Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who isn’t happy with their email click-through rates.

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’m noticing our click-through rate for our year-end campaign emails is low. Any ideas?

Not Clicking

Dear Not Clicking,

First, let’s define ‘low.’ Do you mean compared with your own previous years’ results, or just in general based on your intuition?

If you’re doing worse than in previous years, that’s another discussion entirely. Your list could be at fault. Or your message and design. Or the fact that Giving Tuesday response cannibalized year-end response. Or even the reputation of your organization. Ask yourself: “What is different about our organization and/or message this year than in previous years?”

Before I dig too deep into the wrong weeds, let’s get a reality check on nonprofit click-through rates in general.  The folks at Campaign Monitor built an in-depth guide outlining email marketing benchmarks for nonprofits based on their original research taken from billions of Campaign Monitor emails. You can see the benchmarks for all industries here.

What they discovered may surprise you. It’s the fact that, while nonprofit open rates trend higher than other industries (average 20.39%), their click-through (average 2.66%) and click-to-open (average 12.99%) rates are lower. Why? Perhaps it’s because supporters love to hear news from their favorite nonprofits, but they need a bit more of a nudge to incite a click-through or click-to-open.

About now you’re probably wanting some term definitions, right?

  1. Open Rate (OR) is the percentage of people who open your email in the first place.
  2. Click-Through Rate (CTR) is the percentage of people who click any link in your email – compared with your total mailing list. So it’s a pretty low percentage.
  3. Click-to-Open Rate (CTOR) is the percentage of people — among those who opened your email — who clicked on a link in your email. So it’s a higher percentage than the CTR. To me, it’s the most important measurement as it shows the effectiveness of your email’s content.

I’m going to assume you want more folks to (1) open your email (otherwise, you’ve really just wasted your time crafting your message) and then (2) click-to-open your campaign so they can make a gift (otherwise, you’ve failed to inspire folks to take the action you desire – which is the whole point). Right?

Here are some tactics to get more folks to open your email (OR).

  • Segment your emails so you send the most relevant content. At the most basic level, people who are already donors should be a distinct segment from prospects. Of course, you can break these groups down even further based on their affiliation with you and past giving record.
  • Ensure your subject line and preview pane arouse curiosity and/or begin a conversation. They are the online equivalent of the direct mail envelope.
  • Ensure your subject line and preview pane set up the expectation the recipient will find something useful or relevant if they open your email.
  • Maintain your brand voice throughout your messaging.
  • Offer strong incentives to capture attention (e.g., deadline, urgency, opportunity to leverage money, etc.)
  • A/B test one variable at a time to see what works best.

Here are some tactics to encourage higher engagement, once the email has been opened (CTOR).

  • Make sure your email is optimized for mobile so it displays and works well across devices. Test, test, test! Sometimes that big donate button at the top right-hand side of your email doesn’t appear until the very bottom on a phone or tablet.  Don’t just test it on your phone. Also test it on a friend’s phone who uses a different brand (e.g., iPhone vs Android).
  • Customize the content by mailing segment. In other words, if the subject line led me to believe the email would be about rescuing dogs (because you’ve collected data showing you know I’m a dog person), don’t talk about cats in the body of your message. Keep messaging consistent and as personalized as possible. Go beyond a person’s name to drop in different sections of text, images or even call-to-action buttons based on who’s looking at the email.
  • Optimize your email design and copy to inspire follow through. Variables that make a difference include physical placement of every element, compelling, emotional photos, provocative, storytelling captions, word choice, fonts and type size, and even color and contrast. Also keep your most important info, including your donation button, above the scroll. Not everyone will scroll down further.
  • Make your email scannable so the key points jump out. Lead with the most important information. Break the copy into chunks. Include boldface, headlines and images so it’s easy for folks to get the message. Close with the most important information. Judicious repetition is useful when people scan.
  • Don’t digress. Figure out what one thing you want the reader to do, and don’t offer the opportunity to do anything else (e.g., no “read more,” “sign up for our email,” “learn about our programs” or “volunteer.”) A campaign email is not a teaching opportunity. That’s what e-newsletters are for.
  • Include one compelling, easy-to-click call to action. Language matters, and specificity can make a difference (e.g. “Save a Life,” “Feed a Child,” or “Give to Cancer Research” may outperform a simple “Donate”).
  • A/B test one variable at a time to see what works best. Just because something worked for someone else, or worked for you five years ago, doesn’t mean it’s your best option today.  So keep up the testing!

One final piece of advice: Create your own benchmarks.  Don’t get too bogged down by industry standards. What’s really important is that you improve your own performance year over year.  Also, make sure you track performance by segment.  If your CTOR is terrific for donors and lousy for prospects, that tells you something.

Hope this helps you start clicking on all cylinders!

Charity Clairity

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Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad