than “Other:” (How could it not?)
  • Circle the goal. Often, you will circle an amount that isn’t your highest, but isn’t the lowest, with a note along the lines of “Your $X gift today would really help those incontinent badgers you love so much!”  The idea is to try to upgrade the donor or get a higher gift amount in acquisition.  Social proof – adding a line like “most people in [your city] give this amount – can also help.  This helps a donor classify your organization and avoids awkwardness like the question of how much you should tip your Uber driver.  (Seriously, how much should you tip your Uber driver?  Please leave comments in the notes, as it’s one thing I can’t effectively test.)

Fixed ask string tests

  • Mission tie-ins and odd amounts. Why ask for $15 when $17 is what you really need to help buy art supplies for an inner city youth?  This compelling why also creates a strong tie between the letter and the response device.
  • Social/cultural tie-ins. If you are focusing on a particular audience or demographic, some numbers have important tie-ins.  Some Jewish people believe in giving in multiples of $18 (Chai in Hebrew means living; the letters of chai add up to 18, so “giving chai” is considered to be especially fortunate).  In Chinese, eight is especially lucky and 88 more so, as the number eight is pronounced similarly to prosper or wealth.  Eight is used like nine is in the US in prices (e.g., $1.88 versus $1.99 – they really just both mean $2).  Conversely, four is unlucky in both Chinese and Japanese, because it is homophonous to the word for death in both languages.
  • Where to start? A good rule of thumb is to start your ask string around where your current gifts are, but you may find that you test up from there.  Another tip is to look at the list you are renting – if you are getting donors $20+, you wouldn’t want to start your ask string any lower than $20.  If it’s $5+, you may (or may not) go that low.
  • Do you have to use these? If you can make your acquisition purchases in segments (e.g., give me all of your $10+ donors and all of your $50+ donors), you have dual benefits – you can use the $50+ donors as multis and you can start one ask string at $10 and the other at $50.

Variable ask strings

  • Highest previous contribution (HPC) v. the previous contribution. Let’s say you gave $50 to a nonprofit, then $25.  Should they next ask you for $50, $75, or $100?  Or $25, $37, and $50?
  • Multiplier: HPC, 1.5 HPC, and 2 HPC is probably most common, but I’ve seen HPC, 2 HPC, 4 HPC, and 8 HPC be effective (on a matching gift campaign in particular, where the idea of doubling is already planted)
  • To round or not to round? If someone make an odd gift of $27, should you next ask them for $27, $40.50, and $54?  Generally not; cents don’t make sense.  $27, $41, $54?  $30, $45, $60?  Rounding out ask strings can help you get out of weird numbers that consistent upgrading can create (e.g., if you donate $30, then upgrade by 50% each time, that’s $45, $67.50, $101.25, then $151.875.  And if you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you).  On the other hand, if someone is giving $18 or $88 for a reason, it also rounds that out.

As with many things, testing this online is far easier and cheaper.  But testing online is a different blog post for a different time.

Has anyone else found success with an innovative ask string?  Please post in the comments or email me at nick@directtodonor.com.

Ask strings (a.k.a. why you have $18 donations)

Customizing your direct marketing (aka Dear Mr. Jenny Roberts:)

In addition to looking for that sweet spot somewhere between “that nonprofit doesn’t know me and takes me for granted” and “that nonprofit has clearly been looking through my underwear drawer again,” the most grievous sin you can make in customizing and personalizing is being wrong.  Thus, a disclaimer that these techniques should really only be used when you are confident in the data used to customize.

When looking at your donor’s sweet spot, there is another optimization to be navigated – the cost of additional personalization versus the return.  Like all else that is good and pure of this world, the way to determine this is through testing.  But there is one way to maximize the bang for your customization buck, which is to customize only one side of, or page of, a letter.  If the printer can do most of your mail piece without variable printing your costs come down substantially.

Of course, these additional costs are nearly non-existent online or on the phones, where your customization is limited only by your imagination, the time you want to invest in creating different versions, and whether your telemarketers will rise up and overthrow you if you have a different script for every call.  I say this last only partly jokingly, in that some experienced callers will use the script with which they are comfortable rather than the script they are asked to use.  Thus, online can have the purest, cheapest testing, so please, please, please test your online asks.

Here are some simple customizations that I have seen increase response rate to the point that they more than paid for themselves:

  • Name: Duh. Infants as young as five months old selectively listen for their own name and this is fully developed by 13 months.  From then until up to 120 years later, we listen, watch for, and seek out our own name.  That name is very, very infrequently Current Resident or Friend.
  • Donation history: If someone has been a long-term donor, it’s great to recognize this. You want to do this casually, as in “You’ve stood for an end to feline boredom for over a decade.  Will you join us again when we need you most”, not as in “Since you joined EFB 13 years and three months ago,” as that gets creepy. If you have something like a member card or supporter club, acknowledging that someone has been “member since 2001” will usually lift response.There is a special version of this that is also very effective – playing back to people that they contributed to the same campaign last year, e.g., “you had your gift matched last year; now is another opportunity to double your impact on adult-onset flatulence.”  Here, you are reminding the person that they are the type of good person that donates to things like the thing they are reading or hearing.
  • Mission area: If you know how someone came into the organization or what they care about, it’s vitally important to play that back to them. Animal organizations, in particular, customize their messages to cat people and to dog people, knowing that each has their own reasons for supporting the cause.
  • Location: I saw a .5% percentage point increase in response rate when someone knew that the story we were using happened right in their state. Of course, this can require 50 different versions, so perhaps you’ll want to start with more easily variabilized copy.  Even easier is to reference the city and/or state in the copy without specifying the story.
  • Contribution level: This is partly for the donor or potential donor. You don’t want to insult someone who would normally donate $20 by asking them for $1000, nor a $1000 for $20.  I once received an acquisition piece from my local Boy Scout organization that asked for $250 as the lowest donation level.  On an acquisition piece.  With no return envelope.  Needless to say, while I was not helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, or obedient, I was thrifty.  This is also for your benefit.  You want to maximize the donation(s) from a donor, gradually increasing their giving over time as their trust in and love for you grows.  That process can be undermine by asking for the wrong gift at the wrong time.

In fact, there is an entire art to ask strings, one that we will cover tomorrow.

Customizing your direct marketing (aka Dear Mr. Jenny Roberts:)

Ellinger’s Peak of Ideal Customization

There is a concept in aesthetics called the Uncanny Valley. The idea is that generally we like things to be closer and closer to human likeness to maximize emotion and empathy. That is, until the thing reaches a point that is not quite human, but too close to human, for comfort. So, things that look somewhat human, but clearly are not (think C3PO from Star Wars or a teddy bear) look fine to us. But getting close without quite being right is highly offputting or creepy.

uncanny valleyYour dislike of clowns, explained.

For some, this is part of a dislike for ventriloquist dummies or clowns or porcelain baby dolls. It’s also why even in these days of high-tech CGI, you will see animated movies that make cartoon characters to be, well, cartoony and not human looking. Efforts to make hyperrealistic animations have fallen into the Uncanny Valley (e.g., Polar Express, Beowulf).

polar express

This girl has come for your soul.

I posit that there is a similar dynamic in personalization.

On one side of the spectrum, you have the cable company. Long after most people have heard of the concept of caller ID, the first thing they ask you to do in their automated system is to put in your phone number.

What is the first thing the person on the other end of the line asks for after your brief 47-minute wait listening to the instrumental version of “My Heart Will Go On”? Your phone number. That isn’t just not knowing your customer; that is Memento-level forgetting.

On the other side of the graph, you have the Target Knows You Are Pregnant story. To make a long and interesting story short, there was a man who called Target irate that his minor daughter was getting coupons for items that would imply that she is pregnant. Shortly thereafter, he called back to apologize, letting them know that there were things going on in his house that he didn’t know about. Target “knew” his daughter was pregnant before he did.

This story is a bit creepy: that Target’s algorithms would “know” something like this. After other coupons were a little too overpersonalized, Target has started putting in random dummy coupons into its coupons, so they look a little more random. (Even though they know what you really want).

“Even then, retailers learned early that shoppers prefer their shopping suggestions not be too truthful. One of the great unwritten chapters of retail intelligence programming featured a “personal shopper” program that all-too-accurately modeled the shoppers’ desires and outputted purchase ideas based on what shoppers really wanted as opposed to what they wanted known that they wanted. This resulted in one overcompensatingly masculine test user receiving suggestions for … a tribute art book for classic homoerotic artist Tom of Finland, while a female test user in the throes of a nasty divorce received suggestions for a small handgun, a portable bandsaw, and several gallons of an industrial solvent used to reduce organic matter to an easily drainable slurry. After history’s first recorded instance of a focus group riot, the personal shopper program was extensively rewritten.”
― John Scalzi, The Android’s Dream

So here is the Ellinger Personalization Satisfaction Curve (I figure if I keep trying to name things after myself, one will stick):

ellinger curve3
I spent upwards of 42 seconds on this graph

As personalization increases, you like it, unlike a point where you stop liking it.  The three big implication for nonprofits are:

  1. This curve is moving right. It used to be an innovation to have a person’s name included in the salutation. Now, unless you are going for an ultra-low-cost package, it’s table stakes. Donors used to be OK with the Super Mario Bros. excuse for not knowing entire gift history (“Thank you for calling, donor. But your data is in another database.”); now it is inexplicable. We now live in a world that knows our name and who we are (or can look it up quickly enough to simulate this).
  2. But people generally don’t like you to know things that aren’t logical leaps from their existing relationship. For example, if you are using acquisition lists from advocacy organizations, it’s almost certain fine to send them an advocacy piece from your organization to them. However, you don’t want to say “Because you support other advocacy organizations, you may want to help support our cause.” This is a part of the sausage making people don’t need or want to see.
  3. This sweet spot is different for everyone. Some people still get weirded out when people know who is calling from caller ID. Others wear their digital hearts on their sleeves, inviting everyone to know everything. The best you can do is aim for the middle for the general population at first, but then test up and down to see what each your donors prefer.

I’ll talk about a few positive customization techniques tomorrow.

Ellinger’s Peak of Ideal Customization

Your first acquisition mailings

The first thing to know is that mail programs will generally lose money initially. Even if you have great donors and good packages at first, the cost of growing the program will likely outstrip the benefits of running it at first, especially because there are significant fixed costs in the mailing space (e.g., it costs just as much to copywrite a letter than does to 100 people as it does one that goes to 100,000).

Acquisition is where you can get into serious money. Acquisition is designed to lose money for all but the most (absurdly) conservative organization. It’s an investment in bringing new people into the organization and getting them to support you financially. Yet, it’s necessary to start to build your file and lower your marginal costs.

One way to do acquisition on the cheap is with warm and conversion leads. Warm leads are people who have engaged with your organization non-financially (e.g., remember those folks we got to download our white paper last week and give us their contact info?); conversion leads are people who have donated, but not through the mail (e.g., online donors, walkers, gala attendees, etc.). These are inexpensive ways to get new donors, as you don’t have to pay list rental fees.

The other way to get names is, not surprisingly, to pay list rental fees. Try to find organizations like yours to test their lists – often people who support an environmental/cultural/health/etc. charity support many of them. It’s much easier to convince someone to support something very like what they already support.

It also behooves you to put your list up for rental/exchange as well. This will lower your list costs because you will be trading lists with some nonprofits instead of renting theirs.

Charity Navigator will ding you for having a privacy policy that allows this, even if you allow people to opt out of list rental/exchange at any time. Like so many things in the nonprofit world, Charity Navigator is wrong about this. They would recommend, in fact, that you not mail your donors because of the cost involved and because they don’t believe that part of the mailing is a program expense designed to educate your supporters about your issue and promote awareness. That said, if you took the same mail piece and gave it out at a walk instead of putting a stamp on it, it could be considered almost entirely a program expense.

If this doesn’t seem burdened by an overabundance of logic, you would be correct. Generally, you would do well to take a George Costanza approach to Charity Navigator and simply “do the opposite” of their guidance.

In addition to rental and exchange markets, you can also work with cooperatives to get additional names. These coops include Abacus, Dataline, Datalogix, DonorBase, I-Behavior, Target Analytics and Wiland. I think I’ve tried almost all of these at some time or another. These coops share names among them and will build a model of response to get the best possible donor lists for your organization. Think of it as not renting from 10 different lists, but rather getting the best from 20 different lists. Some work better for some organizations than others and it may take a few to get it right.

The downside here is that your best names will start to get mail from a lot of different organizations. On the flipside, you have access to the best quality names from other organizations. Be sure to hold out part of your file to determine the impact of this mailing structure on your file.

After you look at your first bill for an acquisition and regain consciousness, you will rediscover the value of warm leads. Just because you started a paid mail program doesn’t mean that the free tips discussed earlier, especially about working to turn your Web site into a constituent generator, don’t still apply. On the contrary, free is often the best possible price. Adding to the original thoughts, now that you’ve run a program, look at lapsed donors as another source of (re)acquisition. Generally speaking, lapsed donors once renewed will be more loyal to your organization than an outside acquired name and they generally acquire more inexpensively.

So far, I’ve been talking about mailings – online and off – as one size fits all. In reality, if time and money were no objects, each communication you would send out would be handcrafted and uniquely personalized and there would be bespoke artisanal direct mail pieces coming out of Brooklyn and Portland in lavender scented envelopes.

In truth, you aim for something in the middle using customization. That will be the topic for the rest of the week.

Your first acquisition mailings

Next steps in direct marketing

Hopefully by now you’ve tried out some free ways to stay in touch with your supporter base and attract new supporters and you are ready to test out spending some money on direct marketing.  I’ll start with your existing donors.

Acknowledgement

thank youOften, thank yous are an afterthought or a legal requirement.  In reality, they are a great way to deepen a relationship with a donor.  Every donor should get at least one thank you, generally in a similar format to how they gave the gift.  That is, if they mailed you a gift, mail them back a thank you note; if they gave a gift online, make sure they get an email receipt.

Please note I say “at least one thank you.”  Gratitude is something to be practiced throughout donor communications largely for its own sake, being the right thing to do and all, but it can also be profitable.  A way to dip your toe into the mail water is to start sending thank you letters to online donors of a certain amount or more.

What is that amount?  Whatever you are comfortable with to start.  You can dial back if the mailings get too onerous (a nice problem to have) or expand the program once started.

This mailing does a couple of things.  It conditions the donor to expect things from you in the mail and that those will be good things.  Also, just as it is better to be a bit overdressed instead of a bit underdressed in everywhere except the tech sector, it is better to be just a little bit more appreciative of a gift than your competitors other worthy causes.

Donor mailings

To keep your early losses to a minimum, start your mailings with a few tried-and-true pieces.  Some that generally work well are:

  • Membership pieces. Even if you are not a membership organization, creating a supporter club or whatever name you feel comfortable with gives your donors a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves alone, which is great, because they are.  Also, you then have a reason to ask for renewals each year.
  • Holiday giving, especially end of year. Online end of year will be its own topic at some point (incidentally, I count nine topics I’ve promised to talk about after only six posts; I may be creating a monster), but during the holidays works well for mail as well, where a holiday spirit generally increases response rates.  It’s also a good time to thank your donors and wish them well in the New Year and with whatever holiday(s) they choose to observe.
  • A newsletter. While traditionally a cultivation device, you can write ones that will more than pay for themselves. We’ll talk more about that in another post (ten!), but if you are champing at the bit, I strongly recommend Making Money with Donor Newsletters by Tom Ahern. You get what’s on the tin.

So that’s what to do with current donors.  How do you talk to potential donors without breaking the bank?  We’ll (try to) cover that Tuesday.

Next steps in direct marketing

Turning on the online spigot

You have the forms, but now you need the traffic. Well, it’s important to remember that Field of Dreams was a work of fiction – building it is not a sufficient condition for people coming.

To start, you do have Google Grants don’t you? If not, we’ll wait right here while you apply.

(pause)

So, how about that local sports team? I heard they won or lost yesterday. That coach is a genius. Or should be fired.

(pause)

OK, you’re back. I’ll talk more about Google Grants in the future, but suffice it to say it’s a great way to start acquiring warm leads. There are limitations like the $2 cost-per-click maximum that chaff some in the nonprofit world, but try applying for this free money from Bing or Yahoo and you’ll find it doesn’t exist.  So $2 CPC it is.

As part of your Google Grant process, you need to identify some keywords and phrases that are important for your organization.

To do this, you will have to speak like a human being. There is a cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge – once you know something, it’s really hard to act as though you don’t know that thing. Or, as the original authors of the paper describe it:

“In economic analyses of asymmetric information, better-informed agents are assumed capable of reproducing the judgments of less-informed agents. We discuss a systematic violation of this assumption that we call ‘the curse of knowledge.’”

There is a wonderful irony in this definition.

Anyway, in order to determine how people will find your wonderfully constructed conversion forms, you need to think like they will think. One example is from MADD. The organization teaches that there is no such thing as a drunk driving accident – that each crash is 100% preventable and that drunk driving is a violent crime.

Unfortunately, that’s not how people search for the terms.  Google Trends searches for drunk driving accident are in red; searches for drunk driving crash are in blue:

drunk driving accident crash

So MADD has ads set up for both accident and crash – they won’t say accident in their copy (ever), but they meet people where they are searching.

The same terms that you are advertising on with Google Grants should also be terms that you use in the page that you are looking to optimize. Not only will it help people convert once they come to the page, but it will also improve your performance for those terms in search engines. If you have partners in the space, be sure to link their pages and vice versa. This will increase your traffic and improve your search engine listing as well. There are a number of additional tips for optimizing for search engines that will cover at another time.

If you are developing and driving traffic to your online funnels and communicating with them regularly by email, you’ll have a better idea of what messages work for your audience and what don’t. From there, you can get a feel for whether a more robust direct marketing effort can further increase your net income. And remember, mo’ money means mo’ mission.

Thanks for reading. Please be sure to comment on this first week of blogging below, so that I can better write for your needs and thank you for your support!

Turning on the online spigot

Setting up your online acquisition funnel

Funnel is a bit advanced for what we are going to be doing today. What we mean is “how do we convert traffic to supporters?”

The earliest Web sites were little more than brochures. After all, when you don’t yet know what to do with a new medium, you replicate what worked in the old medium, like generals who continually fit the last war. There was the information and then there was a contact us link. Unsurprisingly, early Web sites were not conversion machines. That and they still used frames and the blink tag.

You, however, are more sophisticated than that. You know that someone that you know and have as a constituent of some type with permission to communicate is far more valuable than someone who simply comes to the Web site once.

Speaking of, did you know you can sign up for this Web site’s email list? Right here, in fact! You’ll get a weekly summary of these posts.

Anyway, you need to be able to get constituents through your Web site. And, since it’s still free-direct-marketing-program week, you need to do it without cost. So what ways can you get emails?

  • Specifically, you want to tell the prospective signee what is in it for them to sign up for emails. If you can link to a good sample email so they can see for themselves, so much the better.
  • Downloadable materials. Whether its program materials or factsheets, you probably have things on your Web site for people to download and print. You can gate these products by asking for a person’s information at this point. (You can also put in a “no thanks; take me to the material” link in there if folks are worried about cutting off access to information)
  • Petitions, pledges, and the like make people feel involved and given them an excuse to get their friends involved in the mission as well. Moreover, while these are an acquisition technique, they are something that makes your new constituent already feel a part of your organization.

There is a common question as to how much information you ask for on these forms, to which I would ask “How much do you need?” Know that generally every additional form field decreases the likelihood that someone will fill out the form. So, thinking of a petition, you logically need first name, last name, email, and state (so that it can go to the right representatives). If you are doing an email action alert to state legislatures or Congress, you may need a full address to make sure you are getting it to the right legislator(s). It’s rare that you would need more than that initially.

Before you turn on traffic to these forms, be sure to have some sort of tracking system set up to measure what percent of people are converting on your firm. If you want free, Google Analytics can be set up. Ideally, you’d also be able to do A/B testing, but the best tools for this involve money, so that’s a different week.

So now you are ready to have traffic come to your site. That will be tomorrow’s post.

Setting up your online acquisition funnel

Sending your first email

Now you have an email client. And I have a print version of what I’d like to send. I can just put it in a PDF and attach it, right?

No. An effective email is not:

  • An attached PDF. PDFs limit interactivity and frequently exceed attachment limitations on emails, which limit deliverability.
  • An email asking someone to click to go to your newsletter online. Every click you add adds friction to the process and increases the likelihood that people will abandon your newsletter, especially when you don’t have the space to explain what you want them to do.
  • An email asking someone to download your PDF newsletter. All of the disadvantages of a PDF with the additional friction of an added click.

This brings up the question of what it is. A good email is:

  • About the person receiving it. “I” is bad. “You” is good. Me Tarzan. You Jane. Seriously, though, you want to be talking to donors, volunteers, and other supporters what they are doing through you. You are the tool that good people use to do good things. You should brag about yourself about as much as an Allen wrench brags about those Hemnes dressers it made.“We” is controversial. My perspective on it is that it depends on the use of “we.” If “we” is your nonprofit, it’s bad. If “we” is the community of people dedicated to making a cause come to pass, and you can clearly delineate it as such (this is hard to do), it can be good. “We” in the sense of Queen Victoria expressing her lack of amusement: awesome.
  • About a discrete topic. Frequently, email newsletters try to be all things to all people, instead of telling a compelling story.
  • About an interesting topic. This sounds like it would be self-evident, but you would be amazed about email newsletters that talk about the check presentation that just happened or the award from the local Chamber of Commerce the nonprofit received. Most bad topics fail the first test of whether they are about the person receiving it, but some other bad ones are about the person receiving it, but forget that that person is a person and thus is both self-interested and not immortal (thus not having ultimate time to read your newsletter).
  • Equipped with what you want people to do. You do not want to wind up your audience and not have them know what they are supposed to do with their new information.

If you are just starting out, try a few different types of emails to see what resonates with your audience. A few to try:

  • Thank you emails, whether it’s for donating or volunteering or simply being an email subscriber. People generally complain as much about being thanked too often as they hate being too handsome or too rich. Or so I’m told by handsome and rich people.
  • Urgent! Email is the perfect medium to get out timely communications. I’ll talk about ways to take advantage of this with things like matching gifts, but an urgent email is usually a good one.
  • Other ways to support. You will eventually be asking for money by email and if you are doing it right, you will be doing it often. To lay the groundwork for this, be sure to mix in other ways to support your organization that don’t involve a credit card. This can be volunteering, advocating, telling friends about something important, taking a pledge, giving your more information about their preferences, engaging in a cause-related marketing campaign and more.
  • The inside scoop. People love to get exclusive information, to feel like they are inside the velvet rope. One great example of this was chronicled in The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe’s account of the 2008 Obama campaign. In it, he reveals that offering people the opportunity to get the VP pick texted to them increased their mobile subscribers by 1500%. It can work for you too.

These learnings can be the background for your entire direct marketing campaign. Now is the time to find your voice and the issues that work for you, before it costs a lot of money to get that message out.

These are the basics. Now, you need a list. We’ll start that discussion tomorrow.

Sending your first email

Setting up your outbound emails

Surely, you can test email marketing by going into Outlook or Gmail and hitting send right?

No, you can’t.

And don't call me Shirley

There are a few reasons for this:

  • Putting a bunch of people in the To: line of an email gives everyone’s email address to everyone else. This will royally tick off everyone who is on the list, making your list smaller and far angrier at you. And let the fates help you if someone decides to reply to all.
  • You’ll just put them in the BCC line instead? Both every email system worth its salt and AOL will recognize your message as spam, putting it in email purgatory with emails like online scams, pictures of (redacted), and (really really redacted) that you won’t be able to get out of your mind.
  • You can’t effectively customize emails. The loveliest sound to all of us, from the age of two-ish on, is the sound of our own name. Not having a name in an email isn’t a cardinal sin, but it is a venal one.
  • You can’t test and you can’t effectively report results. This is a cardinal sin. The commandments say “Thou shalt test,” and implied within that is being able to measure the results of said test.You may argue that it isn’t actually a commandment, but it will be at least as helpful to you in your career as anything that anyone says about donkey-coveting.
  • Your emails will look bad. This is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Ugly can often convert well. Let me rephrase: your emails will not look like you intend them to. That is the deal-breaker.

So you want some email software to help automate your sending. The things you are looking for are:

  • Quality reporting, including open rates, click-through rates, click-through rates on each link, unsubscribe rates, and (ideally) conversions. If you can’t measure conversions through your email reporting, you can set up different forms for each email and measure it on the back end.
  • Ideally, you want to be able to address people by name as discussed above. Also, you’d like to be able to customize other information. I’ve seen double-digit response rate increases just through simple state customization like “help reduce childhood cancer rates in XXStateXX.”
  • Mobile adaptivity. We’ll talk more about this in coming months, but if you had to choose whether something will look good on mobile or on desktop, you might choose mobile. Fortunately, you shouldn’t have to choose.
  • Form management. Your email provider should ideally have forms that allow people to sign up that automatically go into your email database. This moves people through your system easily and makes your life a lot easier.
  • Managing unsubscribes, email preferences, etc. Same reason.

If you absolutely must have free, you might want to look at Vertical Response, which gives you 10,000 emails per month free, and MailChimp, which gives you 12,000/month. Please post your comments in the, you know, comments section on either system.  I’m starting up with MailChimp, so if you would like to test the user experience for receiving newsletters, you can sign up at right. (hint hint)

However, I strongly urge you to look into email providers that you may pay for, in that it’s really nice to have an email system that ties into your larger database, is part of a true CRM system, or can be part of a larger marketing platform. Take a look at user ratings of different email systems (and different types of systems). This does bode well for MailChimp, which was highly reviewed for small and medium enterprises.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about actual email content.

Setting up your outbound emails