Fundraising: To Email or Not to Email

Smartphone II

To email or not to email, that is the question of the modern fundraiser.

I understand the email quandary. We want to reach our customers and very important friends, and make sure they know about our fundraiser (or any other initiative). At the same time, we don’t want to alienate our contacts with spammy solicitations.

Several years ago, I worked with a nonprofit on their hopeful $30-$50,000 fundraiser. In the beginning, we were all in agreement on the importance of building a strong email list and accessing partner networks to get the word out. Focusing on an exciting initiative, the effort would seek to activate and engage in a first time giving event for this sector of the nonprofit. At that time, this would have been unique.

But then the corporate messaging initiatives began to take precedence. Protocol mattered more than engagement. Using the list and partners’ lists for the fundraiser came into question. Concerns arose about antagonizing people with the fundraiser. The nonprofit already emailed the list frequently with its various news items and corporate partner initiatives.

Social media, a single relatively benign email, and content would need to carry the effort. Needless to say, things didn’t fare as well as we had originally hoped. The fundraiser sputtered and bumbled its way across the $10,000 mark. The Fundraising Wall began at the outset.

Social and Blog Content Usually Can’t Carry the Weight Alone

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One truth about online fundraisers: It is very, very hard to succeed with social media and blog content alone. I would say it is almost impossible UNLESS you have a super engaged community. Frankly, you need multiple tactics, an integrated strategy (the subject of my last business book Marketing in the Round), but of all the tactics email is almost a must have for a successful fundraiser. .

An email list really is an extension of a super engaged community, too. I would argue that an exhausted email list that sees mass opt-outs during a fundraiser reflects a larger problem. Perhaps the organization uses its email list as a mechanism to simply ask and get rather than to provide value.

There is a reverse to that equation. If people are subscribed to your organization’s list and all they receive is valuable information, but are unwilling to receive an email from you about an important initiative, then perhaps they are not really a part of your community. They just like free information.

This may have to do with the list that they are opting into. Was it clear that they will receive occasional offers (e.g. solicitations) from you? It may be worth segmenting people that complain about solicitations into a different list.

Also, let’s be honest with ourselves, do people just find our solicitations to be spammy and boring? If your email is a blatant request to give you money for something they may not want, then maybe your quandary is well justified. You may get a few backers or donations. You will also piss off a lot of people, too, particularly if you continuously make obvious uninteresting overtures with your email community.

Figure It Out or Hit the Wall

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There are two critical aspects to the email problem: Content and community. There are many resources that can help you create a stronger content initiative with the actual email. Is the email copy entertaining and useful to the list member. Or do they just feel like you are talking about yourself and asking for something?

Then there are the community members, the people who have subscribed to your list. Frankly, if you are concerned about a dead or dying list, then maybe it’s time to get honest about the state of your email program. Email represents a relationship tool. People who have had enough of your organization’s email, probably don’t belong on the list anymore. Would you email a friend who kept complaining about your jokes?

While invigorating your list with better content, consider a new opt-in prompt for people who have not opened one of your emails in six months. This inactive list campaign may take more than one communication, but if you are not getting a response, my recommendation is to cull them. In my mind, they have indicated through inaction that the email communications aren’t working for them. Let them go.

Focus on stronger content, more value, higher open rates, and better interaction with your email community. Figure it out before your online fundraiser, or you will hit the Fundraising Wall.

There are many other components to a successful online fundraiser, including online advertising, influencer activation (your influencers, not those big wig celebrities!), PR, live events and more. But without email as a basic fundamental outreach, you may be dooming yourself to a lesser fundraising effort.

The Permission Trap

After reading the Age of Context (read my review here), I could not help but think about how this era is removing most concepts of privacy. In turn, it is causing an incredible amount of intrusive spam. A tension builds between brands who market to the niche, and consumers who unwittingly gave them permission to do so.

The Age of Context theorizes that successful companies will need to taper their shotgun approaches to marketing. I admired Robert Scoble and Shel Israel‘s hope, but at the same time I had my doubts.

Then I interviewed Robert. He made some interesting comments about filters possibly resolving invasive marketing, and providing an end ceaseless spamming.

Before diving in further, let’s discuss the permission trap.

Permission Abused

Most companies and nonprofits don’t care about permission marketing. When individuals sign up for a list, it’s an exchange for a free piece of content or another one time transaction. Permission also assumes the ability to unsubscribe.

If an organization’s ensuing outreach is so annoying that you feel compelled to unsubscribe or remove yourself from said list, then that means remove. The moment an organization fails to obey an unsubscribe request, it becomes a spammer. But organizations will gladly sacrifice good will for a 2% growth transaction rate.

This is the permission trap. Someone gives a company permission in exchange for free content or a deal, and then receives unwanted spam for the rest of their email account’s or phone number’s life.

Even as media and data allow brands to become more precision oriented, I see the trap holding steady. And that means spam not only on the dektop, but on all media devices.

I have given money to the DNC during the past two presidential elections, only to find myself added to an unbelievable amount of Democratic email lists and the occasional phone call. No matter how many times I unsubscribed, I found myself continuing to receive emails. After years of hitting remove, I still get the periodic Democratic email. Al Franken has been by far the worst of the lot, with the Obamas a close second.

The political example highlights my point, but I have had the same experience with many companies. Unfortunately, because there is so little choice when it comes to political parties, I am likely to donate again. That means I will be ceaselessly spammed for the rest of my life, even though I would do so without prompting.

One would think that yielding results in the single percentages isn’t worth the negative equity and bad word of mouth. But tell that to corporate leaders, investors, owners and Wall Street who all need or want to deliver maximum ROI.

Until there are enough alternatives out for customers, we’re screwed. In this new era of contextual media driven by automation, pinpoint marketing and permission, most companies won’t do the right thing. They’ll still damn the 98% of uninterested stakeholders for that two percent who buy.

Can Filters Combat Spam?

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I took the opportunity to ask Robert about this issue in my interview, “I remember giving the DNC permission to email me, and I still get spammed despite opting out from their lists numerous times. Is giving permission really just the death of “quiet?”

His answer was insightful, “Google and Apple are working on contextual operating systems. These will know what you are doing. Who you are doing it with. Are you in a meeting? Google knows, it’s on your calendar. So it can shut up any of these lame advertisements.

“In fact, look at the new Gmail. That DNC email already is going to the promotional folder. It knows about the context of that email and that it’s not from a trusted friend. So, no, I think context is the rebirth of quiet.

“You’ll get these kinds of messages when you want or need them, not earlier. Marketers will need to learn to be far better about serving these messages out, too. In a perfect world the DNC would add a feature to its emails like Facebook has “show fewer of these messages” or “show these messages only during the month before an election” or something like that. But marketers don’t think about customer service so Google will force the issue, just as it has with Gmail’s promotional folder that removes this kind of stuff from the inbox.”

Robert brings up a good point. Soon filters will get more powerful and smarter, allowing us to block specific types of conversations and keywords. To some extent these filters already exist.

For example, you can filter email by keywords. I have a special folder for Google+ updates (that I almost never look in). Other filters include the ability to mute people and conversation topics (such as presidential elections, please?).

Once algorithmic intelligence picks up on preferences, we can expect to see filtering happen wholesale. It’s likely a tug of war will occur with marketers figuring out loopholes around filters, and software providers developing new protection mechanisms. And one can expect all sorts of filtering mistakes, too. For example, I might want to read my client’s Google+ emails but can’t because of the filter.

Perhaps we will reach a point where it is just easier for brands to garner permission, and treat customers well. Wouldn’t that be grand?

What do you think?

Featured Image by WhatWhat, Scoble pic by NEXT 13.

The Future of Email or Messaging or…

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What Teens Think Will Happen to Email (Source: Social Mouths)

French company Atos became the latest tech player to declare the end of email, calling it pollution and banning it from its corporate walls. Tech bloggers bagged the move, but in reality, it’s an increasingly familiar proclamation. Basically, the tech industry wants to replace email with the next generation of messaging.

In the online world, we have seen this trend emerge several times. Most notably, the birth and death of Google Wave was the first big attempt to end email. Then there was the not so successful Facebook Messages/Messenger App.

Invariably, these solutions feature a variety of social media or instant messaging technologies. For example, Google’s integration of undelivered Gmail chat messages into Gmail. Facebook’s Messages does the same thing with chat. It can also integrate text messaging. File sharing and workplace solutions like Dropbox and Basecamp still use email to notify users.

None of these solutions have completely replaced an email address, which has the primary feature of a name and a URL, providing routing on the Internet. And none of them replace the core peer-to-peer or peer-to-a few peers communication that made email so popular in the 90s.

Email is just another delivery method. You can shoot the messenger, but…

Can Tech Eliminate Spamming?

At the heart of this debate is ridding the in-box of trash, spam and other useless email, e.g. weeding out marketing messages. In the case of the workplace, employers are also trying to weed out useless banter (forwarded jokes, etc.). So the target is really us, those marketers who engage in direct email marketing.

Obviously, this makes opt-in lists and great email content even more important. And as future technologies come into the fore and marketing becomes strictly permission based, these twin bills of direct success may no longer be optional for companies. Spam tolerance decreases with each new messaging technology.

Yet if the hybridization of messaging succeeds eliminating the IP address portion of a digital message, won’t marketers find a new way to get into the next generation in-box? Historically, spam and bad marketing transcends medium. We have certainly experienced that with social media.

What do you think? Will a next generation technology replace email? Will it eliminate spam?

From Junk to Spam to Waste

So could a plumber's farts
Image by diaper

A recent Digital Life survey in Great Britain revealed that corporate social media is generally a failure, with organizations “generating mountains of digital waste, from friendless Facebook accounts to blogs no one reads.” And so in a long history of media, yet another medium has been turned into a source of noise pollution by direct marketers.

First there was the proliferation of junk mail that citizens received in their post boxes. With the dot com era came spam, an onslaught of unwanted email from marketers laying waste to your in box.

And now with social comes digital waste. Everyday we see endless streams of poorly disguised messaging and sales pitches. Even though you may not have opted in to it, your friends share the waste, or it shows up via a “social ad” placement.

Lest we think the phenomena of bad marketing limits itself to direct marketing, perhaps I can share with you some of the many the horrible pitches PR “pros” email me everyday thinking they just might get on this blog. Or simply turn on your television and watch the bad advertising.

Poorly executed marketing dominates every time and medium.

No wonder great marketing campaigns are so noteworthy. They stand out in comparison.

And therein lies the opportunity. With the bar so low, it becomes easier to win. We simply need to take the time to practice our craft, and mindfully attend to our communications, honing our craft so it resonates with our stakeholders. Success takes work, but when the competition is so bad it is very, very attainable.

What do you think about the general practice of marketing these days?