E-newsletters: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

E-newsletters: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

As budgets are squeezed and people become more aware of our carbon footprint and ecological impact, nonprofits are turning more and more to converting all communications to online and email. Plus, online makes sense since it seems people are abandoning paper versions of most other forms of written communications (such as newspapers … and am I the only person left in Seattle who hasn’t purchased an e-reader?). E-newsletters: we love them!

https://i1.wp.com/www.marketo.com/_includes/wp/resources/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/email-marketing-campaign.jpgBut e-newsletters come with their own set of problems: a drastic reduction in the distribution list due to difficulties moving print subscribers over to e-news, difficulties collecting good email addresses, spam programs blocking delivery, formatting issues when considering all of the different browsers available, and very low open rates. E-newsletters: who needs them?

And then there is this interesting article about the poor ROIs of e-newsletters, promptly followed up with a swift rebuttal (from Ahern Communications, Ink)

Bottom line, though, is that the average metrics for nonprofit e-newsletters in 2011 were 13% open rate, 1.6% click-through rate, and 0.17% unsubscribe rate, according to the eNonprofit Benchmarks Study (as cited on FrogLoop). I have a hard time wrapping my brain around creating a content-rich, carefully researched, lovingly crafted communications gift to the world when only 13% of those who receive it will even open it. That hurts the hidden tortured writer in me.

Then I think about my own habits as a newsletter recipient. I will admit, and I have recognized this for years, that I rarely open e-newsletters — even e-news that I actively signed up for myself. Instead, what happens is that these newsletters hit my inbox, I tell myself ‘Oh, great! The alumni newsletter! I will save that and read it when I ____.” (Fill in the blank: get home, finish this project, finish these emails, yell at the teen to do his homework, etc.) Then, because my inbox gets so overfilled with both legitimate email and spam, that newsletter that I was saving falls lower and lower in the inbox until I can’t see it any longer, never to be opened, only to be deleted when I do an inbox clean weeks later. It’s sad, I know!

I do tend to read print newsletters that come in the mail, oddly enough. And I don’t mean that I read them with purpose, either. I tend to read them front to back when I have 5-15 minutes here and there through my day.

The e-news that I open and read tend to be short, sweet, single-topic messages with concrete subject lines. One newsletter that I think I may open 75% of the time is not even a newsletter; it’s straightforward email communications coming from the Seattle Art Museum. I don’t remember how often they come, but they are always a single page (screen) with something very concrete and detailed in it — yoga in the sculpture park next Saturday or tickets available for the next SAM Remix.

Now I understand that this is all anecdotal, purely an analysis of my own habits. It may also be that I occupy an interesting demographic since I was a teen in the 80s; my generation seems to have one foot planted firmly in the pre-internet era … and the other foot works at Microsoft. I certainly cannot say that because this is what I do, it must be the truth for everyone. However, this short little blog post may demonstrate that I am not the only person lured by the Siren song of the single-topic email: When less is more and more is less (Future Fundraising Now). I used to work with an arts group that sent out an e-newsletter every other Thursday, like clockwork, with 3-5 short single-paragraph stories. At first I thought that was way too frequent… and surely we must be pestering our constituents! But it quickly became clear that the nature of our arts medium required we communicate with our constituents to update them regularly on program highlights.

There are other experts on the interwebs who can give much better advice on crafting e-newsletters than I can. But I will share with you a question that I spend a lot of time considering as I work on my own projects: how can I harness the power of this tool to best serve the constituents my org is trying to reach? Cutting out all of the outside noise, I want to look very carefully at this very specific audience and the best way to reach them. You should be doing the same.

Here are Kivi’s Seven Steps to Better Email Fundraising and Communications, for your information.

So what are your thoughts? What is working for your organization? What struggles are you experiencing with your e-newsletter?

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6 thoughts on “E-newsletters: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

  1. My problem is that I reecvie newsletters and *never* read them. They remain unopened, buried for years in my email. I can’t seem to delete them or unsubscribe because I know they probably *do* contain something useful or interesting. And I don’t open them because I feel they will take more time than I have to read them, even skimmingly.

  2. Just a note on how open rates are calculated:

    When you send an email newsletter through an ESP, they attach a unique tracking image to each outgoing email for each of your subscribers.

    When your subscriber opens the email, and loads the images, the ESP will mark the email as “opened”. 

    Anyone who doesn’t load images (for example, if image blocking is turned on) would be listed as “unconfirmed” (or something similar).

    It’s important to note that “unconfirmed” doesn’t mean they deleted the email, or didn’t read it. It simply means they aren’t trackable.

    Generally, open rates are helpful when viewed as a trend. For example: overall, are opens going up, or down? Did they spike when a particular topic was covered?

    I’d be interested in knowing if there’s been studies on open rates for print newsletters. 😉

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