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Lessons Learned from Email Marketing

As we wind down 2018 in preparation for 2019, there is no doubt in my mind that you are in the process of thanking donors, identifying new prospects, reaching out to your clients and community. As you solidify your marketing and outreach strategies for 2019, I thought you might find Alexie Ward’s article, Our 9 Biggest Email Marketing Pet Peeves for 2019, to be of interest. Alexie lists 9 email pet peeves and alternatives, that I think are relevant to everyone, including professionals in the nonprofit and for-profit arenas. Alexie is an account coordinator with IMPACT.

Amy’s 9 email pet peeves are:

  1. No personalization
  2. No clear call to action
  3. Not optimizing for mobile
  4. Lack of/misuse of automation
  5. Boring subject lines
  6. Lack of professionalism
  7. Failing to analyze your data
  8. Not taking advantage of testing
  9. Neglecting design

Amy expounds on each of these points in her article.

Amy’s Key Takeaways

Email marketing has the ability to be an amazing tool to connect and engage with your audience when done right.

Sending emails on a whim with no real goal won’t leave you reaping any benefits, so be sure to always have an end-to-end strategy in mind when planning for your emails.

What Resonates With Me

One of the things from Amy’s article that resonated with me is the fact that email marketing is a more effective conversion tool than social media. People are more likely to purchase products after reading an email than after reading similar content on social media. As someone who is in the throes of developing marketing and communication strategies utilizing email and social media, this really struck a chord with me.

I was also struck by the fact that the return on investment for email marketing can be as high as 38 times the original cash outlay. Before reading this article, I have to admit, I didn’t think to do the analysis on the ROI for email as a line item, or comparing it to the return I got from running social media ads or conventional advertising. I tended to focus on a specific campaign in a specific marketing channel in a silo, so to speak. Or, I would look at total dollars spent on marketing through all channels and the total revenue generated as a result of combined marketing efforts for a specific project. Reading this article has made me more mindful of ways I can refine my own ROI analyses for marketing, advertising and community outreach. As a nonprofit stakeholder, I’d imagine that you, too, are concerned with using marketing and outreach strategies that have the “biggest bang for your buck.”

For me, the jury is out with respect to automation of an email system. While I think automation could significantly save time and effort, I am extremely annoyed working with people who send the same automated response, regardless of what my inquiry to them has been. There has to be a delicate balance between being timely with our responses and maintaining a personal touch.

Lessons Learned from My Own Experiences

When I first started my consulting practice in 2003, I found that I got a lot of great information from many people who are involved in nonprofit management and/or social justice. I knew I couldn’t use it all for myself, so I began sharing it as I got the information. As I began to share information, more people shared with me, and I sent out even more information?—?as I got it. One of my contacts politely emailed me back and said she appreciated being kept in the loop, but would prefer not to be contacted unless I had something very specific to share.

It occurred to me that she was not the only person who felt that way, so, I would sit on my emails for a week, bundle up the ones I thought would resonate with the most people, and I packaged them into a newsletter format. My inspiration for this strategy was Raynard Villa Hall, who publishes Bronzecomm. While Raynard focuses on news pertaining to the African American community, In the Loop focused on news impacting the nonprofit and local activist communities around the city of Chicago. I published In the Loop for nearly 15 years, and the mailing list grew from 25 people to nearly 7,000 in that time frame. I only publish the once-weekly newsletter occasionally now.

While I still have a lot to learn, there is no question that publishing In the Loopand a host of other newsletters and emails over the years has provided lessons learned that I still use today in the Nonprofit Utopia community:

  1. You are what you write about and/or share. In your absence, the only representation people have of you is what you write or share. I found that when I first started sending the letter out, people began to assume that I was an expert on all things nonprofit just because I shared news and resources from other experts and people who work in the field. Don’t get me wrong, over the years, I have become very knowledgeable in the nonprofit arena, but, in the beginning, people assumed a higher level of knowledge than I believed I possessed because they associated me with the people whose messages I shared. This is something I discovered quite by accident, not realizing that people who consciously go about crafting images as thought leaders intentionally use this as one of their strategies.
  2. Learn to fail forward. I was disappointed to read that one of my colleagues didn’t want to hear from me unless I “had something specific”. In my mind, you couldn’t be more specific than the resources and information that other colleagues were sharing and asking to be included in the newsletter. What she was really saying was she wasn’t interested in the content I was providing. I respected her wishes and never emailed her again. However, I used the conversation in which she said she appreciated the fact that I was keeping her in the loop, to actually name my newsletter. It became an instant hit, and people all over Chicago were sharing the newsletter.
  3. Be clear about the intent of the email or newsletter. I totally agree with Amy that it’s important to tie our email communications to higher goals and purposes. As I started developing my own newsletters and email communications, I found that my results were mixed. When I started being intentional about the goal of the communications?—?whether to build brand awareness, make a sale, or simply to pass on information?—?I started getting better results. I am less likely to take a shotgun approach to sharing information, and I am better aligning my communications with overall goals, objectives and strategies for my business. I am seeing a reduction in audience of some of my emails, but an increase in the likelihood that the people who remain are more in tuned to the messages I’d like to convey personally, professionally or through the Nonprofit Utopia community.
  4. Be careful when using purchased email lists or cold email lists that have not used in a while. You can read all the lessons I learned the hard way in my article, Caveat Emptor: Beware of Purchasing Email Lists )or Any Other Data, for that Matter)

Your Turn

As you read through these lists, what resonates with you? Are there any pet peeves you’d like to add? What are some of your lessons learned? What has worked for you with email marketing? We would love to hear from you. Share your responses on the Nonprofit Utopia blog here.

About the Author

 Valerie F. Leonard is an expert in community and organizational development, helping organizations build sustainable communities.  She is the Founder of Nonprofit Utopia, the ideal community for emerging leaders, and host of the Nonprofit Utopia podcast. Valerie teaches courses in nonprofit management for the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Certificate in Nonprofit Management program.  For further information, visit  and

Keywords: Capacity Building, communications, marketing, Nonprofit Management, Nonprofit Utopia, Valerie F. Leonard

Posted in Common Sense Media, Business News

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