Getting email campaigns to fulfil their potential

We all know that charities come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes. This variety is one of the strengths of the sector, allowing issues both global and hyper-local to be tackled in a whole host of innovative ways. While the scale and mission of charities varies markedly, one thing that should be universal is the investment and professionalism of their marketing department. Now, if we’re being brutally honest, a fair number of charities do not play their “A game” when it comes to communications.

Basic mass email/mail-outs, a paltry social media presence, poor quality imagery and calls to action are unfortunately quite common. I could write a whole article theorising why this is the case. However, it is safe to say that for many charities the misconception that good marketing is inherently expensive will be a big factor.

There may also be the view that having a very polished and expensive looking marketing machine could hurt their brand image. Perhaps sending the signal to potential donors that their money is being wasted. A minority may also believe that a “brand image” is for the private sector - that marketing is not something which is truly necessary because a good cause is a good cause.

Of course, we all know that these views are completely wrong. Good marketing is not something to be shy about and it is not something that is by default expensive. Indeed, there is often no link between how much money an organisation spends and the quality of its marketing. As the old adage goes: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.”

Huge improvements

The reality is that through clever use of technology and the adoption of best practices, even the smallest charity can make huge improvements to its communication function. Through these changes donations can dramatically improve, supporters can be galvanised and the brand image – or profile of a particular cause – can be enhanced.

There is not enough room here to talk about every communication channel or every available piece of marketing technology. So, I will focus largely on one of the most important and effective channels – email.

Roughly speaking, emails to supporters take two distinct forms. Calls to action – usually to solicit donations for a cause, and informative – updating people on a specific event, initiative or organisation news. They should, however, be considered as different parts of a holistic campaign to engage people.

Let’s start with best practice. There is really no excuse for a charity’s emails not to be personalised. That is marketing 101. If you are not addressing an individual by name, using the right personal details and taking note of their location, you are falling at the first hurdle. Fixing this problem is not particularly technically challenging but does involve one of the most important building blocks – data management.

Data management

At this point you might start feeling drowsy; data management is not a subject that gets hearts racing. Nevertheless, it is fundamental to good marketing. It does not necessarily mean a huge and expensive data warehouse with a raft of enterprise software sitting on top of it. For most charities, a simple Excel spreadsheet will suffice. The key is that the information is complete, regularly updated, secure, cleaned and managed properly.

In the new world of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) this is incredibly important – you need to be able to hold personal data in a secure way and ensure that if someone opts out of a marketing campaign you honour their request.

For medium and larger sized charities there is a plethora of CRM (customer relationship management) and marketing software out there which will aid management and automate a lot of processes. Although this may involve an initial investment of time and resources, ultimately the ongoing costs will be far outweighed by efficiency savings.

Correct data management will ensure that you can personalise your messages. This doesn’t stop at simply knowing the name of the supporter. It extends to tailoring the content of each message, the time it is sent, how often messages are sent and even the imagery that is used.

Analysing performance

The timing and frequency of emails can often make or break a campaign. Investing in technology to analyse the performance of previous campaigns will uncover the factors that made them a success. You will be able to group your supporters into segments that are not simply based on their age, gender and location but on their actual behaviour.

For example, a certain group of people may prefer messages in the morning. Others may show a sharp drop off in engagement if a certain number of messages are sent within a specific time frame. Some may prefer to make one large donation at a particular time in the month or year and therefore should receive a message around that time.

Perhaps you can create an automatic email trigger that messages them if they miss their unofficial donation deadline. Maybe certain individuals prefer text messages or social media communication. By identifying even a handful of these factors you can make sweeping changes to how you communicate with different groups of people.

The most efficient way to build and execute more complex, segmented campaigns is to invest in a CRM system. This does not need to be an all singing and dancing platform. There are plenty of systems which are straightforward to use and work on an affordable monthly subscription.

You may be wondering how do we identify engagement? The simplest way is to look at the open rate. However, the most meaningful metric is “clicks”. This could be hitting a link to a donation page, additional information or subscribing to a particular event. To identify this type of engagement you need to ensure that your emails are built with the right tags and tracking information. This will enable each individual supporter’s journey to be identified and will open the door to data analysis.

Data scientists

Many of you will have read about the rise of data scientists. In a nutshell these are highly qualified analysts who can use algorithms to identify trends and predict the behaviour of groups of individuals. Realistically, employing a fully qualified data scientist will be beyond the budget of most organisations.

Nevertheless, training your marketing staff in the basics of data analysis and statistics will enable you to move away from the spray and pray approach to email marketing that is so detrimental to the reputation and performance of a lot of organisations.

If you’ve nailed the fundamentals of data management and identified the general behaviour of your supporters, the next step is considering the content you are putting out. Best practice dictates that an email needs an engaging subject line, a clear call to action, professional imagery and concise and compelling copy. Achieving these aims should be well within the ability of every charity.

If you think your content could be better, consider whether it is a fundamental gap in the skillset of your marketing team or is it a case that the right processes are not in place? In practice, are you reviewing your messages regularly to ensure that the copy and imagery are as good as they can be – or are you settling for what you have always done, and what has “worked in the past”?

Is it a case that each email isn’t being checked by more than one person so that typos, poor grammar and unprofessional formatting don’t slip through? Do all the links work and is there a clear call to action and, therefore, purpose to the message? If you feel your content is great but you know engagement could be improved further, consider writing multiple versions of each message, tailored to each segment.

Marked increase

Doing all of this is clearly more work; however, time and time again studies have shown that this level of personalisation has a marked increase on performance. Thus it happened in spectacular fashion with the Salvation Army’s Christmas Campaign. In this instance, there was optimisation of their donations form. By testing and refining the form – including improving the layout, making it mobile friendly and thinking hard about the customer journey – donations leaped by 20% compared to the previous year.

Obviously, we’ve focused predominantly on email in this article, nevertheless, the Salvation Army campaign shows that donations and engagement can increase dramatically by improving any element of the “customer journey”. This is why you shouldn’t think of your email campaign in isolation.

Put yourself in the shoes of your supporters. How do they experience your charity from the initial interaction – meeting an activist, seeing some advertising etc. – then visiting your website or signing up for your newsletter?

What happens when they make their first donation? Do they get an email or call acknowledging it? If they are asked for more donations, how does the donation page look? Does it have all the information they need to make their decision, is it easy to make a payment, does it work on mobile?

I could make an almost endless list of questions, but the reality is that no charity is perfect. There are always small improvements you can make which will have an outsized impact on engagement and donations. If you’re lost by the sheer volume of factors, the best approach is to map out how the typical supporter interacts with your charity. What are all the touchpoints, what do they see on each channel and what is the ultimate destination.

Doing this will enable you to quickly see gaps in your marketing outputs, pain points and areas of optimisation. In an ideal world, you can build and test different customer journeys to identify the best route.

Tech literate

Thankfully, there is a raft of technology available which can help you. It is also increasingly simple to use and cost-effective. Researching this technology and choosing the platform or application which best meets your needs will of course again take time and effort – but it is well worth the investment. Being tech literate in general is also important for anyone working within a charity.

Keeping up to date with the latest trends within marketing, payments and data management will enable you to make the right decisions about how your charity’s marketing initiatives evolve.

If everything I’ve talked about seems overwhelming, start small – make incremental improvements to different parts of your marketing output and see what impact this makes. I am certain you’ll be shocked by its impact.


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