This article was orignally posted at Capstrat.com.
Rather than yet another blog post debating whether email is dead or alive, we are taking a stand—your email list isn’t dead, but it’s certainly struggling for air.
Evidence pointing to the looming demise of email continues surfacing. Most recently, the 2013 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study notes that, though there are exceptions in some issue verticals, the news is bad for most organizations that rely on email to drive activism (read: pretty much everyone). Public affairs organizations, in particular, should take note of the most alarming stats from the report:
- The average email list grew at a rate of 15%. That’s down from 20% just two years ago.
- Factor-in a churn rate (the rate at which emails become unreachable over the course of the year) of 16%, and we find the average list size actually declined slightly in 2012.
A slightly smaller email list is just the tip of the bad news iceberg. Engagement with advocacy messages was down across the board:
- Open rate: 14% (a 3% decline from 2011)
- Click-thru rate: 3.7% (a 14% decline from 2011)
- Response rate: 3.5% (an 8% decline from 2011)
These stats tell us two things: the average advocacy program has a stagnant or shrinking list that is less productive than it used to be—not exactly a position that portends to more success in 2013 and beyond.
What Went Wrong?
It’s probably not you. These statistics are part of a multi-year decline in email performance—a trend that persists despite the proliferation of tips and tricks that have helped organizations run an engaging email program.
Increasingly, the culprit is the inbox overload epidemic. This post from ComMetrics provides a good description of the larger email inbox environment that advocacy emails compete with daily. Calls-to-action from organizations and causes are but a droplet in a sea of sales pitches, social conversations and other limited-time marketing asks clamoring for our advocates’ attention. As a result, advocates are suffering from inbox overload. (A bluehornet study makes the connection with two key stats: For more than 4 in 10 consumers, over half of new emails come from marketers; and 23.5% of consumers opt-out of email lists primarily because of inbox overload.)
In this frenetic inbox environment, it’s easy to see how advocacy emails—even well-crafted, well-targeted and well-timed emails—can’t quite generate the same levels of engagement as they used to.
Can Social Media Save Us?
Um, no. Not yet, anyway. The Benchmarks study quickly points out that a slowly-dying email list is still light years ahead of Facebook and Twitter’s ability to drive advocacy actions. The key stats:
- Email lists are still larger than Facebook fan bases and Twitter followers: For every 1,000 emails, the average organization has only 149 Facebook fans and 53 Twitter followers. (The good news, though, is that most organizations are experiencing rapid growth on both of these platforms.)
- It’s still easier to incite action on email vs. social channels: Email provides the more direct path for the organization to make the ask and the user to complete the action. Research suggests the problem is twofold: the average percentage of those that take action on a non-promoted (free) Facebook post (where an action is defined as a like, comment, share, answer a question, RSVP for an event, or claim an offer) is just 1.4% of those that see the post, and unless you pay for a promoted post, the percentage of your fan base that sees your post is pretty small. Even more worrisome, because most organizations drive advocacy actions off of the Facebook platform, is that just .22% of those that see a post are willing to take the action of visiting a landing page (for example, an online petition) outside of Facebook.
So Where Do We Go from Here?
So where and how can organizations continue to effectively mobilize advocates to take action for the causes and issues they support? No one likes change, but we think there’s a silver lining – and valuable lessons – to be found in today’s grey area between the death of email and the rise of social advocacy:
- Be diverse. As we discussed last week, organizations constantly compete with other marketers for their advocates’ attention – on email, social and paid media. To stand out in the crowd, organizations should use a variety of channels to mobilize current advocates and engage with new ones. Here at Capstrat, we employ a converged media approach to online mobilization. We use research and analytics to inform a strategy that combines paid, owned and earned media elements. This is especially valuable for public affairs groups: don’t limit the good content you create (owned media) to just your email channel. Use it to start conversations via your social channels (generating earned media from your followers) and/or to reach more people on Facebook through a promoted post or a promoted tweet on Twitter (paid media).
- Build relationships – not numbers. Think: quality over quantity. People over email addresses. Stories over data. Because blast-mailing a large email database isn’t working, organizations should ditch the blanket, mass-messaging approach and start courting their users. (You wouldn’t ask a stranger for an important favor in real life, right?) A more relational approach to advocacy building could take a lot of different forms: better-customized email messages to segmented groups of email lists; increased dialogue with Twitter and Facebook users; or regularly surveying users for their feedback are just a few ideas. And, with tools like attentive.ly (http://attentive.ly), organizations can easily track conversations across channels. The better you know your advocates, the more likely they’ll be not just to take action but to take actions that require higher levels of effort.
- Keep content fresh, succinct, and engaging. Content is king. Advocates take action when they’re moved by a cause or issue that impacts them. That happens through effective storytelling, not sales pitches. The best stories jump off the page and transcend any inherent limitations of the platform on which they’re told (good news for email and social mediums that clearly aren’t optimized for advocacy mobilization). With this in mind, organizations should invest more of their resources in creating good content. It’s much easier to create good content that can be molded to a specific communications channel rather than investing in a communications channel without the content to sustain it. (If you need some ideas for how to develop good content, start with this blog post.) You never know: a stronger email headline could pluck your call-to-action from the sea of sales pitches clamoring for your email advocate’s attention; and a better use of 140 characters might earn you a Twitter follower (…who could become the slacktivist that signs your online petition tomorrow… and joins your email list the next week... you get the point).
- Set and measure goals. Because no one advocate is the same, metrics play an important role in determining how to target key audiences. Just as no two organizations would adopt the same communications campaign, we shouldn’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to how we reach our advocates. A key element to crafting tailored, effective (and cost-efficient!) campaigns is setting measurable, data-informed goals that allow you to track benchmarks to success. Who visits your site at what time, and what kind of content generates the most traffic? What social media messages get the most shares? Where are we now – and where do we want to be in two months? All of these questions and more are vitally important to informing communications strategies that keep your advocates informed and engaged, and most email marketing, web and social channels already provide these tools. Are you using them?
Clearly, there’s no single best way to manage the mobilization transformation. Hopefully the tips above provide you with a good starting point. Please let us know how your organization is facing the challenge of maximizing advocate response rates in the comments below.