Let me start by apologizing. One of the reasons that email fundraising sucks is because of people like me. When I was new to fundraising consulting over a decade ago, I was quick to prescribe to my nonprofit clients the latest and greatest “best practices” when it came to online fundraising. I did this for the same reason that most people do, because I had no clue what really worked and what didn’t. So, I played it safe and just told my clients to do whatever everyone else was doing. But I was wrong.
Something happened to me about nine years ago that has completely changed my perspective on fundraising—and even my role as a fundraising consultant. I started testing stuff. I began with the long-held best practices and started testing them against unconventional ideas. And more often than not, the crazy ideas worked and the best practices failed. And now, after 1,000 published online experiments, I’m just starting to fully come to grips with how wrong I was. And for that I am sorry.
But there is good news for you!
I’m going to share with you five of the most important things that I’ve discovered about what really does work in email fundraising from the last nine years of testing and experimentation.
Key Principle: People don’t give to email machines, they give to people.
Every other hack that I share in this post can be summed up in this one central principle. People give to people. They don’t give to emails, or to donation systems. They give to people. People don’t want to be marketed to, they want to be communicated with.
When we grasp this one simple idea, then it is entirely possible to completely transform our fundraising. The rest of this post will walk you through five different experiments that illustrate simple things you can do to apply this principle to your email campaigns (and across your entire fundraising program).
Hack #1 – When it comes to email design, design your emails to look like emails that you would personally send to a friend.
Today’s fundraising emails are over-designed. They have too much HTML, too many graphics, and overall look like advertisements, not emails. As the titan of advertising, Howard Luck Gossage once said, “The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”
One simple way that you can humanize your email campaigns is to get rid of the templates and create an email that looks like the emails you send every day to your friends, or colleagues. For example, let’s look at experiment #4647 from our online research library:
Version A is the control version of the email, meaning it used the standard HTML and image-based design template. Version B sought to apply the principle of “People give to People” by presenting a design that looks less like a marketing email and much more like a personal email from a friend. The result was a transformational 116% increase in donations.
From this experiment (and others like it) we have extracted a theory that you can test when designing your next fundraising email: people give to people, because people send text-based emails, not HTML emails.
Hack #2 – You can make your emails more relevant by adding a personalized salutation.
This one may seem like common sense, but if you are going to send an email that looks more like a letter from a friend instead of an ad for new tires, you should start by addressing your recipient by name.
Let’s look at experiment #5707 that illustrates how powerful this one simple tactic can be:
In this case, the only difference between Version A and Version B is that Version B includes a personal salutation (“Hi Jeff”). And just by making that one change, it produced a 270% increase in click-through rates.
This experiment points to another theory that you can test in your future fundraising emails: people give to people, because people address each other by name.
Hack#3 – Before you present your ask in your email, make sure that you have adequately explained the most compelling reasons for your request.
The most important question that any fundraiser needs to answer is this, “If I am your ideal donor, why should I give to your organization rather than some other organization, or not at all?” This question (whether ever verbalized or not) is what every donor is considering when they are contemplating giving a gift to you. How you answer this question will determine the strength and force of your value proposition, and ultimately your success as a fundraiser. And yet many nonprofits fail to adequately address this fundamental question. I can say that with certainty because we did a formal study of 127 of the largest nonprofit organizations on the planet and asked them that simple question and got some pretty crumby responses.
As this hack applies tactically to email, on simple thing you can do is use more copy to explain the reasons why your potential donor should give. Let’s look at experiment #1029 in our fundraising research library:
As you can see from this experiment, by using more copy to communicate the “why” behind the “what” this organization was able to drive a significant more number of donations. This experiment highlights yet another theory that you can test in your own emails to help drive more motivated traffic to your campaigns: people give to people, because people provide adequate rationale for their requests.
Hack #4 – Don’t use “clickbait” with your email subscribers—let them know EXACTLY what you would like them to do in your call-to-action.
This one may run against the grain of something that I have been taught by many other for-profit conversion rate optimization gurus. Their argument is that you can experience compounding gains by improving the micro-metrics of one step that proceeds a following step. For example, the idea that “the goal of an email is to sell a click, not a product,” makes sense in theory, and does help you avoid the mistake of asking for too much commitment too soon, but based on our testing with this theory, it may not be a good practice to take this approach. The reason for this is because of something called dissonance. In this context, dissonance is a fancy word to describe the feeling you have when you think you have been tricked.
So, for example, if the call-to-action of an email says “click here to learn the secret of life” and when clicked takes you to a page that says, “Donate Now” you will most likely experience frustration because what was promised for your click was not delivered on the subsequent landing page. For this reason, we have run multiple experiments that suggest that a direct call-to-action that is descriptive of the ultimate conversion objective you want your donor to take works best.
Consider the following experiment, experiment #583 in our research library. In this experiment, the call-to-action of the email is the only variable that changed, so just that portion is presented below:
Version A (Control):
|Treatment Name||Relative Difference (Donations)|
|B:||Stand with Heritage||-50.4%|
|C:||Stand up for your principles||-51.5%|
What is interesting about this experiment is that versions B and C sent significantly more traffic to the web site by generating a click-through rate 91% higher than the control (Version A). However, when we looked at the ultimate conversion metric—donation responses, both versions B and C produced a 50.4% and 51.5% decrease (respectively) in donations. Not only is this experiment illustrative of the importance of being direct in your call-to-action but it also provides an important caveat when it comes to email testing- make sure that you are validating your tests based on ultimate conversions—not just opens and clicks.
Hack #5 – When you add links to your email, make sure they are stripped down and buck naked.
Oh good—I still have your attention! Haha…I know this is a long post, but hopefully a useful one! What I mean by naked links is that you should insert text links as a URL instead of hyper-linked text or buttons.
Check out one final experiment that does a great job of isolating this variable, experiment #4980:
Note that the only difference between version A and version B is that the hypertexted link in version A was replaced with a naked URL. I believe the reason this hack works is because real people send emails with raw links, not hyperlinked phrases or buttons. This is another variable you may consider testing in your next email campaign.
A Final Word of Caution
If I can leave you with one final piece of advice, it would be to take everything I’ve shared in this post with a grain of salt. As I’ve confessed earlier, I don’t have all the answers to what works (and what doesn’t) in fundraising. Nobody does. But I have figured out how to listen to the true fundraising experts—the donors—and learn all that I can from what they teach us by the way they respond. The web is not just a channel of communication. It’s the greatest behavioral laboratory that has existed. And we can do well to learn through constant experimentation. And so, I would implore you to assume nothing, question everything, and use testing to help generate real hard data that can help you to decide.
If you like to learn more about what we at NextAfter have learned about what works in email fundraising from over 1,000 online experiments, please check out our free 6-part online course in Email Fundraising Optimization.