Building an Effective Email List

An email list is one of the sharpest arrows in any nonprofit’s quiver. An effective list can maximize your reach, help foster closer relationships with constituents and improve fundraising. But what makes a list effective? For one thing, critical mass—the more people you can reach who are genuinely interested in your organization, the better.

Research shows that an email appeal sent to 5,000 people will be opened by fewer than 1,500 of them, and no more than 100 are likely to actually make a donation. While the quality of the emails you send has an impact as well, simply having a larger list of interested constituents will help spread your message further, and help you raise more money. But you can’t just buy an email list as easily as you can buy one for direct mail. So how do you expand yours sufficiently to meet your goals? There are a number of ways within reach of any organization—choose the methods that best meet your audience and needs.

Sign Up Existing Supporters

One potential source for new subscribers is the people already familiar to you. Anyone who receives your printed newsletters and other mailings has already shown interest in your organization and might be inclined to receive emails from you. But first you need to get their email addresses, which may not be included in the contact information you already have.

The most obvious way to encourage people on your direct mail list to subscribe to your e-newsletter is to send them a piece of direct mail—for example, a postcard or letter—promoting your email resources and asking them to subscribe. It’s also worth including a prominent website link with every newsletter and other mailing you send out. Entice readers to subscribe by promising compelling information that’s relevant to them, such as upcoming events for kids, or online follow-ups to newsletter articles. Make the link simple enough to be easily typed, and make sure it leads directly to the content you promised, but also include a prominent request for readers to submit their email addresses to be notified of similar news and stories about your organization and its work.

Another option is to use an email appending vendor like FreshAddress to find email addresses for contacts on your direct mailing list. Expect to find a match for about 10-20 percent of the names, and to pay $0.25 to $0.50 for each match—often with a minimum purchase of $1,000 or more. Tread with care when using email addresses acquired through an append. Some constituents might prefer not to get email from you, so make sure it’s easy for them to opt out.

Is your organization on Facebook? Twitter? Chances are that a good number of the people who follow you on social media are not on your email list—at least, not yet. Don’t just encourage people to “like” your Facebook page or follow your Twitter feed. Give them an easy way and a compelling reason to sign up. Make sure the email information you offer is of some relevance to what you post on social media, since that’s what appealed to these visitors in the first place.

And don’t forget your website. Anyone who visits your site should find it simple to find and join your email list. Sign-up forms should be easy to find, and uncomplicated. Remember that, while you want to collect as much information as possible, the initial registration should be a matter of filling in a name and email address; people are more likely to complete a short form than a long one. You can ask for more information later in the context of providing better-focused correspondence.

Collaborate and Network

While your Internet presence can be a great source of subscribers, don’t ignore the world beyond your computer. Every phone call and cocktail party conversation is an opportunity to increase awareness of your organization and expand its email list. You can close many work-related phone calls by asking the other person if they’re interested in receiving email from your organization, and encourage them to visit your website and register.

Consider enrolling new subscribers a goal of your organizational “elevator speech” at networking events, and close contacts by exchanging business cards. Your card should include your organization’s web site, or even a QR code that leads directly to a subscription link when scanned with a smartphone. “Tabling”—setting up a table with information about your organization—is also a good way to meet people face-to-face and ask them to sign up. You might even consider using a tablet computer, like an iPad, or a laptop opened to an email registration page that lets you subscribe people on the spot.

Or, if your organization serves a small area, you could go door-to-door and canvas your constituency. It’s more difficult for people to ignore a smiling face than an email solicitation. But don’t just consider strangers for your list—remember your friends, too. If you have partner organizations, or nonprofits with constituencies similar to your own, collaborate by agreeing to promote their email lists in exchange for them promoting yours.

Online Outreach

When planning for email list building, organizations often think of online outreach methods—for instance, creating a video that will go “viral” and be the next YouTube sensation, or a pledge that will spread widely across the country. While these types of online outreach can be effective, you can’t count on that kind of success.

Instead, think strategically about who you’d like to reach—“everyone” is not a good answer—and what would be compelling to them. Create something like an article, whitepaper or video that’s likely to be interesting enough to catch their attention. You’ll then need to let people know it exists. Google or Facebook Ads can be an effective way to attract attention, as can social media posts or emails to the right communities.

But it’s obviously not enough just to get people to look at, or even to pass on, your resource. If your goal is to build your list, you’ll need to ask them for their contact information. Consider asking them to sign up for updates or other resources like the one you provided, or to sign a pledge to show their commitment to what you’re proposing. If the content is compelling enough, you could even ask them to sign up just to see it.

Give Them Something Worth Subscribing To

Treat your email list like a “living” entity—one that requires care and nurture. Once you’ve grown it by attracting new subscribers, you need to work to retain them. It’s OK to send out fundraising “asks,” but the number of appeals should pale in comparison to the utility you provide subscribers.

The best way to do this is with interesting, engaging content. Strive to understand your subscriber base, and to provide compelling content that encourages them to forward your email to friends rather than dragging it to the recycle bin, and you’re more likely to retain their interest. People love photos, videos, and information of direct relevance to their life. They also tend to forward good emails to friends, which means you’re not only engaging them—you’re potentially reaching new people, too.

Want to know what’s interesting to them? Ask them. A quick survey or set of phone conversations can provide some eye-opening information about what your constituents really want to hear from you.

Remember your metrics, which can help you determine your subscribers’ interests and tailor your content to meet their expectations. Most mass email tools provide data on open and click-through rates, as well as how many people deleted your message without reading it. Check these statistics regularly and measure how solicitations from your email list affect your bottom line. You can’t please everyone individually, but as a group, you can appeal to common interests.

With a little effort, your organization can expand its reach to a broader constituency of people with similar interests—and, potentially, its ability to mobilize and fundraise. Growing an email list requires a little strategy and forethought, and retaining the people on that list requires a steady stream of relevant, engaging content. It’s a work in progress, but the rewards can far outweigh the effort.

This article originally appeared on Third Sector New England's website.

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