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.


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.



Cultivating new email subscribers

Most of the money being raised digitally is still the result of sending the right email message to the right person at the right time. So, a good email fundraising program must be a priority for your development team. The critical stages of email fundraising include:

  1. Making it easy to sign up
  2. Finding ways to grow your list
  3. Cultivating new subscribers
  4. Managing campaigns
from AllAboutBirds.org

from AllAboutBirds.org

At the Nonprofit Technology Conference (#14NTC) just ended, I learned from the tiny  Cornell Lab of Ornithology how they successfully cultivate new subscribers. It can easily work for healthcare organizations. Their main website email newsletter is the boring old way to do things, but they offer a free download of many owl sounds (to play on your computer, or use as a ringtone?). Go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/great_horned_owl/sounds or search on their main page for “owl sounds” and choose the owl of your choice. When you click the download button, you’re asked for just your first and last name and email address.

  • First of all, their welcoming email is great. It’s simple, thoughtful, and helpful.
  • Then, three days later, they send more information about owl sounds.
  • Three days after that, they offer more content in another email.
  • Finally, six days later, there is an email invitation to become a member (various levels starting at $39).

That’s it. Four carefully timed and crafted messages in just under two weeks. From then on, you will receive their monthly e-newsletter. Slow and steady wins the race. The average first donation is given 78 days after the first download (though that varies greatly and is influenced by the season). Between four and five percent of those who download ultimately give online. Those who also provide a postal address with their subscription are included with their  direct mail acquisition program, and this is their most responsive prospect list.

One of our healthcare clients provides similar information. They reported to us that, while initial donations from a campaign to grow their list were small, they ultimately converted (within a year) at a rate of just over two percent, and that was with just a monthly email and their few email appeal messages.

You and your colleagues may have two concerns:

  1. It’s a lot of work to create an effective email welcome series, and to send these messages at the right time (if people are signing up every day, then within two weeks, you’re sending four messages every day, to the people who signed up today and 3, 6, and 12 days ago). A good email tool or online marketing platform will make it much easier to manage.
  2. You’re concerned about “over-emailing” (let’s not use the S-word) your list. This is not an excessive saturation of the list. You should track your unsubscribe rate and be concerned if it exceeds one percent per email, but you should receive very few complaints. You should also test variations to the timing and content to find the optimum sequence for your audience.

Give your donors what they need – where they need it

Do your donors (or potential donors) have the information they need so they can move to the next step of the donation process? A recent exchange with a colleague made me want to revisit this concept.

I invited our Creative Director to submit some recent brilliance to a competition hosted by the Integrated Marketing Advisory Board on whose board I sit. My email to her was as follows:

Subject: Free Industry awards competition, and I’m on the board

I’d be pleased if we can submit some recent award nominations into the IMAB competition. Deadline is Feb 7. [I included a link to the submissions page.]


She wrote back and said, “I don’t see anything about entry costs.”

Now mind you, this Creative Director is (a) brilliant and (b) writes and edits email copy for a living! But she missed the word “free” in my email subject line. “Free” was not mentioned in either my email copy or, embarrassingly, on the entry page (we’ve since fixed it).

The moral? Using “Free” in the subject line may have helped her decide to open the email, but it needed to be mentioned again within the email body, and/or on the landing page, to convince her that entering this competition wouldn’t bust her budget.

A long time ago, another brilliant copywriter explained to me that each piece of a direct mail package had to stand on its own. The letter and reply device, and all other inserts, had to have the organization’s name and address visible, in case they became separated from the reply envelope. This kind of redundancy is low-cost and increases response incrementally.

Ditto for an online encounter. Tease them in the subject line to get them to open it, but don’t expect them to read the subject line once they get inside the email. The email body should incite them to click the link, whereupon they will forget what was in the email. Give them all the information they need on the page where they are now.

Right now the biggest online fundraising gap is between the top of your donation page and the bottom. That is, 20% or so of people who click to the page finish it. Why do 80% bail out? Maybe you’re giving them too many options elsewhere, or too little information (or emotional reinforcement) on the page itself.

Would you like me to look at your online donation process? Contact me for an audit.

Year-end digital roundup

As I reported New Year’s week, only about half of healthcare organizations to whom I’ve donated online have sent me even one email during the most important fund-raising week of the year. The final tally from the 30 cancer institutes to whom online donations were made in the last few years? 17 different institutions sent a total of 37 emails between December 26 and 31.

Of the seven children’s hospitals to whom I’ve donated in the past few months, only two sent an email. However, two others, to whom I did not donate but whose email newsletters I received each sent three messages during that time.

I was impressed by Partners in Health, an $88 Million Boston-area international health organization, that sent four email messages to me during this week, three of which came on New Year’s Eve! I can imagine many organizations cringing at that level of contact, so I reached out to Charles Howes, PIH’s Manager of Annual Giving and Digital Engagement for some feedback.

While they exceeded their goal for the campaign, they carefully monitored reaction from supporters — email open rate, action rate, and unsubscribe rate — and they saw no discouraging data from their campaign. So, it raised more money, but it didn’t turn off more supporters.

One thing to carefully monitor in an intense email campaign is the unsubscribe rate. It often hovers around 0.5% but can spike if people feel they are getting too many, or irrelevant, messages.

We have never approached anything near a one percent unsubscribe,” says Charles. “The sky is not the limit in regard to number of emails, but we have found we can sparingly send more than one email per day during key moments of a campaign.”

One tip from Charles: If someone gives to the first email in a campaign, they do not receive follow-up emails for that campaign. While this might leave some money on the table, it also likely prevents donor feeling they’re getting hammered.

I also asked Charles about the role of social media during an email campaign. “While social media plays a complementary role from a messaging perspective, it is not a large revenue driver,” says Charles, who reports that $14 in revenue comes from email for every dollar resulting from social media. “Increasingly, we find it important to analyze a single channel in the context of all channels (web, direct mail, email, search, etc.).”

How was your year-end? What did you learn?

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It’s online fundraising week. Are you in or out?

As the American college football season builds to a climax this week, so does the fundraising season. And this week is clearly THE week to be playing the game. So… are you in or out?

Year-end fundraising has two seasons: the holiday, feel-good gift-giving that encompasses Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, et al; and the tax-minimization gift-giving that takes place in the six days from December 26th through the 31st. It’s this later season that’s so pivotal, and yes, surprisingly, so few healthcare fundraisers are in the game.

A few years ago we gave to 30 cancer centers, online and in the mail. So far this “season”, we’ve heard from only 13. From the children’s hospitals to whom we gave in the past few months, only one-third have reached out to us this week.

The emails are generally short and to the point: a gift given before midnight on New Year’s Eve helps the fight against cancer now, and lets you take a tax deduction for that gift when you file with the IRS soon. With the major stock market indices celebrating their best year in decades, there will be a lot of income for the Federal and state governments to tax, and many financial-savvy donors are working this week at minimizing their “fair share.”

Consider this brief one from the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University:

The Season of Giving is almost over. Before the December 31st Charitable Gift Deadline consider making one last gift to OHSU just for you.

You can give the gift of health, hope, and a better tomorrow right here.

Make your gift today to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. You will make the year-end charitable giving cut-off and you will give a gift with many happy returns.

Thank you!

The copy isn’t that big a challenge! Four of the 13 cancer centers have a match campaign this week. Since this is the biggest week for online fundraising, and match campaigns generally raise the most money any time of year, this is a great example of that football truism, “when it’s third down and short yardage, go with your best running back and your best play.”

Of the 13 cancer centers who are fundraising now, seven have sent two emails since the 26th. I expect a third from all of them before midnight tomorrow.

One of our clients asked, “Which are the best days to send an email during this season?” and our answer was “Every day.” They got bold and sent six emails – one each day – each focusing on a way that they’ve contributed to cancer research and treatment in the past year. The result? Over $200,000 brought in during this one week!

Let’s review the pros and cons of “playing” in this giving season:

If you didn’t play, you:

  • avoided the internal arguments over copy and design, and the fight to pull the right donor data
  • spent more time with your family this holiday season

If you played, you:

  • raised more money — maybe a lot more
  • increased retention of your donors for next year, and, if you converted any from mail-only to online-also giving, increased that retention and donor value substantially

Still not convinced? Let me close with two more sports-related snippets:

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s greatest player

Do you know who holds the baseball record for most strikeouts?  Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. But who cares? He swung the bat a lot… and connected a lot.

“Just in time” communication management

Recently in a LinkedIn group, the following question was posed:

“We offer a one-click unsubscribe, but I’d like to give people another way to stay on our list by letting them tell us which types of emails they’d like to receive. Should “fundraising support” be on the list? What is on your opt-out list?
– Agency updates
– event invitations
– community updates
– fundraising appeals”

I’m a firm believer that it’s in every non-profit’s best interest to let their supporters be in charge of the entire communication process, of which email is just one important part. Here’s one way to do that:

Let’s offer a 3D level of choices that lets supporters (donors, not-yet donors, volunteers, event attenders, etc.) select the level of detail, the frequency, and the channel for each area of interest? For example, someone can select for “cancer research updates” that they want headline and summary only, monthly, by email; for “heart disease prevention” they may want headline and summary immediately by SMS, and full detail weekly by email; and they may want a monthly print newsletter with a full story on everything. (Might as well add phone into the mix too. Most won’t select it, but ah, those that do are inviting you in a very special way.)

Complicated? Not really. It’s a distribution table that can match your subscriber preferences with your content. Just code your content according to the same interest areas. Upload fresh content and — BAM! — it’s queued for distribution.

“Fundraising appeals” shouldn’t be a choice, unless you randomly send fundraising appeals that don’t apply to any of your interest areas. If someone signs up for “cancer research updates” then the messages they get about that should include appeals to support those efforts. Obviously, if they express a disinterest about any subject area, one can conclude fundraising appeals based on those areas would fall on deaf ears.

Too difficult to implement? Actually, this is really just a slight expansion of a process that a US Government agency has been doing for at least 8 years. The US Geological Survey offers earthquake updates via Twitter, email, RSS, and other methods. A user can select the minimum magnitude of an earthquake for notification within the continental US (CONUS) or for the entire world. I chose text messages for earthquakes greater than 4.5 (on the Richter scale) in the CONUS or greater than 6.5 elsewhere in the world.

If a US Government agency can offer this level of user choice, why can’t you?