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4 charity email marketing tips to take your comms to the next level

The power of email for the third sector can't be overstated. The charities who see great digital fundraising results often correlate to those that have a really healthy mailing list. So if you're wanting to boost your audience, and improve your open rate and conversions, we've got the tips for you!

By Reason Digital · October 20, 2021

Poor old email is often neglected in the days of chatbots and TikTok. This year’s charity digital skills report, for example, revealed an email marketing skills gap; 50% of respondents rated their email ability as fair and 26% rated it poor.

Email still has the highest ROI of any digital channel for fundraising conversions. It’s a great medium to funnel your fundraising campaigns through, and also a tried and tested method of communicating your charity’ values and ventures in a direct and personal way.

The trick is making your audience want to open your email in the first place, and then keeping them reading long enough to make an impact and even inspire action. Here’s four charity email marketing tips to help you do that!

1. Make them want to subscribe

Before we even start thinking about subject lines and content, your prospective supporters need a reason to sign up to your mailing list; so give them one.

A great newspaper headline gives the audience a reason to read. It’s exactly the same situation when getting someone to enter their email address into your sign up box – think of your call to action (CTA) as a headline.

Sometimes it’s about sprucing up the boring language associated with email newsletters. CoppaFeel, for example, calls their newsletter ‘Boob Mail’ and asks you to subscribe for ‘boob-related news’. Sold.

a screenshot of CoppaFeel's website. Text reads: Sign up for boob mail. Enter your details and sign up to receive a monthly email with all the latest campaign, fundraising and boob-related news from CoppaFeel! Name. Email. I agree to be contacted by CoppaFeel for the monthly Boob Mail newsletter. Join Boob Mail.

Really think about what’s of benefit to the user, not just what’s of benefit to your organisation. Your website may be asking people to ‘Join the *example foundation* newsletter today’. Well, who wants another newsletter in their inbox? Instead, reframe it as something more powerful: ‘Join the cause, find out how you can fight *bad examples*’. 

Spend a little bit of extra time crafting your newsletter CTAs to make them stronger and more relevant to the reader. Reveal what’s in it for them, even if all that’s in it for them is some good feelings, or a sense of doing good – that’s totally valid as well.

2. Subject line: Put the meat first

Project update from Zambia, July 2020.’ 

This type of subject line is all too common. It may be accurate to the content within the email,  but it definitely does not make you actually want to open that email.

Instead, surface the best story or snippet from that project update and put it in your subject line. ‘Here’s what joy looks like – Tom’s first day at school’.

pink background. a paper-made email icon travels across the background
neon sign that says 'hello' in a speech bubble
black background with a bright neon email icon

Another common subject line for charities tends to be along the lines of, ‘Urgent: malaria appeal’. Who wants to click on an appeal? While the subject line gives a sense of urgency, it lacks that ‘meat’ which would motivate the reader to click.

Try reframing with more context: ‘Whilst politicians debate cutting aid, malaria deaths double in 2 years.’ Here, we’ve surfaced one of the key facts from the appeal, and pushed that right into the headline while keeping that sense of urgency.

There isn’t one set way to craft a meaty subject line. It boils down to developing a sense of what is going to be compelling. The way that you’ll develop this knack is asking yourself that question: what is the juiciest or most emotive thing in this email that I can spotlight? The answer to that question will generally lead you towards your subject line.

3. Make it look like a normal message

This tip may seem counter-intuitive, and may not be appropriate for every type of email your charity sends. 

However, sometimes you’ll get better results with email when you try and make it look like a regular message. Essentially – avoid over-branding. Don’t make it look like an organisational newsletter and don’t cram in 20 different stories.

screenshots of two very plain looking emails

The example here could be confused with just a regular email from a friend, and that’s not a coincidence. This email practitioner has done that deliberately because they know people are likely to read those emails and act on them if they just look regular. Both these emails also came from a sender which includes someone’s first name. “Will at Full Fact” and “Maureen, with All Out”. Super simple tactic to humanise your email output.

If it looks like a newsletter it can be overfacing, it can smell of a request for money and can also cross the line into looking like spam. Enough to put anyone off.

4. Eyelines in photos

And just for fun, I wonder if you’ve ever thought about this one. It’s a known trick for websites but can be applied to many different content types, including email.

It’s a natural instinct for human beings to focus on eyes when we see photos of other humans since that’s what we’d focus on if we met them in real life. If you include photos in your email newsletters, you can use this instinct to your advantage.

However marginally, eyelines in photos can influence conversion rates. Some charities get their original–or outsourced–photographers to take photos with the subjects looking in different directions. The reason that they do that is so they can pick the perfect shot so that person is looking at the thing they want you to click on.

That is the level of detail that a large organisation will go to, to improve their conversion rates. It may sound too far-fetched, but if you’re looking for the more offbeat email tricks, it may pay off.

screenshots of charity websites. on the left a photo of a young boy where his eyeline is looking towards '£2, £5, £25'. On the right, two photos of people looking down at '£35' and '£60'.

Above you can see that the little boy collecting water is coincidentally looking at the buttons that specify an amount of money to give. It’s the same with the people on the right glancing down at the amounts of money. By focusing on the subjects’ eyes, people are more likely to follow the eyeline and in turn, focus on the important buttons or text.

Another thing that can also be powerful is having somebody look directly into the camera, and therefore at the user, particularly in a section of the email that aims to inspire action – say, a button that takes you to donate or share. It can subconsciously give a sense of being observed, which is more likely to make people behave in ways that they believe to be ethical or upstanding, like giving money to your charity!