2015 Digital Fundraising To Do List #2 Get Serious About Email Fundraising

Email Fundraising
Despite all the attention that continues to be devoted to Social Media across the nonprofit world, I don’t know many fundraisers who wouldn’t acknowledge that the primary means of engaging with their donors online is actually through email. Sadly, I also don’t know of many who are really pleased with the fundraising results they receive through their email programmes.

And this underperformance seems to be getting worse not better as time goes-on – as highlighted in last October’s Luminate Online Benchmark Report, which (as reported by Mike Snusz of Blackbaud) showed email appeal volume up over 70% among the 794 nonprofits surveyed, but the all important email appeal conversion rate down by 25%.

So, what is going wrong with Email fundraising? Is it simply that donors don’t like to respond to email appeals?

I don’t think so. From discussions I’ve had with fundraisers all around the world (and from what I see in my own inbox) I think the truth is that very few organisations really take email fundraising seriously. Certainly nothing like as seriously as they take their direct mail fundraising.

It may be because email programmes are not run by fundraisers; or because of problems integrating offline and online donor data; or simply because low results have led to ever lower expectations. But what I see time and again is that email fundraising programmes are being run with none of the direct marketing rigour that even the most junior direct mail fundraiser would recognise as DM101.

In a channel where the potential exists to offer content-rich, personally-targeted digital engagement and asks, most fundraisers still send one size fits all email appeals and e-newsletters with no sophisticated segmentation and minimal testing – and just accept the resulting dismal income returns.

To be honest, I can’t think of any other direct response channel which is so badly under-used by fundraisers.

So, that’s why I’ve put Getting Serious About Email Fundraising as second in my 2015 Digital Fundraising To Do List (just behind Fixing your Conversion Rate Optimisation).

I’d encourage anyone involved in online fundraising to invest some quality time thinking through how they might improve their use of this key digital channel by applying some good-old offline direct mail techniques.

To help kick-start your thinking, here’s a list of common email marketing mistakes from my old agency colleague Jeff Brooks over in Seattle. Alternately, seek-out the keenest direct mail fundraiser you can find and ask them what old school direct marketing nous they can share to help improve your email programme.

12 digital fundraising trends for 2012 #10 Social Media Fundraising Growing-Up

After several years of amazing growth, data from Hitwise last August suggested that Facebook use was starting to slow here in the UK. Not at all surprising given that there are now around 30.25m UK users – equating to almost half of the whole country’s population signed-up to the site. So it must be approaching saturation point. Hitwise reinforced this observation with data released earlier this month showing Facebook’s share of all UK visits to social network sites falling by 7% December 2010 to December 2011, while YouTube’s share grew by roughly the same amount.

Falling market share or not, in the week that we’re due to see Facebook go public with a $10bn share offering I don’t for a moment foresee that we will see a slowdown in interest in the site any time soon. However, what I do think we will see over the next year is a growth in the maturity with which Facebook, and Social Media in general, is viewed within the fundraising world.

After five years of seemingly ever increasing fundraising expectations, I sense a change in attitude towards the role that Social Media has to play in online fundraising. A change beautifully summed-up in the slide above, from the presentation given by Beate Sørum at the International Fundraising Congress in Holland last October.

Fundraisers are increasingly coming to acknowledge that while Social Media undoubtedly does offer unique benefits that secure it a key role in online fundraising programmes it is not a “magic faucet of free cash”.

With this understanding, they are then freed from a myopic drive to “make Facebook* fundraising work” (*or Twitter, or Google+, or Pinterest, or whatever) and can instead consider where in their donor recruitment, engagement, and retention programme the various flavours of Social Media can best be applied. While at the same time considering where they should focus on improving their use of good old email and effective website design.

If I’m right, then we should see a growing number of integrated campaigns drawing together strong fundraising propositions and storytelling through blogs (and promotion through bloggers), with Facebook and Twitter enabling sharing and conversation, well designed transactional pages capturing donations and donor data, and email being used to keep donors informed when there’s a new chapter to the story they’re interested in – rather than ‘single strand’ Twitter or Facebook campaigns. Time will tell…

This is the tenth of twelve posts that I’ll be publishing throughout January on trends I think will prove to be important for digital fundraising in 2012. You can find the previous trend post, on Back to Website Donation Basics, here.

12 digital fundraising trends for 2012 #7 Getting Smarter With Email

As pressure to deliver on income targets in these increasingly challenging financial times results in a return to getting the fundraising basics right, I hope we’re going to see a shift towards making far better use of email this year – thereby capitalising on what is all too often a sadly under-performing opportunity area.

Despite continued excitement over the potential of Social Media, the fact is that email remains the most effective way for most fundraisers to engage directly with the majority of their online supporters – and seems likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, most charity email programmes I experience seem to comprise a monthly newsletter containing whatever information happened to be to-hand, rather than anything approaching being relevant to me and my donation history, or random cross-sell emails for fundraising and campaigning opportunities that are equally irrelevant. This might explain why most email fundraising, while looking great in terms of ROI thanks to minimal direct costs (best not mention all the days spent creating the eNewsletter, fiddling with data, and getting the things out), doesn’t actually contribute large amounts towards annual income targets.

I know that for many, if not most, organisations email marketing is not nearly as easy as the uninitiated might think it should be. The sort of hurdles that need to be jumped to get a smart email programme in place include the common lack of data integration between website subscription page, main supporter database, and email system; the inability to report on email responses so that their effectiveness can be properly evaulated; and the reliance on overworked Comms Team members to develop the email for you.

However, these are the same problems that we’ve been faced with for many years now. So this year, when we should all be looking for opportunities to refine fundraising programme effectiveness, it seems like a pretty good time to focus on how you can do email better – whatever it takes. Even if achieving this will require a plan spanning the next couple of years – as, sadly, data issues don’t get sorted overnight.

To help get you started along a smarter path, here are a few areas that you might want to think about…

Getting smarter with data and segmentation It never fails to amaze me that organisations will go to great levels of detail on their direct mail segmentation, and see significant benefits in terms of net income generated across the whole mailing base – yet when it comes to email all of this is forgotten as they hit the button on a ‘one size fits all’ broadcast campaign. If your email programme is still based on this approach then take a while to think about just what a mix of supporters you have email addresses for and what related response data exists that could form the basis for a smarter segmentation. This is well worth spending some time on – running data audits, investigating the untapped segmentation potential of your email system, examining how well online and offline transaction data is integrated – because it will form the foundation for everything else you do, from selection and creative testing to campaign evaluation.

Getting smarter with evaluation Thinking about evaluation – just how well do you really evaluate your email activity? I come across many cases where basic response data is measured and reported upon, but little really smart evaluation of the type that can provide solid insights to help improve effectiveness is undertaken. Start by considering the real purpose of each of the elements in your email programme and what the related measures of success should be, and then determine what data you need to evaluate this success. Direct mail fundraisers can only dream of the sort of engagement insights that a smartly measured and evaluated email programme can deliver – yet digital fundraisers rarely seem to make the most of this.

Getting smarter with programme, content and creative Once you’ve made the decision to move away from using a ‘one size fits all’ approach to such a wonderfully personalisable channel, and have your smarter segmentation in place, then you can think about what online/offline contact programme, content and creative presentation might deliver you the best results from different segments. Once again, there is masses of learning that can be transferred from ye olde direct mail with regard to building robust testing programmes, yet the speed with which you can test, learn, and roll-out make the refining of campaigns a far more immediate activity. And don’t just test around the edges. From the outset get testing in place to determine whether the core elements of your programme – like those monthly eNewsletters – are actually working for all segments. In many cases I suspect this advice from Thomas Gensemer back in 2009 will still hold true, about a well written simple email with a clear call to action driving better results than an eNewsletter – and costing a fraction of the staff time.

Getting smarter with mobile With ever more of your supporters reading and responding to your emails through mobile devices – Smartphones or Tablets – it is becoming all the more important to ensure that they are designed to be read on these devices and that any sites you link to for response are also optimised for mobile browsing. Take a look at this handy infographic for a summary of ideas of how to make emails more mobile friendly.

Getting smarter with deliverability With everyone looking for opportunities to engage more supporters in their fundraising in a low-cost manner it is likely that many will dig around to see what un-used email addresses they have stored around the place to swell the numbers receiving eNewsletters and eAppeals. What they may not realise is that continuing to email people who don’t open or click through could have a serious impact on their reputation as a sender and thus the overall deliverability of all their emails. As recipients are increasingly responding to unwanted email by Spam flagging rather than unsubscribing and ISPs increasingly use inactivity as the basis for blocking careless bulk email senders – as highlighted in a recent study by digital marketing service provider Responsys.

This is the seventh of 12 posts that I’ll be publishing throughout January on trends I think will prove to be important for digital fundraising in 2012. You can find the previous trend post, on eBooks, here.

Haiti one year on – the view from an online donor’s doormat

A year ago this month, along with millions of others world-wide, I donated online in response to the terrible earthquake that hit Haiti. However, rather than chose a single charity out of the wide range running appeals I decided to give £20 to each of the UK’s ten leading relief and development organisations to see just how the experience of being an online donor varied across the different brands.

And vary it certainly did. In some cases I was treated to truly engaging online updates on the way my donation was being used (particularly well done UNICEF and Oxfam), plus some fun and interesting new opportunities to engage (nice one ActionAid – for both your PoverTee day and Happy Bubble stuff!)

However, in other cases I’ve ended-up on the receiving-end of a seemingly endless series of direct mailings that might, at a push, appeal to my mum but frankly don’t do anything for me. I honestly don’t need a cardboard bookmark, or an Easter card, or a diary. I certainly didn’t need the twelve mailpacks that one charity has now sent me in less than twelve months – I’ll not say who you are, to spare your blushes, but you’re big and you should know better than just bunging a £20 online emergency donor into every cash appeal going!

To help illustrate the range of donor programmes I’ve ended-up on the receiving-end of, I’ve summarised the year’s online and offline communications in the following simple chart. It’s anonymised, but somewhere in there are each of the following: Oxfam, British Red Cross, Save the Children, Christian Aid, World Vision UK, Action Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD, UNICEF UK, and Plan International:

Now it’s not that I expect only to be communicated with online. Just because I subscribe to nice, fast broadband doesn’t mean that I’ve nailed-up my letterbox, and a few of the mailings I received were actually well targeted and effective. Like the three I’ve been sent by UNICEF: two about Haiti and one other emergency appeal. But I have to admit that I find few things more annoying than seeing a big A4 colour supporter magazine lying on my doormat, especially when it’s stuffed with irrelevant cross-sell materials like mail order catalogues. Having grown used to watching videos of the work I’ve helped fund and then clicking through to read the latest news in the project leader’s blog, an expensive looking magazine really doesn’t make me feel good about my donation – and don’t get me started on those raffle tickets!

Anyway, this is not intended to be a rant against charity mailings. I know first-hand just how wonderfully effective direct mail can be – when sent to the right people. I also know just how frustratingly ineffective email can be when you’re trying to generate donations – even from people who have started by donating to you online. However, what my experience over the last year has clearly highlighted is the vast difference in ways that ten charities, all essentially offering me much the same opportunity to change the world for the better, have chosen to develop a relationship following my first online donation.

So, from this unexpectedly diverse donor experience I’ve distilled a few key thoughts that anyone responsible for managing emergency online donor supporter journeys might just like to consider before the next disaster comes along:

  • Don’t immediately assume that emergency donors are particularly interested in your work beyond the emergency they’re responding to. They might be, or might grow to be over time. But in the first instance keep the focus of your communications on what you know to be their area of interest and only then see if you can get them to reveal what else they may be interested in hearing about. You might test emergency postal appeals, but don’t just mark them down for every mailing going in the vain hope that you might hit lucky. You just end-up looking wasteful and reducing the likelihood of them responding even when another emergency comes along
  • Do offer online donors the opportunity to receive their Supporter Updates or Newsletters electronically – and extend the same offer in every printed copy you send. It’ll save you print and postage and the engagement and response options are so much richer online anyway. However, I wouldn’t advise offering the opportunity to opt out of all postal communications – as well timed and targeted mail appeals can still work, even with hardened onliners like me
  • Do remember that many online donors are very willing to further their relationship with an organisation through some form of simple click-to-campaign advocacy action. But Don’t just hand over your emergency donors to your Campaigning team without ensuring that they have the opportunity to indicate whether they are interested in campaigning and/or opt-out of things they’re not interested in. One organisation in particular (again no name, but not the same as the bulk mailer chastised earlier) has an especially active Campaigns team who seem to delight in sending me emails about all sorts of things they are clearly very enthusiastic about – but who have never once stopped to ask me if I’m interested in what they do
  • Do consider how you might learn more about online donors at the point of their first gift and then use this information to guide their subsequent communications. Not necessarily through asking too many questions at the point of donation (although a strategically selected few might be useful) but simply through using your website tracking data more effectively. For example, one organisation I know has found that donors coming to them through Bing have a better repeat donation and upgrade profile than those from Google (I’m guessing because those who stick with Bing as the default on their IE browsers are perhaps older/less tech-savvy than the norm?)

Now, after an ‘interesting’ year on the receiving end of all of these donor communications I think it’s time for me to make a few calls – or preferably send a few emails – and see if I can get myself off some of these direct mail lists. It’ll certainly reduce the amount of recycling I have to do.

New digital tracking study reveals UK consumer views on promotional email and social media use

Last Thursday I was out at the launch event for the DMA’s Digital Tracker Study, a research initiative (backed by online research company FastMAP and email marketing company SilverPop) that aims to provide regular insights into some of the key questions online marketers are asking in relation to using email and social media use.

I’ve embedded a copy of the main research presentation above, so you can take a look at the top-line findings (or click here to view on SlideShare).

As is always the case with such research, some of the observations just confirm what most good online marketers know already – like the fact that traditional sales promotion techniques (money off or free delivery) work well in email.  But I did find some of the insights related to people’s use of Spam flags and also the difference between use of mobile devices to access emails and social media sites of real interest. Plus, there are also some great headline stats – like almost two thirds of recipients finding less than one in ten promotional emails of interest (which might explain some of the dismal click through rates many email marketers see).

Here are some of the insights that jumped out at me – but do take a look yourself and see if the results confirm or counter your own experience or current thinking:

  • 43% of UK adults receive over 20 promotional emails a week – so there’s lots of competition for attention in their inbox
  • 64% of people find just 1 in ten (or less) of these emails of interest to them – suggesting that if you can be truly relevant than you can really stand-out
  • 19% of people will flag your email as Spam if they feel they receive too many and 18% will Spam flag emails they don’t recall signing-up for- so make sure you send a memorable ‘welcome’ email in response to every sign-up and then watch your frequency if you don’t want your email campaigns blacklisted (although the more relevant and thus ‘valuable’ your email, the less frequency should be a concern)
  • A further 8% use the Spam flag instead of opting-out if the opt-out process seems too slow or unclear – so, again you’re risking blacklisting if you don’t make it as easy to opt-out as you did to opt-in
  • The majority of email is still read on desktop (67%) or laptop (49%) devices – but 11% of adults now also read them on mobile devices
  • Interestingly, this contrasts with 18% of people using mobile devices to access their social networks – suggesting a very different mode of use between email and social networks, which marketers need to take into account

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NSPCC offers virtual flowers by email or mobile for Mother’s Day

On Sunday it was Mother’s Day here in the UK. So, to help children of all ages celebrate their mums, the country’s largest children’s charity the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) launched a neat little fundraising microsite offering virtual flowers that donors could send via their mum’s email or mobile phone on the morning of the big day in return for a £5 donation.

I’m not too sure quite how those mums at the receiving end will have felt when their usual chocolates or roses were replaced by an email or text message, but it’s a nice example of a charity extending the reach of its online fundraising activity to incorporate internet-equipped mobile phones.

With well over 10m people in the UK now using smartphones to browse the web, and that number growing by the month, I’m surprised that more charities aren’t already taking advantage of the emerging opportunities to engage people through their phones as an extension to traditional ‘virtual gift’ offerings like Oxfam’s ‘Unwrapped’.

However, I expect we’ll see a lot more such campaigns over the coming months as fundraisers realise that mobile fundraising can now go way beyond just telemarketing and SMS donations.

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Social Media is not killing Email – so what’s your next excuse for not using Email as well as you could?

Each time we see a significant evolution in the way consumers communicate there is always a temptation to jump to the conclusion that the latest method will surely kill-off the previous methods. Presumably such predictions were bandied about after Alexander Graham Bell made his first telephone call back in 1876 – yet the mail service didn’t die-out as a result of the adoption of telephones. Rather more recently, there have been suggestions that email will kill-off traditional mail ever since I got my first email address back in the early ’90s (remember Compuserve?) – but it hasn’t happened yet (although that debate does continue).

As such, following the incredibly rapid adoption of Social Media over the last few years it’s not surprising that people are having the same discussions again – ‘surely if everyone is tweeting or facebooking then they’ll no longer be using email?’. Indeed, this was the very idea being put forward in a WSJ Tech Article I spotted towards the end of last year entitled: “Why Email no longer rules”.

However, it turns-out based on a growing body of research evidence that the rumours of Email’s imminent demise at the hands of Social Networkers are incorrect. Here are just a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean:

Firstly research from Nielsen back at the start of last year. This is particularly interesting because Nielsen analysts had previously gone on record stating that Social Media was more popular than email, based on a global analysis of internet usage. However, when they went on to do more detailed research examining just how Social Media use decreases Email use they actually ended-up disproving their original hypothesis and instead proved that social media use actually leads to increased Email use – as illustrated in the chart below. You can read more about their research here.

More recently, this same finding has been confirmed by US Relationship Marketing Agency Merkle in its ‘View from the Social Inbox’ report released just last month. Based on research conducted in late 2009, they too found that active social network users are more likely to be avid email users. With 42% of social networkers checking their email 4+ times per day compared to just 27% of non-social networkers (as shown below). You can download the full Merkle report here.

So, now that we have a growing body of evidence that Email is continuing to be a key online communication channel – despite the overwhelming popularity of various forms of social media – here comes the important question… Given Email’s continued, if not growing, importance – just how happy are you with the way you’re using it to engage with your supporters?

This question has been particularly front of mind for me recently as I’ve been working with two large UK charities to help develop their online fundraising strategies and in both cases opportunities to improve email use have offered some of the greatest income growth wins.

If you’re in the same boat, then don’t feel too downhearted – because you’re certainly not alone. According to the 2009 Adestra/Econsultancy Email Marketing Census, 72% of email marketers (from both commercial and non-profit organisations) admitted that they are not using email as effectively as they could – despite acknowledging that it offers the best ROI of any online activity other than natural search. Interestingly, as shown below, the top two reasons given for not using email effectively were ‘Quality of email database’ and ‘Lack of strategy’, with ‘Poor technology’ 7th in the list – reflecting the fact that many organisations now have access to the technology required to undertake pretty sophisticated email programmes, but their strategic planning has yet to catch-up:

With most of the online fundraising buzz these days tending to be focused on some form of social media activity, it’s good to be reassured that dear old email is here to stay – and, in the light of this, to be prompted to make time to consider whether you’re online income is suffering because you’re not using it as well as you could be.

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