Today, M+R Strategic Services and NTEN released the 2008 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study.

This “analysis of online messaging, fundraising and advocacy metrics for nonprofit organization” comes with some surprises and some data that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention to their online benchmarks. The NonProfit Times has a piece on the report here.

I read it this morning and participated in a webinar/conference call with the producers of the report this afternoon. Some of my thoughts are below, and many more will follow in additional posts. If you want to download the report, you can do so right here.

Data and thoughts…

Email Open Rates
One of the first pieces of information most of us look at when considering our effectiveness online is the open rate for email campaigns. As the report indicates, open rates have continued to trend down—2007’s rate was 17.6% with 2006 being at 21.3%. One important factor to remember, though, that really messes with the validity of these numbers, is the the way opens are indicated. Usually there is a one pixel size image that is embedded in the email so that when it loads on the viewer’s screen, the sender’s server is indicated and a open is registered. Many email applications have a preview window that loads an email even if the viewer doesn’t read it. Alternatively, most email clients viewed in a web browser are set by default not to load images. So, a viewer could read an email and even click through to take action or donate, with an open never being registered on the sender’s server.

People have so many emails to get through every day and it is only increasing. My question to consider then, is how do you become a resource or include value in every email without overwhelming the reader? You still want them to click on the donate or take action links, but by increasing the value of the content of your emails (value doesn’t necessarily only mean information, but options for action, etc.), you can increase your open rate and the number of clickthroughs for donations or action because of the visibility.

Message Type
The report measures the success of emails (open rate, clickthroughs, page completion, and response rate) by the three main message types: fundraising, news, advocacy. Rates have declined for each type from 2006 to 2007 but advocacy actions generated slightly higher open rates and significantly higher clickthrough, page completion and response rates. This says to me: provide options for advocacy and fundraising and news in every message! Diversifying your email lists is important, and there is certainly a lot to the impact those more tailored emails get – but that doesn’t mean that they can’t have tailored and appropriate messages for all three areas in an email.

Clickthrough Rates
In this area, the rates vary by issue sector. The environmental organizations that participated (you can find out which organizations were included in the survey here), had the highest clickthrough rates of all participants. What do their email newsletters have that yours don’t? Are they offering/linking to compelling videos and photos? Maybe including compelling stories and reports that require the reader to click through to the website to continue reading or download. Or, maybe there is a link to community features that require leaving the email.

Message Frequency & Subscribers
The report’s findings indicate a correlation between the number of emails sent and the open rate: “when an organization sent five or more emails per subscriber in a month, the open rate dropped by 1%.” Likewise, “the more messages an organization sends, the higher its unsubscribe rate for that month.” This doesn’t mean that you should be wary of emailing your lists. On the contrary. Focus on key questions though, like: What is pertinent, relates to current events, contributes to a campaign, creates positive actions for members? Or, how can we combine some of these smaller messages into a compelling story or segmented email? Don’t let data that could seem negative, cause fear. It’s good to question what you are doing though so that you can really be sure to send the best messages you have to your members.

There are really so many questions that this report brings to mind that should be discussed and not hidden. I encourage you to ask a hard question about some of your data, and get excited for positive places you can go with the answers.

What benchmarks have you seen your organization’s email campaigns hitting or missing? What do you want to be with your data – and are those goals realistic based on these benchmarks?

I’m going to follow this up with some posts on the fundraising data from the report and discussion of some case studies used to flesh out the numbers.

How do your benchmarks compare?
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