July 26, 2011
Case Study

Email Marketing: Four short emails boost year-end revenue 50% for nonprofit organization

SUMMARY: A classic marketing tactic such as direct mail can be a solid performer, but don't fall into the trap of considering it a campaign unto itself. You can boost overall results with just a few emails.

See how a nonprofit organization coordinated four short emails with its end-of-the-year direct mail and increased donations 50% compared to the prior year.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter


December was an important month for HealthConnect One. The nonprofit organization depended on holiday donations, as well as last-minute donations made to beat year-end tax deadlines.

The organization's mission is to promote the health of mothers, infants and families, and it typically sent an appeal letter each December. However, many nonprofits send direct mail during the holidays, and some save their largest campaigns for the season. HealthConnect One did not want its letter to be lost in the flood.

"It is hard to stand out in a crowd," says Cindy Ogrin, Development Director, HealthConnect One.

Last December, Ogrin's team wanted to reinforce its appeal letter and further encourage donations, but without increasing its direct mail volume. The team had dabbled in email marketing, but had never launched a full-scale campaign. The time had come, Ogrin felt, to launch one.


HealthConnect One planned a four-part email series to request donations from its audience. The emails were scheduled through December to reinforce the direct mail piece and help the organization's message rise above the competition.

Here are the steps the team followed:

Step #1. Design direct mail letter

The team first planned to reach its network of donors, advocates and interested parties with a direct mail piece. The mailing included:

o Appeal letter
o Annual report
o Return envelope for donations

The annual report updated recipients on the organization's activities, listed previous donors, and featured the organization's website and social media outlets on its back cover.

The appeal letter included:

- Organization logo

The only non-textual content in the letter was a large HealthConnect One logo in its upper right-hand corner. The color graphic was also used in the campaign's emails to build a visual connection between the messages.

- Direct tone

The letter discussed the idea that "a mother's zip-code should not determine her newborn's chances of life." The copy discussed infant mortality rates in the country and how the organization combats these trends.

The letter mentioned that support from donations would help expand the number of communities reached by HealthConnect One. It provided specific examples, such as helping to "provide a breastfeeding promotion program in Detroit."

- Matching donations

The letter included a postscript (P.S.) statement in bold and italicized text. It noted that another HealthConnect One donor would match the recipient's donation, effectively doubling the amount donated.

- Personal touches

Each letter featured the recipient's name and mailing address in its upper left-hand portion, and was signed in pen by the organization's executive director.

Step #2. Design related email campaign

To help quickly communicate the organization's goals, the team designed four emails around the theme "have you ever been a baby?"

"I think the framework of the organization has been that you have to have experienced a birth in order to support our work, and that is not the case at all," Ogrin says. "We tapped into that theme because if you have ever been a baby, then you should care about the work here."

This lighthearted theme also helped the organization's emails stand out from many in the industry that featured heart-wrenching personal stories during the holidays, Ogrin says.

"We wanted it to be hopeful and optimistic and say that you can make a difference in the lives of these moms and babies. That's why our email campaign took a different tone."

The emails' designs were nearly identical throughout the campaign with minor variations. Key features included:

- Simple design

Each email's header featured a large logo for the organization, which was the same logo used in the campaign's direct mail piece. The basic layout of each email included:

o Single picture of a baby
o Headline
o Three to four sentences of copy
o Link to donate (the only link in the body)
o P.S. statement

"We wanted them to be short, simple, and easy to read to get the point across and to make people click," Ogrin says.

- Baby pictures and colors

Colors from the organization's logo were used as background colors in each email. Each email prominently featured an image of a smiling baby, which contributed to their positive theme. Headlines included:

o Email #1: "Have you ever been a baby?"

o Email #2: "Over 143,000 babies were born in the U.S. since our last email!"

o Email #3: "We were all babies once!"

o Email #4: "Happy New Year from HC One!"

- Copy

Each email had unique copy, but all hit on these points:

o Many thousands of babies are born in the U.S. every year

o Not all babies have the support they need

o HealthConnect One helps provide support to families

o "Partner with" or "donate to" the organization so more families can have a great start

o P.S. statement - donations will be matched

The final email, delivered on New Year's Eve, emphasized that there was "still time to make your 2010 donation."

Step #3. Determine the campaign’s audience

As mentioned above, this was the organization's first full-scale email marketing campaign. Ogrin wanted to tread carefully and ensure the team's emails reached the right audience.

The team had a database of people who had agreed to receive emails, but they were a mix of advocates, donors, people generally interested, and people helped by the organization. For the campaign, the team chose to send only one email to people who had been helped by HealthConnect One in the past, as they were typically people in need.

"Our database is segmented in the way that people who want to connect with us in our programs aren't necessarily asked for money," Ogrin says. "They would only receive one email in December, not the four that previous donors would receive."

- Scrub the list

Anyone targeted in the campaign who donated in response to one of the emails was automatically removed from subsequent mailings, Ogrin said. This detail helped the team avoid annoying the most valuable portion of its audience.

Step #4. Setup the emails' landing page

Each of the emails linked to the same landing page, which was hosted on HealthConnect One's website and featured the organization's logo. The page also included:

- Copy from direct mail letter

The page's center featured two sentences of copy which touched on the theme described in the campaign's direct mail letter.

- Donation buttons

Five orange "donate" buttons ran down the page's center under the copy. Four buttons provided donation amounts from $50 to $250. The final button allowed visitors to specify an amount.

When clicked, the buttons brought visitors to a third-party site to process the donation. The site's landing page featured HealthConnect One's logo prominently in its header.

- Extra information

A secondary goal of the emails was to invite the audience to learn more about the organization. The email landing page on HealthConnect One's site included top-, side- and bottom-navigation buttons, a link to download the organization's annual report, and a contact email address.

Step #5. Synchronize the campaign's timing

The campaign was timed to encourage donations during the all-important month of December. The team sent the direct mail letter in batches during the last week of November and planned on them arriving during the first days of December.

"The idea was that people would have them on their dining room tables when they got the first email," Ogrin says.

- Remind with emails

The direct mail piece provided a full page of information on why to donate, whereas the much-shorter emails served as reminders throughout the campaign. The emails' schedule:

o Email #1: Dec. 2
o Email #2: Dec. 15
o Email #3: Dec. 23
o Email #4: Dec. 31

- Avoid "bombarding"

The team sent four emails, "which is less than typical nonprofits do in our industry," Ogrin says. "Because it was new to our network, we didn't want to bombard them with five different emails on December 31st and say 'you still have two hours to make your donation,' which does happen."

"Using email to make this connection allowed us to reach a broader audience faster and more effectively than traditional marketing methods," Ogrin says. "We were not as aggressive as I think we could have been, but still very successful with the four emails."

HealthConnect One exceeded its $15,000 donations goal for the campaign. The team generated about 50% more revenue than a December campaign from the year prior in which the team sent a direct mail letter to its audience and asked board members to solicit donations from their email contacts.

Average performance across the campaign's four emails:
o Open: 21.6%
o CTR: 5.2%

Performance of each email:

Email sent Dec. 2
o Subject line: "Have you ever been a baby?"
o Open rate: 26.1%
o CTR: 6.7%

Email sent Dec. 15
o Subject line: "143,000 Babies"
o Open rate: 23.8%
o CTR: 4.7%

Email sent Dec. 23
o Subject line: "Make a HealthConnect One Holiday Gift"
o Open rate: 17.3%
o CTR: 3.4%

Email sent Dec. 31
o Subject line: "Happy New Year"
o Open rate: 19.3%
o CTR: 6.1%

HealthConnect One's story is just one of many case studies we've published on nonprofit organizations. If you're interested in reading more email marketing case studies and how-to articles, subscribe to the complimentary Email Marketing newsletter.

Useful links related to this article

1. Email #1: Dec. 2
2. Email #2: Dec. 15
3. Email #3: Dec. 23
4. Email #4: Dec. 31
5. Email landing page
6. Donation processing page
7. Direct mail letter

Optimizing Copy: The 7 most common copywriting mistakes we see marketers make

Email List Growth: Finding low-cost and no-cost ways to grow your database

Email Testing: More specific subject line improves open rate by more than 35%

Members Library -- Online Marketing: Nonprofit enrolls 3,350 new subscribers with integrated digital efforts

Members Library -- Email Marketing: Double-send strategy boosts donations 55%

PayPal -- Processed the team's donations

HealthConnect One Annual Report PDF

HealthConnect One

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