January 02, 2008
How To

10 Best Practices to Increase Email Response Rates for Fundraising

SUMMARY: It’s a new year -- a perfect time for nonprofits to take a serious look at their email marketing. Does your program need to be overhauled? You’re asking for donations, not offering products, so the approach must be different from that of retail marketers.

We asked an expert for his top 10 tips on the nuances of email marketing for nonprofits and ways to increase conversion rates. One simple change he made lifted response 66%.
Nonprofit organizations have different relationships with their members than businesses do with their customers. Those differences need to carry over into their email programs.

“Part of the whole overall fundraising program is realizing that your newsletter that’s keeping people aware of your activities is really fundraising. Nobody will consider it that, but it really is the cultivation side of a fundraising program, not just asking for money once a month,” says Jeff Herrity, Internet fundraising professional.

When your list is ready for an appeal -- or a donation request -- Herrity follows a long list of best practices he has developed over the years for clients, including Amnesty International and the American Red Cross.

Here are his top 10 tips for putting together an email fundraising campaign:

The Email Itself

-> Tip #1. Put your request in the subject line

First off, be direct, Herrity says. Don’t shy away from asking for a donation in the subject line. Subscribers to a nonprofit’s email newsletter expect this.

Herrity tested subject lines for a client’s appeal:
- The direct subject line said “Donate to Feed a Child Today.”
- The indirect subject line said “Learn About this Organization.”

The indirect subject line had a 21% open rate, but only a 4% response rate. The direct subject line had an 18% open rate and an 18% response rate.

“If your goal of this email is to get money, put it in the subject line. You’re going to get a little bit lower [open rate], but you’re going to get more donations,” Herrity says. “Don’t try to be all clever with your wording knowing that someone is going to feel kind of bait and switched or guilty once they realize they’ve opened an email and it’s a hungry kid staring at them.”

-> Tip #2. Keep the email copy short

“Copy length always played a factor in [response]. With fundraising copy, you don’t want a 10-page email that someone has to read. That’s fine when you’re sending somebody a letter at home that they’re going to sit down and read, but on email it’s really got to be two or three paragraphs,” Herrity says.

Herrity has tested copy length and found that the longer copy got an 18% response rate while the shorter copy got a 30% response rate. “Shorter copy always won. I mean, we’re talking two paragraphs, a couple of links and a P.S.”

-> Tip #3. Keep the copy simple

With only a few paragraphs to work with, it’s important to keep the email’s copy simple.

A possible layout:
o Header - Company banner
o Paragraph 1 - State the problem your organization fights
o Link to provide a donation
o Paragraph 2 - State what your organization does to fight the problem
o Paragraph 3 - Examples of where the money will go, such as short testimonials.
o Link to provide a donation
o Closing statement and signature
o P.S. with final statement and another link to donate
o Footer with navigation links and a button to donate

Check the hotlinks below for one of Herrity’s appeal emails.

-> Tip #4. Keep links separate, simple

The first donation link in the email’s text should stand alone in its own paragraph. It should not be embedded in the copy. When done this way, Herrity says, the first link usually generates the highest number of clickthroughs and donations.

“Every time I’ve done [a] stand-alone link, it works better than a graphic or even that ‘Donate Now’ button. In this one email, what I call ‘text-link one’ had 33 donations, whereas the actual donate button only had 18.” The email had 129 total donations.

The second best performing link for Herrity was a stand-alone text link at the bottom of the email, which received 22 donations. The link’s text should be simple and direct:
o “Please make an online donation today here”
o “Please help today”

With a direct subject line, “you know that people are opening the email with the intention to give, so just ask them for it,” says Herrity.

-> Tip #5. Follow-up email with a new subject line

“You’re going to get the majority of your responses in the first couple days. I think in the case of nonprofits, you’ve got about a five-day window of where you’re going to see responses,” Herrity says.

After your initial responses have tapered off, send a follow-up email with a different subject line to those who did not open it the first time. You can also target those who opened the email but did not donate by testing layout, length, copy and other components.

The Landing Page

-> Tip #1. Don’t clutter landing page

By opening an email and clicking through, a member has expressed interest in making a donation. Don’t clutter up the landing page with copy. Further convincing is probably unnecessary at this point.

To continue the simpleness of the landing page, place the donation form directly on the page. It should maintain a look and feel that’s similar to the email.

-> Tip #2. Keep landing page copy short

You don’t need to clutter up the landing page with extra copy. “Thank you for making your donation to help Henry eat for a week,” is enough, Herrity says.

“We tested landing pages that were just longer versions of the email. And we also tested just sending [members] directly to a donation page that had a little bit of copy that just kind of summarized what the email was for. Generally, the landing page -- in the case of donations and fundraising -- is really just a barrier to getting a higher conversion rate.”

Thanking Your Donors

-> Tip #1. Use thank-you emails

Donors are the lifeblood of a nonprofit organization. Show them your appreciation and you’re more likely to make a one-time donor a long-term member. One way to do this is by sending a series of thank-you emails.

“Some organizations I work with, they’ll do it once a month. It’s kind of a cultivational program. Every month, we send out a ‘thank you’ to someone who had donated online and it’s [based on a specific appeal]. So, they’re more used to seeing emails that aren’t always ‘give us money.’ You’re making them a more loyal customer just by thanking [them] and letting them know what their money has done,” says Herrity.

-> Tip #2. Keep the thank-you email simple

Like your appeal, follow similar guidelines with the thank-you email and keep it simple.

“‘Dear Adam, thank you for your recent gift of $50. We just wanted to thank you and wanted to let you know that your money is going to help put food on little Henry’s table for the next three months. Thank you again for your support.’ That’s all it has to be,” Herrity says. “It’s closing the loop, as opposed to where people just think, ‘Oh, well, that autoresponder that the donation processing system kicks out is fine.’ Well, it’s not. It’s a receipt. Do you go home and study your receipts when you go shopping? No.”

Another point: say thank you in the subject line. The open rates for these were always 70%, he says.

-> Tip #3. Use standard ‘make a donation’ link in the footer

Some organizations have a standard header and footer for all emails sent to members. When the footer included a “make a donation” link, Herrity noticed that thank-you emails generated even more donations.

“It was never our intent. We’d see in that footer, which was a standard footer, we would see a second gift. Not a huge percentage, but 10%, 15% of people who received the thank you would give again,” Herrity says.

Useful links related to this article

Parts of a nonprofit email described:

Past Sherpa article - New Data: 6 Actions to Lift Open, Clickthrough Rates:

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