This may actually be part five of the four-part website series for grassroots social change groups: getting people to your website once you have a site you want to direct traffic to. There are a few ways to do this, including tapping into social media and making it easy for search engines to send traffic to you, but I’m going to focus here on using email to effectively communicate with your supporters. Compelling email will help drive traffic to your website — if you think about your audience, use the right tools, and link to your best content.

First off, you have to be clear on who you are emailing and what they want to see in their inbox from you. All your communications are more effective when you think about who is going to be getting them and what they’re interested in. Examples:

  • Do you mostly sign up folks at your events? I bet they’re interested in more events. Tell them about upcoming events they should know about, or what happened at the latest event that they missed. 
  • Do you work on an issue where it’s hard to get accurate information or a progressive analysis? Your supporters probably want information or commentary on current happenings in your issue area. This could include links to news stories, or opinion pieces from allies. And your own analysis of current events. Don’t send things that they could find on their own. Send links to harder-to-find news, or commentary with your insights. 
  • Do people want to be able to “do something” — to take action on your issue? Send them email with links to send messages to decision-makers, or to make phone calls. Bring your organizing into the 21st century. In some cases, you can use online resources like to create action opportunities for your supporters.

Send Mass Email Using a Service, Please

Don’t try and use your personal address book to send your organizational emails. There are plenty of stable, reputable mass email providers out there that will give you the ability to send personalized, professional-looking email that can navigate the many spam filters of the Internet to land in people’s inboxes. Groundwire did a great detailed analysis of ten mass email providers for nonprofits. It includes a feature list for each, although keep in mind that just because a provider offers more features doesn’t make them better for you. I’ll mention my two favorites for small grassroots groups:

Vertical Response offers free sending for 501c3 organizations that are sending less than 10,000 emails per month. They have an easy-to-learn interface for creating your messages, simple and attractive templates, good sign-up options and all the reporting options you need. They also offer a bunch of great webinars on best practices for email.

MailChimp offers free accounts to groups if your list is under 1,000 subscribers and you send less than 6,000 emails a month. They also have good tutorials, an easy-to-learn interface, simple and attractive templates, reports and social networking integrations. Here at MRG, we use MailChimp because we make good use of their RSS-email campaign feature. This enables us to create segments of our list that receive email whenever we add certain content to our website. (It’s how some of our subscribers receive “Resources for Grantees” emails whenever I post this information to our website.)

For groups with a limited staff capacity to craft emails, this RSS feature can be a great time-saver. You configure your MailChimp account to offer these subscription options on your sign-up form, and configure the automated campaigns. Then, when you post the appropriate content on your website, folks get an email within 24 hours. If your organization is blogging, RSS-based email is a great option for letting folks know when you have posted something to the blog. 

Other Questions You Probably Have About Mass Emailing

How often is often enough? It depends on the relevance of what you are sending, from the perspective of the recipient. If your content isn’t relevant, once a year is too often to be emailing folks. But if you have highly relevant content (let’s say, on a compelling issue during the legislative session) then weekly could make sense. The starting point for sending mass email is: What are people interested in? How often are there developments that will interest them? That dictates how often to send them email. 

Should we send plain-text emails or include our letterhead and logo? Using a header can make it easier for the recipient to recognize what this email is about and why they should care. Including some visual to remind people that it’s from your group is handy, but don’t let it take up too much space, and be sure to make sure the images are web-optimized so that they load quickly. 

How important is my subject line? Subject lines are crucial to getting folks to open your messages. Think of your own experience dealing with your email inbox, and how eager you are to open emails with the subject lines that don’t tell you what the email is about. For example, compare: “E-newsletter, Dec 2010” versus “New Federal Law Threatens Family Farmers.” Kivi Leroux Miller has a great post on creating more effective subject lines for email. Strong subject line = more readers opening your message.

What’s a decent “open-rate”? In many cases, if 20-30% of your recipients are being reported as opening your emails, you’re doing fine. There are various factors that affect open rates. MailChimp has a great summary of factors that affect open rates and what to do about it. 

If we send an email, do we have to put the same content on our website? You don’t have to, but consider a couple of factors: rather than writing text and using it once for an email, you can make the same content available to more people over time by also posting it on your website. It is also easier for folks to share the content via social sites or a blog if they can locate it on your website.

How will we know if email is effective in driving traffic to our website? Be sure to link your Google Analytics account with your email provider; that way you can check the effectiveness of your emails in driving traffic to your site. Both Vertical Response and MailChimp offer ways to link your emails to your Google Analytics account, which can tell you how effective email is for getting visitors more interested in your website (if you look at your analytics regularly). If the analytics tell you that it’s not driving enough traffic to the site, that may be because you need to refine what you offer people in the email. This is your chance to do what is the basis of good organizing: find out what’s compelling to people, and give them a chance to learn more or get involved. 

Want to Know Even More about Sending Mass Email?

Network for Good has an extensive tutorial: the Nonprofit Email Marketing Guide. It covers a lot of ground, so grab it when you have time to sit down and digest it.

Then to build your list, just keep thinking about what people want, and send it to them.

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