Distributing a regular newsletter requires a lot: curation, content creation, and then there’s capturing the attention of your audience despite inbox overcrowding.
Some organizations see a lot of supporter engagement with periodic newsletters: a recent study showed that over half of participants got news about their favorite organizations or causes from regular newsletters, and just under a quarter of respondents said they often forwarded on newsletters to family and friends.
If your nonprofit is seeing less-than-desirable returns on the time and resources put into its newsletter, it may be that newsletters aren't the best medium for your audiences. This doesn't mean you should scrap the operation entirely, but there are likely some serious adjustments that need to be made.
First things first: getting subscribers to open your newsletter once it lands in their inboxes! This is arguably the most difficult engagement obstacle to overcome, but these guidelines will put your newsletter on the path to offering some serious ROI for your nonprofit.
Choose a topic + identify an audience
We're in the school of thought that believes nonprofit newsletters should have a clear topic, goals, and audience.
Rather than a grab bag of loosely-related links, your organization's newsletter should be a dynamic collection of information with a dominating theme, almost like an infographic.
The easiest method of choosing a topic is by first understanding your audience: what types of content are your subscribers clicking on? Are there different segments within your list that are interested in more specific issue areas? Do they seem to prefer videos or graphics over article links?
The National Portrait Gallery does this well with its newsletter aimed specifically at subscribers interested in family-friendly content.
Share valuable content
Newsletters should offer easy access to valuable content that subscribers want to read, and not just from you.
Content can be original to your organization + tell the story of your work and the heroism of your donors. You can (and should) also include timely, interesting, and well-written content related to your topic from quality sources.
Doing so can help to position your organization as an arbiter of (and a resource for) the best information about your cause. This edition of "The Baby Friendly Initiative" newsletter from UNICEF serves as a great example, delivering high-quality content around pressing issues + research that subscribers will want to read.
Craft interesting subject lines
A subject line is the "cover" by which a newsletter is judged upon landing in an inbox - in a fraction of a second, subscribers decide whether to open or delete it.
"NPO Monthly Newsletter - April 2015" isn't going to cut it! Make the case for your newsletter with an interesting, compelling subject line.
Using action-oriented verbs + personalization (a recipient's name or city) is a great start to an all-star subject line. From there, the key is to speak your audience's "language," focusing on maximizing clarity + maintaining brevity.
Make sure to also test different approaches to perfect subject line for your organization - we like this one from Tate, which does an excellent job of piquing the interest of art fans with the subject line, "Look through the war photographer’s lens."
Experiment with senders
If your subject line is the book's cover, then your sender is the author. Since the sender is front-facing, it should include the name of your organization.
Start by making sure you're using a friendly, non-robot looking sender. Often, recipients see the sender name instead of the sender email address, right alongside the subject line - so it's worth some consideration. If your newsletter sender is "YOUR NONPROFIT-NEWSLETTER-BLAST-02," then people might be a little put off.
You can also experiment with sender personas (real or imaginary - we won't tell) to add a human touch. When emails come from "Alex - YourNonprofit," it feels a bit more personal than "Newsletters - YourNonprofit".
Try nurturing different sender profiles for different purposes, and alternating different sender profiles at different intervals.
Ever heard of a spam trap? If you're not a little afraid, you should be, especially if you haven't removed your inactive email addresses from contact and distribution lists.
These inactive addresses, also known as "hard bounces," can turn into a spam trap when the receiving server notices lots of traffic going to a "dead" email address. They then take over the dead email addresses + begin marking all of their incoming mail as spam.
The most sinister effect of these spam traps is the damage to your Sender Score, or your organization's online reputation. Email servers can (and will) black list your domain, and your sender score can decline to the point where other email servers stop accepting your content.
The easiest way to avoid this to remove your inactives and monitor your hard + soft bounce rates.
Have good timing
Best practice dictates a middle-middle approach to sending successful email: messages sent in the middle of the week (Tuesday - Thursday) and in the middle of the day (11 am - 2 pm, roughly) get the highest open rates.
But this is just a guideline, not a rule. In fact, every organization should be looking at its newsletter open rate data to determine for itself when and how often to send out newsletters.
Make sure to consider your audience and the devices on which supporters are reading (or not reading) your messages. You may find, for example, that your newsletter is opened most often in the early commuting hours of the morning and on mobile devices.
Use this data to test your subject lines, sender information, etc. until you find your sweet spot. And speaking of mobile...
Optimize, optimize, optimize
As more than half of all emails are now opened and read on mobile devices, unresponsive newsletters are destined to be ignored and/or quickly deleted.
Adding responsive design doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive - free mobile responsive templates are readily available and most vendors will implement them at no cost.
What are your biggest successes or challenges with your organization's newsletter? Let us know on Twitter!