Many nonprofit organizations spend a lot of time preparing email announcements with the hope that members, supporters, or collaborators will pitch-in and help to spread the word. Yet, it can often feel like a big waste of time. This post shares some helpful tips and good practices that—consistently implemented—will boost your effectiveness and reach.
As the saying goes, more is not always better. Too often we mindlessly add people to a contact list assuming they want to hear from us, but why bombard all of our contacts with information that may not be of interest to them? Quality over quantity is an important strategy to increase the likelihood that content will be re-shared. Showing restraint also demonstrates thoughtfulness. Over time, people in your network will come to appreciate that a message from you is certain to be something you’ve shared with purpose and they’ll be less likely to skip over any messages in their inbox with your name on it. Doing this well requires more than simply adding folks to an address book.
Maintain multiple contact lists
Whether sending emails directly through a personal email account, a constituent (or customer) relationship management (CRM) database, or an email marketing platform (e.g., MailChimp, Constant Contact, etc.), it’s crucial to carefully curate multiple email groups, lists, or segments. How these lists are defined or divvied-up will vary with the nature and scale of the work or cause, but could include criteria such as:
- geography: town, zip code, city, state, country
- contact type: colleagues, journalists, policymakers, educators, etc.
- affiliation with your organization: program participants, donors, service recipients, members, volunteers, sponsors, collaborators, etc.
- interests: advocacy, service opportunities, event notifications, etc.
Go beyond compliance
It’s generally well-understood that when adding people to lists in an email marketing platform like MailChimp or Constant Contact, we must have their explicit permission to do so. Adding contacts willy-nilly can create a variety of headaches such as:
- generating complaints that can lead to:
- email marketing accounts being suspended or terminated
- domains getting blacklisted for sending spam
- IP addresses getting blocked
- violating anti-spam laws resulting in hefty fines (e.g., each separate email in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act is subject to penalties of up to $43,280)
There’s a grey area, however, when it comes to colleagues and friends with whom we may assume implicit approval to add them as subscribers. My advice in this scenario? RESIST THE TEMPTATION. Remember, the goal is to only share with folks who want to hear from us so that we increase the likelihood that they will not only take interest, but action–and heed the call to share our news. [Side note: if you’re using open rates as an assessment metric for your overall communications, disinterested contacts add dead weight which suppresses your open rates.]
Be judicious in your use of email marketing platforms
Just because you can send a message through MailChimp (or your favored email marketing tool), doesn’t mean you should. There’s a big difference between using tools like Constant Contact to distribute an e-newsletter intended for hundreds or thousands of subscribers, and a call to action directed at a few individuals. If nothing else, there are numerous deliverability issues to consider, but most importantly:
- when someone unsubscribes, that’s it; they won’t receive any future updates until they opt to re-subscribe—there’s no way around this
- many recipients are unlikely to see your message, especially if they use a web-based email service like Gmail or Outlook.com where mass emails will be filtered out of their primary inbox into a separate spam or promotions folder
For distribution lists with fewer than 100 recipients, sending an email from an individual user’s email account is a better option which can improve deliverability and allow for greater personalization. For lists closer to 100, this might involve either using a mail merge approach—to generate individual messages from a larger contact list—or adding recipients to a bcc field (less desirable). For lists up to a couple of dozen contacts, it may be worth taking the time to customize and send messages one-by-one.
That said, if you remain unconvinced and insist on using email marketing platforms to support this work, here are some practices that may help:
- be strategic with sender details: even if you may be sending the message from a general or shared organizational email account (e.g., info@, programs@, news@, etc.), you can customize the sender field details to display your name rather than an organization’s name—trusted contacts will be more likely to open an email that appears to be from you
- follow-up directly with key contacts: depending on your timeline, send a personalized follow-up a note directly from your email account a few hours or days after the marketing message is distributed; frame it as a reminder to take action and target these emails to the contacts most likely to take action and/or those with the most relevant or valued reach
Let’s face it, most of us are drowning in email and even important messages often get lost or buried in our inboxes. To increase our chance of being seen, we need to find ways to cut through the noise and treat our relationships with a little more care. This means abandoning some short cuts and investing more time and thought to our communications. For example:
- When the stakes are high, send individual emails. As suggested in the previous step, when making a big ask of contacts it can be worth the extra effort to ensure that they receive (+ understand) our appeal and then take action. Even after sending a personalized message via email, it can be helpful to make a phone call to check-in. This isn’t appropriate or possible in every case, but a combination of tight timelines and contacts with influential reach within your wider target audience may make it so
- Craft helpful subject lines. How many times have you struggled to find a message buried deep in your inbox? Writing thoughtful subject lines is one strategy that can help our contacts overcome this potential barrier—when our call to action is easily spotted during a quick scan or search, we reduce the effort needed for folks to be responsive
- Make it relevant; connect the dots. Too often, we are so deeply entrenched in our work that we make faulty assumptions about how easy (or obvious) it should be for others to understand and value it—BIG MISTAKE; we need to make the effort to reflect on and then concisely articulate why THEY should care about or share it… how does it connect with or advance their goals or mission? Why is their voice or advocacy important? How will their action make a difference?
Make it EASY
This section brings us to one of the most problematic and frustrating practices experienced by those who field submission requests for e-newsletters and other digital distribution channels–image-based text!—along with a few other tips to make sharing as easy as possible.
- avoid (or minimize) image-based text: with the proliferation of apps making it oh-so-easy to overlay text on images and create fun graphics, this practice is now widely adopted but presents numerous problems, a few of which include:
- when text is included in an image, there’s no way to copy-and-paste key details—so, when sharing these announcements in an email or on social media, be sure to accompany your snazzy graphic with a text caption that provides these details as recognizable text that can be copied for other uses
- information provided as text in an image is essentially invisible to any recipients reliant on a screen reader, raising accessibility concerns; where possible be sure to add this text as the alternative (a.k.a. ‘alt text’) for the image or rethink your design strategy
- search engines, like Google, rely on text to index content, therefore, omitting any accompanying or alt text can have an affect on your SEO when website content becomes overly reliant on these images to communicate key information
- when using these images for ads or promoted content, some platforms, notably Facebook, will restrict or prohibit the use of images that incorporate a lot of overlaid text
- provide content in different formats: think about where and how you hope people will share your news and then develop supporting materials in different formats (e.g., text, graphics, photos, video, etc.) that leverage the strengths of your targeted distribution channels
- craft alternate messaging: as you craft your copy, try to rework it into different framing and lengths—for example, if the announcement pertained to an educational program for youth, you might include variations of your message that speak directly to different audiences (e.g., youth, parents, teachers and other adults who work with or advocate for youth), as well as varying lengths suitable for different platforms (e.g., Twitter, e-newsletter, blog post, Facebook, etc.)
Systematize your process
As you test and refine the practices that work best, documenting your process will save time and streamline your work flow for future appeals. It will also make it easier to enlist help from colleagues or volunteers if and as your role changes and you need to hand-off these duties to another team member. Work flow can be systematized through a mix of:
- checklists: a good way to generate an initial template is to:
- take 3-5 minutes to write an exhaustive list of all the things you did (or meant to do) to promote your news
- then, take another 5-10 minutes to organize these ideas and tasks in the sequence they would ideally be completed
- be sure to distinguish ‘must do’ steps from any tasks that may be dependent on additional resources or an extended timeline—clearly articulate what circumstances might trigger these additional steps
- continue to refine this template over time
- timelines: crafting a simple timeline can be a breeze if you’ve already developed a checklist; simply work backwards from your deadline to determine when each step should be completed by and then add those benchmarks as calendar alerts in your schedule, and/or note them on your checklist
- templates: having a variety of sample email messages, scripts, graphics, social media posts, press releases, flyers and more provides a jump start for preparing supporting materials to share with contacts; don’t try to create an exhaustive collection all at once—build out a library over time, adding to it with each new appeal
- distribution list(s): at this point it may seem obvious, but experience shows that many of us fail to document distribution lists outside of our email marketing platforms—so, take some time to create a few contact groups in your Gmail, Outlook, or other preferred email account, or start compiling them in a spreadsheet with a separate tab for each group; you may find it helpful to note when each contact was last updated
Say thank you
This is not a time when it’s appropriate to ‘set it and forget it.’ Our contacts have just extended their social capital in support of our cause. This deserves some applause! When we see our contacts sharing our news via their personal or organizational social media accounts, it’s important to publicly acknowledge and thank them in that space. When we notice that they’ve added our announcement to an e-newsletter or other correspondence? Again, send an acknowledgement—reply to their email to say thanks, or if it’s in print collateral consider picking up the phone. If we’ve enlisted a large number of contacts, or if we anticipate that much of the sharing may be occurring through word of mouth and other channels that can’t be monitored, then sending a follow-up note to the entire contact list initially targeted is a great way to share how their support made a difference. Expressing our thanks and letting folks know that their efforts matter can create a mutually beneficial positive feedback loop that strengthens both our relationships and our collective impact over time. This step is arguably the MOST important of all the ideas presented in this post—so if nothing else, be sure to say THANKS 🙂
If you have additional thoughts or tips to share, or if you found this post helpful, please be sure to comment below!
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