Best practices are only best practices for you when they produce the desired results. Rather than trust industry best practices or your intuition, test several options with your audience and continue to refine based on the outcomes. If you have an idea and you’re not sure it will work, test it out with a control version. The results don’t lie. Strive for RELEVANCE. Personalize the subject line or salutation, change the layout to look more like an email coming directly from the inbox of the president of your organization, shorten your copy, improve your Ask, provide an INCENTIVE for signing up, eliminate FRICTION in giving. Test, test, test, and trust your results to inform what you send in the future.
Adequacy is the Enemy of Excellence
These lessons apply to more than just email. If your website, email or direct mail program produces lackluster results, find your way out of the status quo by applying the science of optimization. Consider the conversation you wish to create in the minds of your donors and prospects and apply that to every type of campaign you pursue. The best place to start is by taking off your nonprofit hat and getting inside your constituents’ minds to really examine the messages you’re sending. And then, once you know, do something about it. It could be as simple as changing the way that you structure the OFFER by presenting something that represents value to them. Or improving the RELEVANCE of the offer and mitigating some of the ANXIETY associated with taking the next step. Remember, optimization doesn’t happen on the page — it happens in the mind.
Do you need help getting your email marketing and fundraising program into shape? Drop us a line.
The first step of successful email capture is to enable website visitors to give an email address. The average nonprofit sees slightly more than 2% of website visitors registering an email address—there’s lots of room for improvement here. Place your subscription box on the home page, make it easy to find and clearly state what you’re OFFERING in return for their address. HINT: If the information you desire to share with constituents looks or sounds just like what they’ve seen on every other website, it’s time to re-craft your message.
How to Optimize Email Capture
Build a strong value proposition connecting the prospect’s desire for your information and the exclusivity of the offer. Remember, it’s a mental conversation. They are giving up their contact information; what are you going to offer in return and is it equal in value or worth way more? HINT: It doesn’t hurt to throw in an incentive — like access to a special report — to tip the scales in your favor. Is it clear what you are signing up for? Is the offer compelling, clearly communicating a unique value proposition?
Once you’ve developed a desirable and exclusive offer that incentivizes the prospect to give you an email address, you’ll want to look at open rates for the email messages they receive. This number tells you how many people looked at your email. The nonprofit average is 18% for email appeals.
Optimizing for Improved Open Rates
Focus on the “To” Line, the “From” Line and the “Subject” Line. Making small changes like personalizing the “To” Line can increase response as much as 10% or more. Remember RELEVANCE, OFFER and INCENTIVE as you think of the conversation happening in your constituents’ minds.
Whether it’s fundraising, advocacy or registration, the goal of any email is to get a click. The click-through rate tells you how compelling your content was based on the number of unique clicks divided by the total emails delivered. The nonprofit average is 1.76% for a fundraising appeal—lots of room for improvement here! What most marketers do not understand is that most people are not looking for a reason to click—they are looking for a reason to delete. Sometimes we provide too much information in the email body that we force the recipient to make a decision before we have presented our full value proposition.
Optimizing for Improved Click-Through Rates
RELEVANCE is the key to improved click-through rates. There are two types of RELEVANCE: internal and external. Internal relevance is applied through segmentation; External relevance is applied across segments. Consider any of these options to add RELEVANCE to the conversation going on in the minds of your constituents.
Personal interests Demographics
Level of engagement
The Conversion Rate for your landing page is the total number of goal completions divided by the total unique visits. On average, 2.7% of the people that come to a nonprofit website will give a gift.
Optimizing Landing Page for More Conversions
The psychology of giving a gift online is the complete opposite of the psychology of ordering a product online. When you buy something online, the benefit comes later, when you receive it in the mail. When you give online, the benefit already came: you’ve been blessed, you’ve been inspired, and you’ve been motivated. Make it as simple as possible to give online. To optimize your landing page, focus on:
• The OFFER – The Ask is the impact promised in exchange for a gift.
• The INCENTIVE – Introduce an appealing element to motivate the gift.
• Eliminating FRICTION – Minimize anything that causes psychological resistance including numerous hoops to jump through (registering, logging in, too many clicks, landing pages that don’t look like the initial message, etc.) before arriving at the giving page.
The Psychology of Optimization
To further understand optimization, it’s important to understand that it’s not something that happens on the page. In fact, it happens in the mind. Whenever we send a message, regardless of channel, we are entering into a mental conversation with people. In the case of email, that mental conversation begins when we capture the person’s email address. It carries forward through the “From” line, the “To” line and the “Subject” line, all of which inspires them—hopefully—to open the message. The conversation continues through the message body, which inspires the click, and that carries all the way to the landing page that inspires the individual to act. If we think about it this way, we don’t need to optimize our email campaign; instead we need to consider how to optimize thought sequences.
Best Practices Are Not Enough—You Need A Rigorous Methodology
If I were to show you three different emails—all designed by top notch agencies—how would you determine which one is “optimized”? Would you look at the amount of white space? The use of colors and images? Would you evaluate the copy, the messaging, the call-to-action? How do we really know when something is optimized? The reality is, we don’t. While we all pride ourselves as wonderful marketers and cunning fundraisers, the key to success is humility. We need to come to terms with the fact that while best practices may be helpful, they are not enough. And though we like to trust our marketing intuition, we find often that testing trumps marketing intuition. So, if the key to optimization is testing, how and what should we test? That’s where you need a rigorous methodology—a methodology that has been developed through years of scientific testing. MECLABS conducts rigorous experiments in the new science of optimization. Here’s a snapshot of their Optimization Methodology, which we’ll refer to throughout this series:
eme = rv(of + i) – (f + a)©
eme = email marketing effectiveness index
rv = relevance to the constituent
of = offer value
i = incentive to take action
f = friction elements of the process
a = anxiety elements of the process
It reads in plain English like this: Email Marketing Effectiveness equals Relevance times Offer plus Incentive minus Friction, minus Anxiety.
Start by Identifying Value Factors and Inhibitors
To begin to apply this formula to the mental conversation you’re having with your constituents, start by identifying the Value Factors in this formula, which are RELEVANCE, OFFER and INCENTIVE. You’ll also want to consider the Inhibitors, or the FRICTION and ANXIETY your constituents experience when they go through the mental process of moving to a decision point. MECLABS describes this process as an inverted funnel — your donors are not falling in, they are falling out. What we need to do is help them through the series of micro decisions that lead them to the macro decision. To accomplish this, the marketer must increase the Value Factors as much as possible and to mitigate the Inhibitors as much as possible.
Small Changes Can Make a Dramatic Impact
There are four aspects of the Email Messaging Sequence—or the touch points where the mental conversations take place—Email Capture, Open, Click-through and Landing Page. This is how MECLABS states the formula:
ec < op < ct < lp ©
ec = email capture
op = open
ct = clickthrough
lp = landing page
In our next entry, we’ll walk through each aspect in the sequence one at a time.
“Clarity trumps persuasion.” That’s what my friend and mentor Dr. Flint McGlaughlin says is the key to successful marketing communications. He would know; Dr. McGlaughlin heads up MECLABS, a market research company that works with Fortune 100 companies to optimize their sales funnel. Through their 10 years of research spanning1,300 plus experiments, including more than 1 billion emails and 10,000 landing pages , MECLABS has developed a rigorous methodology that has been proven to optimize email campaigns.
But how might this methodology work in the nonprofit world? That’s been the focus of my research over the past three years. This whitepaper will introduce the new science of optimization and provide you with practical ways that you can apply rigorous testing to your email campaigns.
What IS Optimization?
Optimization is defined as:
• To make effective, perfect, or as useful as possible;
• To make the best of something;
• To be optimistic,
• To constantly push forward.
Peter Drucker once said it this way: “Adequacy is the Enemy of Excellence.” As it relates to email marketing, your website or even direct mail, what you did last year…or even last month…could be communicating the wrong message, wearing your donors out or, worst case scenario, convincing them to ignore you. But where do you begin to optimize your donor communications and move them from adequate to excellent?
Start with the End in Mind
Oftentimes we are so excited to test out a creative idea that we fail to think through what we were trying to accomplish in the first place. We end up sending mixed messages, like the direct mail package that says, “A nickel could save a child’s life.” So, by mailing a nickel, what did we just do? Is that what we want to communicate to our donors? No, but if we neglect our strategy, we will regularly fail to execute on our goals. Instead, we say things we don’t mean and mean things we don’t say. Yet hopefully, through such failures, we learn what not to do and can optimize our efforts for next time. Later in this series we will cover the psychology of optimization and some practical formulas and tips to start optimizing immediately.
Recently, Fundraising Success magazine featured a case study on our work with the Colson Center.
In the fall of 2010, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview — a ministry of BreakPoint, the worldview ministry associated with Prison Fellowship Ministries — created its own entity and was looking to build a brand-new donor base.
So the organization, whose mission is to seek the transformation of believers as they apply biblical thinking to all of life, went to KMA, the branch of full-service fundraising agency Pursuant Group that handles Christian ministries and conservative advocacy groups, with a list of e-mail subscribers — but no actual donors — in hopes of cultivating a donor base.
Read the full article here.
Do: Use multiple channels.
Don’t: Use just any channel.
Just because you can do something in every channel doesn’t mean you should. By evaluating data and segmenting donors, you can identify the right channels for the right audiences and coordinate those channels to work together. Think of your campaign as a “choose your own adventure” and consider all the possible ways a donor might engage or decide to take action. Then seek to lead donors down the most intuitive, optimal path, while understanding that each donor’s experience and preferences will be unique.
Here are some examples for how to coordinate channels:
• Enclose a URL in direct mail pieces so donors can respond online. A personal URL can help you track individual online responses for particular campaigns.
• Create custom landing pages for each campaign. Feature content that carries the message through to the next action, rather than just using a generic, pre-existing page. Collect behavioral data on donors’ interests and preferences once they arrive on that landing page.
• Collect email addresses through every response device available. Follow up email address submissions with a thoughtful welcome and provide ways for donors to customize their communication preferences.
• Supplement direct mail with email messages that drive the donor to action strategically. Send emails to direct mail donors and vice versa, remembering that multichannel donors have a higher lifetime value.
• Optimize communications for smartphone reading and action. Consumers are using their smartphones while watching TV, reading email newsletters while standing in grocery store lines, and responding to social media posts throughout the day. Make it easy for them to comment, give, share, or tweet in their moment of inspiration.
• Add “Share This” buttons to content in your emails and on your website to promote posts to Facebook, tweets to Twitter, and sharing via other popular sites. Include pre-populated, sharable content on giving pages so donors can easily tweet or post that they just made a gift and others can too with the provided link.
• Feed comments from social media back into the next “traditional” communication to cross-promote, such as printing a few highlighted tweets or incorporating streaming feeds into website content.
• Send out links to your campaigns and projects via social media to reach broader audiences. Invite prospects to engage with you in these channels by posting questions, incorporating games, conducting surveys, and requesting feedback.
• Identify highly engaged prospects and donors and then prioritize them for phone calls or personal visits. Test to measure their giving results against a control audience.
• Allow constituents to opt into text message programs if this channel is relevant for you.
Measuring the effectiveness of integrated programs is key to constant improvement.From the outset of any campaign, you should record all donor touches—what message is going out in which channel—rather than simply marking which channels a donor uses to respond. Taking time to test and monitor what works will improve the rate of return on each campaign.
Valuable performance indicators include:
• Email opens and click-through rates by individuals
• Rate of response both online and through direct mail
• Length of time between message sends and recipient responses
• Website traffic and other online interaction
• Cross-channel movement, such as direct mail recipients who go online to an
enclosed URL or email recipients who give through a custom landing page
Do: Plan to be data-driven.
Don’t: Make things unnecessarily complicated.
The first step in crafting that centralized strategy is assessing donor data. Extensive, reliable donor data that tells you who your donors are, their propensity and capacity to give, and their specific interests and preferences will inform your decisions. Take a yearlong, holistic approach to planning your communications so that each campaign builds upon the previous one and drives the next in each relevant channel.
Determine what data will be required to make those decisions and how it will be captured and updated in an ongoing fashion. You don’t have to have a complicated plan, just a thorough one. Capture key behavioral data during your campaigns, such as how your donors interact with your emails and website, so you can engage donors according to their preferences and motivations. Avoid relying too heavily on giving history.
A donor’s giving history is a reflection of past fundraising strategy, not necessarily his or her current motivation or preferences. If you strategize properly and choose your tactics wisely, you can manage effective campaigns with existing resources by focusing your efforts on the best opportunities. Data will help you refine your strategy, and by bringing a diverse set of interested parties to the planning process, the team will share ownership in its successful implementation.
Do: Break down your silos and measure what matters.
Don’t: Encourage departments to work in isolation of the strategy or one another.
Perhaps the greatest leap you will ever make toward true integration is to eliminate the barriers that keep your people (and thus your campaigns and messages) operating independently of each other.
Nonprofits tend to be internally divided according to:
• Donor pyramid levels
• Program and service areas
• Offline and online channels
The lack of a unified effort toward shared goals results in wasted investment and missed opportunities. If the measures of success are customized to each department or program unit and don’t roll up into broader goals, then even well-meaning teams are unintentionally being given incentive to work against each other. Make it a top priority to realign your internal structures and metrics before launching your next major campaign. Arrange planning meetings with key representatives from your executive, development, and program teams. Set the strategy and allow individual stakeholders to execute their own portion accordingly. One overarching goal will allow each area to move in concert. Having a centralized strategy that each staff member supports within his or her area of responsibility will be the foundation for every other decision you make.
Integrated marketing has been an intentional for-profit strategy for more than a decade. Compared to the for-profit world and the rapid rate in which it adopts the latest marketing methods, many nonprofit organizations are slow to change. Even those who would like to advance more quickly are often hampered by limited resources or a lack of understanding from upper management. Well-meaning nonprofits run into a number of internal obstacles when moving toward change, such as:
1) Lack of resources. Fundraisers often point to limited resources—people, time, and money—as a key reason for limiting their efforts. Frequently, those resource allocations are as fragmented as the fundraising strategy itself.
2) Absence of solid data. A lack of detailed, reliable data on prospects’ and donors’ interests and preferences will hinder an organization’s ability to craft an informed strategy, as will not having an effective system to manage good data. We must validate assumptions and move past relying on intuition, because even “what worked before” may not be maximizing all of the opportunities available today.
3) Resistance to new methods. Staff members poised to embrace new techniques are often held back by those in upper management who are unclear on the possibilities or are unsure of how to parlay their years of experience into new strategies and technologies.
4) Prioritizing the wrong things. Wowed by a creative media piece or the newest app, fundraisers can be tempted to disregard the strategy behind the creative or to focus on a tactic that isn’t part of a holistic plan. The result is like shooting a shiny new arrow into the dark, without having first identified the target.
5) Tentativeness toward multiple asks. Sometimes a fundraiser accepts a gift and then either stops asking, or only asks in the channel through which the donor initially responded—rather than getting to know what motivates the donor to give more readily and more often.
6) Risk aversion. Nonprofits may fear alienating current donors by changing the process, or they may avoid taking a risk on a new strategy without total confidence it will produce the expected income.
Nonprofits are pressured by real and urgent needs; therefore, tend to focus on shortterm financial goals. In that environment it may seem difficult to step back and craft a proactive, strategic approach. But doing so could put your nonprofit on a fast track to growth.
Why has proper integration become so pivotal for the nonprofit sector? Because nonprofit constituents are also marketplace consumers—and major national brands such as Amazon and Apple have set the standard. What for-profit companies offer consumers—intense personalization, intuitive response mechanisms, convenience, and a plethora of options—are what donors now expect from their nonprofit experiences as well.
Recent research reveals that consumer preferences don’t neatly organize according to age, gender, and income demographics. Those are important considerations, but online interaction is increasingly based on personality traits and personal motivation. Being responsive to those motivations will be key to future fundraising success, and an integrated cross-channel approach will allow for the most donor personalization. (Source: ExactTarget’s Subscribers, Fans, and Followers study)
Changes in donor communication and giving preferences are similar to current consumer trends. An integrated cross-channel strategy is critical to meeting donors’ expectations while also leveraging their interests to prompt them to take a desired action.