06.15.23 5 min

BUSTED: 6 myths on email marketing

Daniella Dowiak

Manager, Omnichannel, Data Axle Nonprofit

Now that we’re more than halfway through the year, this is a great time to re-evaluate your email marketing program. Before you know it, we’ll be knee deep in planning end-of-year campaigns (yes, I said it!), which makes now a perfect time to pause, take a step back and make any changes that will help you put your best foot forward.

When auditing your email program, it’s helpful to break it down in terms of priorities for your organization. Below is the truth about some of the top email marketing myths to help get you started. Maybe some of these will even validate what you’ve been sharing within your organization recently.

1. MYTH: Open rates don’t matter

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that open rates no longer matter, I could be a major donor to my favorite nonprofit organization. Yes, it’s true that in 2021, Apple’s Privacy Policy changes skewed this metric. You now get automatic opens from users who use certain devices/email domains. It’s also true that you can’t compare open rates to previous ones, but…

  • You don’t get free opens when your emails end up in spam folders. Read that again, because this is important. Personally, we LOVE these new privacy policies because open rates have now become a very easy way to monitor email deliverability. And if we know we have a deliverability problem, we can do something about it and improve our entire program.
  • Your open rates are still relevant to you. While metrics from last year or even 6 months ago aren’t going to provide insightful comparisons, you can compare open rates within a shorter time frame and determine which envelope information (subject line, sender name, sender email) was most successful.

Hint: If you’re sending to an engaged file (users who have opened/clicked/donated within the last 6 months) and your open rates are below 35%, your emails are likely ending up in spam folders. An exception to this is if you have a higher-than-average percentage of users who use desktop to access their email.

REAL LIFE: One organization we recently started working with was struggling with email performance. Their open rates for their most engaged audience were barely reaching 20%. After performing email hygiene, help from Inboxable, and implementing other deliverability best practices, their open rate percentages for the same audience are now in the high-40s to low-50s!

2. MYTH: Send days and time can make or break an email

While this can be true (think major holidays), in most cases, the specific day of the week and time of day you send an email has little impact. We’ve tested, analyzed, and reviewed different days and times across various organizations, and the one thing that stands out is: there is no winner.

  • Common belief is that Tuesday and Thursdays are the best days to send emails. Maybe this used to be true, but with emails at everyone’s fingertips these days, we no longer see these patterns in performance on select days of the week.
  • We do see more of a pattern in send times, but this varies a lot by organization. In general, early- to-mid morning (5 AM to 10 AM ET) and then again in the afternoon through the evening (4 PM – 8 PM ET) are all solid performers.

Hint: What matters more than the day and time of the send is your audience (which directly impacts deliverability) and your content (subject line and email creative).

REAL LIFE: One organization we work with was cautious about sending appeals on the weekends because they didn’t think it would be successful. Once we started utilizing weekends — giving us much more space in the calendar to create a more desirable email cadence — we realized that Fridays and weekends were actually top performers, bringing in up to 70% of total email revenue within a month. Friday PM sends have also consistently been within the top fundraising emails across campaigns. Granted, these Friday PM emails do tend to be the most urgent ones, which goes to show how much more important content is than specific send days and times.

3. MYTH: Unsubscribes are bad

In this industry, we quickly learn that we can’t be all things to all people (in fact, it’s my fundraising life motto). If someone is ready to leave your file, we need to let them. Having someone unsubscribe is a polite way for them to say, “It was nice to meet you, but I no longer want to receive these emails.” This is ok! We’d much rather someone unsubscribe than sit on the file and do nothing (unengaged emails hurt deliverability) …or even worse, mark the email as spam.

Unsubscribes are also a great way of garnering what types of emails your file is interested in. If you consistently get higher unsubscribe levels to specific appeals or messages from a certain sender, then you may want to adjust that strategy. Always keep in mind that unsubscribes are a normal part of the business. As long as other metrics are indicating good performance and unsubscribes are below acceptable industry standards (~.5% per send), then they’re not something to worry about.

REAL LIFE: With one of our clients, we even made the unsubscribe option so prominent that it was the pre-header text and located at the top of the email. This client was struggling with spam complaints, and with this change, complaints dropped by 75% month-over-month, putting them within the “acceptable” range.

4. MYTH: We don’t know if [insert tactic in question] works because we haven’t done an A/B test

While we love a good A/B test, it’s important to recognize that you can test without having a control. We know this feels uncomfortable and maybe it goes against everything you learned about direct response marketing, but it’s how the email world works. You have so much useful information that can inform you of what works (and what doesn’t) by looking at email data over time.

The key to recognizing a strong tactic is to look at patterns. Is there a particular CTA that tends to bring in more revenue? Do all your emails from a certain sender name have stronger open rates? What elements in your emails are gifts coming from? These are just some of the questions you can ask to gain valuable information to enhance your emails without even doing A/B testing.

When you do perform A/B tests, here are two key things to keep in mind:

  • For most nonprofits, email response rates tend to be too low to get a statistically significant result, so reserve your A/B tests for emails that usually get higher volume.
  • When you have a clear winner, that simply becomes one more tactic to add to your playbook…not a control that is used in every email moving forward. The key to keeping your file engaged is variety, so there are very limited circumstances where you’d do an A/B test for a true control.

5. MYTH: It’s ok to target our entire file OR I should exclusively send to only my engaged audience

Like everything in life, balance is key. You want to avoid getting stuck in situations where you “always” do things a certain way, especially when it comes to audiences. We’ve seen organizations at both extremes of the audience spectrum – those who have very loose requirements for filtering people out of email audiences, and those who have such strict parameters that it becomes limiting.

Ideally, your file is set up in a way that you can identify those who are engaged vs. unengaged. Your typical emails should target just the engaged audience. By casting too wide a net and including those who haven’t interacted with you recently, you run the serious risk of poor deliverability which can have both immediate and long-term repercussions.

Alternatively, you want to intentionally open up your audience to part of the unengaged file for select opportunities. It’s easier (and cheaper) to re-engage someone already on your file than it is to acquire a new constituent. Two options include:

  • Use enticing engagement emails throughout the year to send to the unengaged audience and give them a chance to respond. This can help with file growth and counteract the natural email attrition of your file.
  • Target prior year donors. As much as we try to get people to give throughout the year, the trend still remains that donors tend to give less than 2x per year. This means that if they gave last year to your May campaign, they’re more likely to give to this year’s May campaign. We recommend opening up your file to past year’s donors of that particular month/campaign, regardless of engagement status. Of course, please monitor results and only take this risk if your file is already in a healthy state of deliverability.

REAL LIFE: One organization started targeting donors of that same month from prior years, even if they were unengaged. The result? These donors made up less than 1% of the total send volume but accounted for as much as 10% of total revenue for the month… and they didn’t hurt email deliverability.

6. MYTH: You’ve sent the email, now you can relax!

Though getting an email ready for deployment can be the most time-intensive part, a thorough email program requires monitoring and agility. There are two critical moments in reviewing email performance.

  • Once an email sends, you can tell if you have a deliverability problem within a few hours. If open rates appear to be low and additional metrics (clicks and gifts for appeals) are also off to a slower-than-normal start, you’ve likely ended up in spam folders. At this point, evaluate what might have caused this. The usual culprits are sender name, subject line, and/or audience selection. If the performance of this email is critical to your program, consider updating the subject line and whatever else you believe caused the deliverability issue, and doing a resend to non-openers.
  • About 24 hours after a send, email metrics are close to final. At this time, if performance is lower than you need it to be, you have options! Here are some tactics that we’ve found effective while requiring minimal work:

a. Take an earlier campaign message that did well, update the subject line, and send it out (even to those who opened the first message). While it may feel weird to send the same email again, very few users will even notice it’s the same.

b. Create a fake “forward” of an existing email by putting together just a couple sentences and a CTA button and include the previous message below it.

c. Have someone write a short, heartfelt message with limited design that succinctly lets them know about the giving opportunity and why the reader should act now.

The benefit of the digital world (as compared to direct mail) is that if you’re not seeing the performance expected, there’s something you can do something about it!

Use these months before Giving Tuesday and End of Year to drill down on what’s working for your organization and what you want to start changing to improve results. You have a lot to learn by looking back — and even more you can learn if you tweak strategies in the next couple of months — setting yourself up for a successful giving season.

Need help getting started? Contact us.

Daniella Dowiak

Thanks for reading

Written by Daniella Dowiak, Manager, Omnichannel, Data Axle Nonprofit

Daniella has a deep understanding of nonprofits’ limited resources, and she is passionate about helping organizations get the most out of their technology.