418 emails – a study

It’s helpful to look at the big email picture from time to time — across a span of time and an entire segment of our nonprofit industry — to gain a perspective of what’s working, and what standard behavior looks like.

Way back in 2010, Amergent made gifts to 33 cancer centers around the United States, using a newly invented email address. We made online gifts of $25, and sent $20 checks in the same donor’s name. We documented the donor experience, and since then, we’ve been tracking what each of these institutions have sent us, both online and in the mail.

It’s time to look at the first ten months of 2014, and report on what we’ve found, and what we like. An update report in January will provide a view of year-end 2014 e-communications, which we hope will be more intense than the pattern we witnessed so far.

It appears that 2014 is little different from 2011. Many of the cancer centers sent us about the same number of emails this year that they did for the same period in the 12 months right after our gift. Some have still not started to use email as a means of communicating with donors… even those who give online!

inbox-emptyOf the 33 institutions to whom we made gifts, eleven (exactly one-third) sent us not a single email all year. These institutions have sent us virtually  no email since our gift (one, a household name institution, didn’t even send us a thank-you email to acknowledge our gift!).

Of those who “bothered” to send us any, another third (10) sent us about one a month – barely enough so we don’t forget about them, but at least they’re in the game.  Only six cancer centers sent us two or more per month. The runaway leader is Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who has been in the forefront of digital communications among cancer centers since our first gift in 2010. Between “The Jimmy Fund”, DFCI and its many events, we received 107 email messages between New Year’s Day and Halloween – almost three per week!

Over the next few days, I’ll be presenting further analysis of these 418 email messages, including highlights of the most inspiring messages and best subject lines. If you work for a cancer center, contact me so we can discuss your organization’s messages in detail, privately.


Digital Lessons from the New York Times

Graph showing Newspaper Advertising Revenue, 1950 - 2012
Newspaper Ad Revenue


Everyone knows that the newspaper business has been suffering over the last ten years. While  most people believe this has to do with the decline in print newspaper circulation, it’s important to note that digital advertising for newspaper companies is declining as quickly as print revenue.

Not so, of course, with social media sites like Facebook. Social media advertising is growing at double-digit rates. So, why didn’t the newspaper companies get their share?

socia_media_ad_forecast Because they didn’t grasp the shift that was happening, away from daily print media and towards digital. They clung to their old model of print, first denying, then delaying, the digital world, and completely failing to understand how it changed publishing.

A recently-leaked internal memo describes the problems at the Times, and offers some lessons for all nonprofits, and especially those in healthcare:

  • “We are not moving with enough urgency,” it says. They point to upstart publishers like  “HuffingtonPost” and “Business Insider” and say “They are ahead of us.”
  • There is “a cadre of editors who remain unfamiliar with the web.”
  • The report also calls for a profound rethinking of the newsroom’s independence from the rest of the company, in order to involve editorial leaders more deeply in technological decisions.
  • The paper’s Twitter account is run by the newsroom. Its Facebook account is run by the paper’s business side.

Do these observations sound familiar in your healthcare organization? Are you “moving with enough urgency” to communicate with people where they live — increasingly, online? Do you have a “cadre” of senior leadership, either in fundraising or the larger organization, who “remain unfamiliar with the web.” Do you have a “church and state” wall between development and “communications” departments? Do you have to beg for “space” on your organization’s Facebook page? Worse, do you have a separate, red-headed-step-child page for your foundation?

Your healthcare organization, including development, is one entity in the eyes of a public that lives increasingly in a digital world. Your public face needs to reflect that.

QR Codes lead to involvement

photo 2

The QR code sign at our booth

At the #NACCDOPAN conference, each exhibitor has a sign with a QR code. The organization is doing a great job of encouraging attendees to visit all the exhibitors, and they have arranged a scavenger hunt. Attendees scan a unique QR code at each booth, which brings up a question (a self-promotional question provided by each exhibitor). The attendees score points for each correct answer, and the winners will receive some great swag.

This happens at many conferences, but is often done manually with stickers or rubber stamps. Inviting the attendees to move up to the digital process has a few advantages:

  1. They get more comfortable using their smartphones.
  2. Since they register their phone prior to beginning the “scavenger hunt” each attendee’s score is also shown on a “leader board” (see below) in the exhibit area, providing interactivity, enhancing competition, and further demonstrating the value of the data that is collected.

If your nonprofit has any sort of geographic “presence” consider QR codes as methods of user interaction and additional content delivery. For example, a museum could have a unique QR code at major exhibits that give additional content about the exhibit. The web page called by the QR code could provide video or voice, obsoleting the bulky walkmans with headphones that pervade many institutions.

Or, consider its applications at fundraising events. Encouraging the posting of selfies at the start and finish lines, or instructions at other locations, is a great way to involve sponsors and participants.

What have you done with QR codes?

Two subject lines that work

There is much to take from Daniel Pink’s book “To Sell is Human.” It’s a short and useful read for anyone in the persuasion business, from teachers to healthcare professionals to fundraisers to parents, and yes, salespeople.

In a section on how to develop a pitch for yourself, your organization, or your thoughts, he discusses the email pitch and quotes a study done at Carnegie-Mellon University on the effect of subject lines as they relate to getting email messages opened (which is the most important, but not only, purpose, of a subject line).

Two types of subject lines work well: those with usefulness to the reader, and those with intrigue. Useful subject lines promise information sought by the reader, and the more specific, the more likely they are to result in an opened message. So, “Three important facts about our upcoming gala” is more specific than, “What you need to know about our upcoming gala.”

Curiosity is another motivation, so messages that hint at a subject also rise to the top of the “to open” list. “What’s on the menu?” or “Who else might be at your table?” could be other ways to tease an email about the same gala.

The Carnegie-Mellon study also discovered that the motives have different results under different conditions. When time is tight, usefulness outweighs curiosity. When time is more available, curiosity does well. So, an email planned for arrival on Monday morning might get better results if its subject line promised useful information, but one sent to homes on the weekend might have a better open rate if it piques curiosity.

Remember, when writing emails that will be reviewed by others, to explain the reasons for your draft copy. Someone not understanding the reason for your intriguing email might say, “That’s too vague” and rewrite it, when vagueness is exactly what you strove for!

Test, Measure, Analyze, Repeat. The key to good subject lines, and better fundraising.



Does Taco Bell Care More Than You Do?


Of course not. You’re deeply motivated by your cause, and you love your donors. It’s an insult to compare you to that entry-wage, barely-articulate cashier at a fast food joint.

And yet, that cashier gave you a receipt with an invitation to gather your feedback, ostensibly for the purposes of improving your future Taco Bell visit. Do YOU ask for feedback regularly enough?

While our mantra at Amergent is “Donor Focused, Data Driven” we don’t just rely on our sophisticated analytical processes for the “data.” We often insert short surveys in our direct mail pieces, or links to online surveys in our emails. We know there are many benefits to frequently asking your supporters a very short number of questions on a regular basis.

  1. Everyone likes to have their opinion valued. Even if they don’t complete the survey, they’re flattered to have been asked.
  2. The results  help us with segmentation of donor files and targeting of messages.
  3. The words the donors use themselves are very helpful to future copywriting efforts. By using the more popular verbs and adjectives in fundraising copy, we’re talking with the donor, not to her.
  4. If you repeat a survey question every six months or a year, you’ll be able to track trends in donor satisfaction, or in demographics

When and where to ask? Like they joke about voting in Chicago, “Early, and Often.”

  • It’s easy to include one line and a link in email newsletters.
  • It’s great follow-up content for the “thank you for donating” or “thank you for subscribing” emails and pages.
  • Sprinkle the links around various content pages in your website.
  • Don’t make it a popup on your start page, or on any entry page, or on your donation page (don’t distract people from where they want to go, especially if it’s also where you want them to go).

As an example (and because I care, too) I’ve created a short survey using a free subscription to SurveyMonkey.com, and I’d like you to complete it now. Thanks!

Video is a great way to attract engaged web visitors


It’s great to have an inspiring video with music and kids, like the one I blogged about from Connecticut Children’s Hospital.  But almost any video will draw web visitors and engage them, according to Shareaholic’s “Social Referrals That Matter” Report. They studied six month’s worth of social media referrals over 200,000+ sites reaching more than 250 million unique monthly visitors to get a sense of which social network drives the most engaged visitors. This is important for healthcare fundraisers.

Their number one pick doesn’t surprise me: YouTube, convincingly, in all three metrics studied:

  • Time spent on site: almost four minutes – about the length of two YouTube videos.
  • Pages viewed: 2.99 means they clicked around a bit.
  • Bounce rate: well below 50% (“Bounce Rate” is the percent of people who view only the page they clicked, then “bounce” away from the site, so the lower number is better here).

I said I wasn’t surprised. I’ve long held that web visitors would prefer to “do” a web page — engage in a quiz, game, or contest. Their second choice is to “watch” a page — a video or animation clip, and “skimming” a web page is a distant third. Note I said “skimming” and not “reading.” Reading doesn’t happen much. Did you read every word of this blog up until now? Or did you scan the headline, the graphic, the links, and the bullet points?

Healthcare organizations have lots of great video opportunities. If you’re not interviewing researchers and caregivers, patients and providers, you’re missing great opportunities. It doesn’t require Hollywood-style equipment or talent. Just grab a video camera, visit the “talent” where they are, and get them talking (or, better yet, demonstrating). Edit it to remove the awkward pauses and reduce the time to 90 to 120 seconds, then:

  • Post it on YouTube (the second busiest search engine behind it’s owner, Google);
  • Embed the YouTube video in a landing page on your site, with a call to action (like, “donate now”);
  • Talk about it in an upcoming email to supporters;
  • And, yes, post it on your other social media.

For added kick, include one or more of these videos as follow-up  in  your three most important, and most overlooked, cultivation opportunities:

  • The “Thank You” page for signing up for your email newsletter;
  • The “Thank You” email that’s sent to new subscribers;
  • The “Thank You” page for online donations

These three pages are often virtually blank and disrupt a very powerful action sequence that a supporter has initiated.

How else are you using video?

An anniversary phone call

Yesterday was the anniversary of my initiation into my college fraternity. I contacted some of my chapter brothers and reminisced, as we do every year. Phi Kappa Psi was the most formative positive influence in my life.

Later in the day I received a call from fraternity headquarters, as I do a few times a year, asking for a gift to the fraternity’s scholarship fund. With such a warm feeling already in my heart, making a larger gift felt better than it ever has. It still feels good today to know I made the pledge yesterday.

As someone who makes cold calls, I appreciate how much “warmer” the call will be received if it starts out with a connection like, “I just wanted to reach out on the anniversary of your initiation!”

What are the warm moments when we can reach out to our donors and make them feel like we remember them?

  • The anniversary of their first gift?
  • The anniversary of their discharge from your hospital?
  • The receipt of their 10th gift?

Ask them to remember what prompted that first gift, or how they’ve been recovering since their discharge. Let them know what advances you’ve made in the fight against their disease since then, and what projects you’re working on now. They will be in a much warmer frame of mind when you ask them if they’d be willing to consider another gift now to push the project further.

There are many advantages to making a soft phone call like this:

  • You can confirm their mailing address.
  • You can ask for, or confirm, an email address.
  • Asking their opinion on the projects they’d like to fund allows you to better personalize messages to them in the future.
  • A pleasant phone conversation, even one that doesn’t result in a gift, will increase the likelihood of a positive response by mail, email, or phone next time.
  • Their comments – their word choices – are something your copywriter needs to hear and understand. It will make future postal, email and phone scripts work better.

These are not the kind of calls to assign to the lowest bidder in an RFP. These are calls to be made by development staff, a few each day. It will keep you in better touch with your donors. It will gather useful data. And it will raise more money.

How are you using your data, and your phone, for best results?