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Despite the popularity of social media, most people in all age groups still use email, and 76% of nonprofit organizations in North America send regular emails to their supporters.* It is no doubt an important tool of communication. But before you jump on the bandwagon, you might consider a few key questions.
1. Why do you need an email newsletter? What’s the primary purpose? Is it to communicate and engage with your community? Or is it to fundraise? These are not necessarily conflicting goals, but there may need to be some decisions around what kind of newsletters go out and when. An informational newsletter that aims to engage people with good content and graphics could go out regularly, weekly or monthly. A newsletter that is a fundraising appeal might only go out twice a year or quarterly.
2. Do you have the staff resources to produce a regular email newsletter? Newsletters that focus on content that is interesting to your audience succeed more often than newsletters that are cluttered and unfocused or are blatant sales pitches. But generating good, well thought-out and well-written content and creating quality graphics (design, images, videos, etc.) takes a lot of time. And we assume you have at least one other online channel, like Facebook or Twitter, that needs attention. A good rule of thumb is to set aside at least 2 hours each week for each social media channel you use.
3. Do you know your audience and what they want to hear from you? It is easy to think we know what “our people” want to hear about, but thinking we know and really knowing are two entirely different creatures. If you’re not sure what your supporters and donors what to know about, spend the time to survey them, even if it is only informally. There are many good online survey tools that could help you do this.
4. Do you have clean, well-organized email lists? Creditable and reputable email services like Mail Chimp, Emma, Constant Contact, and others will come down hard if they think you’re spamming. They monitor abuse carefully and will shut your account down if there is evidence that your list isn’t legitimate. This means you reviewing your list carefully and using the double opt-in process where a subscriber fills out a signup form and receives an email with link confirming the subscription. But again this is a staff time investment.
5. Are you prepared to do the metrics to make sure the time and energy you’re investing is worth it? So you put all this work into this fabulous email newsletter and dedicated precious staff time, but you don’t really know whether it is accomplishing your goals. Heather Mansfield, in her blog Nonprofit Tech for Good, has an article on this very subject and a spreadsheet you can download to track all of your online media. Take a look.
One last important note—we are often asked about whether an organization should produce just an online newsletter and forget producing a printed one thus saving printing and mailing costs. Our simple answer is NO. Print is an essential part of an effective outreach plan. Online communication is immediate and nimble, but print is more enduring and may be shared with someone not on your mailing list and be seen and picked up in real-world places, like a coffee table or waiting room.
We love to hear about your experiences with e-newsletters.