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:

-:{, }

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.

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”

Relationships are about organizations and people (not communications tools)

It seems that “email is broadcast communications with the audience” while social media is (or can be) interactive and a way to have a conversation with your audience. Broadcast messaging is a shout at recipients to take action. Interactive or social media may make a call to action but it assumes opportunity for other involvement by the recipient.

Shouting in the storm by Flickr user lanier67
Organizations that aren't thinking about relationships may be shouting into the wind regardless of communications medium. Photo by Flickr user lanier67.

Communications media have been forever evolving, however, and while some channels may lend themselves to more or less interaction their use as engagement and relationship-crafting tools has more to do with the communicator than the medium. To paraphrase Beth Kanter, perhaps, a fortress organization with a Facebook page is still a fortress.

Social media to the rescue?

We talk about conversation, continued interaction, and (if you like) two-way engagement is viewed as more valuable. Relationships aren’t built in a command and control environment (except in the military, perhaps). An organization, campaign or company that can interact and have a back-and-forth dialog with a constituent or customer is, they say, going to have a more fruitful relationship with that customer (or donor or member).

Social media is sometimes characterized as a knight in shining armor riding to the rescue of organizations besieged and alone inside email and print walls that let messages out while nothing comes in. Social medial will knock down the walls and create a free flow of conversation and information amongst leaders, staff and citizens. All will benefit. Cake for everyone.

Continue reading “Relationships are about organizations and people (not communications tools)”

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?”

New NOI Report: Experiments in Online Advocacy

Groundwire reported on the very interesting and useful conclusions of an in-depth research project by New Organizing Institute about online advocacy. Check out Groundwire’s summary or you can dive into the full report (“Experiments in Online Advocacy”). A lot of the research questions are very specific and pertinent to the online advocacy operational decisions you make every day, like how best to set up the sender’s name for maximizing the open rate, how best to embed video for improving the click-through rate, the timing of emails, and the like.

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%.