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Is Email Acquisition Right for My Organization?

By Tom Watson on February 10, 2006No Comment
ComputerIs Email Acquisition Right for My Organization?

The world of email has opened up a wealth of new opportunities and prompted many innovative strategies from nonprofits. Most organizations have ventured into using email as a communications, cultivation or solicitation tool with current donors. However, utilizing email as a constituent acquisition tool remains less chartered territory. Although the results for using email acquisitions purely for fundraising are not overwhelmingly positive, many organizations approach email campaigns from a broader perspective, looking for a new avenue to create brand awareness, stimulate interest and yes, even engage new donors.

With the rapid pace of change in the world of technology and online communications, the old adage ‘look before you leap’ provides sage advice. Trying something new always carries some risk, but doing your homework in advance and creating a detailed plan will help assuage your fears and guide you towards greater success. Renting an email list usually requires working with a list owner, manager or broker.  Knowing the ins and outs of the business can help you make the right choices for your nonprofit.  Here are the recommended steps for using email as an acquisition tool for securing new email addresses, potential donors, and online contributions.
1.  Do your homework.
Jump on the internet.  Call your colleagues at other nonprofits. Contact a few list brokers or managers and talk to them.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can bring yourself up to speed on the basics.  For starters, you will want to understand the difference between a list owner and a manager or broker.  A list owner is the individual or organization that originally generated the list and maintains it with updates on a regular basis.  Often, list owners will choose to work with a list manager rather than dealing with end users directly. A list manager will often have several lists that they rent. A list broker is a much freer agent and can offer lists from a wider range of sources, but he or she will charge a commission.  If you are new to renting lists, you will want to select a manager or broker that can hold your hand and guide you through each step of the process.  Look for a recommendation from a colleague, or find someone with specific expertise or experience working with nonprofit clients or online fundraising campaigns.     

2.  Selection of the list.
Choosing the right list is critical.  One element that was echoed throughout the conversations I had with brokers was “a poor package with a good list will outperform a great package with a poor list.”  No matter how compelling your case for engaging new constituents is, it will not achieve its potential if it is not targeted to the right audience.

Lists are rented in units, often a specific cost per thousand names.  Although there is variation, you can expect spending between $50-$80 per thousand names.  Some brokers will offer discounts if you purchase a larger quantity.  The cost of renting the names represents the lion’s share of your bill, usually with an additional fee of $100 to format your email message.  Keep in mind that you will not see the names or email addresses, except in situations where a contribution or a registration is made on your site.

There are many factors that can make a list a poor choice for your use.  Consider the sources used to create the list.  Asking your list broker specific questions will help you assess the appropriateness of the list for your organization.  Does the category “online donor” certify that someone has given online or only that they filled out a questionnaire or survey and said they have given online?  Can you find out how recent the list is?  How often or how much the individuals on the list have contributed?  Are there specific types of organizations that seem to generate greater results from using this list?  For a larger list, are there demographic statistics you can use to target specific individuals who match your potential donor profile?

Most brokers with whom I spoke were well versed in the characteristics of their lists.  As you ask more questions of your broker or manager, you will get a better sense of the range of possibilities.  Remember, they are vested in your success.  If your message performs well with their list, you will probably seek to do business with them again or recommend them to others. Here, as in most situations, an educated consumer truly is the best customer. 

3.  Create the right message.
Remember, this is an email message, often going to individuals who have no previous relationship with your organization.  Be concise.  Be unique. Be specific.  Focus on getting your point across in fewer words.  Incorporate color, images or a logo.  You will want to focus on generating interest among readers and encouraging them to take action, either by visiting your website, signing up for a newsletter or premium, or making a donation online.  Your broker or manager will test your message through a spam filter to make sure your message will not be automatically tagged as junk mail. 

4.  Test, Test and Test.
This is a market where one size does not fit all.  Try testing several email messages with at least two different brokers.  Incorporating various scenarios will help you better evaluate the strength or persuasiveness of your message versus the quality of the list.  For example, perhaps email message ‘A’ performed well with broker ‘1’ and ‘2,’ but not with ‘3.’  This might indicate that the message was on track, but perhaps that broker’s list was not a good fit for your needs.  To control costs when using this testing method, you can try to rent the minimum amount on any one list.

5.  Measure and track your results.
If you don’t carefully measure and evaluate the response generated from an email campaign, how will you ever determine if this is a strategy that you should incorporate into your repertoire?   Most brokers and list managers make this process extremely easy for you.  They either provide you with a link for real time reporting or provide reports at specified intervals after the campaign is launched, often in the neighborhood of two and seven days.  At a minimum, you will want to evaluate how many emails were opened, the number of visits to your website, how many new email addresses were captured, and the amount of contributions generated in response to the email.  For your own purposes, you may also want to track these individuals over a six month to two-year period to evaluate their giving.    

6.  Think long term. 
Ok, so you got some new email addresses and ideally a few donations made online.  What next?  Do they go into your general constituent communications program?  Do you have something special planned for them?  Think three to four steps ahead about how you would like to engage these individuals more fully.  Perhaps the next communication may be an invitation to complete a survey, an announcement about your Spring Gala, or an appeal for a monthly gift.  If they have already given online, when and how will they be solicited again?  Although direct response programs such as email acquisition are not high on the list of strategies for bringing in major donors, it is a first step for many constituents and can help broaden your base of supporters.  It is always important to keep the longer term possibilities in mind. 

Fortunately, email as an acquisition tool is something that can be approached cautiously and tested along the way, customized to your comfort level for trying new strategies. 

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