More Trial, Less Error: How to Ask for a Donation in an Email

Ryan Jones • May 26, 2020

Email has long been one of the most valuable tools for online fundraising. Whether sending newsletters, appeal emails, or direct communication with supporters, email reaches people in their homes, on their phones, and at work, so it feels more personal than traditional advertising. 

Plus, since it’s easy to fit text, images, links, and other content into an email, the format offers more flexibility than social media. But how can you be sure that your emails are making a difference to your strategy? It helps to start by understanding what makes an email successful and ensuring that you are composing emails according to best practices.

But if you really want to know if your emails are the best they can possibly be, it’s time to start A/B testing.

What is A/B Testing?

Simply put, an email A/B test is when you send one version of an email to a group of contacts, and a slightly different version to another group, then see which one does a better job of delivering your desired result. It’s a straightforward way to determine if certain strategies are more or less effective with your audience.

Why is A/B Testing Important?

It’s nice to think that your emails are the best they can be; it’s prudent to have data that proves it. A/B testing gives you the objectivity of numbers to show what is working and what isn’t. More than that, testing helps you to improve over time. Each test you run gets you one step closer to email perfection.

So instead of sending emails into the void and hoping for the best, A/B testing lets you optimize your strategy, which saves you time and money while hopefully increasing donations, engagement, and awareness of your cause.

The other reason A/B testing is important these days is the state of the industry. The latest study from M+R found that even though email response rates overall are up, if you dig deeper into the numbers for various sectors, nonprofit email is suffering from intense volatility. While some metrics are way up, some are plummeting. So it makes sense to learn what works for your sector, then polish up your emails to their shiniest in order to get the best results.

How to Get Started With A/B Testing

The absolute beauty of A/B testing is that as soon as you start doing it, the data rolls in and you can learn a lot in a short period of time. And getting started is easy! It’s really only three steps to A/B testing success (just watch out for that second one, it’s a doozie).

1. Set a goal

As with every part of a great nonprofit marketing strategy, it helps to have a goal. 

Need more donations? Or maybe bigger donations? Specific donation amounts? Better engagement? Additional volunteers? Say your goal is how to ask for donations in an email in the best possible way for your donors so your nonprofit has endless amounts of resources and we all live happily ever after…

Whatever it is, you need to have a single goal for each test, and that goal should have a specific number attached to it, like dollars raised, links clicked, etc.

This post does a great job of looking at A/B testing like a science project, including creating a hypothesis for your tests. If you want to test the effect of the call to action (CTA) placement in an email, you might write a hypothesis statement something like, “Moving the CTA to the top of the email will increase clicks.” This statement outlines what you’re going to test (moving the CTA) and the desired result (more clicks). 

A goal-oriented hypothesis statement is a great thing to keep front and center in your mind; it’s easy to get distracted by other factors that fall outside your test.

2. Choose Which Variables to Test

The most critical thing to remember when A/B testing is that you can only change one thing per test. Think back to grade school and try to remember the scientific method. Changing only one variable allows you to draw conclusions from your test. Here are some straightforward variables that you can try testing right away that will give you actionable results:

Sender’s Address

Test sending email communication from different email addresses. Sending email from a human email address (like dave@nonprofit.com) can see an increased open rate of up to 35% compared to a more generic address (like marketing@nonprofit.com). But don’t stop there: you can also try sending email from yourself, your executive director, or any other email address or alias that you have access to.

Subject Lines

First impressions matter. The subject line of your email is the first thing people see, so it needs to make an impact or they’ll never open your email and all your effort will go to waste. Try testing different subject lines. For example, a subject line with a question versus one without:

Now is the time to make a difference. Vs. Will you help make a difference?

Timing

If most of your subscribers are located in the same time zone, testing what time of day is better for open rates is a snap. Send the exact same email at different times of the day or on different days of the week, then measure which one does better. After a few rounds of testing, you should have a much better idea of when to send emails, and as they say in this post, be consistent going forward so that your audience knows when to expect communications from you. It has been suggested that Tuesday is the best day for open rates, so that’s probably a good place to start your testing. But keep in mind that your audience may be different or the day you send may be determined by the goal you set.

Images and Video

Images and videos can be valuable tools when you really want to pull at the heartstrings of your supporters. People tend to connect with imagery featuring humans, animals, and other things that illustrate your cause, forging an emotional connection better than with text alone. 

Try one email with text only and one with an image. Then pit the winner against one with video. 

Content

Content is an extremely broad variable to test. Content could be as simple as the salutation (Greetings! vs. Hi Dave!) or as complex as overall email length. Whichever content variable you’re testing, remember that it’s going to give data about click-through rates, dollars raised, signups, etc. but nothing about open rates, since you have to open the email to see the content.

Calls to Action

A call to action is the content element (often a button with text) that encourages people to do the thing that you want them to do. Like BUY NOW or DONATE or SIGN UP. And there are a million different things you can try with your CTA to get better results.  Change the color. Change the placement. Definitely try changing the text. Does GIVE NOW work better than DONATE NOW? There’s only one way to find out. Hubspot has a great roundup of CTAs that work in a lot of different situations, so if you’re looking for ideas, this is a great place to start.

Segments

A super lightweight way to start A/B testing is to skip changing your emails and just change who is receiving them. That is, if you segment your donors into different groups, you can send the same email to two groups and see how it does. In this case, the list segment is your variable. 

Examples of list segments that may be helpful to your organization include:

  • By region (country, state or province, country, city, neighborhood, etc.)
  • By donation frequency (yearly, monthly, casually)
  • By donation size (small, medium, large)
  • By area of interest (e.g. a specific project they always donate to)
  • By stakeholder group (volunteer, board members, etc.)
  • By age or gender
  • By status (donor VS prospective donor)

3. Tracking Success

As with every marketing program you run, event you host, or campaign you launch, it’s pretty much necessary to track how it does. Tracking your data lets you crunch your numbers and learn from your tests, especially if you compare yourself to some of the nonprofit industry averages available here.

If you’re using Keela to track your data (which we recommend!) you can set up a convenient dashboard that will do a lot of the legwork for you.

A/B Testing Best Practices

If you’re ready to start A/B testing your emails, it’s a good idea to check out some of the best practices in this post by Neil Patel, including:

  • Always test simultaneously to avoid seasonal or world events from impacting your results.
  • Use larger samples for more accurate results. The end of this blog post notes that 5,000 or more recipients for one email (so, 10,000 recipients for a full A/B/ test) is ideal but you can get away with fewer.
  • Test early and often.
  • It’s beating a dead horse at this point, but only test one variable at a time.

It’s never too soon to start testing whether your emails are performing at an optimal level. Start small on your next newsletter or fundraising letter, track the results, and iterate, iterate, iterate until you’re an email Jedi—May the force of A/B testing be with you.