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How to Get More People to Open Your Nonprofit Email

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How to Use Social Media to Improve Donor Loyalty

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successful fundraising email

Think about how you get more people to open a direct mail piece. It begins with the outer envelope. It really doesn’t matter what’s inside, if people aren’t moved to open the envelope.

The same holds true with an email appeal. In this case, your email envelope is the subject line.

You need to do two things:

  • Grab attention
  • Leave an irresistible impression

To do this, you need an angle

Angles are what get you in.

Let me explain.

Imagine you’re selling sweaters. For one consumer, looking to keep warm in the dead of winter, the material out of which the sweater is made is very important. For another consumer, wanting to be hit and fashionable, the color and design is more likely to drive a purchase. For someone else, the price might be the angle from which you should enter the conversation. 

So ask yourself: What’s the most relevant, urgent and important angle from our audience’s perspective? 

If you’re writing to dog lovers about cats, or vice versa, it doesn’t really matter how compelling your subject line is. Because you’re coming at this from the wrong angle.

The more you know what keeps your constituents up at night… The more you know what makes them curious… The more you know about their interests, and how they might like to see themselves in the world… The better you are able to grab their attention and make an impression.

Note that when you do these things, it makes your email recipient stop a moment in their tracks. Rather than going into instant delete mode, they ponder a moment. Their curiosity is aroused.

Speaking of arousing curiosity

When I create a direct mail package, I try to arouse curiosity with the outer envelope. Rather than a plain white window envelope that looks like a bill, or bulk mail, or something that actually screams that it comes from a nonprofit or someone trying to sell something, I like to create an aura of mystery. 

One of my favorite tricks is to leave the name of the charity off of the envelope entirely. I’ll just put an address there, and ideally have someone handwrite their name over the address. That makes the prospective reader curious. They ask themselves: “Who did this come from? Do I know this person?” If they want the answers to these questions, they have to open the envelope!

The same holds true with email. 

Rather than a subject line that says our fundraising deadline is tonight” how much better would it be to begin with something mysterious? 

  • “I have a favor to ask.” 
  • “I’d love your feedback on something.” 
  • “This is a statistic very few people know.”

Think of this curiosity-arouser as a conversation starter. 

It’s not dissimilar from something you might say to someone at a cocktail party. You want to get the conversation flowing, so you begin with a question. Or maybe you begin with something like “Want to hear a funny joke?” Or “I have a really interesting story to tell you.”

Start the conversation with your email subject line

Email fundraising and marketing is like being at an online cocktail party. 

The best conversationalists attract the largest crowds. It helps to have some good opening lines.

Angle your subject headline to create the expectation that if the recipient opens the email the conversation will be continued. 

And there will be something there that’s of interest to them. Something that aligns with their values.

The folks at NextAfter have made a huge contribution to the social benefit sector by analyzing over 50 subject line ‘experiments’ (i.e. A/B tests) that are helpful in understanding which subject lines are most effective. I encourage you to visit their website where they share the results of all of their research. They’ve uncovered five key strategies that make email subject lines work.

  1. Mystery
  2. Utility
  3. You
  4. Recency
  5. Authenticity

In fact, they have taken email subject line analysis to the next level by developing a formula about which I’m over-the-moon excited. What this formula does is mathematically calculate how much each of these strategies results in a beneficial action. Then the formula suggests you should prioritize these strategies according to how much they will improve your open rate.

It looks like this (and you’ll understand it better after you’ve read through this article):

Work the email subject line formula

1. Create an aura of mystery

You may have heard the human brain is wired for storytelling. People can’t resist a good story. And one prime storytelling genre is mystery.

Who doesn’t want to be drawn into a tale of intrigue? Who doesn’t want to find out more about what is going on? Who doesn’t want to help solve the mystery?

I’ll tell you who. Your reader, that’s who!

A mystery is something that makes people innately curious. 

It’s the difference between these two subject lines:

  1. Charity a is hosting a big event
  2. You won’t believe how awesome this is going to be

Most people really don’t care that you’re hosting an event. That sort of subject line gives away all the mystery. But the second line makes people wonder what is going to be so awesome? 

Is this something I can’t afford to miss out on?” 

People have a fear of missing out, so when you combine this fear (FOMO) with a mystery, you’re really operating on all cylinders.

Consider the difference between these two emails:

  1. We have 25% more people on our waiting list
  2. You can’t even imagine…

The first subject line is declarative. There is no mystery left. The second subject line causes the reader to wonder what it is they can’t imagine. If they want to find out, they absolutely must open the email.

Mystery boils down to creating intrigue by leaving a bit of the subject matter out of your writing.

Be useful/offer a dopamine hit

Remember that movie, “You’ve got mail?” It goes back to a time when email was new, and people were delighted to get something in their inbox. In much the same way, people look for a warm, personal, delightful letter in their snail mailbox. 

Sadly, today most people don’t get many of those ‘good’ pieces of mail that make them happy to see them when they arrive. More and more, people think of mail as something annoying rather than something to which they look forward.

We could all use more joyful dopamine hit, don’t you think?

That’s why with direct-mail appeals I’ll sometimes use an oversized or brightly colored envelope. They signify that something fun is inside. The donor inadvertently thinks “Oh, Goody!” Maybe this is an invitation. Maybe a personal letter. Maybe a thank you note. Definitely not a bill, or a sales piece.

You want to create a similar aura of anticipation with your subject line to show people, if they open it, they’ll be delighted with the contents. 

It will be something useful to them. Or something that warms their hearts. Or something that gives them a feeling of joy as they contemplate solving one of society’s ills. Or something that gives them an opportunity to become engaged with you. Or something that brings them the gift of meaning.

For example, in one NextAfter experiment an email with the subject line “Why do you give Christmas gifts?” generated 84% more opens than an email subject line saying “3 reasons to give a life-changing gift.” People don’t want a lecture or a term paper. They do want to be engaged in a conversation.

Your job is to come up with subject line copy that, in essence, lets the reader know you want to help them. 

And what do you want to help them with? 

  • You want to help them become the change they want to see in the world. 
  • You also want to help them like who they see in the mirror.

What might you say in an email subject line to convey this? How about simply:

  • I want to help you
  • Here’s some new research you’ll find helpful
  • Here’s a unique opportunity

Your angle is to make this all about how your donor will benefit, and not about how your organization will benefit.

Get personal

People will naturally resonate with anything that seems it was made personally for them. That’s why mail envelopes that are hand addressed get opened more than appeals that come with window envelopes. 

Tom Ahern, direct-mail copywriter extraordinaire, says “you is the glue.”

Find a way to add the word “you” to your subject line. 

This one is simple trick will increase opens significantly.

How about:

  • George has a message for you
  • You are going to love this!
  • This was made for you

Combine this strategy with some of the other strategies for a double or triple whammy:

  • You are never going to believe this
  • I want to help you
  • This will surprise you

Leverage the power of recency

People are wired to be most interested in what is current (unless, perhaps, they’re a history major). That’s why, in your fundraising appeal and marketing communications messaging, you will want to consider what your audiences may be thinking about in that particular moment. [BTW: Staying current with the news can be very helpful in this regard.]

Another way to leverage the power of recency is by using words that are time-relevant. Examples include:

  • Days of the week — Guess what’s happening this Monday?
  • Yesterday, today, tonight, tomorrow — Tomorrow is when you begin
  • Time of day — The doors open at midnight

This strategy also leverages urgency. It shows readers why this is important right now

Your reader shouldn’t delay opening this particular email, because it won’t be relevant later.

Again, the more you can combine this strategy with other strategies, the better off you’ll be.

Here a subject line that worked well in the NextAfter experiments:

  • What’s special about today? 

Do you see how this is different from saying “Today is the last day to make a tax-deductible gift?”  

It combines the strategy of recency with that of arousing curiosity/creating an aura of mystery. And how does it do this? 

It asks an engaging question about today, rather than making a declarative statement about what happened, or was accomplished, in the past.

[So… No more “We want to help 20% more than the 652 women we helped last year.”]

Got it?

Be authentic

Remember, your readers are human beings. They are not robots. 

People don’t want to engage with someone who sounds like a robot.

If you come across naturally, like a genuine human being, people will respond.

If you come across all gimmicky and salesy, people will not respond. 

It’s that simple.

Here is what it sounds like when you’re selling:

  • You won’t want to wait another single minute to grab this offer
  • Seriously, dude, this is the most awesome opportunity you’ll see this year
  • The clock is ticking if you want to double your money

I know you see emails like these all the time. So perhaps you’ve assumed they work. Don’t assume! Just because people do something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Some folks will open them, sure. But more people will open them if they don’t come across in sales-speak.

One trick I use is to imagine whether this sounds as if this could be coming out of the mouth of a used car salesperson. If the answer is yes, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. 

What you should do next 

A/B test your email subject lines

If you want to improve your results you need to constantly strive for improvement. A/B testing is one useful strategy.

Next time you have a subject line you consider effective (A), come up with an alternative subject line for your next campaign (B). 

Randomly divide your mailing list in half, and send 50% of the folks the first subject line and 50% of the folks the second one. Then see how your open and click-through rates compare. If the alternative subject line does better, this will become your new ‘control.’ Next time you run an email campaign, you can test an alternative headline against the control.

And so on… And so on… As you continuously improve.

With A/B testing, every appeal has the potential to deliver not only donation dollars, but also a wealth of useful information to allow for sequential improvement

The folks at NextAfter have created a useful tool to help you validate your own experiments.

Use the formula developed by NextAfter to craft your headlines

If you scroll back up to the top of this article, you’ll find the formula.

What you’ll now notice is that the first two strategies are the most valuable. They will improve the strength of your headline by a factor of three. So begin with those. 

  • Think about how your reader will perceive a useful benefit to them if they open your email. 
  • Think about how you might arouse their curiosity/create an aura of mystery so they are more likely to access that benefit.

“You” is definitely helpful, but by a factor of one. If you can work “you” naturally into your headline, it can only help you.

The final two strategies are useful to you by a factor of two. Look at your subject line again, and see if you can add in some recency and authenticity.

Stop winging it

Don’t make your email subject line an afterthought.

Spend some time thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish strategically.

You want to give people the impression there is something worth reading here.

Take a critical look at what you’ve written. Make sure it isn’t egocentric. Make sure it’s not just a non-intriguing declarative sentence. Make sure it isn’t gimmicky and/or salesy. Make sure it’s not all about you, your organization, and past accomplishments.

Make sure you are writing about things your audiences are likely to care about.

This isn’t rocket science. But there is some science involved. 

You can, and you will, get good at this! 


You can get a step-by-step guide to crafting a killer annual appeal letter or email in Claire’s Anatomy of a Fundraising Appeal Letter plus Sample Template

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  • Jason

    Great post. I love the tip about adding "you" to the subject line. It's so simple, but it makes so much sense!
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