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A New (and Better) Email Model

I attended the MarketingSherpa Email Summit to gain insight into what's going on in the for-profit world of email marketing and develop ways to apply that learning to the nonprofit sector. The recent conference in Chicago (April 2006) did not disappoint.

The Ah-Ha Moment. It came for me when one of the speakers (I'm sorry I don't remember who) took on the Direct Mail model which has so dominated the approach to email marketing in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Because the ability to send volumes of email appears to parallel the experience of direct or bulk postal mail, it seemed natural, when Email Marketing was first taking shape, to draw our lessons from Direct Mail Marketing. But we have learned the hard lessons that the volume, breadth and frequency permitted by emal can quickly make your organization and your email can be irrelevant. Indeed, "irrelevance is the new Spam," and recipients just hit the delete key.

The better model for email marketing, the speaker suggested, is the Magazine. With its targeted combination of pictures and audience-specific text and advertisements, good magazines succeed in communicating their message on a mass scale in ways that direct postal mail cannot. They appeal to readers. Magazines get opened because people expect relevant information in an entertaining format, and they trust the magazine they have chosen to deliver it. (For a great example of this model applied in online in a for-profit model see

Relevant information that is attractively presented. Is that the goal of the future? I believe so. Juxtapose that goal with the tendency of nonprofits to brow-beat constituents with donation appeals. To be sure, the plight of the poor or the victim or the sick is never "entertaining," but neither is the never-ending donor solicitation. In today's New York Times (4/29/06) an article describes the gulf between the donor and development office expectations. The former often seeks to make a one time gift while the latter desires a life-long friendship and an estate gift. Just a week ago my dinner partner was lamenting having given $10,000 to a new organization, "Now they think it's coming every year and it's not!"

If the development goal of getting a gift to repeat within 30-90 days is to be met, there must be more than another email appeal. For-profit testing reveals that 58% of new opt-ins respond to email within the first 30 days, and 45% in the first 30 - 60 days. The nonprofit organization must develop the means to deliver, in a short time frame, relevant email content that includes measurable results and real images of both problems and their solutions.

Use that early email opportunity not for an immediate donation, but to demonstrate relevance. Get your new donor to open your follow-up email by establishing trust that they will learn more and receive information that is attractively presented. Yes, you want the recipient to take action, but an adequate action can be opening your email and watching a brief video or viewing a slide show, without having it end in another gift request.

The beauty of email is that it's not about the money. It's about relevant relationships in which trust grows. In the end, you don't need to build an email list of 1 million names where only 2% open your email. Aim to develop instead a list of 50,000 names that is opened by 90%.

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