Email best practices and A/B testing

March 18, 2013

According to a 2012 benchmark study, only 14% of recipients open the average nonprofit email, and just over 2% click on a link. That means up to 85% of your members and supporters aren’t even seeing your carefully crafted messages, and 98% of your fundraising and action appeals are going unheeded.

You can do better. In this post, we’ll share best practices gleaned from years of nonprofit communications. But you don’t have to take our word that these tactics work. In fact, we’d urge you to do some experimentation with your own emails to find out just what language, images, and design will inspire your contacts to open and click with abandon!

First, the top five changes we recommend making to your next email:

  1. Keep the subject line short. Aim for less than 50 characters, and make them meaningful or intriguing. But don’t use the words “help” or “reminder.” One study showed these two words negatively impacted open rates.
  2. Lead with the good stuff. Recipients using preview panes or smartphones will only see a few lines of text initially, so don’t use this valuable real estate for administrivia like the unsubscribe link. Highlight the juiciest tidbits from the content below.
  3. Give yourself the link love. Most email recipients will only click on one link. Make that a link to your own website, where you can synthesize the latest positive press coverage or scientific studies, or rebut opposition messaging. From there, you can link to original sources as needed.  
  4. Keep it simple. Smaller screens require streamlined email templates. And people tend to skim rather than read, so use bold headers, bulleted lists, and big buttons rather than hyperlinked text to draw eyes and accommodate clumsy fingers. NTEN has a good guide on coding emails for mobile friendliness.
  5. Include a clear call to action. And don’t make it a fundraising appeal every time. Consider soliciting stories or photos, or asking people to share good news about a victory they helped to secure. Make sharing easy with big social media icons and a “forward to a friend” link at the top.

These basic principles apply to all sectors, but you can hone your email style even further with some simple A/B tests. A/B tests involve sending one version of an email (the “control”) to a small segment of your list, and sending a version with one variation (the “test”) to an equal number of people. Then, you select the top performer to send to the rest of your list. For an organization with 15,000 email contacts, we would recommend a sample size of 750 people for each version of the email.

Most email programs make A/B testing easy. Here are instructions for Vertical Response, Constant Contact, and MailChimp.

Wondering what to test? Here are some ideas to boost open rates:

  • Subject lines: Experiment with length, level of detail, including a call to action, conveying a sense of urgency, etc.
  • From lines: Test whether emails from the organization itself, or from a well-known staff member perform better.
  • Time or day of the week: Experiment with different times of day and days of the week.

And two more ideas to increase click through rates:

  • Button text, color and placement: Change the color of your buttons, or the call to action they include. Try moving the buttons higher in emails as well to reduce scrolling.
  • Link placement, hyperlinking: Try hyperlinking the titles of email headers to lead to full text articles on your website. Experiment with including full URLs in your emails rather than just hyperlinked text.

Fired up about data-driven communications? Check out our recent blog posts on social media measurement and website A/B tests.