How Much is Too Much Nonprofit Communications?
The second quarter of 2020 will be remembered for a lot of different reasons. One thing we’d all like to forget was the absolute deluge of emails assuring us that corporations were doing their best to protect us and their employees from COVID-19.
First it was the banks. Then the airlines. Then online retailers. Then a bus company from your Greek vacation in 2003. Then a forgotten restaurant in a town you lived in seven years ago. Then everyone else who has ever even glimpsed your email address.
It was a lesson in two things: (1) Always be aware of GDPR laws for both giving and receiving email addresses, and (2) just a few too many emails feels like WAY TOO MANY EMAILS.
You can understand the perspective of companies. It’s hard to get people to hear their message, they need them to hear it to stay in business, and they know email is usually pretty effective at delivering it. So they send email.
The same exact reasoning applies to nonprofit organizations trying to fundraise. But there’s a point of oversaturation.
We’ve devoted a lot of space on this site to explaining how to execute an effective communication strategy. But sometimes the best strategy is no strategy at all. So how do you know when you’ve sent too much communication and what can you do about getting your audience’s attention back?
But First, a Quick Review
If you’re new to email communication strategy and nonprofit marketing, it’s probably worth your time to check out some of our past posts so that you have a solid foundation before you get too worried about overdoing it.
- The Complete Guide to Nonprofit Email Marketing
- How to Build an Easy, Affordable Nonprofit Marketing Plan
- Love in the Time of Smartphones: How to Digitally Engage Donors
- How to Write a Successful Fundraising Email: 11 Best Practices Explained
- Design Matters: How to Use Nonprofit Email Templates to Engage Your Supporters
- More Trial, Less Error: How to Ask for a Donation in an Email
- Donor Retention: How to Measure and Improve Donor Loyalty
- Ready, Set, Re-Engage: How to Reactivate Lapsed Donors
- Once, Twice, Three Times a Donor: How to Boost Recurring Donations
Each of these posts touches on email as a significant and effective part of your overall strategy. But let’s not get carried away.
The Problem With Too Much
You might think that if you’re sending quality email communications there’s no such thing as too much. But there are distinct and measurable drawbacks to pushing your communications past the threshold that your audience is willing to put up with.
Lower Lifetime Value
According to this study, every dollar you spend on email marketing earns your organization $44. That’s an incredible return on your investment. And if you factor in that the average value of an email address is $118, it may seem like hammering your target audience with emails is the secret to harvesting a bottomless pit of money.
But too many emails can cause your subscribers to tune out your message, or worse, unsubscribe. Suddenly the lifetime value of a contact in your database starts to drop, the cost to acquire new subscribers creeps up, and your margins aren’t looking so tidy.
No one wants to be bombarded with repetitive requests for donations, invitations to join social media groups, or impact stories meant to open tear ducts and wallets; the natural reaction is to just stop reading.
Higher Spam Complaints
Not everyone knows that they can simply click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of your emails if they’ve had enough of you. But nearly everyone is aware of the big REPORT SPAM button at the top of many email servers. This post notes that the trend of flagging spam is becoming more prominent, even among subscribers who originally requested communication from you.
Once high numbers of spam reports start rolling into your internet service provider, they are obligated to pay more attention to the amount and types of email you’re sending. And with increased scrutiny comes more blocked and rejected email.
A great way to check out whether or not mailbox providers are likely to let your email through is Sender Score. This service assigns your organization an easy-to-understand 0 through 100 score based on how ISPs view your email, which factors in spam reporting. If your organization has a high or rising score, keep doing what you’re doing. If you have a low score or a score that’s dropping, it may be time to reconsider your communications planning.
Damage to Your Image
As a nonprofit organization, you don’t offer a physical product or a quantifiable service to paying customers. Instead, you offer a reputation for doing something good for the world. This is your brand and your positive brand image is the number one thing that you need to maintain in order to keep doing business.
Sending too much email, while it may cause unsubscribes and spam reports for some, may also enrage some of your audience to the point that they take to social media to excoriate you for asking too much of them. That means not only have you lost a donor, you may also lose others due to the damage that your brand takes. And once your brand starts to diminish, it can be tough to get people back on board.
How to Tell When You’ve Gone Too Far
So now that you’re aware that there is a line you shouldn’t cross, how do you know where the line is?
This study found that in 2019, nonprofits sent 50 email messages per subscriber on average (down 2.1%). Of those:
- 22 were fundraising appeals
- 11 were newsletters
- 7 were advocacy messages
- 10 were other
These are good baseline numbers to stick to if you’re just starting out or haven’t been paying close attention to the amount of email you send. There are also variances for different nonprofit sectors, for example, animal welfare nonprofits tend to send a lot more email (81 per year), while the audience in your specific sector may prefer fewer emails.
So with these numbers as a starting point, it’s pretty easy to see that if you’re only sending 20 emails per year, you could do more. But if you’re sending more than 80 emails, chances are you’re testing the patience of your audience.
Now let’s get into some specific red flag metrics that can give you more detailed information about your audience.
Open and Click Rates
As with everything you do to achieve your communication goals, it’s important to monitor the performance of your emails, compile data, and create reports. Two metrics that you’ll want to watch are open and click rates:
Open rate – the percentage of recipients who open your email (duh).
Click rate – the percentage of recipients who click a link or a linked image in your email.
If you haven’t been measuring these, Mailchimp has done some legwork on your behalf and determined that nonprofits on average see a 25% open rate, the fifth highest across all industries measured, and a 2.8% click rate, which seems tiny but is actually pretty standard.
Once you start measuring your email performance, compare it to these averages. If your open and click rates are better, great job, you probably aren’t sending too much email. If your rates are lower, or they vary wildly from email to email, you may be oversaturating your audience.
Note that if your open rate is good but your click rate isn’t, it may just be that your content needs work.
Mailchimp’s compiled data suggests that nonprofits enjoy a midrange unsubscribe rate of 0.2%. That means that for every 1,000 users you email, two unsubscribe. M + R Benchmarks puts that number at 0.17% and notes that nonprofit email list size decreased by 2% in 2019.
If you notice that your unsubscribe rate overall is higher than the industry average it may be time to cut back the number of emails you’re sending. Donors don’t like to be treated like ATMs.
Conversely, if you notice a spike in unsubscribes for an individual email, you may have another content problem.
How to Fix It
If you’re looking for a concrete answer to the question of how many emails you should be sending to your specific audience, sorry to disappoint, but you won’t find it here. Just like this excellent post from Keap says, the number of emails that works for your users depends on a lot of different factors and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
But there are some steps that you can take to prevent oversaturation or mitigate the effects of your overzealous email program.
Step 1: Create a Consistent Posting Schedule
Managing the expectations of your donors is key. If they signed up for a weekly email newsletter, you better make sure it comes out weekly. If you haven’t sent any communication in a while and then hit your lists with a flurry of emails all in one week, that’s a recipe for lots of blocks, spam reports, and unsubscribes.
Likewise, if you don’t currently have a regular email schedule and you notice your red flag metrics ticking up, decide on a standard email frequency and see if it helps bring your stats back up to par.
Step 2: Analyze Data Again
New It’s entirely possible that negative changes in your red flag metrics can be attributed to only a portion of your audience. Perhaps donors in certain generations or supporters in different time zones prefer more or less email. A great strategy is to dig deeper into your data: segment your email lists so that you can send email with different frequency to different groups and see what works better. Make sure you track your results so that you can apply your findings to future tests.
Step 3: Get it from the Horse’s Mouth
If you just can’t be bothered to Sherlock Holmes your way to email success, why not just ask the question? Write up a simple, easy to answer donor survey that asks how frequently your audience wants to hear from you. If you notice two distinct groups (e.g. weekly preference and monthly preference), it’s time to segment your email list (refer to Step 2).
Once donors are getting email at a rate that they prefer on a regular schedule, you can expect your stats to level out and your return on investment to skyrocket.
Even though setting up your email program is going to take time at the outset, it’ll pay off in the long run, and it certainly will save you time and headache over trying to fix an email strategy that has spiraled out of control. Remember that it’s not just about quantity, it’s also about quality. There’s no reason to put in hours of work crafting beautiful, impactful content when there’s a good chance it’s going to get bounced without ever being read.
So collect your data, ask good questions, think carefully about your schedule, and you’ll be sure to have a thoughtful, intentional email strategy that complements your content and gets results.