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 #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.