This week we get an inside look at how the Environmental Defense Fund manages their email fundraising campaigns with tremendous success. Emily Stevenson, Manager, Online CRM Fundraising at EDF shares data and tactics that have worked to raise millions of dollars via email campaigns.
More about EDF
With world attention focused on both the environment and the economy, Environmental Defense Fund is where policymakers and business leaders turn for win-win solutions. This leading green group, founded in 1967, has tripled in size over the past decade by focusing on strong science, uncommon partnerships and market-based approaches. You can be part of a vibrant workplace that welcomes diverse perspectives, talents and contributions, where innovation and a focus on results are a way of life. With programs from Boston to Beijing, Environmental Defense Fund is the only environmental group to receive an A rating from Wired magazine.
George: If the work you do involves in any way sending large amounts of email to large amounts of people, you are going to love today’s guest. I’m not going to ruin the surprise because it’s already in the title.
This is Using The Whole Whale. Stories of data and technologies in the socially impact world. My name is George Weiner, your host and the Chief Whaler of WholeWhale.com.
Thanks for joining us.
Beyond excited today because I get to be data nerd in a candy shop. Wait a minute, that metaphor doesn’t make sense. Well if the candy shop were a pile of insider information around email, strategy and communication from an amazing organization like The Environmental Defense Fund, then yes, that’s an accurate statement.
I am speaking with Emily Stephenson at the Environmental Defense Fund. And she is Manager of the Online Fund Raising at the EDF.
So, she basically has the finger on the trigger of all of the emails that go out, and I was very surprised at how methodical and how thoughtful their approach is, and how it evolves.
So keep in mind, this is a snapshot in time. We’re speaking, you know, in Q2 of 2017, and what excites me, is I could speak with her next year and maybe we’re learning entirely new things. That said, I think you’re going to find it there is some fundamentals of strategy, like only sending emails to people that are going to read them, like segmenting your audience and testing assumptions, that will prove to be universal truths.
I’m too excited to keep talking, I’m going to jump right into it and send you into this amazing interview with Emily Stephenson.
I’m here with Emily Stephenson, the Manager Online Fund Raising at Environmental Defense Fund. Emily, thanks for joining us today.
Emily: Yeah, it’s really great to be here.
George: So I imagine, it’s pretty calm over there. There are no big fires or issues, anything going on, you guys are pretty mellow because you know, the environment and everyone believes in the work you do, right? So pretty calm over there?
Emily: You know I do think on some level I do think everyone beliefs in the work we do. But maybe there are forces in the world that are not always in agreement.
George: Is it like the Hamilton Eye of the Hurricane, or is it just like hurricane?
Emily: You know in some ways it is very much a hurricane. There is so much going on, so many parts moving fast. In another way, it almost feels like I’ve never had to do less work to get people energized and engaged and activated. People have really come awake in response to the threats that we’re seeing.
George: So officially, global warming, true or false?
Emily: Very much true.
George: Okay, I just want to make sure that our audience is clear where we stand. Okay, so let’s get a little bit more into it. How did you end up in this incredible role at an amazing organization?
Emily: I think like a lot of people in digital marketing, I sort of fell into the role. My background is in academic sociology and around the time I was finishing up my Master’s degree, I sort of realized I didn’t want to go into academia and just sort of found a job ad for a membership development officer role at a non-profit and thought, I could do that.
And so I left academia and I went into that job and sort of very quickly learned that I was good at fund raising and I really enjoyed doing it, and I especially liked doing it online. I had a short stint at a very small non-profit, where I really got to create everything from scratch in terms of the online program, and that really set me up well when EDF was looking for their very first dedicated online fund raiser. I really like that EDF had such a testing culture which my background in social science was a perfect fit for.
So, I really feel like I found the perfect job and never would have thought growing up that this is where I would end up. Don’t even think I knew it was a job option.
George: Well I mean gosh, 10 years ago, not a job option.
George: So this is interesting, that EDF was suddenly, “you know what, we need to pay attention to digital fund raising,” how has that concept of fund raising from humans online evolved during your time there?
Emily: Oh hugely. Both in terms of, I would say our share of the pie of the membership revenue has doubled. I think we went from 1/6 of the program when I was hired in 2012 to about 1/3 last I saw so far this year.
So we’re growing increasingly larger every day. You know every couple of years I end up translating into a new head count, and then we’re able to do more complex and sophisticated things. The real big push I would say is from doing almost you know, offline marketing through email to really taking advantage of all of the things like email, offline can offer. In terms of being highly personalized and reacting to what our supporters are doing on our website, on social media, over email, and really being able to take advantage of all those tools that are emerging.
George: So you used the word “membership” what does that really mean in the EDF world and how has that evolved?
Emily: Yes. So I guess that depends on who you are asking. There is a legal definition of membership if we’re wanting to prove standing in a law suit that we’re filing. That’s a very technical one that I’m not even sure I know the definition of. But we consider anyone who joins up and takes action with us to be a member. You can also be a dues paying member, you support us with a donation. Our activists are definitely members.
George: Gotcha. Now, what role does email play in this sort of nurturing of members and working toward fund raising?
Emily: Oh, it’s hugely important. We get so many more opportunities to contact our donors through email because of the relatively lower cost. So we can spend more time really just engaging them, thanking them for their previous donations, sending them information and breaking news updates and action alerts, and all of this stuff that would be cost prohibited and probably annoying to be receiving in the postal mail that often. But people love to be kept up-to-date online and we’re able to show that we know them and we appreciate what they do and so when the time does come to make the fund raising ask, we got that you know, really good, warm, fuzzy feeling and hopefully it will make them more likely to respond.
George: So I want to give our audience a sense of the size and scope of what we’re talking about. When you say, email messaging, it’s a Tuesday, we’re going to send out to a couple of people. How big is the list, and how are you thinking about segmenting?
Emily: Sure. We have about 2 million members and activists on our list. We very, very rarely send to all those people in a single blast email, that’s just not the way things are done any more for deliverability reasons, sender reputation, and also just for purposes of not annoying people with email they don’t want to receive. We always want to send an email to the people we think are going to be interested in its content, and are going to appreciate receiving that email as opposed to being annoyed by it.
So one of the most powerful tools we have for segmenting the file to determine who’s going to be interested in an email is past behavior. A lot of things that we think might have niche areas of interest, we will only send to people who previously engaged with emails or action alerts on that topic. Other things that are sort of in the middle, we go out to people who’ve recently been opening and clicking a few emails in the past couple of months, they’re showing signs of life, they’re showing signs of continued involvement. And things that do really well with that group, we think okay, this has some broad appeal, let’s send that out to the full list and give them a chance to start opening and clicking and engaging, so they can get into that more active group.
George: And lots to dig into here. You know I feel like there is somebody thinking right now, wait a minute, you have 2 million people, you should just message them all, how dare you not message people, what if somebody want to hear from you? So let me just play this hypothetical world out where you have to email 2 million people every week, you said the word “deliverability,” what is actually like the bits and bytes behind what might happen if you did that?
Emily: Sure. There is a couple of different threats that result from that. The first one is sort of simple one that you might be annoying people, they’re going to unsubscribe, they’re not going to find your content valuable, it’s going to hurt your relationship with your donors and you don’t want to do that. On a more technical level, there is a lot of gate keeping that goes on the email service providers, not just in terms of like, are you going to get delivered to the email address, but then even once you’re delivered, are you going to get in the inbox or you’re going into the spam filter? And one of the things that the email providers look at to determine are you legitimate email, are you spam, is how well their users are engaging with your emails. So if you’re constantly sending emails and nobody is opening it, Gmail kind of looks at you and says, well clearly these people are sending junk, none of our users are actually opening it, we’re just going to send that right to spam and keep it out of people’s hair.
There are also email addresses can definitely go bad overtime. People change their email addresses, they move to a new job or there is always things like with the Yahoo email accounts. There was a big thing recently when AOL bought them, all these addresses are going to start to go bad, overtime those become what we called “spam traps,” where if you email that address, there are spam filters that say that this is a definite flag that they’re not looking for interested parties, they’re just blanketing the web with unwanted email because this isn’t even anyone’s real email address anymore and they’re still emailing it.
So the more you can avoid doing things like that, and really only send email that people like and are opening it and clicking it, the better chance you have of getting into the inbox of the people who do want to open and click.
George: Wow. So you’re telling me there are like these fake little honey pots out there meant to like catch spammers?
George: And it’s on your list, like oh my gosh. So there is a real reason to prune your list. So talk to me about actually that pruning, how do you get rid of those…we will call it dead or archived email addresses or honey pot email addresses? And what kind of open rate are you trying to achieve when you segment?
Emily: Sure. I would say that the main tool that we use is our email platform, we use Luminate Online and they have the ability to develop what they call “engagement scores,” where you can take any number of activities that people could do with you and assign point values to them to calculate a score. So we assign five points to an email click and one point to an email open for one of our ruling scores and on a past three-month basis, you need to have at least five points to get into that most recently engaged group.
So in the past three months, you either opened at least five emails or clicked at least one of them. And that’s what keeps you in the main mail stream. Now if you don’t click or open anything or take any online action for nine months, we’ll probably never email you again. If you were to come back on your own volition and take an action alert or make a donation, you could get back into the messaging stream that way. But after nine months, we assume that you’re not using that email address anymore. Or you just don’t want to hear from us.
George: Wow, that’s a hard line to take. Is it tough to press delete on like…for you it must be like tens of thousands emails?
Emily: Well, I will say we don’t actually press delete on anyone. You don’t want to end up re-acquiring those email addresses later, if you already know they’re no good. There are a lot of places out there where you can rent list or borrow them, and you don’t want to end up with that issue.
But it’s just sort of an ongoing suppression and if you are continuing to acquire new names and grow your list, I actually find that are our list continues, or our active lists size continues to steadily grow over time. We’re bringing in enough people and retaining enough people to make up for that churn. Especially you figure some of the email addresses that go bad, probably are someone legitimately changed their email address and signed up with that one.
George: So how…let’s get back to and let’s talk about metrics you expected and scheduling out frequency. How often are you sending that.. you call it “the main list of engaged members?”
Emily: Yes. Our recently engaged file, probably gets anywhere from 2 to 4 emails a week from us.
George: Wow. And what kind of open rates do you expect or maintain on that?
Emily: With that group, we like to see around 30%. If they’ve been recently opening and clicking, we like to think that you know, about one in three of them will continue opening and clicking.
George: Wow, that’s incredible. So we’re probably talking about a neighborhood of hundreds of thousands folks getting 2 to 3 emails a week?
George: How did this strategy evolve? Because some of it is like maybe intuitive to you, but there are folks saying like oh my gosh, when you have 2 million, you’re only like messaging, not even hassles them on this basis. How did you evolve your segmenting and your strategy, and how does that lead into donations?
Emily: Right. It’s really all about remembering to put the donor first and don’t see them as numbers or ATM machines, or just a record in your file. It’s a real person out there who has a relationship with you and you want to nurture that relationship and do what’s best for it. The warmer and fuzzier they feel about you, the better the donor they’re going to be. So I like to think if you just take care of the warm fuzzy part, the donations part will mostly fall into place as long as you remember to asked.
George: Alright, I have to put you on this. I know you’re in the EDF, and obviously pennies fall from heaven caused by hell, so let me come back to this. So how are you getting a human to give you money via email through these messages, and how do you balance the nurture versus ask in terms of what the content is?
Emily: I would say you should probably be sending something that is not an ask, five times as often as you are sending something that’s an ask. Which a lot of people jaws dropped when I say that, but you need to spend most of your time thanking your donors. They are the only reason that you can do what you do, they’re your life blood, don’t just thank them the one time when they receive the gift or when you receive the gift from them. When you have a win, send out an email saying, “hey, here’s the cool thing that just happened. You contributed to this, either you took action and you made a donation, and hey we won and that’s all because of you.” People are always interested in those sort of closed loop things, and I think it’s one of the things the non-profit world’s is the worst at, is following back up with people who contributed to an effort and letting them know that they made a difference.
George: Yikes. Yeah and a lot of data suggest that when you see these benchmark reports coming up. I’m curious though, from the date of the first email acquisition into the system to donation, what is the expected cycle time if that is in fact a benchmark for you to given?
Emily: You know I don’t know if I have an average number offhand, but I do know it’s a precipitous drop-off. If you don’t give a gift within the first 30 or 60 days, it becomes very, very unlikely you’re going to give one at all. You know that does end up becoming a very large file of non-donors, so even if you just pick up a few every now and then, you can still…that file is not worth ignoring, but they do become extremely unlikely.
George: Wow. So it sounds like then your big wins is coming from re-engagement, and sort of asking at least at that pace, once a month. Is that about right?
Emily: Yes, I say depending on the natural cycles. For instance, summer we do barely any fund raising because everyone is on vacation; they’re not checking their email. Congress is on vacation, there’s not much happening in the news. And then of course, the opposite extreme, December, say you know, donate to year-end, donate to year-end, donate to year-end, everyone’s already in the mindset, everyone is expecting to be solicited, your competitors are doing so much solicitation, you kind of got to keep up.
But I would say in the middle sort of month, I would want to have at least three or four emails going out to at least some audience making a hard ask. We’re also very diligent about putting what you would call “soft asks” on tons of the other things we do. Every time you take an action alert, you sign a petition online, you’re going to be presented with a donate form on the back end, you know, “thank you for making your gift, would you like to go one step further?” Oh sorry, “thank you for signing a petition, would you like to go one step further and make a gift?” When we send out sort of fun picture slide shows and quizzes and engagement pieces like that, you’ll often find a little donation form widget in the side rail of the page, so if you’re feeling inspired and motivated by all this nice warm content we gave you, it’s a real easy path to make a donation there.
George: Gotcha. Talk to me about some of the metrics and key performing indicators that you used to make sure that you’re on track, that you to report to the leadership.
Emily: Yes. I love that you said, “metrics and KPI’s,” because those two words often get used interchangeably and they’re not quite the same. KPI’s are things that are actually telling you if you’re doing a good job. So I would say the big ones for me would be our lead conversion rate or in other words, the percentage of our new people on file online who become donors in a certain given period of time, and as well as our online donor retention rate and our value per donor. Basically, are we keeping people, are we growing our active donor list, and are we getting them to give as much as we can get them to give?
So those I would say I look at on a rolling quarterly basis to assess the health of the overall program. Unfortunately I don’t provide a lot of actionable insights and that’s where other metrics come in. Sometimes called diagnostic metrics, sometimes called vanity metrics. They’re often called that because it’s super easy to gain them, it’s things like open rates, click rates, unsubscribe rates, landing page conversion rates, average gift size. They’re really great for finding out where in the funnel you lost someone or what you’re not doing as well as you could.
The diagnostic metric that I rely most heavily on on a day-to-day basis, is dollars per thousand emails sent. I really love this one because it’s a single unified diagnostic metric that reflects all of the stages that the funnel, if someone falls out at any point along the way; it’s going to hurt that number. If you boost any one of those metrics substantially the impacts going to shakeout in the dollars per thousand as well.
And I mentioned they’re often called “vanity metrics” because it’s easy to game them. You can easily boost your open and click rates by you know, only emailing people who clicked email last week, probably 100% of them are close to it. We’ll click again this week.
And so you definitely should suppress your least active subscribers. But are your emails really any better if you’re doing that? So at EDF, we calculate the dollars per thousand a set of benchmarks on a rolling 12 month basis and score our emails relative to recent performance on this metric. So it’s sort of an internally consistent flag to look closer at something. If an email comes in and the bottom quartile of all the scores we’ve gotten in the last year, well what went wrong there? Did we send it to an audience that was too disinterested? Was the open rate low? Was the click the problem? The people just give tiny gifts? Or something does really well, what went right there? You know, what metric did we really see jump up? And that’s the clue, that’s something we did really right there.
So it’s sort of a diagnostic flag to signal that we should probe further.
George: Interesting. And can you share where your dollars per 1K emails hover around?
Emily: Sure. We have actually a very wide range there, it’s anywhere from about $5 to $40 I would say, is the middle 50%. Anything above $40 is upper quartile and anything below $5 is lower quartile.
George: Wow. Per thousand emails and not just the ask emails, even the ones that are just like, “hey, we won yesterday.”
Emily: Right. I would say that is for hard fund raising.
George: There we go. Because I had some wide eyes on them. I was like, “whoa, pennies do fall from heaven for you.”
Emily: Right. We do get some nice donations from the action alerts and the cultivation, but yeah, they’re not quite the moneymakers the hard ask is.
George: Yeah. So with regard to the lead conversion, that’s is also very interesting to me. You get you know, 1,000 emails tomorrow, what percent of those you’re expecting to close say 60 days, because that’s your sensitive window?
Emily: A little bit our expectations are tempered based on you know is it a new source we’re testing out? Is it a proven source we’re really trying to push our performance up on that one? But I would say 1 to 3% is usually a pretty typical conversion rate, you get in a lot of names usually tell me give a few donors out of them. The cost of the acquisition also factors into usually if you pay less for names, you’re going to have a lower conversion rate than the ones that you pay more for.
We have, department wide, a three-year to pay back rule. So the total cost of the acquisition buy should be paid off by the value that whole group generated in the first three years.
George: Now when you talk about email acquisition, what are the different channels by which you are acquiring? You can talk about broad strokes if you want, or as specifically as you can.
Emily: Yes. We do have a very…the work of course of the program is the direct mail program, and they do a lot of prospecting in the mail and we do try to collect email addresses and append email addresses for people that come on through the mail. Many of your listeners may know that multi-channel donors are worth more than single channel donors regardless of what the single channel is. Online tends to give more than in the mail, but people who give both online and in the mail, are your most valuable people usually.
And then online, it’s a lot of…a lot of our volume comes from care to and formerly Change.org, who have gotten out of that business or are in the process of getting out of it.
And then we have actually a woman on staff whose full-time job is to find new names for us online, she does that in all kinds of ways, display ads, she does partnerships with other vendors. We had for instance recently she worked out a deal with Grist, where we drafted in email and they sent it to their list on our behalf saying, “Hey, you should check out this message from our friends at EDF, we think you’d like it. And then anyone who responds to that, now becomes a donor or a member of our list.”
A whole lot of different things that she does, social media of course is a source for acquisition with her.
George: And so, what about the general website as well? I may have missed that in terms of the email acquisition pop ups and what have you.
Emily: Oh yes, we definitely have just about every at least membership oriented page on our site has an email sign-up. We do have an overlay that pops up and it sort of depends on what the current highest priority action is for us during a major fund raising campaign that overlays probably going to ask you to make a donation. When there’s not as much going on, it’s probably just going to ask you to sign up.
We currently have a big banner at the top of our home page if you were to go to EDF.org that says something like, “Stop President Trump’s attacks,” and if you click on that, it takes you do a sort of one page hub of all the different things you can do to get involved in that fight… including signing up for our emails.
George: Wow, land there, you are bringing it everywhere from emails… and for good reasons. You mentioned multi-channel donors, and just to clarify, we’re talking about humans that give when you send direct mail or even events or definitely over email. How does your or does not, how does the system work together, how does email supplement and even support the direct mail piece? Do those departments work together? Are there advantages to working in conjunction?
Emily: Yes, absolutely. An important thing to remember is that we think of ourselves as operating in channels and the donor doesn’t think that way. When you are an organizations and they have a relationship with and you just happen to be sending them mails, sometimes its emails, sometimes its telephone call, so we try to keep that in mind and really talk to people as one organization speaking to a whole person.
Of course there are often technological difficulties to how successfully you can do that but we try as much as possible. For instance, if we are doing telemarketing, your firm will usually deliver you an end of campaign file with all of the email addresses and the final outcome, do they say no, do they say yes, they say we put one in the mail, or maybe. Then we send them targeted emails saying you don’t even have to mail in your gift, why you don’t you just make it here online and thanks for your pledge or say thanks for taking our calls, I understand you didn’t want to give at that time, maybe you’d like to give now.
Sort of giving them whatever is their right follow up to the outcome of their call. We also get lists from the direct mail team when they are going to be doing a mail piece. And try to do a pre-touch email saying “keep an eye on your mailbox, there’s going to be something in there from us” that hopefully makes them a little more likely to open that piece of mail. Of course in direct mail you don’t even have an open rate, you can look at that to confirm that, who knows if they opened the envelope or not. But we try to integrate that as much as possible.
Even little things if we don’t do a whole separate email about it. I might still say in a conditionalized line for people who are on that mail recipient list, the first line might say, “And we send you an email, we sent you a postcard about this you can also look for it in your mailbox” or some other way to let them know we are talking to them in the different channels.
Of course really the heart of this is having a good database or record that can talk very easily to all of your different production tools and if they can’t talk easily, you kind of have to do a good bit of manual work to import all those lists back and forth.
George: So some of the people listening maybe worried about sending muti-channel all at once, however, it seems like you are using it as an opportunity to remind somebody all at once that you exist, there’s an important issue, would you also potentially layer in re-marketing advertising if it were possible to reach the donors or you would be following them of that online, would you be ending up on their mailbox and their digital inbox?
Emily: Oh, absolutely. We are definitely not only sending people who are getting these mail and email appeals are being targeted for ads, we also try to pixel people as much as we can.
George: Wait, you pixeling me? (Laughs) Sorry, what does that actually mean?
Emily: Yes, pardon my jargon. Yes, a lot of times when you are visiting different websites there’s a little image that fires off and sort of tells us who you are, doesn’t tell us exactly who you are but it tells us that you are distinct person so that we can recognize you when we see you other places and serve ads to you. Pretty crazy stuff.
George: Have you seen or been able to test any upside to saying alright layering this advertising or even kind of going on instinct and look the more times a human sees you, a little familiarity, mental availability and likelihood they’ll give?
Emily: Yes, we did do some testing around this a few years ago just to make sure we were on solid footing. But at this point we are pretty much taken for granted that more communication that are high quality is going to be more effective. We would like to give the example that if you are driving along with your car and you hear a commercial on the radio, if anyone still listens to the radio anymore, for McDonald’s. Just because you don’t immediately pull over and go to the nearest McDonald’s and buys something doesn’t mean McDonald’s wasted their money running that radio ad. You are not always going to have a direct conversion but the more you stay top of mind and keep people thinking about you and your cause generally the better you are going to do.
George: Gosh, out of curiosity if you know the numbers what kind of lift, was it a 5%, or somewhat meaningful I guess, that…
Emily: Yes it was. Unfortunately its been enough years now that the numbers has been…
George: And the landscape may have changed too. You did test it and obviously if you spent $100 you made at least $101.
Emily: Yep. I did have actually a really interesting test I ran just this past year end, that sort of touches into this. We noticed that a lot of our higher value donors were almost never given a gift in response to an email appeal, so we started thinking, well are we annoying them, do they not want to get these emails? This is a very sensitive and important group for us we don’t want to offend them. So I decided to test sending fewer email appeals during the year end campaign. I parceled off a nice email group, 15% of my list to test this on since I didn’t want to go too big with such an important group and sent them just one fewer email than the rest of them got. And the result was actually surprising even to me at this point. We looked at the year end response rate overall in any channel over the course of the campaign how many gave a gift. And we got an overall 8% lift to the group that got that one extra email. There was also a shift of there were more likely to make their gift online and less likely to make it by mail if they had received the email. So there was some channel shift, there was also genuine lift that resulted from that overall.
George: Wow, that’s nice.
Emily: And incredibly, not one of the gifts that we received was to the missing email and less than 5% of the gifts we received were to email at all. It was one more communication that made them think about us and pushed some percentage of people over that edge they needed to get pushed over.
George: Wow. So, let me tease this apart a little bit more just to like show this as like obviously diminishing, not a diminishing return yet, still a marginal lift, how many emails in total were you sending to your donors, or your high networth donors in… I’m talking about December probably or…
George: Or post Thanksgiving.
Emily: This was during the month of December. We had an appeal that went out on giving Tuesday and the day after over the next couple of weeks between giving Tuesday and about Christmas time. The main group got 5 emails and the test group got 4, and then they all got 8 in the final 5 days of the year.
George: Wow. So, that’s a lot of emails, but if I’m thinking this, then somebody else is thinking, wait a minute if 8 emails did so well what about a 9th email? At what point is it just freaking too many emails? Because so far you seemed to be suggesting that what if we were to send more?
Emily: I think the metric to look at there is your unsubscribe rates. At some point you are going to just lose subscribers every time you send an email. As long as it is within a reasonable amount that’s probably the outcome you wanted. I often like to think of it as how many, if you send one fewer email in order to retain some more subscribers, what was the revenue cost from that, how much did you pay to prevent an unsubscribe. And if you think about that in terms of how much you’ll pay to acquire an address or pending address, your tolerance for paying to prevent an unsubscribe is probably pretty low. So I’d say when the ratio to the unsubscribe rate start to get higher than you can tolerate for the amount of revenue you are getting in, then that’s where you stop. Or if your member services department is telling you that they are getting like a crazy amount of complaints (laughs).
George: On broad strokes it sounds like the people listening should take note of the amount of frequency that you are willing to send and how you are segmenting in order to keep your most engaged members continually engaged and involved. There’s a high tolerance here and I don’t think enough folks are sending enough emails, is that your sense as well?
Emily: Oh yes, absolutely. This is one of my soap boxes I’d like to get out there. There’s really this misconception that people will get fatigued, they will get annoyed that you are emailing them all the time and that is true sometimes. The important thing is figuring out when it’s true. And it really comes down to relevancy and value. If you can think of I am sure everyone out there has the daily email they received, maybe its Groupon, Living Social, for me its Refinery 29-they send me an email everyday and I love it. There are other groups that send me an email everyday and I hit delete every time because its annoying. Its really about the content of the email, nobody is upset about getting the email that they think is valuable and relevant. So, you really just have to pay attention to how your followers are responding, if they are engaging with it, or are they unsubscribing, are they writing in to say thanks I really appreciated this, or are they writing in to oh my gosh stop emailing me. And just give people what they want.
George: Nice. So lets come back, you are obviously running a lot of tests, how do you approach A/B testing of subject and of message and what are some of the surprises that you found?
Emily: I guess, so much of the testing that we do is iterative. At this point its often a test that was inspired by a previous test where maybe we got a result or we weren’t sure why we got that result. Or the result was a little bit muddy so we went back and design the new test to kind of clear up that mess. A while back we created a gift ticker for our donate forms that displays donated gifts in real time. And in the initial testing we got kind of curious results we weren’t expecting. For non-donors it was increasing their response rate more than completing the donation form which was our theory.
For the previous donors people either current or past which was given to us before, their response rate wasn’t changed by the ticker but unexpectedly it increased their average gift size. And we weren’t really sure why that was going on. So, we puzzled over it and eventually we zeroed in on the fact that we sort of built this little speck into the ticker without even thinking much about the impact. Which was that previous donors the ticker was only showing them gifts that were within 80-120% of their previous highest contribution. While for non donors it was just showing all gifts.
And so we had inadvertently not just been testing the social proofing effect on our donors but we were also incurring them.
So we ended up tweaking the ticker again so that non-donors would only see gifts within maybe 80-120% of sort of slightly higher average first time gift and Walla! the ticker was influencing non-donors gift size gifts on the retest as well.
So you sort of get that iteration were you’re like, why did that happen? How can I test to see if that explanation is what makes sense?
George: And another one of the things I believe I heard you talk about when I heard you present not too long ago at a nonprofit conference, is the use of renewing membership. And this is a big thing in the sector because you know of first-time donors, going in the US giving, first-time donors that happened let’s say 2016, I’m losing 80% of them in the following year on average. How do you approach the renewal question? What sort of tactics have you learned to work in that?
Emily: Yes. First of all, the word “renew” itself continues to be very powerful. It’s I think a reminder to people that maybe… I think especially in the environmental space, one of the issues that we all share is a little bit of difficulty with brand differentiation. Most of our donors also donate to all of our allies in the environmental community and I think sometimes they’re not really sure what the differences between any of us, they just know that we all do good things. And occasionally people will think that they have donated to us recently, because they remembered donating to some environmental organization, but it turns out it wasn’t us and just the message going out saying to renew your membership or renew your support, makes them realize that they didn’t actually donate to us recently.
Sort of along those lines when we send out renewal emails, we’ve had a lot of success with putting a little sort of personalized box. You know we use that Fo type writer font saying, you know your member name, your member number, your last gift was this date and this amount, just to remind them that it’s been a little while may be.
In the last year or so, we’ve also started sending out emails every month to folks whose last gift was 6, 12, 18 and 24 months prior, and it’s sort of this cute you know, “hey it’s our anniversary, here are some things that we celebrated together since your last gift, why don’t you take this relationship forward and let’s keep going, let’s stay together and will you make another gift now?” And those are pretty small audiences because they’re such a specific set of people whose gift was in that particular month, but they get very high response rates because they are so highly targeted.
George: Wow. So what type of renewal percentage are you expecting? You know, I give last year, what is the likelihood I give again as a first time donor to EDF?
Emily: It’s been a little while since I’ve checked our numbers. I want to say it’s may be two thirds, about two thirds of people will come back.
George: That’s incredible. I mean if you look at the industry average, you’re doing tremendously well. And this probably, that one little tidbit is maybe worth the entire podcast not that all hasn’t been valuable, but I found that remarkable you know, in terms of messaging, the segmentation and also tribute to your desire to AB test and AA test and obviously design experiments around this type of thing.
Emily: Yeah. It’s important to remember that even a failed test or a non-resolved, can still be an opportunity to learn.
George: Another way not to make a light bulb, okay. So before we move into rapid fire round, I want to put you on the spot.
George: Okay, so obviously you have tons of resources at your disposal. You’re talking about fantastic tools that you know I can’t afford. Most non-profits, of ¾ of it will say you’re under a million dollars in terms of annual operating revenue. So I’m about to say you’ve been hired at a great small non-profit and operating, they are, let’s say they’re in the medical field and they have a list size about 30,000, they’re using Mailchimp, and they’re trying to fire up their online giving strategy.
How are you going to go about it? How are you going to use your available tools, and design? We’ll call it a poor persons approach to all the smart things you’ve learned. How do I do this on a budget?
Emily: Yes. In fact, my previous job was at a very small non-profit where I sort of started the digital program from scratch, because we didn’t have the money to be sending mail out honestly. It was the most cost-effective thing we could do, was to raise money online.
Other than your donors, staff time is far and away your most precious resource. So digital projects should ideally be maximizing the revenue that your staff can generate with every hour of their time, and that means you’re going to prioritize I would say two qualities in a new digital project undertaking.
The first would be the low hanging fruit stuff that is so low effort that any return is going to practically be free money. An example of this might be a tactic we often use of re-sending a high performing email to folks who didn’t open it first time with a new subject line and see if we had better luck getting their attention on another day, you know maybe they were busy or thinking about something else that day. It takes less than an hour, probably less a half an hour of your lowest paid staffers time and it helps you get twice as much mileage out of good content while scooping up extra donations that would otherwise been lost. So that’s always going to be a smart business choice.
The other thing to prioritize is stuff you can do, set it and forget it on. Anything you can safely automate with very little ongoing maintenance. So even if it takes heavy lifting to get it set up over its lifetime, it’ll accumulate more than enough return on that investment, it will just be running in the background making money for you the whole time.
An example of this could be a light box on your donate form that up sells one time donors who’ve just press donate asking them to convert their gifts to a suggested monthly amount. Once you’ve created the scripts to accomplish that, you can put it on all your donation forms, and ROI is just going to continue to grow month-after-month.
Recurring emails campaigns also fall into this category. And a lot of this stuff is a very good reason if you’re going to make one higher, having someone who can… a developer who can write code for some of these custom ideas you come up with, is a real smart bet.
George: Wow, lots to think about and to enact. And also to remind us that it can done on a lower budget though. You have to think about as you said, the set it and forget it, the things that you can do once and then have the robots continue.
George: Okay. Alright, time for rapid fire round.
George: Are you prepared?
Emily: I think so.
George: Alright. What is one mistake you made in your career that influences the way you do your work?
Emily: That’s a tough one. You know I would say the biggest mistakes, the mistakes have all been just a result of rushing through things. Online, there’s a lot of pressure to get things out the door, to turn things around quickly, especially often some of the people in your organization requesting things from you underestimate how long it should take to get something out the door and you maybe feel pressured to meet their time line instead of a more realistic one, you take on too many projects, and I would say just little things like, many years ago I sent out an email that had the wrong Twitter handle in a pre-tweet, it was this company, Electricite de France has the same acronym as we do and I had just been hired and didn’t stop to think that EDF might not be my EDF. And you know if I had been in better communication with our social media team and said, “hey, you normally don’t look at our emails but since this one includes some pre-tweets, would you like to take a look at this?” They would’ve caught that instantly.
So definitely resist the urge to do everything yourself in a hurry, take your time, get some other people to look at it, even if you think they might have enough to say, they might surprise you.
George: What is one tool or website that you or your organization has used and started using in the last year that has made a difference?
Emily: Actually a really cool new one that we just popped up in last couple of weeks, is called “Tiltify.” Its a live streaming fund raising platform. You can kind of think of it as a modern-day telethon. Users on the platform can fund raise for their favorite causes by hosting a life stream and then their followers can donate right through the viewing platform while they’re watching.
So they had a user market buyer who recently raised more than $50,000 for us on a single day, on the day of the climate March the other weekend, last weekend, and all we had to do was connect our PayPal account to Tiltify, and now we’re in option on there that people can select if they want to raise for an environmental cause. And it’s really incredible how much the internet and technology are putting so much power in the hands of individuals to make a really big impact.
George: What tech dragons or difficulties do you need to slay in the upcoming year?
Emily: Our biggest challenge is one I’m sure a lot of listeners are familiar with, data in too many places that aren’t integrated or talking to each other. That make some things impossible, it makes other things far more labor-intensive than they ought to be. What we really need is a unified multi-channel marketing platform that can accept incoming data from the mail shop and email provider and the ad server and the webmaster tools and donor records, put that all in one place and push data back out to all those places as well for when we’re pulling lists in targeting. That really opens the door to the highly personalized experience that people expect. For all the people complain about digital privacy, they also paradoxically expect the companies they see online to know them very well and treat them like an individual.
You get annoyed when you shop on Amazon and buy a pair of boots and then keep seeing ads for those boots for the next two weeks, and you think, “well I already bought those, stops showing me that ad.”
George: What is getting you excited that is coming up in the next year?
Emily: Yeah, earlier I talked about the value of automated marketing, because when it’s done right, it can offer a really terrific ROI on your staff time. In the non-profit world, as much as it pains me, there is still this regrettable emphasis placed on fund raising overhead costs, I can go on a rant here about how expecting an organization not to invest in the very thing that keeps them alive would be insanity in the for-profit world, but instead, I’ll just say I’m sure many of you do work for organizations where they’re reluctant to add headcount to your fund raising department and marketing automation can help you do more with less staff. And even if your executives are enlightened enough to invest in the future of your organization by investing in fund raising, then the potential returns on that investment are huge with automation. So that’s my biggest goal, is trying to get as many things running that don’t require daily hand holding from me.
George: Do you believe non-profits can successfully go out of business?
Emily: Oh, that’s a good question. I think for environmental groups that isn’t really a sort of immediate threat for us until we live in a world that generates no waste and no pollution, there’s always going to be more we can do to reduce our environmental impact and a need to do it.
I used to work in the marijuana legalization industry which you can more easily see eventually putting itself out of business. And I think in that case there are sort of two types of people who go to work at non-profits.
The first of people who really care about that particular issue and when I worked in marijuana legalization these are the people who went on to work in the legal marijuana industry when they left the non-profit sector. So they never worried about being too successful because they were creating an industry that would later give them jobs.
And then you see people which I think I fall into, who just want to make a difference and see no shortage of opportunities to make something better, so if we put ourselves out of business in one cause, we’ll move onto the next one. I’m an optimist but not so optimistic, but I think the world will run out of problems to solve in my lifetime.
George: What is something that you think your organization should stop doing?
Emily: We all think way too highly of our gut. There is something about social sciences and social applications of theory that makes everything seem so deceptively simple. I mentioned my background is in sociology and it would be so common for me to be sharing the results of a study with someone outside the field, and hear, “of course, that’s common sense, of course that’s what happened.” And yet you could also tell them the opposite of the real results and they would probably say the same thing. Or you would tell them a counter-intuitive real finding and they would rejected out of hand because it didn’t fit their personal expectations. People really think they know human behavior even when they don’t and they have a hard time being objective about it.
I recently took an email marketing course with Met Labs, led by the brilliant, brilliant Clint MacLachlan. And he said to us, “there are no expert marketers, there are only experienced marketers and expert testers.”
So we’re all guilty of thinking we just know that something’s gonna a work and you know I’ve been working in marketing all these years and it sharpened our instincts and I just know whether something is going to be good or bad. But you don’t, you don’t know until you test it and after all these years and all the success I’ve had, I still get surprising test results on a regular basis.
So there are no expert marketers, just experienced marketers and expert testers.
George: And what is something you personally think you should stop doing?
Emily: Oh, I’m just as guilty of that. I tried to think with my gut all the time, and later you know, I’ll be sharing the result with someone and they’ll say, “oh, did you test that? How much lift did you get?” And I’m like, “no, I just kind of rolled it out, so actually I have no idea.”
George: And finally, if you have a Harry Potter style wand that you can wave across the non-profit sector, what would it do?
Emily: Oh, get over the fear of money and the fear of acting too much like a business. The work that we’re all doing is so important and we owe it to the communities we serve to perform as highly as we can.
And stop posting job ads without listing a salary range. Talented people are less likely to apply if you don’t do it. I think it’s terrible. So I guess that’s two things I would change.
George: Am I being specific? Finally, how do people find you, and how do people help you Emily?
Emily: Yeah. If folks want to head over to our website at www.EDF.org/help, you can sign-up for email alerts, take action on some of the current fights we got going on, make a donation to support our work and you can also visit EDFaction.org, that’s our legislative and lobbying arm that works on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures to build bipartisan support for environmental law.
George: Well thank you for your time, this has been wildly enlightening and a lot of fun. Certainly an important cause, so thanks for your time Emily.
Emily: Thank you.
George: So if you’re anything like me, gosh you left this conversation feeling there is so much more to do. There are obviously tons of things we could be improving on our email approach and our strategies. Oh yeah, if only if we had the time.
You know I pushed…you can see at the end, I pushed Emily, like look, “if you jump into a small organization, what are you trying to do?” And conceptually she immediately jump to trying to set things up in such a way that automated marketing and things like drip campaigns, things that will produce value over time, are configured, certain types of pop-ups and asks. The type of activities that you can do once and then are repeated by the robots.
Holistically though it becomes…it comes down to segmenting, it comes down to testing assumptions and having baselines so you can evolve it.
There are a lot of things that will give you a head start in the right direction. You know I think the renew your pledge is huge bit of information that is proven not just in EDF but others. I also loved the fact that we’ve talk about echo chambering before with advertising surrounding your targeted audience, they have the data, they have proven it out, they have shown that when you message people on multi-channel at the same time, it sort of synchronize your efforts, you are getting to lift in donations. There’s so much more that obviously we know we could be doing, but there’s more maybe low hanging fruit hopefully that was revealed to you in the process of this conversation.
And so I’ll leave it there.
You can find the resources for this amazing podcast episode, episode number 71 at WholeWhale.com/podcast, where you will have all of the info.
Thanks for joining us.
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