Your Four Percent Response Rate Sucks. So What.

Response rate is a measure of how many people receiving a communication take the requested action. If your organization sends an email to 1,000 subscribers asking each to write their representative in Congress and 150 take that action then the response rate is 15%. A similar response rate for 100,000 emails sent might produce 15,000 emails to Congress.

What is a good response rate? I just made up 15% for the sake of example and it has no value as a good (or bad) response rate. So a good response rate may be higher or it may be lower and it will, almost certainly, vary from organization to organization. We may also expect the difficulty of the ask to make a difference. How hard is it for the reader to do what you have asked? Most online advocacy campaign asks involve two, maybe three steps:

  • Clicking a link in an email;
  • Looking at a form and pre-drafted letter text. The user needs to fill out the form or, more likely, review the form for accuracy because it already displays his or her personal information;
  • Clicking a submit button.

That’s it. Do that and you’ve “responded.” These days a user will be presented with screens asking for more information or, more commonly, ways to tell friends about the message through email and social media. Some users may be asked to make a donation or volunteer to get involved in other ways, too. But, that first submit button click is all that’s needed for a response.

Consider that, in theory anyway, everyone on your email list asked to be on the list. They opted into the list. They said, in effect: “hey, this looks interesting (or important) and I want to get your messages and be involved in efforts to help.”

These people have joined your club. They’re part of the group. They’re into it, man. Right? It follows that most would participate in the events. Heck, if it is something so simple (yet powerful!) as clicking a button to send a letter to Congress and make the world better then more than most.

Maybe 60% would act. Or 75%. We won’t expect everyone to respond. Heck, some people are out of town or their internet connection is down or their kid is sick and it’s been a really busy week. We’ll cut folks some slack.

The 4%

The benchmark advocacy response rate for nonprofits is about 4%. Yes. Four percent. Four (right there between three and five…it’s a number commonly discussed on Sesame Street).

This is not to say that your organization’s response rate is 4%. In fact it could be 6 or 7%. Maybe a bit more. If so, good on ya. By the way, has that rate been going up or down recently?

What is up with a 4% response rate across the sector? As we said, these lists are built with people that “want” to hear from you. They opted in. Many or most folks took a similar action – writing a letter to Congress or signing a petition – during that opt-in so it isn’t as though they don’t know what you want them to do.

We aren’t going to say what a good or great response rate should be but we do believe that 4% sucks for lists of interested and willing subscribers.

This rate says something about how we’re going about building and using these email lists. The people on the lists are mostly casual observers. If they are not responding then how do we know they are interested? What are advocacy organizations accomplishing when only one in 25 members does anything?

Okay, we’re going to admit that some may debate that this response rate is really a concern. After all, a good direct mail response rate is below one percent and these emails are cheaper and faster so email may be rockin’ it.

But we figure that most don’t like this 4% response rate.

So what’s the problem? Are we building these lists with “bad names?” Are we not communicating well after people sign up? Do subscribers have a lot less interest in your organization and cause than their opting into your list might indicate?

We think it is some of all of the above – and more or less and may depend from group to group. One thing we know, though, is that organizations need to take a hard look at their goals for email lists – and online community writ large. If email lists are simply headed to direct mail response rate territory then we need to understand that – and budget accordingly for a world in which very large lists are needed do get small results. This won’t be cheap and quantity is not necessarily a sin.

But perhaps resources could be better invested in finding more qualified subscribers, engaging people more directly on their own terms and simply cutting the dead wood out of lists. This last piece would be the simplest and cheapest though it should serve as a basic piece of the plan and not be anything particularly innovative or new.

Let’s figure out what to do about that 4%.

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