The 10 Elements of an Effective Fundraising Email Appeal

The only way to truly know what works to raise more money through your email appeals is to test. In order to start testing, we have to have an understanding of the fundamental elements that make up an effective email appeal. There are 10 main elements of an email appeal that we can test, and there’s insight to be gleaned from each one.

Element 1 – The Sender

Senders have a huge impact on the trust that is being built with a donor. Sometimes that trust is measured through email performance metrics like open rate, click-through rate, or donor-response rate. Other times, we might measure that trust with the amount of replies we get from an email. If we’re doing effective email marketing, we’re building trust through every communication.

Element 2 – Reply Email

The reply email can help build or break trust. If the reply appears to be to a real person, that builds trust in the mind of the recipient that this an email they might want to open. If it’s from a brand name, that is an immediate tip off to the recipient saying “This is a marketing email!”

And if it’s a “Do Not Reply” email, you’re essentially saying, “We don’t want to hear from you.”

Element 3 – Send Time

Although many people claim to know the perfect send time, your donors will tell you when they actually open your email. We want to make sure we place our emails in front of them at the right time. How can we determine what that time is? Testing.

Element 4 – Subject Line

Depending on where a person opens your email appeal, this is one of the first elements of content that is seen. We’ve run nearly 600 online fundraising experiments, and we’ve learned that there is no perfect subject line formula that will work for every audience. Again, testing is the only way to know what subject lines work for your audience.

Element 5 – Preview Text

Preview text gives the recipient a hint as to what your email is going to be about. If you don’t set this area of the email manually, your email provider usually will grab the first part of your email to preview. Often times, that means your preview text will start with “View this email in your browser.”

Since many email providers today allow you to dictate this element, make sure your preview text makes your recipient want to open your email.

Element 6 – Design

Design sparks some interesting, lively conversations in regards to email. Design, or creativity, is often subjective. But there are hard and fast ramifications for design. As a starting note, sometimes the “best” design can actually be a distraction that is hurting the performance of your email appeal.

Good design isn’t always what looks the best, it’s what performs the best.

Element 7 – Copy Length

When we write an email appeal, should it look like a direct mail letter? Is it better to keep it short and sweet? The only way to really know which is more effective for your donors is to test it. The right length of copy can change from organization to organization, and from appeal to appeal.

Overall, finding the right copy length is about finding the amount of copy that most effectively conveys your value proposition.

Element 8 – Tone

How do we write our emails? Sometimes, it’s not about how long it takes you to say something, or how it looks, but it’s how you’re actually saying it. Notice the difference between these two examples below.

It’s important to evaluate how we’re talking with our donors, and how it affects their trust of our organization and our senders.

Element 9 – Images

Are images helpful or hindering in emails? Should your entire email be an image? Maybe. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to test it. A lot of emails we receive in our aggregate donor inbox, and a lot of the examples you’ll see in other blog posts about email appeals, use images. But just because a lot of people use images in their emails, doesn’t mean that you should too.

Sometimes images can reinforce your value proposition, and other times they can distract from the purpose of your email.

Element 10 – Call-to-action

What are we asking people to do in our emails? With each type of email (like fundraising, advocacy, personal, etc.), the purpose changes, and this influences the final call-to-action. Usually, we’re asking the recipient to take some kind of action. Below are real calls-to-action we’ve seen.

Each one of these elements represents an opportunity for testing and optimization. As I’ve said before, following “best practice” doesn’t guarantee growth. And applying best practice without testing it might actually be hurting your email revenue.

Now that we’ve identified each element of an effective email appeal, it’s time to get testing. It’s the only way you’ll be able to confidently know what works and what doesn’t to grow your fundraising.

If you need a hand getting started with your first test, check out our A/B testing guide. We’ll walk you through how to run an effective A/B test in your emails, landing pages, and donation pages.


Fundraising Email

Jeff Giddens

Jeff Giddens is obsessed with optimizing online fundraising through rigorous testing and innovation. He’s helped clients like Hillsdale College, Feed the Children, Prison Fellowship International, Hoover Institution, Dallas Theological Seminary, and CaringBridge find innovative ways to acquire more names, donors, and dollars. Jeff began his career in alumni fundraising for a family business before transitioning into the broadcast media world to lead digital marketing for Mark Cuban’s television network AXS TV. He then returned to fundraising, working within and alongside nonprofit organizations before joining NextAfter in January of 2014. A Tennessee native, Jeff has a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Abilene Christian University. He and his family live in the Lake Highlands area of Dallas, Texas.

December 14, 2016

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