imageM+R Strategic Services and the Nonprofit Technology Network recently released its “2011 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study” covering a broad range of digital issues regarding NPOs. The study has a lot of great information that I intend to breakdown and analyze in a few manageable posts. Today, we’ll start with Email.

As many nonprofits know, a large, engaged email list is like gold. Crafting a simple email, sending to your supporters and watching the donations, petitions signatures, and/or website traffic roll in is like hitting an easy button for engagement. But, as most know, that sort of Utopian world exists only for the elite few who have constantly refined, built, and reengaged their supporters over and over.

Lets take a look at some key stats from the study:

13% Average Email Open Rates
One of the most frustrating things about email is the open rate. Having a list of 10,000 and only 1,300 people opening your messages may seem disappointing but keep in mind that these numbers are often underreported. Many email clients use a small embedded .gif file that counts the number of loads to determine opens so users with images turned off will not be counted.

1.9% Average Click Through Rates
Just when you thought you made a breakthrough with your open rates you realize your stuck with a low click through rate. Your 2,000 opens just turned into only 38 clicks. Sorry to say its an unfortunate truth that not everyone is going to want to do what you ask them to – even if what you are asking is really, really great. I’ll touch on it a bit more later but clear consistent messaging and calls to action can help with this one.

18% Email List Churn Rate
Season change and so do email addresses. Through unsubscribers, inactive email addresses, and the like your list will constantly be losing emails. Its important to remember that this is a natural and sometimes good process. Constantly monitoring the health of your email list is a good practice to get into – what’s better 5,000 people that you know exist and will respond to your calls to action or 10,000 that never look at anything you send them?

The Bivings Group suggestions for improved numbers

Numbers are great, but you’ll be hard pressed to find an “average” organization that fits a cookie cutter mold. Here are a few tips on improving these numbers regardless of where you fall:

Analyze the Success of Emails
Every list will be different and no supporter is the same. Track the days your emails were sent, the number of links in the email, etc. Did you use a specific template? What time of day did you send it? How many days since your last email? Take a look at all those factors and how they effect your open rates, click throughs, and shares. Now am I saying just because one email you sent  on a Tuesday was extremely successful that you should send all emails on a Tuesday? Absolutely not. I am saying that tracking and monitoring all of these factors will help you develop a better overall strategy.

Clear, Concise, Consistent Messaging and Calls to Action
This one is tough but extremely important. Maybe one of the most frustrating parts of my job is working with people to slim their content down into a clear message. So many nonprofits have a lot to say and do all sorts of great work – but there is no reason that you have to focus on everything the organization does in your email. The best emails have a direct ask with a clear link to donate/sign/read more. People don’t want to spend 5 minutes reading to figure out what you want from them – they should know within the first 5 seconds.

Petitions and Splash Pages for List Building
Most people won’t go out of their way to signup for your list – you need to ask them and give them an opportunity to. Splash pages and petitions are great ways to clearly ask people to join your list. According to Network for Good emails added to your list are worth just under $15 over their lifetime – so take some time away from asking for donations and ask for email signups every once in a while.

List Segmentation
Its important to realize that not everyone in your list is the same. Try working with different segments of your lists if you can. Maybe you create an email that asks for a $50 donation from emails that have never donated and an additional email asking for $100 from the people who have – it’s a bit more work but you can better target your messaging and achieve better results by asking for specific results from targeted lists. Don’t forget to try some A/B testing while your at it – send one email with a one set of language to half your list and one with another set of language to the other half. It’s a great way to analyze your own messaging and calls to action.

Email is a powerful tool that nonprofits can harness to further their advocacy and fundraising campaigns. Just don’t forget that it takes a lot of work to engage people and a list that just sits unused will become stagnant.

Have other tips for nonprofit emails? Let us know in the comments.

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