Last week, I visited Omaha, Nebraska, and had a great time presenting to the PRSA Nebraska chapter. I shared results from the newest eNonprofit Benchmarks Study from NTEN and M+R Strategic Services. Below are my slides and a round-up of tips for getting started with a more engaged membership responding to your emails!


From 2009 to 2010, the open rate for organizations of all sizes and sectors declined by 12% on average. The fundraising response rate fell by 19%, while the advocacy response rate fell by 7%. Meanwhile, unsubscribe rates held steady from 2009 to 2010.

It is important to note that higher unsubscribe rates are often indicative of a highly responsive email file because both responding and unsubscribing indicate that people are opening and reading emails – so an organization with higher unsubscribe rates often also sees higher response rates. Those unsubscribe numbers don’t indicate that you should stop or change that message, but that you should work to more closely segment your list and target your messages.

Advocacy actions and items of personal interest tend to result in more click-throughs from newsletters. Accordingly, advocacy-focused Environmental and Wildlife / Animal Welfare groups had the highest click-through rates in this year’s study, followed by Health organizations, where many subscribers may have a personal connection. International organizations once again stood out for their low newsletter click-through rates.

Get Started Increasing Your Engagement

Tips to grow your list:

  • Short sign-up forms – you just need their email, ultimately, and you can start building out their profile of what actions they take and how they engage
  • Sign-up from anywhere – make sure you’re providing a way for people to sign up from the side bar or other clear area on every page and not just by finding your “contact us” page
  • Create context for sign-ups – include options for people to stay informed about a topic from a blog post or an action alert by including a sign up form and a source tag (on the back end) for that topic
  • Provide options for more – once someone signs up, share more ways they can stay informed and other lists they can join

Tips for segmenting your list:

  • Super Advocates – these are the people that always click, sign, or respond; you want to start marking them as super advocates in your database so you can, first, ensure you don’t send them too many actions, and secondly target them at the start of campaigns or to spread your message
  • Events – people that attended an event are more likely to care about follow up than the rest of your list so be sure you track who came so you can share pictures, details or next steps
  • Action – to the furthest extent possible, you want to track the actions a member takes in your database and segment your messages by the kinds of action people have taken before and you want them to take now
  • Source – keep track of how people signed up or what topics brought them to your list so you can target content and make your kinds of communication relevant
  • Offline and Direct Mail – be sure to segment your list by folks who would have just received something from you in the mail, some times it works to do messages in tandem, and some times it just doesn’t

Tips for testing your messages:

  • From field – do your messages currently come from “Your Organization”? Try switching that out with “Your Name, Your Organization” or try associating certain staff names with certain kids of content so members can start identifying voices in association with your emails
  • Subject line – track the response rates to various subject lines and even break down your list into three parts and send the same email but with different subject lines to each to compare how they do
  • Templates – some groups and some content are best suited to email templates that resemble your website, others are better with a message-specific design, and still others do better with few or more images, you just have to try!
  • Pictures – try sending a message to your list but half receive it with a picture and the other half without, or try adding in a video vs a picture vs none, and so on
  • Content – there’s lots to test and try with content from bullet points to quotes to different styles and pull-out boxes

Tips for starting email campaigns:

  • Target by audience/segment – plan to segment your list from the beginning and identify the segments and the type of message they should receive
  • Additional messages for those who don’t open, don’t click – plan to have follow up messages for those who don’t open and/or don’t click (most email marketing platforms allow for some of this auto-segmenting)
  • Incorporate offers or exclusive deals – identify if you plan to offer any deals in the campaign and if they will be used at the start or just at a certain point (maybe message 4 in a 6 part campaign for example)
  • Change up the content – be sure to track how people are responding and identify the types of content or messages you can add or avoid
  • Make it personal – the more you can reference what you know about someone (not in a creepy way!) by tailoring the message to the kind of interaction you’ve had with them, the more likely they are to take interest in your message


Marketing and Engagement: Making the most of your Emails
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  • One thing that I find frustrating with the eNonprofit Benchmark study is that it defines a “Small” nonprofit as having under 100,000 deliverable email addresses. This makes it hard for (actual) smaller nonprofits (1-2,000 subscribers) to get meaningful comparisons for their work from the report. Do you have advice or qualifications or caveats that you share when talking to nonprofits who are no where near 100,000 subscribers? Do you still see the data as relevant?

    • Hey Matt –

      My thinking is this – the becnhmarks themselves (34% open rates, for example) aren’t the meaningful things in the report – it’s the trends over time – are open rates for small and large orgs going up or down? As you can see from the charts there is a WIDE (WIDE!) variance in the results. Some orgs with under 100k names outperform the largest orgs, and vice versa. So my advice is no matter what your list size is, use the report to understand the trends, and to help you learn how to benchmark against your own list performance. That’s the thing that matters most – are you improving your own list performance.

      That said – I totally see what you are saying. Our problem is that we can’t typically get the level of detail we report on for orgs with very small lists, who are generally using less sophisticated reporting and tracking tools.  It’s not that we don’t want to, but that we can’t.

      Happy to hear any other thoughts you have!