How to develop an email marketing strategy for your nonprofit
As a communications professional, you’ve likely heard:
“Email is dead. It’s all about social media now.”
“Gmail changes mean my email content will never get through. What’s the point?”
“We don’t bother keeping a list. It’s too much work. Nobody knows how to manage it.”
“CanSpam legislation means that email is dead.”
When you hear things like this, dear reader, my advice to you is to plug your ears with your thumbs, wiggle your fingers, and run, run, run far away with your email engagement strategy intact and tucked wherever it is you tuck it. It’s the only way. Email is your lifeline in a time of social media channel uncertainty. It’s your beckoning call when the seas of social become overcrowded with boats too eager to float. When Facebook changes the rules.
Here are 7 steps to make sure your email strategy is walking the talk. And talking the walk.
Step 1: Define your audience with lists and segmentation
Allow subscribers to self-select the type of content they want to receive from you. Setting up an autoresponder with several check boxes will give them the opportunity to tell you what they really want. If they’re really only looking for career opportunities, don’t expect them to continue to subscribe to a general newsletter that contains the whole kitchen sink.
Segment your lists so that you can target your communications. And then plan your communications with that specific audience in mind. Your writing will be stronger, and your asks will be more likely to be received.
Your list can help you to perform all of these wonderful, amazing, and totally necessary things:
- Community stewardship
- Funder recognition
- Promotion of events, services, programs
- Advocacy campaigns
- Donor accountability
- Organizational updates & announcements
- Progress reports, sharing successes & challenges, outcomes
Step 2: Choose the tool/service that best works for YOU
Free is great. Free is really affordable. But sometimes free means that the rug can be pulled right out from underneath you at any time, and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it.
Invest in communications platforms that will see you through phases of growth and staff changes, and will provide enough flexibility to meet the needs of your organization. I’m in favour of email services that provide templates that you can easily customize. If you don’t have a designer on hand, you’ll be grateful for professional looking missives that do your organization proud. You should also consider the analytics packages available within different platforms. The numbers don’t lie, and you will want to use them to gain insight into your relationship with your community. You can only improve when you know what’s going on. It’s like having spinach in your teeth: if nobody clicked on your latest campaign, wouldn’t you want to know?
Step 3: Decide on a frequency & schedule
The best things in life are…planned? When it comes to email, your editorial calendar is pretty much your BFF. You’re probably working with an editorial calendar format for your website content, and potentially your social media too. Keeping track, planning, plotting, measuring…all essential strategies of the effective non-profit communications professional. But is your e-newsletter on your calendar?
Be thoughtful about how much you communicate with your audience. Better yet, ask them how often they’d like to hear from you, and what topics get them jazzed. Then (back to Step 1 again!) create lists so that the relevant content gets to the right people.
Too much email is a guaranteed “unsubscribe”. But infrequent or sporadic email often gets ignored, too. Aim to strike just the right balance between a newsletter that is informative, juicily linked to compelling content on your website, and not delivered so often that it feels like constant noise.
Step 4: Determine your mix of e-blasts vs newsletters
E-blasts and newsletters serve very different purposes. An e-blast is a quick update that acts like a notification – it’s short, bite-sized messaging that should communicate something very specific, and do it quickly. Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? Sending too many e-blasts for things that are not really important leads to IGNORING. On the other hand, a well crafted newsletter lends itself to more leisurely, in-depth reading. Select the appropriate content for each type of communication, and select it carefully.
Step 5: Create content that rewards subscribers
Do you spend as much time crafting a pithy subject line as you do thinking up titles for your blog posts? Do you ponder over effective images to use? Your newsletter content should align with your editorial strategy, and it should also align with what your audience wants to hear from you.
- Like any good piece of writing, your newsletter should contain a HERO story that captures attention from the first click to open.
- It should get to the point, because eyeballs are fast fleeting things. Other content within your email should be excerpted and hyperlinked with “Read More”, so those fast fleeting eyeballs will click through to your website.
- Including images will help to support your content, but keep in mind that many folks receive your email in the “plain text” version, which means that images aren’t always visible. Use “alt-text” and titles to provide descriptions so that they don’t encounter big blaring blocks of nothing within the body of the email.
- Don’t forget that a large percentage of your email communication will be read on small smartphone screens. Good email providers responsively adjust your template for a variety of screen sizes. ‘Cause we’re all on the go, you know?
Step 6: Consider your relationship (to your website, that is)
Buckle up and drive people to your site. Plan newsletter content that leads them there, but naturally.
- Write short excerpts that reward the reader for clicking through, but provide enough information so that the newsletter is valuable in its own right.
- Ensure that your website has a strong call to action that asks visitors to subscribe, and track the click-through so you can measure the effectiveness of the content you include. Any email provider worth their salt will provide access to these analytics.
- If you choose an email provider that allows you to create a custom design, ensure that you incorporate your organization’s branding. Logos, colours, fonts…these are all important in ensuring that your email communications look professional and spiffy.
Step 7: Focus on feedback
Email is a great way to achieve your market research goals. Surveys and feedback mechanisms belong on your site, by all means, but using email to reach out to your list to gather feedback is also very effective. Bonus points if you can create an incentive that entices your community to share with you, and announce the winner in a subsequent edition of your newsletter.
You’ll encourage new subscriptions every time you give your community a reason to permit you to infiltrate their inbox.
You’ve got eyeballs on your website. You hope. You can stand on your head juggling flaming snowballs with your feet and hope that someone notices. You can game that SEO.
But when you send a relevant, carefully crafted, and useful email to a qualified and willing recipient, someone who’s actually given you their permission to share your story, your cause, and your mission with them, which strategy would seem to have the biggest chance for success?
Go with permission. Go with getting a foot in the door. Your job, once you’re in the door, is to be an entertaining guest, or at least to be useful. Maybe you’re delivering a high stakes message that will impact the future of your community? Would you stand on the street corner, shouting and waving your hands in the air? Or would you go door to door, ring the bell, and make eye contact with the recipient of your very important message?
Go forth, my friends, and email. But make it good.