Why You Should Pick Email, and How You Can Make Yours Better

Why You Should Pick Email, and How You Can Make Yours Better

Felix Davey | 15 July 2015

Email is a bit like the one at school who always gets picked last in PE. Facebook and Twitter are the first picks on the digital team. When they flex their muscles, they can win fans and followers by the #icebucketload. Then it’s Bitcoin, contactless, wearables, and the latest next big thing. And only then will email get reluctantly approached and told, ‘well, I guess we could use you for a newsletter.’

But I have a soft spot for email (perhaps because I too cut a gawky and neglected figure in PE). A report by the consultancy firm McKinsey found that email is 40 times more effective than social media in acquiring customers for commercial brands. And there’s no reason why it can’t be effective for charities, too.  

It’s easier to become a Facebook fan or share a Tweet than it is to subscribe to a newsletter. So if someone gives you their email address, they like you. They want to get to know you. Yet all too often charities ignore this fluttering of eyelashes. A recent survey found that 56% of US charities don’t send an email asking for a gift within 50 days of new email subscriptions.   

But even if the audience is receptive, it’s anything but easy to persuade them to take action or give money (or just not cancel their regular gift). Emails have to stand out and work hard.

So for this series of blogs, I’ve picked out some emails that do exactly that. And I’m going to give you one reason why each of them is so good.


Because it’s been tested, tested and tested again

There are no rules for writing an intriguing subject line (except, don’t say: ‘Our latest charity newsletter’). A question, a single word, a personalised exclamation, anything goes. So it’s important to test a variety of subject lines, to discover what works best for your supporters.   

During the 2012 election campaign, President Obama’s digital team rigorously tested the subject lines for fundraising emails. They discovered that a casual tone was most effective: ‘The lines that worked best were things that you might see in your inbox from other people.’

The most popular one (‘I  will be outspent’) did pretty well. It raised $2.6 million.









 Because it’s written like the Six O’ Clock News

Writing copy for emails is a bit like writing for radio. Your audience is always doing something else. You don’t have their attention for long. If they get bored, they just switch to another channel.

So next time you write an email, take a look at this BBC News style guide first. Use short sentences and simple constructions. Cut out the unnecessary verbs. Get to the point. Keep it short. Avoid statistics. And when you’re done, read it out loud to check the flow.

I can imagine Huw Edwards reading out this email from UNHCR.


















Because it’s more like Rocky than Love Actually

We all know that any piece of fundraising, whether it’s an email or a letter, should feature a great story. Stories can truly connect with supporters, making them feel emotionally involved in a charity’s work and helping them see how their gifts make a difference. Statistics can’t.

But for any fundraising story, focus on one person. Make it about one central figure, who the audience can root for as they overcome the obstacles in their path. Don’t switch between the interweaving stories of a whole ensemble of characters. Even if one of them is Colin Firth.

In this email from Barnardo’s, Ben plays the role of Rocky.





















Unlike the Rocky franchise, I know when to call it a day. There’ll be more emails and more inspiration on the next blog. Until then, thanks for reading.


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