Saturday, February 18, 2006
Benchmarks for success
It does not attempt to measure the extent to which politicians are moved by email and phone communications from our members. For that assessment, we must go elsewhere. But it does highlight the continuing importance of email as a primary way to solicit online political activity, and the importance to all our online activists of a credible, layered political strategy (including offline volunteer tactics, good media strategy, lobbying).
First, I must state for the record that M&R provides consulting services to Consumers Union. I know these guys. They won't mind my saying that the major findings--based on actual system data for 15 nonprofits and three large tool vendors--are unsurprising. If you send more email to more people, you can generate more communications to legislators. And if you spend more money you can build a bigger email list and raise more money.
That said, even experienced online organizers will take away some real lessons:
- email remains the best way to bring in new people (email promotions to third party lists, email as part of partnership agreements);
- banner ads, search engine ads, and ad networks cost a lot more per activist recruited--people you can actually bring in to your email list and those who stay;
- people respond better to action alerts targeting them based on where they live (state actions to state legislatures, local actions to local targets, local actions to state and federal targets but highlighting the special role for activists in that area);
- people respond to action alerts that target them based on issues (self-defined interests or interests as expressed by their previous activity) at a somewhat higher rate, but the difference was not statistically significant;
- people respond to email at the highest rates on Thursday, with Monday and Friday (traditionally thought to be bad days for email) coming in a strong second (MarketingSherpa recently announced that Monday is a great email day but that results depend on the season, too);
- email open rates appear to be declining overall, although the authors note that image blockers in today's email software may cause open rates to be under reported and there's been no notable decline in action rates;
- if you stopped growing today, your list would shrink (largely due to hard bounces) by an average of 28% per year (not a surprise to any of us watching in dismay as that hard bounce list grows over time);
- about half of the nonprofits' email lists appeared to be inactive (tools measuring activity are imperfect--for example, in one system if a person signs a "petition," it's not counted as an "action");
- fundraising return rates for most campaigns are actually a lot lower than you would think from everything we read in the press about Howard Dean or the tsunami effort (most organizations in the study saw donation rates of 0.2% per email solicitation with a median gift of $70);
- multi-channel fundraising can start with your online campaign and lead to higher response rates to your direct mail appeals;
- viral campaigns work (especially when hooked to a major holiday, as illustrated by a fine Thanksgiving-themed Humane Society campaign).
Because a study of this size and scope is beyond most of us on a day to day basis, I'm thrilled that M&R and the Advocacy Institute issued these results. I've conducted pieces of this analysis at different times, and our internal results confirm most of their major points. We see better results from email that speaks to people in terms of where they live, and issues or interests don't seem to matter as much as you might think (see post on this topic). Paid promotion through carefully selected email partners performs far better than other promotions, although we've had some email that tanked. A big chunk of our list (about a third) reads our email but doesn't take action much.
Nonprofit organizations can use this study to benchmark our own results and find the areas where our performance is perhaps below par. The authors illustrate each section with sample activity by a specific nonprofit that can be used as a model, and close with "Best Practices."
That said, I wish the study had taken its "Best Practices" a couple of steps further. Understandably, the authors did not attempt to identify why certain individual messages performed better than others, although their statistical results defy conventional wisdom. I generally preach that shorter emails perform better than longer ones. For these nonprofits message length was not determinative except that the message shouldn't be too short (under 250 words). Nor did writing grade level seem to matter. Day of the week matters somewhat, but time of day didn't seem to matter.
But the study touches on something that matters a great deal. Strategy.
Here we get less helpful guidance. The authors note that you must define your goals, learn about your audience (I would say audiences), understand your tools, be relevant, and integrate online tactics with other tactics. That is all excellent advice, but if your organization does not routinely run volunteer-based grassroots campaigns, it might not be that helpful.
I've said before that people will open your emails, read and take action if they believe that your strategy is likely to bring success. We are all tired of feeling like our side is losing. We are exhausted by constant, defensive battles. We want to win something for a change. But we are also all quite sensitized to hooey--happy happy joy joy re-spinning defeat into victory.
What does it take to communicate a real strategy for real success? I'm going to make this sound easier than it really is. First, believe in your ability to succeed. Second, analze yourself, analyze your opponent, and analyze the terrain between you. Take out a calendar and actually lay out key dates that affect your campaign (legislative session dates, major holidays, election dates, corporate board meeting dates, study committee meeting dates, filing deadlines for ballot initiatives). Add to this calendar the timing for online communications from your e-activists that might influence different targets and move your campaign forward. Then add to it things that offline volunteers can do, things other organizations can do (your allies) and things your opponents are likely to do. Identify the best moments for offense, and the likely moments for defense. Finally look at your internal capacity and start to pare down the things you want to do to a core calendar of things you can actually pull off. Now, you have a strategy to communicate to your list.
If each volunteer activity (whether a simple email action or a complex field endeavor) actually helps put pressure on a decision maker, bring in a needed new ally, or split off a problematic opponent, then your volunteers and e-activists will gladly dive in and do what it takes. You will see the results immediately in your open, click and action rates.
I recommend that we all pay attention to the study, and use it to improve the ways we communicate our successful political strategy to our members! Thank you, M&R and Advocacy Institute!