Fundraising on the Internet:
Guide to Success Online, 2nd Edition
Chapter 9: E-Mail Campaigns and E-newsletters
Author: Tom Watson
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Properly managed, e-newsletters and email campaigns are easy to track and offer a very high rate of return on cultivation and solicitation efforts. This chapter examines the use of email newsletters and campaigns for fundraising—what works, what doesn't, and some of the key rules of the road for Internet fundraisers.
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Quick. What’s the most inexpensive and yet among the most effective technology investment a nonprofit organization can make? The answer is in your in-box—it’s email.
When I speak around the country on the subject of email publishing—which I’ve been doing professionally since 1995—I tend to get very passionate, especially to nonprofit audiences. Email changed my life, I tell them, and it can change yours! It is a Killer Cultivation Machine. Just get out and do it.
Hyperbole tends to work in seminar rooms before the attendees get their caffeine, but what can nonprofits really get out of a strong email publishing program? What kind of return on investment? And how will it help fundraising, both online and off?
Since the first edition of this book, I’ve whittled my advice to nonprofit professionals down to Seven Steps to Email Success:
1. Use It
2. Know Your Readers
3. Synchronize Your Message
4. Build Your List
5. Answer Every Email
6. Inform, Entertain, and Serve
7. Ask for Money
But before we dig in, I’d like to take a quick look at a vital issue—one that’s become even more important since the first volume of this book and the update in 2002. I’m talking about “spam,” or unsolicited email messages, the bane of the Internet user.
It’s very important to understand just how big the backlash against spam is, and how even innocent nonprofits can be punished for sending legitimate email.
Everyone who reads this chapter is sick to death of spam. You know the stuff. Get rich quick. Enhance certain body parts. Get out of debt. Obtain the stolen treasuries of African nations. As an active Internet user, I now get more than 100 unsolicited emails per day. The latest studies show that as much as 40 percent of all email is spam.
In Congress and in state houses throughout the land—indeed, in legislative bodies around the world—lawmakers are reacting to constituent outrage with increasingly strong anti-spam legislation. It seems like a no-brainer. Spamming is an anti-social act that ties up corporate and consumer email servers and costs millions of dollars in bandwidth and wasted time. They can't write legislation strong enough to attack spam, right?
Anyone who publishes via email—nonprofits in particular—has a strong self interest in making sure the lawmakers and regulators don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
My Website, onPhilanthropy.com, sends out more than 104,000 e-newsletters per month. They are free of charge, and they are all "opt-in," meaning subscribers have to ask to receive them. In the last few months, we have moved to "double opt-in." Subscribers now have to confirm their subscription to receive email from us. We cover the nonprofit sector, and our aim is to help nonprofit executives. Yet, we often get lumped in with the spammers who send millions of unsolicited emails for herbal Viagra.
And any nonprofit that sends out news blasts, invites, and e-newsletters to supporters and donors faces the same chilling fate. Most of the anti-spam services and software now coming into use rely on blacklists of spammers. With one click, any subscriber can add you to the black-balled list of hated spammers. Once on, an email publisher faces a tedious and arcane process to get off. The burden is on the publisher to prove innocence, not on the accuser to prove guilt. A new anti-spam service provided by Earthlink would require a challenge and response mechanism, forcing publishers to legitimize subscriptions by hand, one by one. And if certain legislators have their way, one may soon have to pay so much in legal assistance to ensure proper email compliance, that it may no longer be cost-effective to publish via email.
In effect, a few bottom-feeders are ruining one of the best communications vehicles nonprofits have to get their worthy messages out there. What can you do?
"The proposed legislation against spam could be beneficial to nonprofits by reducing the overall amount of unwanted and unsolicited emails and by consolidating differing state spam laws into one federal law," says Russ Baker, director of Internet Consulting Services for software powerhouse Blackbaud Inc. "Nonetheless, nonprofits should be lobbying their federal representatives to ensure that fundraising email messages are not treated as commercial advertisements."
Knowing the playing field is equally important, experts say. Familiarizing oneself with the rules of the largest Internet Service Providers and the most popular anti-spam software can be inordinately beneficial.
"Spam filtering is becoming a serious problem and many email appeals, especially HTML appeals that tend to get higher response rates, are getting caught in the filters used by AOL, Yahoo, and other ISPs, as well as the spam filters that individuals set up on their PCs," says Nick Allen, CEO of fundraising and emarketing consulting firm Donordigital. "It's important to work with an email messaging provider who works closely with the big ISPs like AOL to make sure their mail is all 'white-listed' so that it gets through. We also need to tell our subscribers to put our mail on their preferred 'white lists,' as they can in the latest version of AOL, Yahoo Mail, and others."
"As always, nonprofits should continue to use best practices when emailing prospective donors and constituents," says Blackbaud's Baker. "They should manage their email lists appropriately by allowing recipients to unsubscribe at any time, while always remembering to use targeted, relevant subject lines and content."
And finally, don't give up or give in. Email publishing and fundraising is here to stay and it continues to work.
"Despite the glut of spam, people still respond to email from organizations they support," said Allen. “Last Thursday, two of our clients sent out email appeals to the people on their lists. By Monday, one had raised $22,000, the other $21,000. One of the clients had sent out an appeal two weeks before and was concerned about mailing too much. But we are finding that most organizations are not mailing enough; their supporters like the frequent contact."
As always, it is important to stay informed. For more information, the Federal Trade Commission maintains a good site on questions about the regulation of email: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/spam/index.html
O.K. Enough about the bad stuff—on to the good stuff! Unlike many for-profit companies, nonprofits cannot afford to spend money on experiments in technology. Their investment in the Internet must be cost-effective and have a relatively short path to financial success. After years of trial and error, email campaigns and e-newsletters are ready to offer cost-effective and efficient methods for online fundraising success. So let’s dig in.
1. Use It
The utility of email advertising has risen dramatically. And that's wonderful news for nonprofit fundraisers. Why? Because email is inexpensive, easy to track, and very often the preferred mode of communication for just the kind of people nonprofits are trying to reach: busy professionals with money.
Email newsletters, in particular, boast a very high rate of return on marketing and cultivation dollars invested. Why? Because people use email more than any other Internet technology.
The numbers don’t lie. A 2002 Gallup survey found that email remains the No. 1 activity for people online, more than half saying it’s their most common online activity. A 2001 Pew Internet & American Life Project study (http://www.pewinternet.org/) found that more people are “writing emails with more significant and intimate content.” And the Commerce Department reports that 45% of Americans use email regularly, up from 35% in 2000.
A 2000 Forrester Research (http://www.forrester.com) study found that email advertising has a high interactivity appeal with the reader and that click-through rates to advertisers' Web sites range from 10% to 22%, with a quarter of those who click through actually making a purchase or taking the recommended action.
That means that email readers act on what they read. Sending out a catalogue or direct piece to supporters may cost a dollar each, whereas a targeted email message costs around five cents. (This is not a hard and fast cost standard, but a general range).
Okay, we all use email in every day life, but what are the basic out-bound forms that publishers use (as opposed to personal email)? Here are the general formats most nonprofits will use as part of an email program:
§ The E-Newsletter—This is a longer form, in-depth publication, generally carrying entire articles just like in a newspaper.
§ News blast—A short form alert, intended on sending readers to a Website for more information.
§ Reminders—Quick notes that provide convenience and ask readers to take action on events, campaigns, etc.
§ Thank-yous—Personalized acknowledgements for actions taken or gifts made online.
2. Know Your Readers
Remember, when you use email for an outgoing message—to cultivate, to inform, to request action, to ask for money—you are creating media.
That means you must take care in planning what “content” you include in each email publication. What do your readers want? What do they need? How does the e-pub fit into your organization’s mission? These are crucial questions to answer.
Interaction with those in your online community, over time, will have results. Repeat communication over time yields the maximum results. Think of your email newsletter as a community service, but also think of it as inexpensive, highly targeted cultivation program.
Example: The Institute for Nonprofit Management and Southwest Philanthropy at Arizona State University sends its e-newsletter weekly to a thousand people around the state. Recently, it polled them on the newsletter's reach and effectiveness and got some interesting results. Fully 91% said that the newsletter made them "much more aware of the Arizona nonprofit community," and 77% said they forwarded the newsletter to colleagues.
3. Synchronize Your Message
Most nonprofits have some in-house material: articles, essays, lists, manuals, service guides, annual reports. Nearly every nonprofit already has experts in its field working with the organization. It is important to have a vast amount of useful information on the organization’s Website, but if no one is visiting, no one is reading. Getting the content out there in front of users in an active manner is an important element of this strategy.
For example, a health care clinic has a staff of doctors, health care experts, and professionals; each may have contributed regularly to pamphlets and handouts on various healthcare issues. It would be easy to leverage that content every month, launching a regular email newsletter to the organization's users that feeds them content in a handy, easily digestible format.
Keep in mind that it’s very important to coordinate what you publish via email with what your organization is doing in other media—the Website, print, direct mail, radio and TV, even the speeches by your CEO. You don’t have to march in lockstep, but it’s very important to be consistent.
Most important is considering your online fundraising strategy as part of your overall development efforts. As the ePhilanthropy Foundation's "Ten Rules of ePhilanthropy Every Nonprofit Must Know” (Appendix B) suggests, it's very important to integrate your email campaigns with your overall fundraising strategy. Make sure your message is consistent and that the technology works from front end to back.
A terrific example of this is in the e-newsletters that the ASPCA (www.aspca.org) publishes. The email has personality and holds your attention—and it’s also quite consistent with direct mail, advertising, and other media efforts.
4. Build Your List
This works well when a nonprofit already has an email list, but what happens when it doesn't?
The preferred method of identifying and obtaining permission to communicate via email is to engage in a methodical process of requesting email addresses and permission on the nonprofit’s Website and via traditional print media.
For those who want to move faster or would like to augment this approach, there are companies that can assist with a technique known as the email append. The existing offline database is matched against large national online databases, and a percentage of valid email addresses is obtained—usually 30 percent or fewer.
While the technology is new and lists often do not provide matches with a majority of people, it is a way to get started.
To build readership—and, by extension, to raise money—try an email campaign. That is, use several techniques at once and persuade other key people in your organization to build the subscriber base.
See Figure 1, “Flow of Information in a Successful Email Campaign,” for a guide to the steps involved in the process.
Figure 1. Flow of Information in a Successful Email Campaign
5. Answer Every Email
The Internet is a two-way medium, right? So use it. When someone writes an email to your organization or hits reply to an email newsletter, you’d better be sure there’s someone on the other end waiting to give an answer.
If an organization is sending messages out, distributing information, and asking for information, the organization owes it to readers to respond. The blend of ethical and business reasons for this makes it a no-brainer. Readers want to know the organization is reachable, and that it really does care about the cause the emails represent. A good, two-way flow of email can make that happen.
This is a good time to discuss the concept of trust on the Internet. If you’re going to use email as a major outgoing communications tool for your nonprofit—and you should—then you have to be aware of the ethical considerations in today’s landscape.
Ethics are a key component to successful long-term fundraising and development. Establish a strategy before beginning. Your email outreach effort is vital if you hope to gain and keep the trust of online supporters.
Debates over online privacy and so-called "spamming" (sending unsolicited emails) are raging in statehouses and in Washington. Regulations for taking information from users are being written now (See Chapter 18). It's clear that the nonprofit world has a huge stake in this policy battle: Charitable organizations that get wide latitude offline—telephone calls during dinner, mail solicitation, door-to-door fundraising—are not likely to fare as well online.
There are good ethical and business reasons for gaining your supporters’ permission to send them information and ask for donations. If supporters have not yet “opted in,” it is acceptable for an organization to use its email list to get the message out, or to send a one-time offer to a targeted group of people. But if that strategy is employed the nonprofit must provide an easy, prominent, and clear method for those receiving the email message to “opt out” of future mailings. (See The ePhilanthropy Code of Ethical Online Philanthropic Practices, Appendix A).
By gaining permission over time, nonprofits will be assuring that only the best, most motivated supporters are in their cultivation database. This will not only aid in maximizing the fundraising results of email campaigns, it will preserve the organization's reputation.
6. Inform, Entertain, and Serve
Why to people sign up for email newsletters? To get information, to get involved, and yes, to be entertained. Make sure you do all three, or you’ll see the subscriber numbers begin to wane over time.
How? Think of yourself as the editorial of an international publication that reaches people from many different walks of life and backgrounds—because that’s what you are! Try to picture that audience out there and how you’re going to get and keep them interested in your organization’s mission. Start drawing up a story list, including the sort of thing you’d like to have in there. Then make a list of the things that have to go in—announcements, updates, and the like.
Finally, take some time to focus on style—and by style I don’t mean the poetic flourishes on the dinner announcement, but rather a consistency of expression. Make sure you follow a set of guidelines. For instance, where do you state the related URL for a story? Where do you put a byline? Do I use an acronym or the full name of the organization?
Take the extra time to create a simple, straightforward format such as the following:
c. Table of Contents
e. Copyright Notice
Stick to that style month after month. Readers react favorably to a predictable format.
Email newsletters that merely send users back to a Website for the actual information are boring. That is asking readers to do too much. The email itself is a perfectly good medium for publishing the information. When most of the content is in the main body of an e-newsletter, readers are more likely to forward it to other people increasing your reach and your response.
Finally, have fun with it. Don't be afraid to let a little "attitude" sneak into the copy from time to time. After all, the best-paid newspaper writers are columnists; readers identify with the personal approach. Respond to readers and invite experts to contribute guest pieces. Don't shy away from all controversy, but take pains to portray each side fairly.
An effective Website should be a strong piece of any nonprofit's interactive toolbox. Adding to that Website strategy a regular email newsletter of high quality will help create a sense of online community. That makes a difference, and often prompts recipients to respond. In most cases, the organization won't need site stats to see whether it's working; the email in-box will tell the tale.
7. Ask for money
I’m a big believer in cultivation—both in real-world fundraising and the online variety. Take your time, build interest, gain trust, make it a two-way street—and then ask for money.
There are two ways to do this. One is in the regular course of publishing your newsletter, by including occasional “asks” and always-available links to giving pages. Another way is through an email campaign—as part of your annual giving program, capital campaign, or another special effort.
As any good fundraiser knows when an organization can build and enhance a relationship, it has a much higher likelihood of increased giving. As the nonprofit becomes a trusted information source via its e-newsletter, the organization will begin to earn the opportunity to ask for support.
An email newsletter is just one tool for an organization that is serious about finding new donors online, and increasing its circle of prospects. The idea behind an email campaign is fairly simple: Use the best technology available, and combine it with in-house expertise (or consultants).
While email campaigns are relatively new, there are some important lessons already learned:
§ Each online campaign should include an online giving page that allows supporters to make a gift via credit card or a pledge.
§ The technology must be secure and robust, but the nonprofit doesn't have to build this capability from scratch; it can sign up with one of the donation processing service providers (See Chapter 7) to handle it.
§ Thank supporters via email.
§ Include each donor in the nonprofit's ongoing database, after obtaining permission to send that person more information in the future. (See: Section B, #4, ePhilanthropy Code of Ethical Online Philanthropic Practices, Appendix A)
§ Customize email newsletters with content to target populations and provide links back to the giving opportunity page on the Web Site.
§ Utilize direct mail to obtain permission to email in the future. This is generally known as "opt in."
It's important to post a contact telephone number on the nonprofit’s Website. This is especially important in online campaigns. In the case of a consulting firm managing the email campaign, it is suggested that two contacts be posted on every giving page, the consultant contact and the organization's key development contact. If someone's considering a gift, she should have the right to call the organization.
Email campaigns and eNewsletters will become some of the best cultivation tools a nonprofit organization can employ. Cultivation will increase awareness and, over time, fundraising success.
Tom Watson is the CIO and co-founder of Changing Our World Inc., a national philanthropic services company. He is the creator of onPhilanthropy.com, a leading Internet resource for nonprofit professionals that produces five leading email newsletters. A veteran journalist, his work has appeared in The New York Times, Inside, The Industry Standard, and Wired. Before joining CW, Watson was co-founder of @NY, an email newsletter covering New York’s high tech community. Watson is a member of the board of directors of the New York Software Industry Association. He holds a BA in English literature from Columbia University, and has served as an adjunct professor of new media at its Graduate School of Journalism.