Building email lists one opt-in address at a time

How organizations build email lists is no small issue. Many groups are investing significant resources in staff, consulting, advertising, events and vendor contracts (in particular partnering with Care2, and similar communities) to increase their list size.

Open rates of opt-in and opt-out messages
Comparing open rates of opt-in and opt-out subscribers. Source: via ClickZ.

An issue that often comes up as these programs take off is do we use “opt-in” or “opt-out?” What does this mean? Opt-in means that a new subscriber must make a proactive decision to join an email list by clicking a checkbox, filling out a form or, in the case of double opt-in by replying to a confirmation email and essentially telling you twice that they want to be on your email list. Opt-out happens when someone is added to an email list without clear prior acknowledgment and must actively opt-out if they want off the list.

We were intrigued the other day to come across a post on ClickZ looking at the results of over 300 million emails sent to sets of subscribers added to lists via opt-in and opt-out methods. Email professionals will generally discourage organizations from using opt-out methods (though, as discussed below) typical subscription practices aren’t far from opt-out and many organizations use opt-out frequently through email appends. And opt-out is pretty much assumed in political campaign marketing where lists are bought, sold, traded and given away all the time.

Opt-out is cheaper than opt-in. You may put money up-front to rent/buy an email list or run an email append against your mailing list or other house file. But dollar for dollar it costs less than opt-in. Generally, the more subscribers need to do to indicate their interest in subscribing the less likely they are to subscribe.
Continue reading “Building email lists one opt-in address at a time”

Easing (and improving) the year-end email fundraising onslaught

December means the end of the year is upon us and for nonprofits (or, more notably their members and email subscribers) it’s high season for email traffic. The end of the year is a critical time for fundraising. By some measures, up to 30% of donations (online, at least) come at the end of the year. For example, Network for Good has reported that over 30% of their annual online donation processing happens in December. Online gifts in December tend to be larger. These are just a couple stats in Network for Good’s recent Holiday Guide for companies partnering with organizations (worth the read – PDF).

Woman fighting email with sword - How to avoid email fatigue in December and still raise money.
Avoid email fatigue in December and still raise money.

You will see more email than ever this December, especially the last couple weeks of the month, as organizations try to cover all their bases and leave no stone unturned. It can be overwhelming for subscribers but, like political ads on TV, lots of email works. People give to organizations they love AND know about. If they don’t think of you when making those year-end donations, even if they like what you do, you will miss out.

How do we build awareness (and passion), increase the tempo of messages and make people happy, not grumpy, about all this email?

Point out Successes

You’ve had a great year and been a fabulous steward of your donors’ gifts. Remind people of that. The end of the year is the perfect time to sum up what’s happened with the investment made by donors. Your organization has a theory of change and/or business plan. Show results. Continue reading “Easing (and improving) the year-end email fundraising onslaught”

Image only emails: Lazy lost opportunities

Would you want your email subscribers to see this in their inbox?

Frontier Airlines image only email with images turned off


This message is a big Thanksgiving thank you from Frontier Airlines to its frequent fliers. How much gratitude would you feel upon seeing this? Not much. (Hate to pick on Frontier…as airlines go they’re pretty good. Could use some help with email, though.)

We’ll skip the diatribe against image only emails. They’re rarely useful as they bump up against problems displaying content all the time.

The thing is, this is an easy problem to fix. Adding alt tag values to the primary images would help. An alt tag for the main body image that says “Frontier Airlines wishes you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!” would show that text in place of the main image for those with images turned off.  A simple “Frontier eSpecials” alt tag for the header image would be simple to add to the template and cover needs in every message.

Basically, this comes off as lazy. Add an interesting and informative alt tag for your primary images. Move on.

Is there a place for image only emails? Perhaps. If the message is dependent upon visuals then perhaps it’s worth an image-only message. Fashion retailers or photographers could fit into this category. Even those senders could use alt tags, however.

How does this email look with images turned on? It’s okay but furthering the irony is that most of the image is text. It would have been easy to create this message with a mix of text and images.

Frontier Airlines image only email


More on Email for Mobile Devices

A few days ago we talked about helping your organization’s mobile strategy by focusing on email and how it works on/with mobile devices.

Not wanting to be left out (just kidding, guys), Vertical Response released a great little guide to email on mobile devices. Their “8 Rules for Creating Mobile Emails” are below. They track well with what we covered. Given the format of the pdf guide you may get more detail with it. Here’s their 8 rules:

  1. Simple is better.
  2. Subject line and pre-header are crucial.
  3. Use fewer, smaller images.
  4. Links are important.
  5. Call to action.
  6. Scrolling. (try to minimize the need for it)
  7. Remember the text backup.
  8. Think landing pages, email is just the start.
A great list. Key pieces:
  • You get little time to make an impression when a reader sees your subject line in their mobile email program. Make it clear, inviting, snappy. Enough to give the reader a reason to open it (or at least not delete it).
  • Clear text, link and call to action early in the message body. Make it easy for the reader to get the point, act and move toward conversion.
  • Landing pages should be mobile-friendly. This may take the most work for many nonprofits. If a form, think simple layout.
You can find this and other guides to email lists and marketing on the Vertical Response educational guides page. Also worth remembering that Vertical Response has solidly discounted prices for nonprofits, including up to 10,000 messages a month free – great for small organizations getting rolling with email.


Need a mobile strategy? Start with your email.

For most organizations, the heart and soul of communications is the email list. Email is the 800 pound gorilla, the elephant in the room, the big kahuna. Email goes direct to the inbox, our online strategy metrics are led by terms like open rate and clickthroughs, and online fundraising campaigns depend on email marketing.  Moreover, email is growing and generally has a strong return on investment.

Today, “mobile” is receiving lots of attention. And for good reason. It was recently reported that one in three Americans owns a smartphone.  Some sources are indicating that more people will own smartphones than traditional cellphones by 2012. Add tablets into the mix and its clear that people are quickly adopting mobile computing.

A recent post in the blog emailmonday provides a solidly thorough rundown of mobile email stats including this one: right now about 10% of email opens are happening on a mobile device.

As Gary Vaynerchuk put it the other day, you need a mobile strategy by 2012.

I’ll argue, though, that the quickest and most cost-effective place to focus your mobile strategy is your email.

Your email? What? That’s not mobile? Mobile is apps. Right? Angry Birds on your iPhone or getting people to read your Facebook page updates on their phone. Maybe mobile is a version of your website that looks good on mobile devices (which it is to some extent and we’ll get to that below but much or most mobile traffic is coming from your emails).

Continue reading “Need a mobile strategy? Start with your email.”

Priority Inbox and learning to love creating relevant email

Gmail - Priority InboxA bit has been written here and there about Gmail’s Priority Inbox. In online terms, the feature is hardly new, having been unveiled in August, 2010.

For a while now, email marketers have been discussing the value of segmentation, relevance and only sending subscribers what they want. Word to the Wise, which blogs on email deliverability issues, recently had a great quote on the “perfect” email:

The perfect email is no longer measured in how perfectly correct the technology is. The perfect email is now measured by how perfect it is for the recipient.

Nonprofits have largely steered clear of the conversation. But Priority Inbox and other systems are entering your recipient’s inboxes and may radically change the way subscribers interact with your messages.

As inbox placement becomes increasingly complicated (going way beyond a reverse chronological list) with spam filters and both automated and manual “priority” filters largely driven by relevance, organizations can’t assume that delivered email is being shown to the recipient.

Gmail Priority Inbox and other options
Gmail Priority Inbox and other options are becoming more visible to users - and more likely to be used. Click image for larger version.

Continue reading “Priority Inbox and learning to love creating relevant email”

Email Newsletter Boost: Five Ways (plus one) to Pump it Up

Bike pump by Flickr user mhall209
Pump up your newsletter (not just your tires). Photo by Flickr user mhall209.
In the last couple years I’ve had many conversations about email campaign strategy that invariably veer towards the oft-dreaded topic of “email newsletters.” In most cases staff hate their newsletter, have trouble defining why they put together the newsletter (which is often a heavy lift internally) and report open and clickthrough and other action rates that are headed nowhere but down. The 2011 E-Benchmarks report from M+R and NTEN report an average clickthrough rate of 2% for email newsletters.

Done with intention and skill, email newsletters are a good opportunity to provide a consistent drumbeat of conversation about your work and people that is needed to consistently engage and build relationships. Notice use of the word “conversation” above. Most email newsletters are mimicking old print brochures, magazines and newsletters that couldn’t be interactive, responsive or timely. This is most often boring. Take some time to play around with interaction. Ask people questions, work in a poll or quiz, have an action opportunity but make it unique to the newsletter – something special the reader can look forward to each month.

We’re going to expand a bit upon that last newsletter idea here with five ways to ramp up the email newsletter. Inspiration for this comes from a great recent post by Matt Krautstrunk over on the Blue Sky Factory blog – well worth checking out.

Let’s first define email newsletter. A newsletter is the regularly scheduled informational piece. Usually it goes out monthly but could be weekly or bi-weekly or some other at least sorta regular pace. The newsletter is distinct from time-sensitive action alerts, fundraising appeals and similar communications. This doesn’t mean that a newsletter shouldn’t be timely and responsive to current events but that isn’t typically its role.


I don’t know about you but just the word newsletter screams out “blah, blah, blah.” Dull. Mundane. Filler. The sort of thing that if it came to me via paper would go straight to the recycling bin. And consider the fact that it is 100 times easier to click delete or just ignore an email than it is to bring a piece of mail all the way from the mailbox to the recycling.

Continue reading “Email Newsletter Boost: Five Ways (plus one) to Pump it Up”

Testing, testing, testing…is this message on?

So you’re sitting there lamenting the somewhat lethargic results of recent email campaigns and wondering if a little tweak to your email or landing page would improve results. Maybe change up the subject line – add or remove the organization. Maybe add a photo or two to the message. Maybe change the placement of a link or form or call to action on a landing page. Would that get more conversions you wonder? There has to be an easy way to bump this up, you think to yourself.

Photo by Sebastian Bergmann, flickr.So you post an email to a handy helpful email list largely made up of folks doing similar work asking if a subject line change would help. The feedback is extensive but largely anecdotal. Hardly anyone offers up actual data and most of the stories are second or third hand… “well, a group I used to work with put the name of the organization in the subject line and it helped a little, I think.”

And you think, “well, that good but it’s not exactly the same situation I’m dealing with here. It’s a good story but doesn’t exactly apply to my list.”

My god, man… then why not test it on your list!

The thing is, testing on one’s own list and pages is pretty darn easy (though we can make it quite complicated and involved, sometimes for good reason and other times not) but rarely done.

Okay, so the ease of testing depends on the tools at hand. If your email system/online CRM is pretty unwieldy or you just don’t know how to use it then little tweaks here and there can be massive potholes in the road, not small bumps. If you don’t know how to move things around on your site – or have the staff to do so – then little changes can be tough.

Yet what I’ve found is more often a lack of interest or curiosity about testing. More often, folks are resigned to the results they get or, if not sure, just don’t know how to proceed. What to test? How to set it up? Is it worth the time?

Valid questions all. But I think the lack of a learning culture is more the culprit. More on that in a future post but first… what to test. Continue reading “Testing, testing, testing…is this message on?”

Save your (inbox) bacon

A few weeks back I wrote about the generally sorry state of response rates to nonprofit advocacy emails. Those numbers, by the way, were in a 2010 report. The 2011 data was released shortly after and it’s gloomier. Grab the data from M+R and NTEN when you get a chance.

Nearly 28 Billion Bacon emails were sent per day in 2010
Nearly 28 Billion Bacon emails were sent per day in 2010.

The data is telling us that a whole heck of a lot of email is going unread. The amount spurring action – at least measured as a “response” – is even smaller.

This is no small matter as email providers like Google make efforts to more actively manage email for users. For a few years now web and desktop email providers have made it simpler for users to mark email as spam and many provide ISPs with feedback loops that let them tap this info to better manage spam.

But Gmail’s Priority Inbox and other services are changing the game and looking at whether or not email is read by users. If a sender is delivering to your inbox but you’re not reading the messages then, well, that email may fall below the fold in the inbox. In other words, if subscribers aren’t reading your email then it’s less likely to be presented to the reader at all. Add this to user filtering/folders and you have more hurdles than ever.

So we’re left with BACON (did somebody say bacon?). Yes. Bacon. That’s email that people asked for but don’t really read. Facebook pushes email out every time someone comments on a status update you commented on or a photo you’re in. Nearly every online retailer has an email list. If you’re remotely involved in politics you’ve likely been subscribed without permission to every candidate email list under the sun. And nonprofits are pushing out emails about events, issues and fundraising with reckless abandon.

It’s crowded out there. And little or none of this email qualifies as or is marked as spam. It is (many political emails aside) requested email.

Recent data put together by indicates that it takes, on average, one minute to unsubscribe to an email list (assuming the unsubscribe process works or is even offered to the user). That doesn’t seem like much until you realize that almost 28 BILLION bacon emails are sent each day.

As someone who is a prolific email subscriber and also aids and abets in the sending of vast quantities of email I can tell you that while email works to deliver advocacy messages and raise funds it is an increasingly, and painfully, crowded inbox out there. And your emails are probably suffering. And as email providers react to the bacon age I predict that more and more “requested” email is going to be hidden from users – even while being delivered. And it may not be delivered at all.

How to save your bacon without getting fried

A place to start is by culling your email list. Think honestly about dead wood and getting rid of it.Your boss and board may not like this but your email list isn’t nearly as big (in real usable terms) as the number of “deliverable” email addresses indicates. Get better at identifying and trying to reactivate inactive subscribers. And if they don’t get back in the game then cut them loose. If they want to find you again they will.

Get better at segmentation. Give people what they want.

Better subject lines and better content overall. Test subject lines. Frequently. Don’t rest.

Think hard about the value of an email address. If someone is on the list for five years but has never donated or taken an action (and not opened an email) what does that mean? Chances are there might be more of those on your list than you think.

Make it easier to unsubscribe.

You don’t want people on the list that don’t want to be there. And that’s more true when your inbox placement is based on user interaction.

This is just a start. Be creative. I’d argue that social networks and mobile are throwing a wrench in the works (though probably not yet at a level that will be noticeable for most). Some subscribers are moving towards interacting in other channels, like Facebook, but it’s still somewhere between hard and impossible for organizations to connect email and social network data. Integrating that data is going to help.

Get to work saving your bacon. And soon.