How effectively are you using email?

by Stephen Tall on November 9, 2009

An interesting post at DMNews reports how the non-profit sector is far less likely than the for-profit sector to think about how to use email addresses for tailored campaign communications:

Though three-quarters of nonprofits gather consumers’ names and locations when they sign up for e-mail communications, that’s often where consumer data collection ends for those groups … Nonprofits are half as likely as for-profit companies to collect information beyond name and geographic location from their e-mail subscribers — 20% vs. 42%.

The lost opportunity is clear: email is the quickest, easiest, cheapest means to distribute mass, tailored communication. Thinking of the two non-profit sectors I know best – politics and fundraising – is the potential of email being fulfilled? For example:

Politics – many councillors and all(?) MPs will maintain email circulations lists in order to be able to send circulars about their recent campaigning activities. All well and good. But are they also sending online surveys (i) to get feedback, and (ii) to build up their knowledge of their constituents’ profiles? Building up a simple database of constituents’ interests, or the areas they live, would enable politicians to carry out small focus groups on particularly localised and contentious issues. Not only is this democratically useful in itself, but there is likely to be a conversion rate of those you’re surveying into supporters/activists/members. Nothing wrong with a bit of enlightened self-interest.

Fundraising – almost all charities will have an email list of supporters and donors. But is this just being used to send out generic e-newsletters? Why not take the opportunity to use your email database to start sending more regular, personalised communications – when I was fundraising for an Oxford college, we’d email out subject-specific news, sports news, musical events etc based on the preferences recorded in our database. Why not email the people who haven’t been to an event in the last 3 years to ask (politely) why not? Or email the people who’ve never given inviting them to take part in a survey asking about their views of your institution?

The commonest mistake with email – and politics/fundraising more generally – is always to be on ‘transmit’ mode, thinking how you can convince people to agree with (and/or donate to) your cause. The task is how to combine this with being on ‘receive’ mode, building up your relationship with your potential and existing supporters, increasing your knowledge of what they want from you so that you can match the information with what you want from them.