Still: if your paper newsletter is a flop, switching to electronic won't help.
The following column originally ran in the June 16, 2009 online edition of the AFP eWire Skill Builder, sponsored by Blackbaud. In it, I try to answer two of the most common questions asked about nonprofit newsletters.
Question 1: Can I replace my paper newsletter with an e-newsletter instead?
This is the most commonly asked question at my workshops. My considered answer has stayed the same for the last five years: "Ummm...no. You really want both."
A well-done paper newsletter can produce significant revenue. Witness the Gillette Children's Foundation in Minnesota, which went from generating $5,000 per issue to $50,000 per issue just by changing a few things.
Understand, too, that paper and electrons are two very different media.
Paper is slow -- the good kind of slow, the kind that's made the "slow food" movement so popular among the health-conscious. Paper is a reader's medium, a relaxing place where you, as the writer, have the elbowroom to tell stories, show terrific pictures and report results.
An emailed newsletter, on the other hand, is fast. It's an ACT NOW! medium. Words are kept to a minimum.
In December 2008, Jeff Brooks shared with me some conclusions from his company's ongoing research into e-newsletters.
"I had a hypothesis," he wrote, "that e-newsletters were radically different from print newsletters. Not about story-telling," Jeff clarified, "but about the actions you can take. We've tested that notion a couple of times, and so far, that's proving to be true. It seems what works is to have one topic with 3 to 5 actions a reader can take, at least one of which is to give a gift, but the others aren't."
A fully firing communications schedule stays in touch with the donor base at a minimum once a month. Electronic newsletters help you satisfy that torrid pace. But if you pull the plug on paper and switch to utterly electronic, your donor income will almost certainly fall.
Here's a tantalizing bit of confirming data from Convio, via Ted Hart: Donors you contact with BOTH email and conventional mail give $62 on average annually versus a $32 average gift for those donors whom you contact ONLY through postal mail.
In other words, it's NOT an either/or situation, paper or electronic. It's a BOTH situation: paper AND electronic, if you want to maximize results.
Of course, that assumes you are actually getting results.
If you aren't currently making money with your paper newsletter, don't expect to do any better with an e-newsletter. Really good donor newsletters are few and far between, in my experience. Most nonprofit newsletters sent to me for audits are unwittingly built to fail, due to a variety of unguessed fatal flaws.
Question 2: How can I get you to open my emailed newsletter?
One thing determines pretty much by its lonesome whether I bother to open your email or not, and that one thing is your subject line.
In 50 characters or less, you need to grab my attention, intrigue me, convince me there's something inside worth reading. (Why must the subject line be so short? Many email in-boxes only display the first 50 or so characters of your subject line.)
In direct mail, the purpose of the envelope is not to protect the contents. The true purpose of the envelope is to get opened -- because the rest of the machinery can't begin to work unless someone dives inside that envelope.
Similarly, with emailed newsletters, the purpose of the subject line is not to label the contents. The true purpose is to get someone to open the email.
I send out my tips-and-opinion newsletter roughly twice a month through a service called Constant Contact. Constant Contact reports back to me a number of revealing metrics about my emailed newsletter: bounces (sent but not received); opt-outs; forwards; which items people clicked on and so on.
But the most important metric by far, the one I'm glued to, is my opening rate. Because that's a fair measure, in my opinion, of how well written and how relevant my subject line was to my target audience.
Here's the subject line that has fared the best so far in 2009:
The dirty truth about cases
Why did that particular subject line work well? Because it promised to reveal a secret. Two words did all the work: "dirty truth."
Takeaway: Did you know that some of the best-paid writers in journalism are the people who write headlines for tabloid newspapers? Publishers of gossip rags know that a good headline is worth its weight in gold. They know that the human brain is a curious beast, and insatiably so. Promise to show my brain something new and intriguing, and I will snap to attention.
And that's not opinion: it's neuroscience. MRIs prove that the human brain goes on red alert when presented with something new and different.
Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999.
Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the U.S., Canada and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful.
He founded his consulting practice in 1990 (www.aherncomm.com). His firm specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.
Ahern is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health and social justice issues. He has his MA and BA in English from Brown University, and a Certificate in Advertising Art from the RI School of Design. His offices are in Rhode Island and France.