Snail mail has traditionally proven to be the best direct-marketing medium for nonprofits. That’s changing as a more Web-savvy generation accumulates wealth they donate to charities. And if this political season has taught us anything, it is that email- and Web-driven fundraising is coming of age.
That’s why we sat down with copywriting pro Karen Gedney, President & Creative Director, Karen Gedney Communications. She’s been testing emails to find out what does and doesn’t work for nonprofits.
Traditionally, nonprofits have always leaned on great copywriting. We picked Gedney’s brain for 12 practical tips that every marketer can use now, including advice on how to use YouTube to spark your inspiration, subject-line wisdom, and ways to make your testing dollars go farther. Tip #1: Bring Copy to Life Via YouTube Videos
Guilding a powerful human connection is crucial in writing for nonprofits, Gedney stresses. And that connection should take root in the very first sentence of your copy. So, where does she go for inspiration? YouTube.
Gedney searches the video-sharing site for *real language* to use in her opening sentence and paragraph. Digging beyond the inherited storyline helps her uncover the essence of a project, and may add unusual-but-relevant story angles. Her top priority? Focus on the human interest angle.
“If you go on YouTube and find something relevant, you are actually seeing the picture, right? For instance, one campaign had multiple videos up. The clips were so emotional to watch that I really was able to write much better copy. And it really didn’t take me very long. When I saw it, I got it. You have to dig a little deeper for the more personal story.” Tip #2: Create a Word Picture
Many nonprofits try to get a ton of detail into a message and suffer from getting too technical or dry, Gedney says. For instance, they might use policy-driven language when talking about court rulings.
To get folks to reach for their credit cards, the copy needs to uncover the underlying drama and needs driving the story. Then capture it in a vivid ‘word picture’.
“I’ve worked with nonprofits that were getting $18,000 from an email, and then lifted that to $220,000 simply from creating a powerful word picture. That’s how important it is. If it takes you a few more hours, it’s worth your time.”
For subject lines, here are a few examples:
Use “Turtle Toxins” instead of “We need your help to protect turtles from pollution.”
Say “Manatee Mayday” instead of “Manatees in Trouble: Help Needed Now."
Write “Click to Save Cows” instead of “Please help save cows from the abuses of factory farming."
“I've used variations of all these approaches to significantly increase donation revenue for clients,” she says. Tip #3: Use a Provocative Campaign Name
An intriguing name can really capture the core emotion behind your fundraising effort. Gedney says this is especially important when it comes to seemingly dry topics like Congressional legislation.
“For instance, instead of calling the campaign something like ‘The 12K Rule,’ call it ‘The Shoot-On-Sight Bill’. It’s more compelling.” Tip #4: Optimize Copy and Images for Landing Pages – Now
Just like the rest of the marketing community, nonprofits tend to fall short on testing and optimization to improve response rates for landing pages.
“There is not enough testing yet,” Gedney says. “But there will be soon. It’s on the horizon.”
So, take note: Optimize your landing page copy and imagery *right now* to gain a big advantage – especially if you’re one of the many marketers who’ll be tightening their purse strings this fall. Tip #5: Short Subject Lines Bring In More Donations
Gedney recently tested nonprofit lists for subject-line lengths. She says that the best performers were in the super-short 15-character range (including spaces), outperforming lines in the 45-character range.
Additionally, she notes that the short subject lines were not one-word phrases often seen in political campaigns, such as “Indefensible!” Rather, they were concisely crafted three or four word lines.
“Not only were the open rates better for the shorter versions, but the clickthroughs and donation rates were better as well. Also, the donation [amounts] were higher. It is a significant difference.” Tip #6: Dedicate Time to Subject Lines
Part of the challenge in writing short subject lines, Gedney says, deals with the fact that they are harder to do well. “A long subject line is relatively easy to write. A short subject line is very difficult to write.”
Nonprofits have to dedicate at least a few hours to the subject line if they want to grab audience attention, she says. In a nutshell, they should whittle away at the original subject line until they have something concise and eye-catching. Tip #7: Write the Subject Line *First*
Prioritizing subject lines in a meaningful fashion is also important, Gedney says. In fact, she puts the subject line first on her copywriting itinerary and doesn’t start on the email body until she’s got it just the way she wants it.
“People spend all of their time getting their email right, which is a hard job because you are trying to compellingly piece together a lot of information into a small space. And then they slap the subject line on it at the last second. I actually start writing an email by going over a number of different subject lines. It’s all about distilling, distilling, distilling, until it is a finely polished gem.” Tip #8: Test Copy on Low-Risk Campaigns
Nonprofits have limited budgets, so they have to be smart about how they allocate their time and efforts. Gedney says they should run their copy tests on low-risk emails, such as content- or information-based messages and alerts.
“You don’t want to risk your fundraising efforts. If your tested subject line bombs, it can be the difference between bringing in $10,000 instead of $50,000. That’d be a bad week. Try the idea on an action alert. And if you find out it works and you feel confident about it, you can try it on a fundraising email.” Tip #9: Don’t Expect Clickthroughs from Copy Links
Gedney has seen throughout her testing that donation links in the body copy do not have high clickthroughs compared to photos and ‘Donate’ buttons. In fundraising emails, she says, photos and ‘Donate’ buttons normally appear as sidebars in the layout.
Still, Gedney says, the body copy links serve a purpose and shouldn’t be cut from your design. “You need links there, too. It’s still good to do because you want to communicate to them that you want them to take action.”
Interestingly, she says, the link at the very bottom of email copy typically gets the next-best percentage of clicks after photos and ‘Donate’ buttons. “It shows that people are either reading and becoming convinced or skipping right to the bottom.” Tip #10: ‘P.S.’ Still Works
Gedney says that adopting the direct-mail tactic of putting a ‘p.s.’ at the end of the copy and marrying it to a ‘Donate’ link is a smart move. Another DM fundamental she uses: Break up the copy so it’s attractive to the reader’s eye – no more than two sentences per graph. Tip #11: Find the Right Copy Length: Think Short But Sweet
As Sherpa has suggested continuously, online viewers don’t have a lot of time to read. Gedney agrees. When it comes to her clients, the optimal email is a short-but-sweet 350 words.
Short-form copy is always preferable when it comes to getting folks into the donations funnel. She says it takes her about 8-12 hours of desk time to get those 350 words distilled.
“You want the message to be compelling and have enough detail. Yet, you don’t want it to go on too long.” Tip #12: Don’t Sleep on DM
Get out ahead of your competition with email optimization, Gedney says, but do not forget about direct mail. Your best fundraising efforts need to appear digitally and in print, hitting demographics both young and old.
“While email is definitely going to give you a healthy fundraising lift compared to not doing it, you should not expect it to actually replace direct mail – even though you’d like to because email is cheaper.”Useful links related to this article
Recent Sherpa article on nonprofit email:
“10 Best Practices to Increase Email Response Rates for Fundraising”
Karen Gedney Communications: