A well-written email has three characteristics: It’s personal, it’s a fast read, and it’s relevant.
Be Warm and Friendly
Good email writing is friendly and conversational. While there are certainly times where the newsy, facts-only journalistic style can work, most nonprofit newsletters should be much more personal, and even a little chatty (that’s chatty, not catty). Speak directly to your reader by calling them “you” and refer to yourself and your nonprofit as “We” or “I.”
People give to and support nonprofits for highly subjective reasons. Your supporters get something deeply personal out of their affiliation with your organization as a donor, volunteer, or advocate. So why would your response back to these passionate people be institutional, monolithic, and completely objective?
If you find yourself in the “501(c)(3) speaks to the masses” writing mode, you need to break out of it if you want your email communications to be successful. Here are a few ways to make your writing feel more personal to your readers.
Use bylines. Let your readers know who is writing the article, so they imagine that person’s voice in their heads (even if that voice bears no resemblance to the real thing). Let those writers refer to themselves as “I.”
Make people central to your content. Include your staff, donors, volunteers, clients and others by name in your articles.
Tell stories. We remember stories much more easily than facts and figures, which means we can share them more easily with friends and family. Tell stories in your e-newsletters to engage your donors in your work, to reinforce their giving decisions, to inspire them to do more, and to encourage more word-of-mouth marketing on your behalf.
Include headshots or photos with people. Go beyond the text and show your readers who’s talking and who you are talking about.
Ensure replies go to a person. If someone hits “reply” to your enewsletter, will a real person see it and respond, or will the reader get an auto-reply about that email address not being checked? Make it the former.
Keep it Brief
Email should be a fast read, but most nonprofit newsletters are way too long. If you recently switched from a print newsletter to an enewsletter, we are willing to bet the bank that your e-newsletter is too long.
We like the 500 word target. Sure, we break it too in our own newsletters, but it’s a great goal. In fact, some email marketers say your email newsletters should be even shorter – just 250 words.
That’s not much space. But it makes perfect sense.
People are craving empty inboxes, which means they are skimming their email even more than they used to. They simply aren’t going to scroll through a long email, reading it word for word.
People are craving empty inboxes, which means they are skimming their email even more than they used to. They simply aren’t going to scroll through a long email, reading it word for word.
Hit the Mark
You can’t make someone care about the contents of your email if they don’t already care at least a little bit. If your email isn’t relevant to your reader in some way, it won’t get read at all. This goes back to Step 3 and knowing what your audience wants. Are you delivering that?
So how do we convince our readers in just a few seconds that what we have to say to them really is relevant? With fabulous micro-content, which takes us to Step 5.
Send the Right Amount of Email
How often can you write interesting, engaging content that your readers will enjoy receiving? That’s how often you should send your newsletter.
When in doubt or just starting out, try to send a newsletter every 4-6 weeks and adjust from there. You want people to remember you and look forward to receiving your newsletter, but you don’t want to drive them crazy with too much email.
If you are providing on-target, valuable information each and every time (or darn close), your readers won’t feel bugged by frequent mailings. If you don’t have enough content for a newsletter every two months, you either don’t know your readers or aren’t thinking creatively about ways to talk about your work.
Send the Right Amount of Email: Part II
Here’s a sweeping generalization: Most nonprofits send e-newsletters too infrequently. If you aren’t sure whether to step up your publishing schedule or not, go for it.
Remember, shorter is better with email. So instead of sending a newsletter with three articles every six weeks, try sending one article every two weeks. It’s the same amount of content, but you are giving your supports three opportunities to connect with you, instead of just one.
If you find you just can’t deliver the goods, slow down. If your unsubscribe rate goes up, ask why people are leaving your list and, if frequency is the problem, back off.
It’s all about knowing what works best for your list!
Create a “Welcome” Series
After you send that automated message that lets your subscribers know they are on your list, what comes next? It may just be the next edition of your e-newsletter. But, you might consider a different approach called a Welcome Series.
A Welcome Series uses your ESP’s trigger function (also called an autoresponder) to send out a set series of messages, usually timed a few days or weeks apart. So, a new subscriber might get a welcome confirmation message on that first day, followed by another informational message three days later, and a third message 10 days later. These are evergreen messages – the content will be still be good no matter what day it goes out. You write these messages once, and only update the series every now and then as needed. The idea is to warm up that new supporter before adding them to your regular communications cycle.
If you go this route, it’s best to exclude the supporter from all other emails until the Welcome Series is complete. Otherwise, the sequence of messages they receive might not make sense.
Micro-what, You Ask?
Microcontent are those small phrases that readers look to first when they are skimming, like subject lines, headlines, and subheadings. Microcontent should be able to stand alone and still communicate a message because it is often displayed on its own, like an article headline displayed on a search result page or the subject line of your emails.
Even though your newsletter readers may be incredibly generous individuals, it’s helpful to think of them as very self-centered, selfish people when they are reading your email newsletter. Here’s why: if the content isn’t immediately relevant and valuable to them as individual human beings, they’ll delete it in an instant. You go through your inbox the same way, don’t you?
Know What’s in It for Them
We know what’s in it for you – you want your supporters to know all about what you are doing and to support you even more. But what’s in it for them? As you write your newsletter articles, keep asking yourself these questions:
• How will this article make our readers feel?
• How will it make their lives easier or better?
• Does this article show our readers how important they are to us?
• Does it celebrate successes they helped our organization bring about?
Survey your readers at least a couple of times each year to find out what they want to know about, what questions they have, and what kind of information
they want to receive from you. Keep your surveys very focused and short (just a few questions) and offer an incentive, if you can, for completing them. Many ESPs have surveying tools built into their packages, so check with your provider.
Call supporters on the phone and ask them what they remember from your last newsletter and what they’d like to see in your next one. You can also identify trends in your readers’ interests by tracking which links they are clicking on in your newsletters and on your website. Remember, what you find interesting and what your readers find interesting may not be the same thing. Always put yourself in your readers’ shoes.
Also keep in mind that your staff and board members are not your primary audience. They are hyper-connected to your cause and your organization and would be motivated to read anything you produced. They are also more likely to be interested in administrative details and background information that your typical newsletter reader would find boring.
Always End with the Next Step
Every newsletter, and every newsletter article, should end with some kind of call to action. What do you want your reader to do next, now that they’ve read your newsletter? Surely not just delete it and move on with their day?
Once your supporters read your newsletter, offer a next step. Do you want them donate, volunteer, register, tell a friend, learn more, talk with others about it, write an email, make a call or what? Include specific calls to action and links that make following through as simple as possible. Make it, as Network for Good’s own Katya Andresen says, a “filmable moment.” Could you film your supporters following through on your call to action? If it is clear and simple enough, your supporters should be able to easily visualize themselves and others doing it.
Even if you really just want to educate people or share information, what are people supposed to do with this knowledge? Can you take them to the next step, whatever that may be? Of course, that will often be donating to your organization or volunteering for your cause in some way. Try to think more creatively about other ways your newsletter readers can interact not only with your staff, but with other supporters and allies in your field too.
Remember, people like two-way conversation and interactivity. A recent study released by Nielsen says that people now spend more time on social networking sites and blogging than they do on email. All those “FYI” emails nonprofits send are snoozers in comparison. Jazz up the great info you want to share with links to photos and video where people can leave comments and discuss your content.
Include Articles That People Like to Read
Here are five types of e-newsletter content that can work for both you and your readers.
1. Success Stories. Report back to your donors and other supporters on what you are doing with their money and time by sharing some success stories. Even better, give your readers credit for that success and make sure they understand just how important they are to even more success in the future. You don’t want to brag, but you do want to demonstrate that what you do really does matter.
2. Back Stage Passes. Take your readers behind the scenes. Tell stories and report back on what you are doing from the insider’s perspective (but not too deep inside – we want the intrigue, without the tedium.) Or explain how you goofed something up, what you learned, and what you are doing differently now. It’s all about being more transparent. OK, yeah, “transparency” is a big buzzword right now, but the concept is rock solid.
3. Next Up – and Fast. Remind your supporters what’s happening in the next few days. Sure, you can use email for “Save the Date” announcements, but if you are spending too much time and text talking about events that are still far off in the distance, you won’t get much attention. You need to create a sense of urgency. If you have a big event coming up in three months, create lots of other intermediate dates of importance or milestones – super saver deadlines, 100th person to register – to create some timeliness.
4. Empowering How-Tos. Your supporters can help you implement your mission by donating to you and volunteering. But there are probably things they can do in their own personal and professional lives that would also contribute to your definition of a better world. Give them some suggestions and show them the impact that their actions, on their own time, can have.
5. Straight Action Alerts. All of the previous four types of articles can be used to lead supporters to a call to donate, volunteer or support you in other ways. But you can also do a much more direct action alert. Email is great for asking people to take action on an issue, whether it’s completing an online petition, emailing a member of Congress, or donating to a specific fundraising campaign – if you include explicit and easy instructions on how to take that action. Be sure to relate how their individual actions support your organizational actions and vice-versa. Show them the benefits of your team effort.
Once you have an ESP, you’ll need to create your mailing list.
If your list is like a garden, permission is the sun: Your list cannot grow without it.
Building a Permission-Based Email List
You want to build a permission-based list, which means that people have given you permission to email them. You do this using what’s called single opt-in or double opt-in.
• If someone signs up for your e-newsletter on your website, and they are instantly put on your mailing list, that’s single opt-in.
• If after they sign up, you send them an automated message that asks them to click on a link to confirm that they want to subscribe, and only then add them to your mailing list, that’s double opt-in.
Single opt-in will build your list more quickly. That’s because a good number of people won’t go find that confirmation email and click on the link. It may go in their spam folders or they may just ignore it, thinking that you are just telling them they’ve been successfully added to your list.
But single opt-in poses several problems. While it will grow your list more quickly, the health, or quality, of your list can really suffer. Here’s why: your sign-up form will eventually get hit by spambots, malicious programs created by spammers to try to get their links onto your website by filling in your web forms. Some spambots intentionally sign up bad email addresses to your list just to be a nuisance. Since ESPs charge based on either the number of records in your database or the number of emails you send, these spambots cost you money.
With double opt-in in place, you’ll only send that one confirmation message to that bad address, it won’t be confirmed since it’s not a real person, and the address won’t actually be added to your mailing list. Depending on your ESP, these addresses will be deleted automatically or you can periodically delete them yourself. The same goes for people who simply type in their email addresses incorrectly. Double opt-in is best, and should be your long-term goal, even if you try single opt-in at first.
Because spam is such a headache for people, email privacy policies are often read more frequently than general privacy policies. A simple, succinct policy will answer this questions: "How will you use my email address?"
Here’s an example how you can customize for your website:
“Your privacy is extremely important to us, and we'll do everything we can to protect it. To that end, our organization maintains an opt-in policy for its email communications. That means we only want to send mail to individuals who have requested that these mailings be sent to them or to people with whom we have an ongoing individual or business relationship.
Your right to control what mailings, if any, you receive from our organization is important to us. Though we may include announcements from partners or other third parties in some mailings, these messages will come directly from us and we will not share your email address with anyone. We will not sell it or rent it, period.”
Moving Your Snail Mail List Online
If you already have a business relationship with a person, it is OK to start emailing them. So if you had a good reason to put them on your print newsletter list (they donated or volunteered, or attended an event, or asked to be put on it), then you can start to email them, too.
Easy Ways to Grow Your Email List
On Your Website
• Put your sign-up form in your website template, so it appears prominently on every single page.
• Offer special downloads, like how-to guides related to your mission. Be clear that when they sign-up for the download, they will also get your e-newsletter.
• Sponsor a fun contest or drawing, and be clear that when they enter, they will also receive your enewsletter.
• Consider letting people segment themselves on the sign-up form by which topics they care about or how often they’d like to be emailed
In Your Email Messages
• Offer great content! Nothing will build your list faster.
• Encourage supporters to update their email addresses themselves (if your system allows it). It’s much better to allow subscribers to update their accounts then to force them to unsubscribe and resubscribe.
• Ask readers to forward your e-newsletter to friends and be sure to include a link to your sign-up form in each edition so those friends can sign-up directly.
• Respect all opt-outs. It’s better to lose a subscriber than to have that person tag you as a spammer.
• Consider linking to your signup form from your personal email signature as well. Your professional network and the folks with whom you regularly communicate may not be on your email list yet.
Segmenting Your List
Where permission is the sun, segmentation is the water.
You can grow plants in the desert, and you can do email marketing without segmentation. But your garden will be much more vibrant and fruitful with water, and so will your email list with segmentation.
Segmenting your list is like creating smaller lists within your main mailing list. For example, you may want to send a monthly e-newsletter to everyone on your list. But you may also segment just your volunteers to receive special updates. You might segment donors who are supporting one particular program and send them e-newsletters with stories just about that program. You might want to send event invitations based on zip codes or how long people have been donating to your organization. These are all ways to segment your list.
Why segment? Because it allows you to create messages that are more targeted and relevant, which means they are more likely to be opened, read, and acted upon.
How do you send emails to supporters and others who want to hear from you?
• An email marketing tool built with nonprofits in mind?
• Microsoft Outlook or Gmail?
• Carrier pigeons?
If you answered anything but the first in that list, we're here to sound the "bad idea" alarm. (We won't get into why carrier pigeons are a poor decision . . . Let's just say their delivery time isn't up to snuff and clean-up is a nightmare. And honestly, doing email marketing from your desktop email program isn’t much better.)
Many nonprofit organizations get started with email marketing by sending out e-newsletters via Outlook or Google's Gmail. But beware: there are rules, caveats and landmines awaiting the nonprofit using Outlook or Gmail for email outreach.
While Outlook and its many cousins are fine for 1-to-1 email, they weren't designed for sending email newsletters or fundraising appeals to groups of people. To do this effectively, you need an Email Service Provider.
There's a Better Way
Email Service Providers (ESP) are companies that specialize in delivering your email to your mailing list for you. You create the message and you control your mailing list, but all of that data is stored on their computers and your messages are sent out through their mail servers. You login to your account on their website to create your messages, manage your mailing list, send your messages, and track what happens after the message goes out.
Benefits of ESP
An Email Service Provider built for nonprofits can do the following:
• Create sign-up forms for your website. Your website needs a way for new supporters to sign up directly for your mailing list.
• Manage bounces, unsubscribes, etc. People change their email addresses all the time and change their minds about which lists they want to be on. Using an ESP automates the process of managing the individual records on your mailing list. Readers can unsubscribe themselves instead of you doing it by hand, and they can often update their email addresses all by themselves too. When you send a message to an email address that is no longer active, the ESP will remove that record from your list for you.
• Analyze the results. Your ESP will give you statistics about your email campaigns that you could never create on your own. Data like who is opening your email and what links they are clicking on can help you create even better, more relevant content for your subscribers next time.
• Help you comply with the spam laws. Nonprofits must comply with the federal CAN-SPAM law and your ESP will help you do that by automatically including “unsubscribe” links and your physical mailing address in the messages you send.
Some popular ESP companies are EmailNow, Vertical Response, Benchmark Email, Get Response, and AWeber.
taken with permission from, The Nonprofit Email Marketing Guide: 7 Steps to Better Email Fundraising & Communications.Written by Kivi Leroux Miller of NonprofitMarketingGuide.com. .
I suspect you are already convinced of the merits of using email to keep your supporters informed and involved in your good cause and, yes, to raise money for it too.
But just in case you need a little backup in those conversations with any curmudgeons around you, here are a few of the best reasons why your nonprofit should embark on an email marketing program:
• It’s cheap.
• It’s fast.
• It’s empowering.
• It has a great ROI (that’s “return on investment”).
• It works.
Email marketing costs pennies on the dollar compared to print marketing. What would take days, if not weeks, to send out to your supporters in the mail, you can deliver to their inboxes in minutes – and if you really need to, send another update out just as quickly the next day. With the right inspiring words and a clear call to action, you can empower your supporters to click on a link and help you change the world.
Email marketing works, and thousands of nonprofits are using it every day to build support for their issues, rally volunteers and advocates, and give donors faster, easier, and more efficient ways to contribute financially. They are investing in great email marketing, and their supporters are investing in them and their causes.
That’s the “why.” Sounds good, right?
The problem is that for every great email message a nonprofit sends out, there are at least another 10 that are terrible. Boring. Wordy. Vague. Ugly. Not informative, inspiring or motivating.
Before you send out your first email message, you need to set yourself up for success by putting your email marketing system in place. At the heart of that system are two pieces that I will discuss next time: your email service provider and your mailing list.
An email newsletter is a complete email message that can stand on its own, with links back to your website where readers can get more information or take action.
An email newsletter is not a PDF you send attached to an email message or one-line email asking readers to read your newsletter on your website.Your print newsletter copied and pasted into an email message doesn't count, either.
taken with permission from, The Nonprofit Email Marketing Guide: 7 Steps to Better Email Fundraising & Communications.Written by Kivi Leroux Miller of NonprofitMarketingGuide.com.