Intro to Email Fundraising Optimization

This article will discuss several tools, resources, and data-driven principals which will help optimize emails which are sent for purposes of raising money.

Please note that while I do regularly send fundraising emails, I do not consider myself a professional fundraiser. Even so, the writers of the content I will be referencing vary much are professionals.

For starters, head over to my Infograms Page. There you will find a new infogram called, “The Opening Line,” #25. That infogram was created by Litmus, an email marketing and analysis firm, and it is based on a quantitative study of n > 200 million emails. They have many great results, but 2 of my favorites are as follows:

  • Top performing email subject line length range was 28-39 characters.
  • Including recipient name in the subject line (“personalizing”) does not significantly increase results, and in fact shows some evidence of reducing subject line performance.

There is consensus opinion that being specific regarding the donation amount asked for is a best practice, as well as having a hard fundraising goal. Surprisingly, hard data backing either claim is a bit reclusive. I will post a new article if I find anything there. In the mean time, here is a Gift Range Calculator which will help you determine an optimal ask for a given fundraising goal.

ConversionXL has a great article detailing the boost to performance which results from presenting options to a recipient, as opposed to a single specific choice. The points they make are well circulated as a best practice in the world of sales and therefore have leaked into the fundraising world, but unfortunately I do not feel that their results are applicable to the usual straight ask for money.

This is because their result is that presenting different prices choices is effective, but only when there is some difference between the actual things they are paying for. For example, selling both expensive beer and cheap beer results in better sales than selling only either particular one.

In the case of donations, however, we are not selling quality differentials. We are selling the same product at different prices. In that case, my background in economics tells me that people will leap for the lowest choice.

Perhaps using a range of donation options may be of some benefit, but I would emphatically demand that even the lowest donation option not be less than the donation option which would have been recommended in the absence of a range. In other words, if you really want a donation of $25, do not ask for, “$10, $25, or $50.” Instead, ask for, “$25, $50, or $100.”

It’s not clear that a range will help, but perhaps there is some flimsy evidence in that direction. The evidence seems to indicate that certain individuals simply prefer the more expensive option, which seems counter-intuitive, but maybe that’s just how some people tick. Many people, on the other hand, prefer the cheaper option. We must therefore ensure that even the cheaper option is not actually cheaper than our actual target ask.

I don’t have evidence at hand to back up the following best practices, but they are things I have read at some time or another from studies in the past and/or personal experimentation with rather sizable lists. I will update if I find data confirming or denying the recommendations. Also, if you have a source please comment! Anyway, here are a few best practices I would recommend:

  • Use a P.S.
  • Ask 3 times in every email; once early or mid body, once at the conclusion, and once in the P.S.
  • Use at least two “hard asks,” if not 3. There is mixed evidence that having 1 soft ask out of 3 asks may result in a marginal boost.
  • Bold and underlined text can be helpful, but don’t overdo it. Red is the only color you should use for text. Red and blue both pop while staying readable and not looking unprofessional, but blue is often mistaken for a hyperlink. Let your hyperlinks remain blue, but use red and black text.

This article from Marketing Sherpa, a sister organization of the awesome Marketing Experiments website which I will source in a bit, goes over 10 best practices for increasing email response rate for fundraising. Their advice is intuitive and data-backed, yet at the same time in contravention of how many things are done today in the marketing world.

  • Be direct, clear and honest, not cute or tricky: Put your request clearly in the subject line. For example, “Donate to Feed a Child Today.” This will drop the open rate a bit, but will result in dramatic gains to overall response. From 4% response to 18% response in one experiment.
  • Keep the email copy short. That is, the body and text of the email. Specifically, they recommend 2 paragraphs and a 1 sentence P.S.

This would suggest an email size around 250 words. I would certainly put a hard limit at 500 words.

Now it’s time for what is possibly the best part of the article. The Marketing Experiments video. I will summarize the main points after the video, so it is optional to watch, but very much recommended.

Main points of the article:

  • The value proposition of an action is a different thing than the overall value proposition of a good or service. This article goes over value propositions in greater detail.
  • Every action must offer a perceived value which outweighs its perceived cost.
  • A subject line should be clear. It should read like a sentence, be short and be instantly understood.
  • The subject line should usually be point-first, sometimes point-last and never point-middle.
  • The qualifiers must be precise. “Get better results” is not precise. “Improve click-through rates” is.
  • The message must be appealing. It must be relevant, evoke urgency, and also be important.
  • The message should be exclusive. It must have an “only-factor,” and brand name also matters.
  • The message must be credible. The promise associated with the message must be believable and not sound like salesmanship.
  • The value must be specific. “Increase click through” is worse than “Increase click through by 103%.”
  • A message must have a complete thought and complete meaning. Short copy is ideal, but short copy at the cost of a complete thought is very poor.

Get an account with Mail Chimp to access the Mail Chimp Subject Line Researcher, an automated tool which will tell you the previous performance of similar or identical subject lines. Find out more about the Mail Chimp Subject Line Researcher here.

Other research from Mail Chimp indicates that an ideal ratio of words in the body of an email to links in the body of an email is less than 38, the peak open time for email is between 2 – 5 P.M. in the reader’s timezone, midweek is the peak time for email opens by day, and newer email subscribers are more engaged than others.

Finally, please keep an eye out for all the terrible email and marketing advice on the internet. If they do not have data backing up a claim, ignore it.


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