They’ve Got e-Mail. Lots of It. Will Yours Rise to the Top or Just Contribute to the Clutter

By Heath Shackleford

Remember the days when you almost needed a forklift to transport all the special offers, super duper discounts and important notices that were stuffed into your mailbox? Opening it was a finely tuned skill. You had to pull it down quickly and spring into action or fliers and postcards would slide out and fly in all directions.

With arms overflowing, you’d walk the big stack of unsolicited mail in through the front door, drop it on the kitchen table and sort through it for bills, magazines, letters…you know, stuff you actually wanted, or at least were expecting, to receive. Everyday, it was more of the same, an unrelenting parade of nonsense.

For those who are too young, or too old, to remember the good ole days, never fear. Your email inbox is the digital equivalent of the golden era of junk mail. Your kitchen table is less cluttered, but everything else holds true. Piles of unsolicited debris is clogging up your system and preventing easy access to the stuff you actually want to receive.

But the digital age brings even more noise in the form of cyber spam, that awesome Bot-enabled advertising that is auto-generated from some seemingly random email demon whose sole purpose is to prevent any human-generated emails from ever being received and read. Fun times!

It’s not like the marketers among us are going to slow down and show mercy on our email accounts. And it’s not like the spam bots are going away anytime soon. But in the meantime, you’ve got emails to send. Important emails that might make or break your fundraising activities. What’s a nonprofit to do?

Email marketing is a great, and necessary, component of any communication strategy. But given the amount of clutter and chaos you must cut through, it can be tough to make meaningful connections with your stakeholders. Here are 5 ways to boost the effectiveness of your email marketing strategies.

1. Don’t Show Up Uninvited

Many organizations think the key to email is getting their hands on a big list of contacts that fit their desired donor profile. Or heck, just a big list period. More is better. Please fight the urge to blast purchased, rented or “inherited” mailing lists. Not only is this SPAM, but it also isn’t effective. Counter to popular opinion, email is not a lead generation tool. It is a lead nurturing tool.

For email to be effective, you have to create an initial relationship through some other channel and continue to develop that relationship through ongoing communication, which can include email marketing. If your first impression is an unauthorized email adding to a person’s inbox clutter, how likely is it that you build an effective relationship? Not very. So as a rule of thumb, you should be emailing with individuals who OPT IN to receive your emails in the first place. They are the ones who actually WANT to hear from you.

2. Don’t Show Up Empty-Handed

Don’t be the party guest that shows up with nothing for the host. That same guest typically backs you into a corner and tells you his or her life story, when you didn’t even ask to hear it.

The email equivalent is showing up in your prospect’s inbox, over and over, only thinking about what you want or need from the interaction. If you bring nothing of value (in the case of email that’s likely some form of new/helpful information), it’s only a matter of time before the recipient grows numb to your relentless calls for help. Think about ways you can “give” something to your email list.

3. Be Predictable

Make sure you commit to some semblance of an email schedule. Set expectations with your list regarding how often and in what ways they will hear from you, as well as what types of information you’ll be sharing via email. Be consistent once you’ve set expectations. If you’ve promised a weekly Tuesday feature, or a monthly recap, that is what you should be delivering.

4. Be Unpredictable

While being systematic and consistent is great, sometimes you have to be bold and shake things up. The element of surprise is very potent in winning the hearts and minds of potential supporters and deepening engagement with current fans. So, take chances, get creative and invest in quality writing. Again, it’s not always about you and what you need. Think about what might brighten their day, make them smile, help them out. Trust me, they won’t see it coming!

5. Be Strategic

For each and every email, have a clear objective, know what success looks like and have a plan for measuring the outcome. Even better, develop a master calendar for your email that provides this information for the entire year. Get clear on what you want to say, and who you want to say it to. Only current donors? Just volunteers? Only supporters who live in a specific zipcode or area of town? What should your call to action be? How does each email fit into your broader outreach efforts?

Getting specific like this is the only way to ensure that every email you send works hard for your organization. If you don’t have good answers, it may be that you need to reconsider sending it altogether.

In closing, a few words about subject lines, images and so on…

For subject lines, be short and sweet. Always choose clever over cute. And when in doubt, speak plainly. If it’s a spade, call it a spade. Don’t make your readers guess what you’re about to tell them.

Be visual. Text emails are great when you are communicating one-to-one, but any emails out to a group are typically better served by the use of smart visuals. Make your emails easy to read and visually appealing. Not a big glop of text on a white background. How uninviting is that?

The From is very important. Quickly establish a familiar name for your email readers to recognize. As a fall back, use the “from” to clearly identify your organization.

Check, check and check. You can never be too sure. So send test emails, and proof once more, one more time, again. Look for really silly mistakes such as an empty subject line. Trust me, more times than not, you’ll find one, or two. Don’t want to spend time proofing? Just hit send. You’ll notice those glaring errors immediately when the email hits your inbox!

Questions? Tips to share? Fire when ready!

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