How to Do Email Well

Woman's hand holding an iPhone showing an email icon and a heart

By Spencer Critchley

If an organization does nothing else in the way of digital marketing, it should probably do email. Yes, there’s way too much of it and we all complain about that, but email remains one of the most cost-effective marketing vehicles. Across industries, Venturebeat estimates a roughly 40 to 1 return on investment (ROI) for email marketing. That’s why email is the number one digital marketing channel.

It’s important, though, to do email right and that’s what we’ll talk about here. As we do, remember these guidelines:

  • Email is a vehicle for staying in touch with people you already know, so as to maintain and hopefully increase their support of your cause, whether that’s through donating, volunteering, or both.
  • Email is not a vehicle for contacting strangers who haven’t given you permission to do so — not unless your mission is to generate bad word of mouth and spam complaints.
  • Email is well suited to the Engagement, Conversion, Relationship, and Advocacy stages of the funnel.

Recognize that an email list is a valuable asset, like, say, an endowment is. In my experience, a surprising number of organizations pay too little attention to their email lists.

If someone wrote your organization a large check, you’d want to make sure the money was protected and tended to, so that it could continue to provide support indefinitely. Your email list can do that too, and like an endowment, it’s even better if it’s steadily growing.


Use Email List Management Software

For a start, use email management software, such as Mailchimp, Constant Contact, Emma, and the like.

Do not just use an ordinary email program like Outlook or Google Mail to send messages to a bcc list or, worse, a cc list. There are a few reasons why this is a bad idea:

  • Many of the recipients may never see it. When a mail server sees that an incoming email is addressed to a large number of recipients, it may very well assume it’s spam and block it.
  • You can divide your email list into segments, and use that segmentation to send better-targeted emails. You can easily send an email only to people who live within a certain area, or who have a certain interest, or who have donated at a certain level, with content that is more relevant, and therefore more influential, for those particular people.
  • If your emails are bouncing (not being delivered), you may not notice, unless you manually and carefully go through all the auto-replies you get each time you send out an email campaign. Email software will keep an easy-to-check list of non-working email addresses, along with the reasons they don’t work (could be there’s a typo, the recipient has a new address, their mail server is temporarily down, or their inbox is just full). It will also stop trying to send to that address after a certain number of deliveries have failed.
  • If one of your recipients wants to stop getting emails from you, or get fewer ones, they have to ask you directly, which can be awkward. You don’t want to make people feel bad when they get email from you; it’s far better to make it easy for them to change or end their subscription gracefully, because a smaller list of happy subscribers is more valuable than a larger one that’s generating discontent. Email management software handles that for you with an subscription-management link in each message. (You can still find out who unsubscribed, but it just feels better for your departing subscribers.)


Illustration of a large, diverse group of people


Segment Your List

In the previous chapter, I showed why knowing your constituents, especially in terms of what they want, is critical to successful marketing. You apply that knowledge to email marketing by segmenting your list. That means not just blasting every email to everybody, but dividing the master list into segments, based on demographic information like location and age, but also on interests. List segmentation may sound kind of abstruse, but it’s one of the best things you can do to make your marketing more effective.

Ideally, every email you send is optimized to appeal to the people who receive it — and doesn’t go to people who won’t be interested.

Here’s an example from my own experience about the difference segmentation can make.

In 2008 I got the opportunity to join the Obama for America campaign on battleground state communication teams. Battleground states are the relatively few that could be won by either side, which therefore get most of the attention from campaigns. I helped out in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Colorado. (In 2012, I did the same in Virginia.)

It was a thrilling, deeply satisfying experience, not only because I believed so strongly in Barack Obama as a candidate, but because it was the best-run organization of any kind that I’ve ever seen. It was considered to be the best presidential campaign ever by both Democratic and Republican political pros.

One area where I saw I could make an improvement, though, was in the use of email, specifically for booking media interviews for the campaign principals, Barack and Michelle Obama and Joe and Jill Biden, and surrogates, the politicians and celebrities who served as spokespeople, especially to the various segments of the electorate.

On a campaign renowned for its cutting edge use of digital technology, I was surprised to discover it had only one email account for managing tens of thousands of media contacts across the country and at the state level, the media list might amount to a simple spreadsheet. Booking media interviews, as you might imagine, is pretty important to a political campaign. Every news media “hit” you can book means less advertising the campaign might have to pay for, with the added benefit that news coverage has higher credibility.

So when I arrived at the state of Michigan headquarters in Detroit in early August of 2008, one of the first things I did after finding my feet was to launch a blitz project to improve and segment the media email list.

I recruited a couple of interns and assigned them the task of checking and updating every entry in the list, looking up every media outlet in the state (there are many hundreds), and adding useful details. I asked them to fill in new spreadsheet columns for data like the topics each journalist or show host covered, the programming format of each radio station (news talk, rock, hip hop, oldies, etc.), the time of day a radio or TV show was on, or where on the political spectrum the outlet sat.

Then I imported all the information into the campaign’s email list management software. Once I had it there, I could use it to create highly targeted email list segments.

This meant that we could send relevant messages to just the people who would want to see them, while avoiding bothering all the rest.

Let’s say that the pop star was available on a Thursday to do radio interviews between 10 a.m. and noon, and basketball great Magic Johnson was available Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. In moments, we could create and send interview pitch emails, personalized using mail merge (“Hi [First Name]”), only to the stations with appropriate formats (youth-oriented pop music for and sports for Magic), and only to the staff of shows that were on at the right time.

Since every email we sent was likely to be valuable to each recipient, it had high odds of yielding a successful conversion — in this case, an interview booking. Further, as time went on, the people on our list learned that we never sent them junk. All our emails were probably worth opening, so they were opened.

The results? Interview bookings skyrocketed, so much so that other states wondered what the heck Michigan was doing snatch up so many of the available interview slots each day. (We told them.)

The same approach will work for any organization. No matter how interesting a particular message is, it may not be interesting for everyone. At the same time, a message that doesn’t interest most people may be all the more compelling to the right segment.


Blue gift ribbon


Don’t Beg, Give

Far too many emails from nonprofits are just begging for money. As more and more organizations do this, it works less and less well — in fact such emails do a better job of training recipients to conclude the need is endless, to ignore you, and eventually, to cut you off.

Every now and then, of course, you do need to ask for money, just like a for-profit business does ask its customers to pay. But think about the expert marketing you see from, say, a national retailer? How much of it is taken up with them talking about you paying? Nowhere near as much as how much time is spent showing you all the great value they offer — usually in a way that makes whatever they’re charging seem like a bargain.

That just makes sense, when you think about your own experience. If you don’t feel that what you’ll get in return is at least equal to what you’re paying, it’s hard to get your money out of your pocket, isn’t it? Just kind of gets stuck in there.

These days, most people ignore most of the e-newsletters they get, even after voluntarily signed up for them. Make yours one of the minority they actually look for. That way, when you do ask them to donate, they’ll feel it’s been a fair exchange.

What’s valuable to your constituents? Probably not these topics:

  • The appointment of a new board member 
  • Somebody getting an award
  • A “Letter from the Executive Director”
  • A readout of a meeting — unless the email is going only to people who really need the details
  • Yet another appeal for money.

What is valuable? 

  1. Stories
  2. Pictures
  3. Usefulness.

1. Tell Stories

Many email newsletters are full of information. It’s not surprising, given that the purpose of communication is often defined as informing the public. 

But people don’t care about information, they care about stories. Throughout human history, stories have been our most effective tool for entertaining each other, learning, and making sense of the world. It’s why to this day, news comes in the form of stories.

Information, on the other hand, is hard for us to take in except in limited quantities, and even then it’s hard to remember. How hard? Research shows that the human mind can only work with about five to nine chunks of information at a time. That’s why American phone numbers have seven digits, as explained in the often-cited paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” by Harvard psychologist George A. Miller.

Stories can and do transmit information, but it’s embedded in matrix of emotion, to which our minds are very attuned, and which is readily remembered — you may very well remember a strong emotion you felt when you were three, but struggle to recall bullet points you saw last week.

In a study of "Compassion Fade," University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic and others looked at what happens after donors gare told about just one child in need, then about two, several, and so on.

It turned out that the more children, the lower the donation.

That’s probably because one child is a story, but many children — even though they obviously represent a greater need — become statistics.

Here’s another good thing about stories: we love to share them. That means a good story may very well mobilize your constituents to spread your message for you.

2. Use Pictures

All kinds of research — and probably your own instincts — will tell you that pictures, static or moving, attract more attention than blocks of text. In fact, engagement with images is on the order of 10 times greater.

This is all the more true for young to middle-aged audiences, who have grown up in an image-dominated culture. It’s why so much communication now happens via emojis, GIFs, and photo- and video-based apps.

So an e-newsletter is likely to have more impact if it contains photos or illustrations accompanied by small amounts of text. If you need more space to tell a story, you can link to the full version on your website — which is a good idea anyway, since you probably want to encourage web traffic (more on this later).

The images should be high quality. Too often, people who would never stand for poor writing will let a badly composed, badly lit snapshot go by without thinking twice. You don’t need to hire a professional photographer. With a smart phone and online tutorials, nearly anyone can learn to take a decent photo. You can use stock photos as well, of course, although watch out for making your content feel generic.

Take note: It used to be that emails that employed elaborate design features, like sidebars, callouts, lines, and colors, performed better than plain text ones. That’s no longer true. People get too much email now, and don’t want to spend time perusing an ornate layout. They’re more likely to appreciate a simple, vertical design: a picture, a paragraph, another picture, another paragraph.

And there are exceptions. For some messages, the best choice is plain text with no images. This is so when the message is to be understood as coming from one person, as if it’s from a friend or business contact. It also makes sense when you’re communicating with an audience that really does need just the facts, for whom images would get in the way. This is often the way industry-specific newsletters are formatted, such as ones targeting scientists, financial professionals, or journalists.

3. Be Useful

There is a form of information that we do really like: useful nuggets that help us solve problems or take advantage of opportunities.

The value is clear: our lives are made better. It’s probably best if the tip or lesson is related to the mission of the nonprofit, but it doesn’t always have to be. A health-related nonprofit might offer tips to improve your health, or a youth-related one might talk about raising your children. But any organization might occasionally just throw in something from left field, like a great recipe from a staff member’s cousin.