Monday, February 23, 2009

Are Nonprofit Email Newsletters a Waste of Time? Social Media - the Way to Go? What about Baby Boomers?...All This in One Post

This week, Thomas Gensemer, the online campaign strategist for the Obama campaign raised an uproar in the Nonprofit world when speaking in London he advised charities to ditch e-mail newsletters, calling them a waste of time. He said that short, personalized e-mail messages to supporters that offer clean instructions for participation are a more effective online strategy.

Third Sector and Philanthropy Today reported on this, Twitter is aflutter with posts about the subject and it is a topic for popular discussions on LinkedIn. Social Media and nonprofit bloggers are writing about the topic just as I am doing right now. Comments at Philanthropy Today from nonprofits state strongly that email newsletters are especially effective for small and locally based nonprofits.
Philanthropy Today Article and Comments

So which is it? I think the answer is both. Let’s start by looking at some objective data. Convio recently completed its second annual benchmarks study. It did find that web usage and revenue continue to grow. However, it also found that email open rates have declined from 22% in just one year to 14%. “Email fatigue” is causing people to seek new techniques to connect with supporters.. A few years ago I opened almost every email newsletter I received. Now I get so many that I open a small percentage - hmmm… maybe about 14% - and most of those I skim rather than really read.

Sean Stannard-Stockton at Tactical Philanthropy had a great blog post last week - which was being retweeted like mad on Twitter - on using Twitter as a “filter.” I was surprised and honored to be listed as one of the people on his filter that he reads all the time. Ah, but I digress….. The point being that today we all are on information overload, and a good way to handle this is to have your own filtering system. Some social Media tools, especially Twitter, are excellent filtering tools.
Tactical Philanthropy on Information Filtering

I think that Thomas Gensemer was too quick to dismiss email newsletters but I also agree that we should be conscious of changing trends. Short, one topic emails can supplement the longer multi-topic one. Titles like “Nonprofit A Monthly Newsletter” are more likely to be deleted than “Nonprofit A Receives Award for Outstanding Program” or “Join Us in for an Evening to Remember.”

I’ve been thinking about this as it pertains to my own newsletter. I used to feature a long two page article on one subject as a pdf attachment. I get great feedback on these articles and I know that some people appreciate them. But I now try to alternate with shorter, newsier emails for those people who respond better to that format.

It is not time yet to throw out the email newsletter but it is time to update your whole online approach. Integrating the enewsletter with Social Media and introducing short, focused emails may be a good start.

Both Forrester Research and Pew Research have recently released studies which show that Baby Boomers are very active consumers of socially created content. They leave their opinions on Web sites and join social networks. If you think that this Social Media stuff is for reaching people in their 20’s, think again. It is becoming the way to reach that all important Boomer generation too.

For a great article with additional great links on this subject, visit Beth’s Blog:
Beth's Blog: How Your Nonprofit Can Reach Baby Boomers with Social Media

I hope you'll leave you comments on this subject. It will make for a great discussion.

Consider my Social Networking for Nonprofits workshop on March 20th. I’ll post on that soon.


Marc A. Pitman, CFCC said...

Thanks for pulling these together!

I wrote about it over the weekend too. That article will be post on the blog tomorrow.

Personally, I wonder if he was that dismissive or if that was just a news reporters way to raise eyebrows.

But it IS a point worth considering. Asks in email newsletters tend to get lost.

Marion Conway said...

Hi Marc,

Thanks for commenting. I think he was trying to make a point that we should not be complacent about how we use eNewsletters and it is time to mix it up with a new approach. I doubt he had any idea he would unleash all this commentary among nonprofits. But I bet he isn't sorry he did.

See Marc's great, much more concise post on this subject at his blog, The Fundraising Coach at


SusanDiamond said...

Thanks Marion, very insightful comments. I've been thinking a lot about this myself, as the organization I work for is ramping up the e-newsletters. There is a real need for more dissemination of this type of information to development departments of non-profits, not just the communications departments.

SusanDiamond said...

Great insight Marion. This discussion needs to be brought to the attention of the development departments in non-profits, not just communications. Thank you!

Rachel Beer said...

Thanks for a great post, Marion.

This is something I've had a sense about for some time - that e-newsletters will soon be a thing of the past, broadly speaking. That was mainly from a personal perspective, because I know I just don't want to read them anymore, although this is part of a much wider, cultural change brought about by technology.

Last year, I heard the phrase 'the death of direct mail' a fair bit, and I began to think along similar lines about that - that there will still be room for 'old media' (which email has probably become now), if executed exceptionally well. There's usually quite a lot of scope to improve on what you do, whoever you are and your tip about making the titles of e-mail newsletters/ comms more engaginging, is probably just the start for many.

This aside, email fatigue, dropping direct mail response rates and declining newspaper circulations all mean that it's time to 'mix it up with a new approach', as you say. Need to find new baskets for some of those eggs.

Christine said...

Email is not dead! For my favorite charity (targets educated 35-65 professionals), email is a great way to regularly communicate events and other info. What's better than click and donate? Has the open rate dropped? Yes, from a board members perspective, our email campaigns have increased reach, donations, and kept us connected with potential donors, many of whom are changing jobs/emails. The social media mix may evolve, but email will always be important.