What role do e-newsletters play in fundraising?
By Tom Ahern
I'm writing the second edition of my book on donor newsletters. [Editor's note: Watch for Tom's new book in the fall.]
It has a rather embarrassing gap: I don't have much to say about e-newsletters.
The first edition had the same gap. But since it was published in 2005, nearer the dawn of online fundraising, the omission wasn't quite as damning.
So I wrote Jeff Brooks, a copywriter at the top of the food chain. He is one of my core gurus.
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How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money
In truth, this book could be called: Getting inside the mind of donors and communicating in a way that inspires their loyalty and generosity. What Tom Ahern does – while showing you how to craft your materials – is to plumb the psychology of donors, uncovering what stimulates interest and instills confidence. Communicating with donors is the bedrock of all fundraising. And no book addresses this topic with such virtuosity.
Jeff authors the popular, oft-quoted Future Fundraising Now blog. He was a front man in Seattle's legendary Domain Group, a fundraising firm that gave the world the first (and only, to my knowledge) tested formula for high-yield print newsletters. Today, Jeff's a creative director at TrueSense, a national direct response house with heavyweight clients like The Salvation Army and Ronald McDonald House Charities.
"Dear Jeff," I explained, "I don't have any terrific e-newsletters to show people as models. Are any of your clients producing something worth copying?"
Here's Jeff's surprising reply:
"I'm getting close to making a conclusion that e-newsletters don't work.
"We don't do e-newsletters for any of our clients, because response has been so low. A few of them continue to produce them in-house, usually by their useless marketing departments - you know the kind: they can get zero response and still manufacture a reason to call it success.
"But you have to measure what you're doing, or you're clueless. We decided to go by open rate rather than response for e-newsletters, and found that it was extremely low and varied little. It was better when the subject line was topical, rather than something routine like 'May e-news,' but still low.
"Here's my working theory: the 'leaning back' psychology of print newsletters ('Let's see what's interesting here...') just doesn't activate for most people when they're online, which is overwhelmingly a 'leaning forward' situation.
"I think fanatics may lean forward for a newsletter, but very few donors are fanatics.
"A solution I'm working on is this: make every article or item you would put in your newsletter into its own email. One email, one topic.
"Too early to say if it's a real solution. The risk is increased unsubscribes because frequency is too high for some recipients.
"Another possible solution is to only send out emails that have a call to action. Doesn't have to be 'give,' but should be something - sign a petition, write an encouraging message, click to give, take a quiz, etc.
"Sorry I can't be more helpful. I think this shows how undeveloped e-fundraising still is. We haven't figured out how to do some of the most basic things in the medium."
Emailed newsletters have their uses:
- They can, I believe, play a minor supporting role in retention; there's no science I'm aware of, but it makes sense. Showing the flag. Reinforcing "the brand."
- They are good at promoting the new season, if you're an arts or athletics group.
- They're good if you want to sell things to the predisposed, such as tickets to events and great programs.
- They are good at reaching people fast, in an emergency. ("Our steeple just blew off!")
- They are good at reminders. ("Clothing drive tomorrow. Are your donations at the curb?")
- They are good at "save this date" bulletins.
- They are good at linking people deeper into your material, to "read more" on a blog or website.
Tom Ahern is the author of Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes and How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money, all published by Emerson & Church. His new edition of How to Write Newsletters That Raise More Money will be published this fall. He is counted among North America's top authorities on fundraising, advocacy, and "persuasion" communications. For more information, visit his website at www.aherncomm.com.
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