“I can’t wait for this month’s edition of [your charity name]’s email newsletter!”
– No-one, ever.
Let me try something else to see if this sounds more familiar.
- You send out a monthly email newsletter to all your email subscribers because that’s what you’ve always done, and maybe because you still post out printed newsletters and it’s free and easy to do an email version too?
- Sometimes you’ve got too much to squeeze in there, whilst other times it’s slim pickins and you’re asking people at the end of a staff meeting ‘if they’ve got anything that can go in the August newsletter that you need to send out tomorrow’?
- Each department gets their own section to insert content in. That’s nice and democratic. And there’s a space where you can add in stuff from sponsors, Give as You Live, or whoever else someone made a promise to?
Send… wait, did I check…
If you’ve got a big list you’re sending the email to then you’ll probably double check the spelling and test that the hyperlinks all work. And you still probably have that heart-in-mouth feeling the moment you press the ‘Send/Schedule’ button. And it’s just sod’s law that if there’s a typo in there, it’s usually your CEO or a Trustee that points it out.
Well, that’s because they’re probably the only people actually reading the newsletter you spent ages working on. The harsh reality is that no-one else cares.
I’m not talking about email marketing as a tool here, I’m specifically talking about the rather antiquated concept of sending out monthly (or it might be weekly or quarterly) ‘newsletters’ to everyone on your list to let them know what you’ve been up to.
I’ve written loads of them in my time. They were sent out to tens of thousands of people, and read by tens of people. And it’s only really since I stopped writing them for charities that I started properly asking why I ever did it in the first place.
Forget about ‘newsletters’, don’t put the format first
When it comes to your emails (and your digital comms in general) you need to put your audience first. That means your starting point should be ‘What does our audience want to hear?’ The format and frequency of your email should flow from that.
If your mindset is ‘what are we going to put in our monthly e-newsletter?’ then you’re already made some arbitrary decisions. The newsletter format in particular, is not a good choice.
What’s in it for me?
That’s the question that you have to be able to answer, because all our email inboxes are overflowing and we make a split-second decision as to whether to open or read each one.
If you’re thinking that ‘we’re a charity and we do worthy work, so people are bound to find our content interesting’, then I think you’re kidding yourself. Being a charity gives you some goodwill with your audience, but it doesn’t automatically mean that they’ll afford your emails pride of place in their inbox. Being a charity means that it should be easier to create interesting content – and it’s more of a crime not to.
The trends affecting email marketing
Inbox overload is nothing new. Social media didn’t displace email, our inboxes are getting more overwhelmed than ever. Tools like Gmail’s tabs (Primary, Social, Updates etc) and services like Unroll.me are an attempt to sort the email wheat from the chaff. So getting your email in front of people’s eyeballs is harder than ever.
And of course mobile technology is growing all the time and many of us open many or all of our emails on our phones. That’s caused email design to converge towards simple, one-column templates. The fancy multi-column designs with background images that were popular years ago are dying out because they don’t work on phones. This trend in particular runs contrary to the historical practice of sending out email newsletters with lots of pieces of content in.
If ‘a monthly email newsletter’ is the answer, what was the question?
The question wasn’t ‘What’s the best way of using email to inspire your supporters and motivate them to take action?’
The question was probably ‘What’s quite easy to do and that we’ve seen other charities do?’. Fair enough maybe, but those other charities are probably doing it for bogus reasons too.
Email newsletters are easy because they’re a bit of a cop-out. Instead of thinking about what each of your audiences might want to hear, you’re just sending everything to everyone – in the hope that something might stick with someone.
And that’s why it’s usually only your own staff and trustees that are reading your email newsletter!
Like I said, I’ve sent out loads of charity email newsletters. Because I didn’t know any better at the time. And even when I knew they weren’t great, I was still sending them anyway because it was easier than doing email marketing the right way.
- Forget ‘newsletters’. Each email you send should have one subject. All the big charities do single issue emails, not newsletters.
- It’s rare that you should need or want to send the same email to everyone on your list. You might send a tailored version to lots of different segments though.
- Yes, I said segments. If you aren’t segmenting your lists then you should really start. This might mean doing some work to sync your email list (with Mailchimp/Charitymail etc) with your CRM system. Start simple and make separate segments for single donors, regular donors and fundraisers for example.
- Try asking your subscribers what they’d like to hear from you about – they’re much more likely to open and read your emails if they’ve told you what they’re interested in and self-selected which segments they should be in. Whilst it may be tricky to keep track of this information in your CRM system, it’s surprisingly easy to do within most email systems like Mailchimp.