Written by Mark Dolce
Like it or not and perhaps contradictory to the last tweet from the latest trending social media “propheteer,” email is still the primary tool for communicating with your constituents: everything from simple recruitment messages to sophisticated peer-to-peer fundraising messages. It’s still a special transaction quite distinct from other interactions generated by your other channels of communication. However, because email has an illusion of being free (thanks Gmail!), it’s sometimes treated with the approximate respect of a doormat. This can result in repeated email mistakes and email campaigns that appear less strategic and more spastic. The bigger danger is that email mistakes of this kind can cost you constituents who choose to opt-out instead of sticking with you or giving you the benefit of the doubt. Regard the following is a checklist of sorts. It’s derived not only from our own years of experience executing email campaigns, but also from emails we get on a daily basis from organizations across the country.
Time = Quality. This goes for just about everything, whether you’re talking about a teacher’s poetry unit in Freshman English or your email campaign. Sometimes circumstances call for quick action, but more often, the time is there to create something thoughtful and relevant for your constituents. Time is a luxury that some believe they can’t afford, which is unfortunate because the time you put into planning, writing and executing your email campaign is commensurate with the quality of the communication and the positive results.
Subject Lines as After-Thoughts: Think of the subject line as the prose equivalent of a first impression on a date. Aside from the name in the FROM field, the subject line is the first thing someone sees and it often is the deciding factor whether the email is read, ignored, or trashed. But unlike dates, emails don’t get second chances. Yet, despite their importance, email subject lines sometimes come across as after-thoughts or worse, as something not given much thought at all. Think about it: no one will read your message if the subject line isn’t relevant or intriguing, depending on the purpose of the email. The purpose of the email (e.g. encouraging someone to fundraise) should guide the writing of the subject line and it should be relevant to the recipient. There are a number of approaches, everything from the purely transactional to the provocatively novel, and you can find hundreds of varied and different opinions about what works and what doesn’t. But only you know what subject lines work by analyzing your open rates from your constituents. Don’t be too swayed by the hundreds of “studies” out there that list keywords in subject lines for success or failure. You will have to search hard to find a perfectly analogous study for what you do, so all of it should be read with a certain level of skepticism. If you really want to figure out what works with your constituents, create variants of messages with different subject lines and test those variants, then analyze the results (see Testing, Not Guessing below).
Mixed Messages: Is your organization sending mixed messages to your constituents? This means you’re sending messages with multiple purposes. Your email message should have one primary purpose, such as encouraging people to fundraise or getting people to register online for an event. All or most of the content in the message, from the subject line to the linked content, should support that primary purpose. Yet, I see email messages from organizations asking me to not only register or sign-up for the event, but to fundraise as well, maybe even enter a contest; this is a mixed message, and it results in a “paradox of choice,” a psychological state that occurs when people are presented with too many choices. This paradox of choice causes frustration, inaction and anxiety, not decisive action. If you want people to register for a 5K, don’t tell them about the Monte Carlo event in a few weeks, and the DIY fundraising choices or that awesome webinar you just hosted. Start by defining the purpose of your communication, and let that guide the content of the message.
A Case of Mistaken Identity or Failure to Segment: I get messages all the time for this other Mark Dolce on one of my secondary or throwaway email accounts. This other Mark Dolce is a helluva guy. He’s heroic. He’s the vanguard of new cures for intractable diseases. He leads event teams to glorious heights rarely seen in the fundraising world. He fundraises like a mad man. It really is an odd, almost existential feeling getting messages with accolades for things you haven’t done. It’s the result of the sender not segmenting a target audience and not calibrating the message to the recipients. It’s also probably the cardinal sin of communication because essentially you’re telling your audience that you don’t know them and you don’t particularly care to know them. Just as you wouldn’t send a form letter as your only expression of thanks to your Top Donor or Top Fundraiser, you wouldn’t send a breathless thank you for fundraising to someone who has not fundraised at all. Most, if not all, event fundraising and email platforms offer the ability to segment the audience based on fundraising performance, registration status, or any other data field in a constituent database. If you’re not using that tool, you need to start using it yesterday (see Testing, Not Guessing below).
Right Hand Meet the Left Hand: This mistake tends to show up in larger organizations that have a national office and branch or affiliate offices in other states or locations. It can also happen in offices that have more than one fundraising event going on at any given time. Constituents for these organizations might appear on many different lists or be members of several different target audience groups. The danger comes when you’re not careful about planning your communication to constituents who are a part of several different audiences. Here’s an example: Joe Dokes is registered for your 5K, which is happening in two weeks, but he’s also on your list as a past guest to your annual gala. Should Joe get your peer-to-peer fundraising message and that save the date message for the gala or not? It depends on a variety of factors (fundraising status, timing, relevance, call-to-action, etc.), but figuring it out requires coordination and having a master communication calendar that everyone abides by. It also requires you to use the tools available to you to segment your audience, filtering out certain constituents based on the relevance (and timing) of the message.
Analyzing Results and Testing, Not Guessing: Almost every email platform offers even basic tools for analyzing your email performance. If nothing else, look at your open rates for several different kinds of messages delivered at different times of the year. Taking into account the purpose of the message, its timing, audience, etc., you can begin to see what your constituents respond to and what they ignore and when they ignore it. There are a number of benchmark studies out there about email performance and best practices, but your own messaging is your starting place and your baseline for comparison. Speaking of benchmark studies, don’t let the percentages for open and click-through rates set your hair on fire. If you have a several months of your own data, you should have more than enough to go on. The second part is testing message variants (different subject lines, such as transactional versus novel) or message content. If you’re having a hard time visualizing what testing with messages variants looks like, then take a few minutes to look through Pro Publica’s reverse engineering of the 2012 presidential campaign messages. Here you can see message variants of every flavor. Keep in mind, these messages are relentless in their frequency because they are for a political campaign that is reactive to a constantly churning news cycle and election filing deadlines. However, they are instructive to look at to see how today’s technology allows you to segment your audience and tailor your messages to your target audiences.
We hope we’ve left you with a few useful items to use with your next campaign. If you have a question or comment about email campaigns and messaging, you can (what else?) send us an email. We’d love to hear from you.
Mark Dolce is a copywriter for Event 360. He writes for the MuckFest MS event series and Susan G. Komen Washington, D.C. Race for the Cure.