Don’t Settle for Bad E-newsletters

Feb 26, 2009

If you want to create an online donor base for the long haul, don't clutter their inbox by sending the same tired and contrived newsletter every week or month.

When is the last time you read a nonprofit email newsletter?

Or rather, when is the last time you read a nonprofit email newsletter for an organization you don’t work for?

The point of my argument is simple: that for all the effort it takes to produce a high-quality e-newsletter – to write the articles, choose the graphics, format the html coding, ensure that the email is compatible in every email browser – the returns are typically pretty dismal.

But short, simple, action-oriented advocacy emails – like those used by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and so many of our clients – are both easier to produce, and create a larger, stronger and healthier email program. They’ve worked not only for the Obama campaign, but dozens of successful strategy engagement clients at BSD, including the American Red Cross, Wal-Mart Watch, Sundance Film Festival, and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and many, many more.

It seems this argument has struck a nerve with some members of the nonprofit community, not to mention some other technology firms whose success depends on people sending lots and lots of emails.

Vinay Bhagat from Convio wrote that “the notion that every email should ask a supporter to do something that day is in my opinion incongruent with maximizing donor lifetime value.” We respectfully disagree with Mr. Bhagat as a simple matter of common sense.

Think about it: Why do you join an organization’s email list? Chances are it’s not to read a newsletter. Someone or something compelled you to take action. You wanted to save Darfur. You wanted to end the war. You wanted to stop global warming, or to stop drilling in Alaska. You decided to join an organization to be a part of something bigger than yourself to enact change.

Now think about an organization’s e-newsletter: How does it help an eager new supporter enact that change? How does it help your organization accomplish its goals? And how does it strengthen your relationship with your supporter?

If you want to create an online donor base for the long haul, don’t send them email just for the sake of sending email. Don’t clutter their inbox by sending the same tired and contrived newsletter every week or month. Don’t feed them stories that tug at their heartstrings, but never give them something to do about it – or to tell their own stories.

Instead, send emails when you need to send email. Establish internal processes that allow you to move fast when your organization or, even more broadly, your subject matter is in the news. Strive to give your emails a voice, and start a conversation with your supporters. Base your emails on key events and milestones. And, yes, provide in them opportunities to get involved – starting with a low barrier to entry, then rewarding activists and giving them more responsibility. Lifetime donor value in the highly competitive inbox demands that individual supporters see that there is untapped value in your organization, both for the people you’re helping and for themselves.

Despite Mr. Bhagat’s claims, every email does have an action. If you don’t give your supporters something to do, and you don’t invest in building a two-way relationship with your supporters, that one action is unsubscribing from your email list.

Unfortunately, you’re never going to maximize donor lifetime value if they’ve lost interest.

On every email unsubscribe form we build for our clients, we ask people their reason for unsubscribing. The reason is almost always “I get too much email” – which means, “your emails aren’t as important as the other emails I get.” It’s never “you ask me to do too much.”

We constantly hear people complain that the Obama campaign sent too much email during the final weeks of the campaign. But when we ask those same people if they unsubscribed, virtually none say yes. Supporters don’t want to be asked to do less; they want to find value in what you’re asking them to do.

Now I’ll be the first to admit, every email list is different. What works for one email list may not work for another. Many tactics from the Obama campaign cannot or should not be replicated. Somewhere out there, there’s a nonprofit organization with an amazing success story about their e-newsletter program. There’s always an exception to the rule.

Mr. Bhagat uses Convio’s Wired Wealthy research as evidence that “relationship-seeking” donors – people who donate $11,000 a year or more to charity – like email newsletters. The research is based on the results of an online survey and anecdotal evidence – a self-selecting group with a higher predisposition to opening emails. It is not based on performance history: email open rates, click-though rates and donation rates.

I’ve done a good bit of “high dollar fundraising” in my day, from people who max out to political campaigns to people who write multi-million dollar checks. Take it from me, their motivation had nothing to do with emails of any kind.

But if your high-dollar offline donors want e-newsletters – if their open rates, click-through rates and donation rates prove they want e-newsletters – then Godspeed. No amount of pontificating can refute the hard numbers. But if the numbers don’t refute it, just don’t settle for bad e-newsletters. Test and segment your emails as frequently as possible, and figure out what makes your own list tick.

Our goal should always be to serve everyone through his/her preferred channel(s), at his/her preferred frequency. And at the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie

Side note, but an important one: Vinay's post labels me as the person who "led online communications for the Obama campaign" which isn't the case. I'm Managing Partner of the firm that provided the technology platform for my.BarackObama.com. My business partner Joe Rospars, one of BSD's founders, took leave from the firm to go run the integrated online communications, organizing and fundraising operation from inside the campaign as its New Media Director. Since then he's returned to BSD full-time, and several of the staff that worked for him on the campaign have become part of the BSD family in our strategy practice.