(Well written) email matters

Email is dead montage
Maybe crap email is dead. The rest is doing fine.

In the past week, three organizations I run into a lot online and through work posted writing jobs. More specifically, email writing jobs (a list of them is below).

Writing in less than 140 character snippets, coming up with the pithiest text to put over a share image, and (at the other end of the spectrum) even longer form essays seem to be the skillsets du jour.

Yet email remains a workhorse — building and connecting supporter networks more directly than social media. In combination with social media channels, video, websites, online ads and everything else, email can be more valuable. Email goes directly to the inbox, it can introduce a topic or remind the reader of something posted on Facebook or sent through postal mail.

“But wait,” you might say, “I get way too much email” or, if you’re in the field, you’ll point out the single digit (and falling) open rates in most sectors of the email world. Both are valid points. There IS too much email and most of it is just plain BAD.
Continue reading “(Well written) email matters”

Behold the greatest threat yet to nonprofit organizations

Nonprofit organizations face countless obstacles in their quest to protect the environment, improve education, tackle economic injustice, and otherwise help society.

Death Star poised to destroy nonprofit email
The Death Star – aka George Lucas’s early version of the Gmail tabbed inbox.

This is tough work, friends, and these days, as we gaze at computer screens or phones we are probably looking upon the most significant hurdle yet: Gmail’s tabbed inbox.

That’s the story, anyway, from a few recent nonprofit messages and news stories.  Jeff Bezos’s new project, The Washington Post,  has a story titled Advocacy groups want out of Gmail’s ‘promotions’ ghetto. It includes a snippet from a New Organizing Institute (NOI) email containing one of the best (if overwrought) lines in email history:

Now some of you might love this new organization of your inbox, that’s great! But many important advocacy emails (like this one from your friends here at NOI), could get lost in the commotion of all these new tabs – silencing our voices like those of the poor souls on the planet Alderaan.

The email went on to let people know how they could get rid of the tabbed inbox or slide NOI email into the primary tab so that future messages would appear there.

Not to be outdone, the international advocacy campaign group Avaaz sent a message to subscribers titled “Huge threat to Avaaz.” Here’s a bit of that one:

Avaaz email informing subscribers about the threat from Gmail.
Opening of a recent Avaaz email about Gmail’s tabbed inbox.

There is some debate about the impact the tabbed inbox is actually having on email response. MailChimp crunched data from millions of messages sent through its system to Gmail addresses and concluded:

What bothers me in this case is that open rates stayed down for 3 consecutive weeks. From looking at a year and half’s worth of data, I can say that kind of behavior isn’t normal. I’m not willing to declare an emergency just yet. After all, I don’t even know what the adoption rate is on Gmail’s side. However, I would say this is an early indicator, and we’re definitely keeping our eye on it.

Not exactly a call to evacuate Alderaan in the face of massive Imperial threats but perhaps we should be concerned. It’s worth noting that MailChimp looked only at open rates, a high level metric that doesn’t correlate to conversions (though it can be useful in spotting trends over time with large amounts of data).

ReturnPath has also taken a look at Gmail data using inbox placement and read rates. They found that already engaged subscribers are reading messages more often but read rates are down in general.

So,  what to do about tabbed inboxes?!

The tabbed inbox is simply Gmail’s next step in a long progression towards trying to give people what they want (or what Google thinks they want). They know that most “mass” email is ignored and have been shifting towards engagement based ways of inbox placement and advance management for years.

I don’t begrudge any organization from making an effort to get its messages out of the promotions ghetto and into the Primary tab. It’s definitely worth testing, at least.

But the people that are going to take this step are likely those that were already engaged with your messages anyway. In some sense, raising alarm about messages not being in the Primary tab misses the point. If people want to read your emails (and care about your issue and what you have to say) they aren’t going to suddenly stop because your messages are in a tab two inches to the right.

Better to emphasize action, engagement, and value to the reader in every single message. The tabbed inbox is not the biggest threat to your work.

Note: We would love to talk to any organization that has tested and crunched Gmail data in the past couple months. It would be great for others to know what’s working, what’s not and if there has been a measurable impact on actions taken and donations given. 

Annoying your list works except when it doesn’t

This goes in the category of things you probably shouldn’t adapt from the Obama campaign for your organization.

Annoying annoying-email-wonkaA friend sent me an excerpt from Wednesday morning’s Politico Playbook. It amounted to an excerpt from Jonathan Alter’s book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (to be released on June 4th) that focused on the Obama digital team’s email strategy, fundraising, and the value of extensive testing.

The Obama campaign tested most everything. As Alter describes, they  even (wisely) ran tests against their experience and hunches. As the campaign progressed the need to raise more (and more) money became more (and more) pressing. Good sense and experience told the email team that too much email would annoy people to the point of tuning out, unsubscribing or maybe just not voting.

You know what’s smart? Testing the frequency of your emails.
Continue reading “Annoying your list works except when it doesn’t”

Data Informed, Not Data Driven

This Adam Mosseri talk about how Facebook uses data to make decisions is a little dated but his observations are still extremely useful. His key insight: clear metrics and strong data-driven feedback loops can be powerful, but they have their limits as well. Facebook often uses solid empirical data to make decisions about their website design, their products, and the workflows that users experience on Facebook. They can test two versions of a website design, for example, and if design option A produces higher engagement than design option B it’s an easy choice.

But Mosseri also explains how an excessive fidelity to data-driven decisions can privilege incremental and uninspired changes at the expense of innovation and ambitious thinking. Facebook sometimes is aiming not only for high levels of engagement but for more fundamental changes in the way people interact with it and with each other. Facebook’s Timeline, for instance, inspired anger and fierce resistance among many Facebook users and sharp derision from the press, and the use of a conventional data-driven decision process would have killed it before it got very far, but Timeline is now a central and deeply-valued part of the Facebook experience.

Most nonprofits don’t seem to rely much on data for their decision-making about their websites, email newsletters, programs, and fundraising efforts, and when they do those efforts aren’t often carefully crafted and executed (some do, of course, but for every one that does there are many, many more that don’t). The remedy isn’t to swap all the intuitive and qualitative decision-making for analytic feedback loops, but to find a good balance. “Data informed, not data driven,” as Mosseri says.

Figured Out the Rest of Your 2012 Conference Plan Yet?

Trying to figure out your conference schedule for the rest of the year?

From Allyson Kapin on the Frogloop blog:

From Amy Schmittauer on the Convince and Convert blog:

You can also check out Kivi’s conference recommendations on her Nonprofit Communications Blog and the impressively thorough conference list on SocialBrite.

The Pitfalls of A/B Testing and Benchmarking

Improvement begins with measurement, but the ruler can also limit your audacity to try wildly new approaches (photo by Flicker user Thomas Favre-Bulle).
Google is famous for, among other things, crafting a deep, rich culture of A/B testing, the process of comparing the performance of two versions of a web site (or some other output) that differ in a single respect.

The benefit: changes to a web site or some other user interface are governed by real-world user behavior. If you can determine that your email newsletter signup button performs better with the label “Don’t Miss Out” instead of “Subscribe,” well, that’s an easy design change to make.

The practice of benchmarking – using industry standards or averages as a point of comparison for your own performance – has some strong similarities to A/B testing. It’s an analytic tool that helps frame and drive performance-based testing and iteration. The comparison of your organization’s performance to industry benchmarks (e.g., email open rates, average donation value on a fundraising drive) provides the basis for a feedback loop.

The two practices – A/B testing and benchmarking – share a hazard, however. Because a culture of A/B testing is driven by real-time empirical results, and because it generally depends on comparisons between two options that are identical in every respect but one (the discrete element that you are testing), it privileges modest, incremental changes at the expense of audacious leaps.

To use a now-classic business comparison: while Google lives and breathes A/B testing, and constantly refines its way to small performance improvements, the Steve Jobs-era Apple eschewed consumer testing, assuming (with considerable success) that the consumer doesn’t know what it wants and actually requires an audacious company like Apple to redefine product categories altogether.

Similarly, if your point of reference is a collection of industry standards, you are more likely to aim for and be satisfied with performance that meets those standards. The industry benchmarks, like the incremental change model that undergirds A/B testing, may actually constrain your creativity and ambitiousness, impeding your ability to think audaciously about accomplishing something fundamentally different than the other players in your ecosystem, or accomplishing your goals in a profoundly different way.

The implication isn’t that you should steer clear of A/B testing or benchmarking. Both are powerful tools that can help nonprofits focus, refine, and learn more quickly. But you should be aware of the hazards, and make sure even as you improve your iterative cycles you are also protecting your ability to think big and think different about the work your organization does.

And if you want to dive in, there are a ton of great resources on the web, including a series of posts on A/B testing by the 37Signals guys (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), the “Ultimate Guide to A/B Testing” on SmashingMagazine, an A/B testing primer on A List Apart, Beth Kanter’s explanation of benchmarking, and the 2012 Nonprofit Social Network Report.

The Digital Nonprofit Toolkit

For most nonprofits, a suite of digital tools can be a critical asset for enabling your team to do amazing work (not to mention simply enabling yourself to kick ass). As consultants to nonprofits that have hands in some start-ups, we don’t have the same needs and use cases as many nonprofits. But we’ve spent years working in nonprofits and are collaborating with many on a daily basis.

Here’s what we are using these days:

File sharing: We use Dropbox a lot, although Google Docs can be a good alternative if you’ve got a shared account (and we suspect that the new Google Drive is going to give Dropbox a serious run).

Email: I mostly use MailChimp…it’s inexpensive, reasonably easy to use and integrates with a wide array of third-party apps. Creating and changing templates can be annoying at times but, hey, nobody said HTML email was as easy as making toast. Documentation is solid, the Chimp folks blog frequently and seem genuinely interested in nonprofit implementations.

I am increasingly a fan of SendGrid, as well. They’ve got awesome customer service, it’s much easier for a non-techie like me to design and modify the email templates, and they are slowly rolling out free and low-volume pricing options. If you do high volume email, especially if you want to build your own internal UI, then SendGrid seems like the obvious choice.

We realize that most mid-size to ginormous nonprofits (and many small groups) are going to be using tools from Blackbaud, Convio, Salsa or other companies that mush together email, advocacy and fundraising. If you’ve got the budget and you’d prefer the combined multi-function product instead of stand-alone elements, they can make a lot of sense.

Emailing large files: YouSendIt and Dropsend are both solid. They can be pretty useful when the other party isn’t using DropBox.

Document collaboration: For all its quirks, we haven’t found anything that beats Google Docs (which is now being folded into Google Drive).

Bookmarking, Notetaking, Writing: Ted has become a consistent and almost fanatical user of Evernote (and if Instagram can be worth a billion dollars then why not Evernote?). It covers the bases, it’s easy to use, and it’s very accessible on multiple devices. Our main complaint is that its formatted content doesn’t paste well into other tools.

Cloud storage: For simple storage, I’m a fan of Rackspace, and I especially love their “fanatical” customer support. We know others who like Amazon Cloud, as well.

Backups: I use a pair of external hard drives and Time Machine, but I might end up exploring something cloud-based (maybe as a supplement to my hard drive-swapping approach). Anyone out there really in love with a particular cloud backup solution?

Social media dashboards: Hootsuite has been the hands-down winner for me, although it’s really just a Twitter dashboard. I like the UI, it’s easy to use, and it does what I want. You can include other accounts, like Facebook, but it doesn’t work as well for those (which I think is generally true of dashboards like this). Ted is happy with Hootsuite as well but is less enthusiastic about it … he finds the interface to be clunky, and there are some annoying issues when trying to manage/admin client Twitter accounts (e.g., if the client is already using Hootsuite free version to manage their Twitter account you can’t get access to it via your own Hootsuite, which is just silly).

Time tracking/Invoicing: When you’re an independent consultant or small shop tracking your time is both a pain in the arse and one of the most critical parts of surviving. We’ve been very pleased with Harvest. Heck, most nonprofit enterprise time tracking systems could learn a lot from Harvest and similar systems.

Project management: Basecamp and Wrike are my two favorite project management tools. They take different approaches, the former built more on a “Getting Things Done” type of structure while Wrike is a little more traditional, but they both have good UIs and solid features. I’m just starting a project using Smartsheet (because it integrates with a very cool public input tool we are using called Crowdbrite), which I’ve not used before … I can report on it in a few months.

Blogging/web platform: WordPress, especially when it’s used with the Genesis framework. It has its quirks, and it can be tough for non-techies to build out a site with any real customization (although I can recommend great web designers if you need anyone), but every blog I use now is built on WordPress. It’s robust, the UI is solid once the site is built, and it looks really good. We’ve seen (and built) some great sites that are much more than blogs using WordPress. It can be done. But think hard about Drupal, especially if you’re building a broad content and/or community-rich site.

Music: Because who doesn’t need music sometimes while they work … I’m a fan of Spotify and Pandora, although our local classical station (KVOD) and the terrific Santa Monica indy station KCRW get a lot of my streaming as well. Ted is a big Rdio fan, which I haven’t tried yet (but should because it’s far better than Spotify, Ted claims). He also threw in a vote for KCRW and for Denver’s KUVO. We are both fans of Seattle’s KEXP for edgy alt-rock.

Link shortening: I mostly use Bitly. It’s simple, free, and has decent analytics. Hootsuite integrates ow.ly, though, which also works fine.

Password management: It took me a while to warm up to it, and because I have multiple Dropbox accounts the Dropbox-based syncing didn’t work (they have other sync options), but I’m now a solid fan of 1Password. I keep track of one master password and it keeps track of everything else. Very handy once you get over the hump of actually using it.

Online stores and e-commerce: The combo of Shopify and Stripe seems to work well for managing online stores and the related e-commerce transactions.

What did we miss? Other great options we should cover?

Photo courtesy actna.net (which has a pretty good article on digital tools that should be in a journalist’s toolbox).

The First Bright+3 Book Launch: The Nimble Nonprofit

I am thrilled to announce the launch of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit.

The nonprofit world truly is in a state of flux. Much of what used to work doesn’t anymore. The need to invest in growing ass-kicking staff and to develop sustained organizational capacity has never been greater, yet the difficulties of doing so are growing as quickly as the need. In The Nimble Nonprofit we cover a wide range of what we believe are critical challenges facing the nonprofit sector:

  • cultivating a high-impact innovative organizational culture;
  • building and sustaining a great team;
  • staying focused and productive;
  • optimizing your board of directors;
  • creating lasting relationships with foundations, donors, and members;
  • remaining agile and open; and
  • growing and sustaining a nimble, impactful organization.

We mean for The Nimble Nonprofit to be a guide – an unconventional irreverent, and pragmatic guide – to succeeding in a nonprofit leadership role, and to tackling this incredibly challenging nonprofit environment. We aimed for a conversational, practical, candid, and quick read instead of a deep dive. If you want to immerse yourself in building a great membership program, or recruiting board members, or writing by-laws, there are plenty of books that cover the terrain (and some of them are quite good).

But if you want the no-nonsense, convention-challenging, clutter-cutting guide to the info you really, really need to know about sustaining and growing a nonprofit, well, we hope you’ll check out The Nimble Nonprofit.

This is our first book, and the publishing industry is a state of disarray, so – following the spirit in which we wrote the book – we are taking an unconventional path. We decided to publish strictly as an e-book, and we decided to self-published (with a bunch of help from Ted here at Bright+3). We are offering the book through the big three e-bookstores (Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, and we might add a few more to the mix), and we’ve priced the book at $4.99, which is much less expensive than the vast array of other nonprofit books.

As of right now, the book is available on Amazon (and it’ll hit the other two stores shortly). If you’d like to score a copy of The Nimble Nonprofit and enjoy reading it on your Kindle, iPad, or another tablet, jump on Amazon and grab it (did I mention it’s only $4.99?).

And, because our main goal is contributing to the conversations around these critical questions, we are also making a .pdf version of the book available for free.

We suspect that most readers will agree with some of what we argue and disagree with other parts, and because we challenge much of the conventional wisdom about building strong nonprofits, we’re pretty sure that some folks will disagree with a lot of what we write. And we look forward to the conversations. Please send us your thoughts, critiques, comments, and ideas

Tell us where you think we’re wrong and where we’ve hit the nail on the head, and please share with us other examples of nonprofits doing a great job of tackling these challenges and where they are just getting it wrong.

Happy reading –


(P.S. The Nimble Nonprofit is available right now on Amazon.)

Designing for Careless Mistakes

Photo by Flickr user griffithchris.Ted’s Valentine’s Day tweet: “Nothing says ‘we value your involvement’ like an email that starts with ‘Dear Name,’ – personalization fail.”

His point: this is not a particularly good way to sustain the support and enthusiasm of your donors.

I think he’s right, but I think there’s also another story worth telling: Setting up a merge with the recipient name but then not actually bringing those names in is such an obvious, careless, predictable mistake. Why would the CRM software allow a user to make this mistake in the first place?

Email clients are often designed to warn you – before they actually send the email – that you used the word “attachment” but didn’t actually attach anything, just in case you meant to. It’s an obvious, predictable error, and the software is designed to pay attention and warn you before you actually make this mistake. Hootsuite (my favorite third party solution for managing twitter feeds) won’t post your tweet until you actually tell it which account you want it posted to. Inadvertently tweeting to the wrong account is an obvious, easy-to-make, and predictable mistake, and HootSuite – by design – helps prevent you from making it.

Sure, there was a user error on that Valentine’s Day email. Somebody screwed up the merge on the ‘name’ field. But some user errors are common and predictable enough that the software ought to help you avoid making them.

A hint to CRM publishers: help me – as a typical user of your product I am tight on a deadline and prone to making careless errors – avoid making really stupid, careless mistakes. If I try to send an email that’s going to end up in everyone’s inbox with a “Dear Name” salutation, please make sure I actually want to do that before you send them.

Solving the Inbox Problem with Gmail Advanced Filtering

Left unmanaged, my email inbox begins to feel like this . . . (photo by flickr user tavarua).

Although at Bright+3 we tend to focus on organizational and campaign issues, we are just as much fans of better time management and workflow strategies as the next folks. My gmail inbox is a constant source of interruption and distraction, yet enough urgent emails land in my inbox that I don’t want to ignore it entirely. By identifying the specific people who might be sending me urgent emails, I am figuring, and filtering out everything else into another inbox, I can keep tabs on those urgent emails while only checking and dealing with the main flow of incoming email a few times a day.

I’ve found Gmail’s “Priority Inbox” to be useful, but it still displays plenty of emails that aren’t urgent. I started with an approach that Lifehacker (“Build advanced Gmail filters and persistent searches“) described, using advanced filtering to weed out any emails that didn’t come from the specified list of email addresses, but because it was based on the “From” field I ended up losing multi-person email threads. A variation that seems to avoid this problem relies instead on the “Doesn’t have” filter function:

-:{ bill@sky.com, sue@blue.com }

If an email or email thread contains any of the specified email addresses (in the From, To, Subject, or anywhere in the content), the filter skips it and it remains in my inbox. My inbox right now has five emails right now, a feat I haven’t accomplished since the last time I created a new email account.

Everything else skips the inbox and ends up with a “The Other Inbox” tag. This “inbox” gets pretty full, but I check that inbox and power through the emails just a few specific times a day, which helps protect me from my distraction-prone self.

One of the really helpful Lifehacker tips, by the way, is to use {} and () instead of “OR” or “AND.” Google applies the boolean operator “OR” to a list of terms within the the curly brackets and it applies “AND” to those within the parentheses. This provides the advantage of simply adding or deleting terms within the list rather than needing to add the boolean operator each time as well. This approach also lets me include other types of phrases in the search line. If there are specific keywords that might indicate urgency, for example, it’s easy to include them in the filter string.

It’s also quite easy in gmail to edit the filter anytime, so I can quickly adjust the list of search terms to reflect an issue that might be urgent on a particular day but not otherwise.

One problem – and I’d welcome suggestions – is that my sent emails end up in this new inbox, so I need to figure out an additional element to the filter that skips those.

It’s not perfect, but so far it’s helping me stay focused and ignore inbound emails except for just a few times a day but to still quickly notice the small number of truly urgent emails requiring more immediate attention.