Email marketing remains one of the most effective marketing channels for charities. Social media platforms are alluring because of the potential for news to spread virally. This can happen, but building a mailing list of ‘opted in’ followers is an asset that will generally deliver higher conversion rates than social media channels. If you want to maximise the impact of your charity website then email marketing is a powerful tool.
1. To strategise or not to strategise?
Depending on how you are wired, starting with the strategy is either blindingly obvious or where your heart sinks. We are advocates of thinking strategically but we also see the benefits of action without too many meetings or documents. It’s better to get something out the door that isn’t perfectly focused than to sink hours in planning and never communicate with your subscribers.
For the strategically minded we’ve put together a couple of higher level guides that will help you define your audience, goals, choice of channels, etc:
But now we’ll get into the more practical stuff!
2. Choosing your email marketing platform
We use and unashamedly recommend Mailchimp (we also get a few free credits if you sign up from this link). However, there are a good range of credible alternatives and here are a few:
tt-mail (a charity focused option from the Technology Trust)
3. Avoid common setup mistakes
Mistake #1: importing an old raggedy list
It’s easy to think that bigger is better. It’s also easy to overestimate the value of your old database, downloaded from your creaky CRM, that you haven’t cleaned out for years. This is dangerous and can lead to an unfocused approach. It is much more valuable to build a small list of genuinely engaged supporters than kid yourself you have a large following when in reality they don’t read your communications or, worse still, see them as spam.
For more on this philosophy read this great blog post by Kevin Kelly on 1,000 true fans.
Mistake #2: adding subscribers without consent
Good email marketing platforms like Mailchimp require that subscribers confirm their subscription by clicking a link in their email. This complies with the law in many countries to reduce spam. There are various ways to circumvent this requirement (e.g. importing lists or directly adding subscribers) but you should avoid this wherever possible.
Instead, see the double-opt in requirement as your friend, helping you disqualify subscribers that won’t read your emails. If they aren’t willing to confirm their subscription by email they aren’t interested enough to warrant being on your list.
Mistake #3: multiple lists of subscribers
This is Mailchimp specific, but the principle applies to all platforms. In Mailchimp, if a subscriber unsubscribes from one list they are not automatically unsubscribed from other lists. For this reason you will get yourself in big trouble if you run multiple lists for one organisation. Almost all small charities are best off having only one list and using ‘groups’ to manage situations where you wish to send different types of messages to different subscribers.
Mistake #4: forgetting to test and proof read your emails
Most email platforms have a feature that allows you to send test emails to yourself or colleagues. We recommend you use it every time you send an email.
When you are writing the emails yourself it’s very easy to miss something. We're embarrassed (but honest enough) to say that we've learned this the hard way ourselves when we made a pretty big error on a recent newsletter. We won't let that happen again, now that we thoroughly proof read!
4. How to lay out your email content well
While professional email marketers will provide guidance on different types of content layout for different purposes, this can be overkill when you are just getting going. Here are some basic tips to follow to get good, well structured emails out to your list as quickly as possible.
Learn from others
There is no shame in copying. One of the best ways to improve your own newsletters is to subscribe to a range of other charities and observe the emails they send and how you react to the content and structure they use.
Use teasers to encourage click-throughs
Your readers are already online so you can summarise a story and link to the full version on your charity’s website. Segmenting your list and sending customised content to different people can be effective but it’s also complicated and time consuming.
Your readers will easily be able to filter the content in a single email according to their interests if you keep the snippets brief and easy to scan.
Click through traffic from email is increasingly likely to come from mobile devices so to avoid a big bounce rate check that the pages to which you are linking display well on a small screen.
The examples below demonstrate a good balance. They contain clear standalone summaries but limit this to 2-3 sentences.
Include a clear call to action
Calls to action are not only important if a reader clicks them. They also set the expectations of your readers about what action you expect from them. Depending on how engaged they are, they may not take that action for some time but by having a smaller number of consistent requests for action you increase the likelihood of an eventual response.
In Mailchimp, use the button style to create strong calls to action.
If in doubt use a single column layout
If you have particular content in mind or loads of great images then feel free to experiment with different layouts. However, remember that lots of people will read your emails on their phone and for this reason you should default to a single column layout, which is most likely to work for all of your readers.
Use system templates
Mailchimp’s editor makes it easy to create a template that uses your brand colours consistently. It’s worth the investment to set this up.
We spent a long time fighting against the grain of our email marketing platform to build custom templates exactly how we wanted them. Over time we ended up with a range of inconsistent and hard to use templates that slowed us down. We now take a much simpler approach, creating templates built with Mailchimp’s standard built-in editor. This saves loads of time and keeps newsletters more consistent.
And don’t forget about the non-profit discount!
Most providers, including Mailchimp, offer some kind of discount to non-profits in addition to a free plan for small lists.