Best Practices and Tips for Sending Email

The strength of email is that it is simple, efficient, immediate and personal. The majority of your audience is more likely to read your email messages than they are to visit your website each day.

Your goal is to provide personal, engaging content in your regular email communications that builds trust and interest in the organization and gives your members a reason to return to the site and/or engage with your work.

When preparing each email, focus on the factors that get your readers to do three things:

  1. Open the email
  2. Read the email
  3. Take the action specified in the email

Here are some tips to get your audience to do the three things above:

Schedule each communication thoughtfully and with regard to real-world time.

You don't want to email your list too often, and you want to be especially aware of holidays and world events. In terms of frequency, the acceptable number of emails per week or per month varies. The frequency with which you can email your audience changes based upon your relationship with readers, whether or not your organization's issues are at the forefront of the news cycle, and the timelines of the actions you may be asking supporters to take.

Develop an email and online content calendar.

Plan this well in advance with your entire team and can commit to following. The calendar should be flexible enough that you can act on unplanned events as they arise. The internet is a fast-moving medium, so you may only have a number of hours to get in front of a story or develop an action or online fundraising event for your community. Otherwise, planning, writing, setting up, and testing your bulk emails can be very time consuming, so having several days to prepare an email can be helpful. But having a calendar does not mean that you should feel compelled to send emails on the same day and time each week/month. It is far more important to email your supporters only when you have something to say, otherwise you risk having them tune out your messages.

Spend time on the subject line of your emails.

The subject line is typically the deciding factor between whether or not a supporter opens your email. Therefore, be sure to make each subject line appeal to your readers. Effective subject lines often tell users something they want to know, are provocative and arouse curiosity, or speak to an emotion-based need. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for what works in subject lines. Your best option is to test a few subject lines on a segment of your list before sending to the full list, using what you already know about your audience and their interests.

Avoid promotional words such as "Free!," "50% Off!," "Click Here," and "Call now!" in your subject lines as they may cause your email to be marked as spam by your recipients' email clients. Worse, your supporters' email client may automatically filter out a message with these words in the subject line and the reader may never get to see it. Most bulk email tools and services provide information to help you complete subject line spam testing to see how typical spam filters will interpret your email so that you can make adjustments before sending.

Send emails from a human being with a real name

(i.e., include sender's name in the "From" field—organization name can be used in conjunction with the sender's name, but should not be used exclusively). Consider choosing two or three people within your organization, including the director or CEO, to be messengers for your organization's email campaigns. Using these unique identities, you can create several "email relationships" with the members of your list. Each voice can be built up as the sender of a certain type of email, and then your readers will be able to infer the message's content or importance simply by reading the "From" line. If the messages are written in ways that reflect the voices and personalities of the senders, readers will ideally begin to feel a personal connection to the effort and what they are being asked to do.

Make emails action oriented.

Even if your email is primarily informational, it should usually invite the reader to take an action – whether that action is clicking through to an article on the website, sharing the email with friends, contacting elected officials, or donating money. Adding something meaningful that people can DO engages them in the process.

Keep content short and to the point.

Email messages should not contain the full text of referenced material or content, unless it's very brief. Content should also be very personal, relevant, and specific. The more focused the message, the faster your users will digest it. In the digital age, each person's attention is a precious and fleeting resource.

Make your content scannable.

Use bulleted lists, headings, and charts where possible to layout your content in a clean and clear way. This will allow users to scan the material easily and pick out the main points of your text. Adding a callout box featuring a compelling graphic and a short phrase summarizing the ask can be very effective.

Tone down the graphics you include.

Focus on useful and informative content. Email is not the place for heavily stylized design, mostly because HTML and CSS support is inconsistent across email clients and devices. Email clients such as Google and Outlook increasingly are set to not show graphics in emails by default.

Include Actual Links.

Use the actual hyperlink, not words with embedded links in your emails. Links to you website or contribution page are bolder and easier for readers to find when they stand alone. Your click-through rate will typically be higher if you make it easier for your email recipients to see the links as they scan through message. Also, if the reader knows where the link is going they will feel more at ease when clicking.

If you do link certain words in your email, try to avoid linking generic text such as "click here". Instead, use actionable text such as "read more" or "volunteer". Testing various linking methods is encouraged, as certain approaches may be more or less effective depending on who your readers are.

Collect and analyze data about the emails you send.

It is critical to track the open rate, unsubscribe rate, click through rate, and other metrics to determine where you are being most successful. This will also allow you identify tactics that work for your audience and to back away from tactics that are not working.

Test for success.

Segment your list (or create test groups) and send out different layouts, content appeals, images, or subject lines to the different users. Compare the open and click through rates (or other metrics). Decide which version of the email performed better, and then send that version out to your full list. Testing should be done using the scientific method, meaning that you should test for one variable at a time, and you should always have a control (or comparison) group.

Integrate with social media.

Make your message easily sharable. As long as the share request does not detract from the main action or request of the email, including social sharing links can be very effective in helping you promote your campaign. For maximum impact, and to help reach those who don't open your email, coordinate the email's content with the messages and communications posted to your website and social channels. For example, ensure that a supporter who reads your email is able to access the same campaign content through your Facebook page when he/she wants to share it with friends.

Consider mobile readers.

According to Nielson, "Thirty-one percent of US mobile subscribers are using a smartphone". Bulk email provider Vertical Response provides the following pointers to ensure that your emails reach the mobile users who likely comprise a growing percentage of your list:

  • Don't make them download the rest of the message. Your message might get truncated if it is too big. If it is too big, your recipient might be prompted to "download the rest of the message." Avoid running the risk of recipients not seeing your entire message or worse, deleting it.
  • Don't make them scroll. You will want to avoid having your recipient do a lot of scrolling. Make sure your key take-aways are near the top.
  • Remember that mobile screens are small. Make your emails 500-600 pixels wide so that they do not get distorted when they viewed on a mobile phone.
  • Let them call you. Include a click-to-call link, if applicable. The easier you make it for your recipient to get more information, the better.
  • Having a text version is a must. Make sure you have a text version of your emails in the event that your mobile recipients can only get text. Make sure you keep it short. Since emails usually have line breaks at about 60 characters and mobile devices 20 characters, you'll want to cut back on some of your copy and direct them for more information to your website.

Complete a final review before sending.

Use this checklist from Vertical Response before you hit send to make sure your emails are optimized.

Originally posted February 2011