email newsletters

Choosing an Email Service

There are literally dozens of email marketing services that non-profits can choose from.  How do non-profits– especially small to medium-sized organizations– choose?

While some organizations might have the capacity to send email newsletters from within their database or specialized software (often donor management software, for example), most small organizations will need to choose a third-party subscription service.  There are a number of advantages to using a service, chiefly: that you can put together professional-looking emails fairly easily, you can easily segment and manage your email contacts into lists, you get opens and links tracked (metrics), and they will help you manage your bounced (returned) emails.

There are dozens of email services.  Most of them offer the same basic package of features.  How do you choose?  First, look at costs, which will help you also get a sense of the size organizations that the service focuses on.  For instance, Convio tends to be expensive, but also oriented primarily toward very large organizations.  A great service, but out of the price range for most small non-profits.

By the way, if you can’t find the pricing information for a service you are looking at, I wouldn’t invest a lot of time tracking it down, unless you’ve gotten a good recommendation for that service from another user you trust.  Most reputable services that focus on small organizations and businesses know that price is a big concern for their customers, and make it easy to find this information.

But just because your organization is cash-poor (and what non-profit isn’t?), don’t assume that cheapest always equals best for you.  For example, MailChimp made it even more tempting this last week by increasing the limits on their free email marketing accounts to 1000 email contacts and 6000 emails per month.  What’s not to like about free?  Well, for $15 per month at Constant Contact, you can have a nicer, more intuitive interface, great customer support and better online tutorials.  In my experience, it’s just not worth$200 of staff time over the course of a year to deal with all the little hassles.  However, if your organization has no money, but plenty of staff or volunteer time, then maybe free is the way to go.

Probably the best way to find a service is to talk to people who have used one or more of them.  Ask similar organizations with an email newsletter what they like and don’t like about their current service, and if they’ve tried any others.  Feel free to post in the comments if you’ve tried any of these services mentioned (or any others), and what you thought of them.  I’m interested in your feedback!

Email Sign-up on Your FB Page

If you use Constant Contact, you can sign up contacts from your Facebook fan page.  It’s easy to install.  Instructions are here.

This is just one aspect of “inter-connecting” your promotional media.  Don’t think of your members as interacting with only one type of content from you, for example, only your website or only your Facebook page.  Think of all your promotional media (including your “old-fashioned” print newsletter) as part of a giant wheel or web.  Different constituents will access different types of media as a first encounter, but you want to  make it both easy and desirable for your constituents to access different parts of that wheel.  Make sure there are links and connections from each type of media to the others– especially the media that forms the core of your communications efforts.

How do you inter-connect your media efforts?  Post your ideas in the comments– they may help out others!


Social Share on Constant Contact

Last week, Constant Contact (the email marketing service lots of non-profits use for newsletters) made it a whole lot easier to promote your organization on social media through your newsletter. Before, you could use the web address (url) of your emailed newsletter to post it on Facebook or Twitter, but you had to know that you could find it (in your sent email, you had to click on “having trouble reading this email? Click here”), and manually grab the url, and go to your social media account to create the link (getting a shortlink along the way if you were tweeting).  That’s a lot of work to expect on the part of your readers.  Or you could have paid Constant Contact $5 a month for their “Archive Feature”, and used a social share button there.  But now there’s a much easier solution included right in your basic fees. Last week, Constant Contact added the option to add with one click a social media share bar that includes a Facebook “Like This” button.  You’ll find this option on the last page as you are setting up the email to send.  It will add the share bar at the top of your email.  This bar will let your readers quickly and easily add a link to your email newsletter to their Facebook and other social media accounts.   Right next to this option, you’ll also find an option to “Tweet this email”, which lets you send a tweet from within Constant Contact using a short-link for your email. The bar looks like this in your email: While it looks so small with only the three most popular social media platforms on it, when you click the red plus sign, it drops a window with more than 250 other social media platforms to choose from! Not everyone will want to use this feature.  For example, one of my clients is a small trade organization whose newsletter is oriented internally toward members.  They’re not interested in having their newsletter shared so publicly. Most non-profits (and small businesses!) however, will definitely want to start adding the Social Share bar to their emails.  You might want to call it to the attention of your readers and invite them to please post to their accounts to help share the message and work of your organization.  Sometimes you have to explicitly make this request to help people get the idea. I’ll be curious to see how this works for your organizations.  Please come back and post a comment here to let us know! .

Tell a Good Story

More than facts, it’s stories that shape us and shape our thinking.  Especially in an information-overload culture, promoting your organization and its mission is about telling good stories. Andy Goodman focuses much of his work on the power of storytelling in public interest communications.  His article “Change the Story, Change the World” is one of the best summaries I’ve read of why non-profits need to tell good stories as they seek to transform and change people and the world (and motivate others to join them in that work). The article concludes:

“People will believe what they want to believe,” said H.L. Mencken. The examples above tell me that people rely on the stories in their head to tell them what to believe. So if you’re in the business of changing beliefs (and the behavior that follows), it’s worth asking two questions about your audience: What story is already in their heads, and is your story strong enough to replace it?

Use Short Headers

When creating your email newsletter template, keep in mind that the header at the top needs to be relatively short. Fifty percent of email recipients use a “preview pane” when reading their emails.  This pane (usually appearing below your inbox in your email reader like Outlook) displays emails without actually opening them up.  The header (the title box at the top, sometimes also called a “banner”) is the first thing the reader sees in the preview pane, and if it’s too tall, that’s the only thing they see. I’ve blogged before about using value content.  This is the relevant content you place as the first article in your newsletter as a motivation for the recipient to open the email and read more.   Your header should be short enough so that when your email displays in a half-screen (or even one-third-screen?) preview pane that the recipient can see the title and first line of your value content article. Hopefully, that will get them to open and read your newsletter, which is of course, your ultimate goal.


Don’t forget to inter-connect all your digital media efforts.  Think of all the information and content you publish about your organization as a circular information loop.

Your readers might enter that information loop through your Facebook page, but from there, they should be able to find your website or your email newsletter. Don’t forget to include in your traditional media, like print newsletters, ways to find your digital media content.  In general, the trend is toward the more dynamic digital media loop, so you don’t have to worry so much about getting folks to subscribe to your print newsletter.

Sit down and list out the different ways that your organization communicates information: newsletters (print & email), websites, blogs, Facebook page, Twitter feed.  Churches shouldn’t forget the weekly bulletin.  Does every mode have an invitation to find the Facebook page (with the specific name/acronym of your organization) and the website?  To subscribe to the email newsletter?

It might be helpful to start asking your more digitally-oriented members how they are using the different parts of your content.  It might help you see “weak links” between modes, or where you need to focus more energy in developing content. The primary reason organizations don’t inter-connect their media is that it takes a little extra time, and requires a step back for a “big picture” view.  But I do think that for most groups, the time and “big picture”  do pay off in promoting the organization. What’s your experience of inter-connecting your media?  What’s the hardest part?  Does it pay off for your organization?

Please Don't "Blast"

Warning: Rant ahead.  Lately, I’m hearing more and more people referring to email newsletters or marketing as sending a “blast”.  This just strikes me as wrong. It’s bad imagery, bordering on violent (think: machine guns or rocket-launchers), if not prank-like (think: water cannon).  Sometimes “blasted” means being verbally dumped on.  Who wants to be on the receiving end of a “blast”?  I don’t want to be blasted.  I usually will go a long way to avoid being blasted. Words & imagery matter.  The image of “blast” implies that I’m spraying my emails out quickly and everywhere, hoping something will stick.  But most of us don’t send email newsletters that way.  At least I hope not. I think some people use “blast” to mean a short email that doesn’t quite merit being called a “newsletter”.  I’m not exactly sure what to suggest as an alternative to “blast”.   Does “update” work?  I’d love to hear your suggestions!

Keep it Short!

Researchers tell us that the average reader will spend 51 seconds with your email newsletter.  Make good use of those 51 seconds! Especially that means writing concisely, with a minimum of details, and linking back to your website or another page with the details for those who are interested.  This concise style may feel “cold” to a few folks, but if you hope to get your reader to the second or third article down, you can’t waste those 51 seconds on lots of unnecessary details.  No one should have to scroll down more than one whole screen to see the top of the last article.  I try to shoot for no more than 400 characters per article; often shorter than that. There is a bit of a trick to balancing the concise style with enough information.  One common error is to omit info that all the “insiders” know, while leaving “not-quite-insiders” in the dark.  When writing, try putting yourself in the shoes of a newcomer or potential member.  If someone has never been to any of your events, and got your newsletter as a forward from a friend, would your concise article give them enough info to know whether they were interested? Is short hard for you to manage?  What’s the challenge for you?  How are you trying to make good use of your 51 seconds?

Arc of Adoption

Non-profits seem to follow a pattern of adopting new media technologies.  Of course, most non-profits are notoriously slow adopters, but there does seem to be a logical or rational pattern of adoption. I’m open to hear different opinions, but I think it goes something like this:

  • A website (yes, plenty of non-profits don’t have one yet!), first a static one, then a more dynamic site with content that is changing more frequently.
  • Email Newsletters, sometimes starting with emailing a .pdf attachment, then moving to an html email newsletter (usually) using a service.
  • A Facebook Fan page.  Sometimes this can come before the Email Newsletter.
  • Blogs, usually by the executive director or lead pastor, sometimes by other staff members or leaders.
  • Twitter
  • SMS text messaging.  In some settings, this might come earlier, used for specific populations (for example, youth ministry).

I’m sure there are exceptions and different paths.  But I think this arc of adoption makes sense because largely, each new thing builds and depends somewhat on what comes before. I describe this arc of adoption when I do workshops to try to help folks see where they probably ought to think about focusing their energy.  It doesn’t make much sense to focus on an ED/lead pastor blog or Twitter if you don’t really have a dynamic website to direct readers toward. What do you think?  Where is your organization on the arc?



"Brand" your template

Email services like Constant Contact give us thousands of templates to choose from.  Which is good.  But don’t succumb to the whimsy of using a new template & color scheme each time you send an email newsletter.

The first hurdle with email newsletters is getting them opened at all.  Value content can help with this.  But another help is the subconscious recognition of the email that comes from a trusted sender.  Many people scan their inboxes with the help of a preview pane.  As they are scrolling through emails, having a familiar layout and color scheme connects or “brands” the email with your organization, making it far more likely that your email will be opened.

Once the email is opened, the recipients spend an average of 51 seconds with the email.  Scan-ability refers to the recipient being able to quickly scan through the email to find topics of interest.  Keeping the template of your email newsletter consistent means that recipients don’t have to expend the mental energy to figure out what’s where in your newsletter every time. If you send several different types of email newsletters (for example, the all-church newsletter and a youth ministry newsletter), develop consistent templates for each so that those who get both mailings can quickly know which they are dealing with.

Template based web-hosting gives us the same sort of temptation to change it up frequently on our websites.  The same cautions apply.  While you personally might like to redecorate your house every month or so, most people find it confusing to have changes come so frequently. Others might disagree, but I think what frequent template changes convey to the organizational outsider is either that your organization doesn’t have a clear sense of identity, or you have too much time on your hands. This doesn’t mean that you should never change your template.  By all means, once or twice a year make some changes.   But count the mental costs to the people you are trying to connect with.



Constant Contact

Constant Contact


Christian churches may be interested in the resource Spiritual Formation Newsletter Content, and online resource that makes available short articles on spiritual formation appropriate for email newsletters.