Grating Expectations

The other day I received Best Buy’s monthly coupon pack, which I once looked forward to as a way to justify to myself that I should go buy some DVDs or music (as it’s clearly intended to do). ButScale credit: over the last few months, the coupons’ focus has been less of the “triple points on anything” or “10% off these categories that you actual use” and more of “save a few bucks on our outrageously priced memory cards for people who’ve never heard of Newegg” or “save 10% on appliances and car stereos that cost more than your home and car.”

This naturally annoyed me, since I have pretty much no use for these coupons, and I realized that the offers started changing right around the time that I began using my reward zone card and gave them my preferences. Now, since Best Buy knows what I’ll already go buy without help, they’re using the coupon packs as a way to upsell me into other areas of the store.

As irked as I was at Best Buy (and right when the previous seasons of House and Heroes are out on DVD!), I realized that this is the same thing that we do as email marketers with so many of our constituents: bring them in on the promise of something they want (“Sign up to help the environment!”) in order to bring them to somewhere we want (“Become a monthly donor”). So much of the time, we’re pulling the same tricks as retail outlets, but then we’re shocked, shocked! when unsubscribe rates go up, open rates go down, and people hesitate before giving us their email addresses.

Tips on how we can mitigate this, and why it’s still somewhat inevitable, below the fold…

Thinking about this always brings me back to something that happened at a previous job when one of my responsibilities was inbox management. Most of the stuff that came in the inbox was pretty standard fare, and I got pretty good at dispensing with it quickly, but one day we got a message that said “Please remove my name from petition alerts and fundraising emails, but keep me on for everything else.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to react here: Photo credit: the perspective of the internal stakeholders, the purpose of the email list was advocacy and fundraising. Those were the two metrics we gauged our successes on, and pretty much everything else we did with the list was to work toward those two things.

But from the list member’s perspective, that wasn’t the case at all. For him, we had a mission he liked, and he wanted to receive information, he just wasn’t interested in being asked to do anything else. And when I went back and looked at how we brought him on the list, it made even more sense: he joined the list as part of a promotion, checking the box that said “I want to receive regular updates” which didn’t mention anything about hitting him up like an ATM every time we had a monthly goal to reach. He and we had completely different perspectives on the purpose of the list, but both were valid in a way.

Almost no one will ever join your list if you pitch it as “We’re going to be asking you for money and actions pretty frequently, and if you wouldn’t mind sending all our stuff to your friends as well, we’d appreciate it.” You have to put some flashy features on your list to build it: “Receive special alerts and updates!” “Help progressive candidates!” “Make a difference!” “Be the first to find out…”

But for most non-profits, particularly those for whom small donor fundraising or advocacy is important, the email list is one of your more important tools. While other online efforts be better at generating viral messaging or earned media, the email list remains the premier way to fundraise over the web, so it’s necessary to monotize it to a level that isn’t (yet?) the case with social networks or blogs.

So how does a savvy non-profit avoid the deflation users feel when they signed up for one list, and feel like they’ve joined another?

  • First,, set realistic expectations. Make sure your opt-in mentions that people will receive a variety of communications about your mission. If you mail frequently, it might be good to mention that too so there are no surprises. You’ll probably get a few less subscribers, but those who do join up will know what they’re buying and be more loyal and more active.
  • Second, use a welcome series to bring new people into your list gradually. Segment them out of standard communications until they’ve completed the series (unless it’s a critical time for your organization, like right before election day). The welcome series should transition subscribers from what they signed on with to the totality of your organization, so if you have a broad mission, or specific actions that you ask users to take a lot, make sure to take that into account.
  • Third, try to tie the actions Message from MoveOn users are taking into your organization’s mission. While this should seem obvious, it’s surprising how often it’s forgotten. Rather than asking users to make a contribution to help your organization generically, figure out some specific goals that your members are contributing toward. This can be tough for some groups that raise the money to pay for things that aren’t particularly glamorous, like lobbyists or list-building, but if you can convince your finance team to let you raise restricted dollars it can be a big boost. MoveOn is a great example here: they never ask for money just to keep the lights on, it’s always for a new ad buy, field organizers or PAC contributions to good candidates.
  • Fourth, throw some candy in there with the vegetables (not literally; that would taste terrible!). If you’re just coming out of a heavy fundraising period, consider a flash game, social networking pitch, or even just a quarterly progress report to cleanse the palette. Even the members who are good givers and advocates will appreciate a break from a constant stream of appeals, and skeptical new members will be reassured that that the reason they signed up is still relevant.
  • Lastly, be ready to accept that some people will unsubscribe. You’re not going to please everyone – in the case of my guy up above, we set up a group for him to live in that was only mailed non-action and fundraising alerts. That wasn’t a lot of volume, and he ended up unsubscribing anyway. You need to balance keeping your list happy with concrete and tangible goals for your program; while members might be happy not to see another fundraising email again, they’d probably also be unhappy to hear that you’re scaling back operations for lack of funding. So don’t apologize for asking for money or action: this is a cause your members care about, and should want to support. And if they don’t, do you really mind if they unsub anyway?

Balancing your needs with those of your subscribers is tricky, and can lead to some tough choices; in the end, everyone has their own value calculations as to which organizations they’ll support and how. I’ve switched a lot of my DVD shopping to Amazon; without a good deal, the premium for not having to wait became just a little too high (plus I’m interested to see if they switch me back to relevant coupons once my spending goes down and I don’t end up buying a washer/dryer), but other subscribers may not. Your organization just needs to find the right balance of your needs and your list members to grow a healthy email marketing program.

This post is part of an evidentially continuing series, entitled “Stuff I found in my mailbox.” Next issue: “It cost me how much to send a text message last month?!?!”

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