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6 Nonprofit Email Marketing Hacks to Help You Do More With Less

Published by Nathan Hill

6 Nonprofit Email Marketing Hacks to Make Your Emails More Effective

Nonprofit email marketing is ripe for optimization. And I don’t just mean testing new copy and calls-to-action. But the actual way in which we create emails has a lot of room for improvement.

I know this first hand. My first full-time job was working for a major nonprofit in Chicago, IL. I had worked in their web department part-time during my last 2 years of school, and when I graduated, they hired me as their first full-time email marketing manager.

When I took the job, we had at least 6 different email platforms across the organization. And it seemed like I learned about new ‘secret’ accounts almost every day.

On top of this, there were 30+ different people that could decide we needed to send an email. 5 completely separate people had to be involved in the creation process. At least 3 people had to give full approval of the final email – and they often had very different priorities.

And before me, there was only one person responsible for actually setting up and sending the email – and they had a full-time job that had almost nothing to do with email.

I share all this so that you believe me when I say, “I know how hard it is for a nonprofit organization to send good emails.” 

Your Organization Isn’t the Only One That Has Problems With Email

Litmus recently released a report on 6 Ways Nonprofits Can Improve Their Email Creation Process. And it verified many of my hypotheses about nonprofit email. For instance (and this is an easy one), nonprofit email teams are under-resourced:

Nonprofit Email Marketing Resources - Litmus Benchmark

On top of that, there are far less people and hours devoted to email marketing at nonprofits. On average, there are 2.3 full-time employees devoted to email at nonprofits, compared to 5.6 full-time employees across industries.

Nonprofit Email Marketing Employees - Litmus Benchmark

This leads to depressing stats like this one…

Nonprofit Email Marketing Success - Litmus Benchmark

While the Litmus report has some really interesting nonprofit email marketing benchmarks and some great ideas to consider, I wanted to go one step further and share specific tools and tactics you can use to cut through red-tape, overcome under-resourcing, and create capacity to make your email program successful.

Ready? Let’s do this.

1. Send emails with minimal design (especially fundraising emails).

Spending less time on design has huge perks. There’s less setup work, less room for error or issues, and they actually have been proven to be much more effective when it comes to getting donations.

I didn’t learn this lesson until coming to NextAfter. Emails that look, sound, or smell like marketing get far fewer engagements. But emails that look and sound like they’re from a real human being tend to crush it.

This one experiment does a great job illustrating just how effective a simplified and personal email can be. Removing the big image, the logo header, the CTA button, and the designed footer – plus making the copy sound more personal – led to a 32.5% increase in clicks.

Simplified Email Marketing Example

There’s been a ton written about this, so I won’t rehash it all here. If you want to dig deeper, you can read this blog on 5 Ways to Make Your Email Appeals Sound More Human or even take the free Email Fundraising Optimization course.

Here’s why this can help speed up and improve your production process:

  • You don’t need a designer.
  • You don’t need a developer.
  • It’s super easy to make a plain-text email responsive.
  • You’re less likely to trip any spam-filters.

Full transparency – I write, set-up, and send every single NextAfter marketing email. And sending emails is maybe 10% of what I do. Yet, we can manage to get an email to our house file and several emails to smaller segments sent out every week.

If I can do it, you can do it.

2. Test to make sure your emails look good across email providers. Especially if you’re using designed emails.

Testing your emails across providers becomes less essential if you’re using the stripped-down template idea above. But even then, you need to make sure your email template displays correctly in the browsers and providers that your email file is using.

One tool that I’ve used a ton for this is called Email On Acid. They’ll tell you what platforms are being used to open your emails, and they’ll let you preview your emails on those platforms to make sure everything looks good before you send.

There’s nothing worse than sinking hours and hours into a marketing or fundraising email, only to learn that the 30% of your subscribers opening in Outlook delete it immediately because it looks like this:

Outlook Email with Disabled Images

Other tools you can use to make sure your emails show up how you intended include:

3. Run a spam filter test every now and again. You might be surprised what you find.

Deliverability is one of the trickiest and murkiest parts of nonprofit email marketing. In the latest episode of The Generosity Freakshow podcast, Chad White of Litmus talked about how much spam filtering has changed over the years. (Listen to the episode below)

It used to be fairly simple. There was a series of criteria that a spam filter looked for. And if your email tripped the right flags, you went straight to the spam folder or got blocked entirely. Nowadays, most email providers cater spam filtering to the specific preferences of the recipient. That is to say, you might be hitting one Gmail user’s spam folder, but making into another’s primary inbox.

This makes deliverability trickier to manage, and makes it all the more important that you send emails that people click and engage with – rather than just avoiding the main spam filter.

That being said, step one is to make sure you’re not getting blocked outright. And your deliverability to specific platforms could change depending on the day. So be sure and run a spam test – if not on every email, then at least every so often.

Here are some great tools to help:

4. Automate everything you can – welcome series, follow-up emails, data imports, and more.

Zapier DashboardAutomation is not magic. But it can save you countless hours of time. And I’m not just talking about automating an email welcome series. Here’s a list of some of the things I’ve automated that save me an unbelievable amount of time:

  • Getting event registrations from Mailchimp into our Hubspot account
  • Sending notifications to Tim when certain people visit our website (creepy, I know)
  • Sending a weekly email update on subscriber numbers from an actual Gmail account
  • Updating a suppression list in Hubspot based on what’s in a Google Spreadsheet
  • Pulling contest entries out of Hubspot, into a spreadsheet, and then into a slack channel for the team to see.

All of this – plus probably 20 other tasks – happen automatically, saving me hours upon hours of time so that I can do things like write this super long blog post.

The best part? I don’t know the first thing about how to create make any of these tools talk to each other. But there are several services that automate all of this stuff for you like it’s magic.

So if you find yourself swimming in a sea of mundane imports, exports, and data reporting just to keep the email marketing ship afloat – check out these tools (we use Zapier and it’s a life saver):

5. Don’t do everything in house. Use freelancers.

One of the hardest things for me to do is give something over to a freelancer that I know I can do myself. But there are only so many hours in the day, and sometimes tasks that seem so simple can send you down a rabbit hole – eating away precious time that you could have spent on something far more meaningful.

While the final setup and launch of an email campaign is something you probably want to do in house, there are tons of steps along the way that you can farm out for incredibly cheap. Here’s just a few:

  1. Use free basic email template(s) (like these from Litmus).
  2. If you need a cool graphic or image for an email, use Fiverr.
  3. Need something proofread in a hurry, try Wordy.
  4. Not sure how your wording, graphic, or ad will come across? Get user feedback with UsabilityHub.

Here’s one of my favorite hacks…

If you have a compelling story either stuck in a voicemail, a radio broadcast, a podcast, or a promotional videojust transcribe it using and use it in your next email appeal. We create entire books through by transcribing presentations and doing a little editing.

Don’t Let the Benchmarks Define Your Nonprofit Email Marketing

Litmus InfographicIt’s easy to look at benchmarks like this one that Litmus has put out and say “We’re doing as well as any other nonprofit is. We must be ok.” But living in the status quo isn’t going to serve your cause well – it’s just going to keep you from having a greater impact.

So I’d encourage you to download this Litmus infographic, print it out, and make a commitment to live above the benchmark. You don’t necessarily need me more people, or more time, more budget – you just need the right hacks.

You can see the full infographic from Litmus here. Special thanks to Chad White for putting this benchmark together and inspiring nonprofit email marketing nerds to keep improving!

Published by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill is Vice President, NextAfter Institute.