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the secrets to successful emails with Ben Johnson

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“And number one question I would get usually is how many emails should I send in a year? So if you're starting from that big picture and I was like, oh, great, great, and I want to write a book, how long should it be? And you get why is that an appropriate response? And it's like, well, you shouldn't write bad content. And it turns out you can write seven books about a middle school kid who's a wizard. And it's like, if we do great content that's really engaging, keep going, please.” — Ben Johnson

the secrets to successful emails with Ben Johnson

Email marketing is the most effective way to engage your supporters. But how do you leverage it for maximum impact? In this episode, we'll discuss how to use email marketing to maximize your nonprofit's fundraising efforts in a way that is aligned with your values and mission. .Join Ben Johnson as he deep dives into the successful ways and strategies to engage community and raise more money for your nonprofit.


  1. Trends and best practices of email marketing for small nonprofits

  2. Benefits of email list segmentation for fundraising

  3. How to leverage email marketing tools and funnels to raise more money

  4. How you can communicate effectively with donors using email

Connect with Ben:


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[0:00:00] Cindy: Hey everyone, welcome to the podcast. I'm really excited today. I know I say that every day, but today we're going to bust some myths and give you some tools to help you do your email marketing better, such as newsletters, all the ways you're communicating with your not just donors but constituents through email, how to do it better. And this is one of my pet peeves that I see organizations struggle with so often I'll get people forwarding me an email from a big organization and it's so fancy and they think we need to copy what they're doing. We just assume that because the big organizations are doing it that they're doing what is most effective. And that's actually not true. And we get so caught up in trying to make it look a certain way or be like the big shops that we actually move away from that authenticity and what does make email communication effective that we end up sort of self sabotaging our efforts. So that is what we are diving into today. I'm your host, Cindy Wagman, and you're listening to the Small Nonprofit podcast where we bring you practical, down-to-earth advice on how to get more done for your Small Nonprofit. You are going to change the world and we're here to help. So, as I said, I am very excited to welcome today's guest, Ben Johnson. Ben is the founder of Frontier Marketing and fun fact, he sent his first fundraising email during Obama's first year in administration. That's back in 2009. So he's been doing this a while and he does dodgeball commentary, which I think is so cool. So also, if you notice a raft in his voice today, I think it's because his voice is a little tired from doing that last night. Welcome to the podcast, Ben.

[0:02:07] Ben: Hello, Cindy. It's good to be on.

[0:02:10] Cindy: As I said, this is a topic that gets me fired up because I think that organizations spend so much energy and time trying to either they spend a lot of energy and time trying to over design their email or they think they need it to be a certain way that that's going to take too much work so they just don't do it. Let's dive into like I mean, this is a huge topic, but let's start by just talking about what are some of the emerging trends or things that we're seeing as effective in email marketing or communications?

[0:02:54] Ben: Yeah. Actually one that I wanted to mention is segmentation is really tough in email and I think to some degree there's a lot of ease of doing direct mail because it's this large battleship that you're working on and you work with the print vendor and there's two weeks notice for things getting printed. Whereas email, you might be just logging on little links and I described it as a ship in a bottle. Everything can go wrong. And so segmentation is done quite differently. And one trend that I see and just an easy way to do a couple of principles is if you have more generous donors, people giving more, we call ours a high value donor list and sending them to a different landing page. So separate copy, separate landing page instead of a lot of segments, that's one easy way to just bifurcate your list. That's your approach.

[0:03:47] Cindy: Let's sort of rewind this a little bit because so much of our audience like they're super small, they might not even do direct mail, let alone e-appeals and might not even know what segmentation is. And so let's talk a little bit. That is an opportunity right, if we can, the segmentation like breaking your list out so that you can communicate to people in a way that's unique to their relationship with the organization. That's how I think of it. What would you say?

[0:04:16] Ben: Well said, the whole idea of direct response is the one to many communication and I'm doing my best to pretend it's just you and I talking. And so the very least we say like dear Cindy, but if I was like, you're one of our most generous donors, that's something I could say. Or like thank you so much for kind of joining us in this community of donors that we would say to a new donor. And then the tradition is just to focus on the amount others are getting a little bit better with around identity. But that's the super duper advanced around the trend. So the more that we can lean into the knowledge that we do have, that tends to have an effect on a person, right?

[0:04:57] Cindy: Yeah. And you don't want to send an email to a first time $20 donor and say you're one of our most valuable donors. I've seen people post those emails on social beings like, what is this organization doing? They don't know me at all.

[0:05:15] Ben: No.

[0:05:16] Cindy: So with segmentation we're able to communicate with our donors in a way that makes sense for them and acknowledges where they are in their relationship with their organization. But I want to get into some of the nitty gritty because I want this to be super practical. So we have email lists, right? Most people store those email lists in an email marketing tool like MailChimp or do people still leave constant contacts?

[0:05:45] Ben: Charity world?

[0:05:47] Cindy: Or sometimes your CRM will have an email capability. So often that's what we use with our clients. So we have these mass emails like this number of emails. What are the tools within the digital tools to actually break out our lists? Like how do we know who's who and how to communicate with them?

[0:06:09] Ben: Yeah, good question. And so kind of the one thing mentioned is if you determine kind of who you're in the traditional language, maybe mid level donors are that you feel comfortable emailing and asking for an audience that you're willing to add a zero on your app string online. That's one of the challenges of online giving, just to say is that most people get sent to a form that says 5100, 152, 50, where asking a more appropriate amount could be 500 to 1500.

[0:06:40] Cindy: Yes.

[0:06:41] Ben: And I think that's where big wins can happen. Even if it's your top 100 and your bottom 2000.

[0:06:48] Cindy: Yeah, I love that. So depending on your systems and technology, you can have separate lists for people, you can use tags. These are things that everyone who's doing email marketing should learn with a lot of our clients. We use databases that have smart lists so it will pull like a pull list based on certain criteria, like giving them out and stuff. So segmenting is both sending them the right message sounds like what you're saying, and then sending them to the right page. And that link between not just having a unique message but actually sending them based on that segment to a different donation form or a different landing page is where you're seeing good results and yeah.

[0:07:34] Ben: Then it's like part of the trend is people who have money have more money and so how are we making sure to not just treat the program as if everyone is the mythical average donor and then maybe sort of related to that as a trend was you might be like. Oh. What emoji is working really well right now. And the subject lines are kind of tied in with the trend with email is the more it seems real and authentic the better. And then landing pages are an often neglected part of a charity's funnel. If we're to think of sending an email, did the open line work and then the content within it work and we could kind of dive into where that's changing. But really it's like the off neglected and then we just send everyone to the website we've had for several years and we'll never change the online giving tool because we're locked into a multi year agreement with our provider.

[0:08:30] Cindy: Oh, don't get me started.

[0:08:32] Ben: So I was like, well, that's the last stage and it turns out maybe if you're saying something encouraging or this amount works the most and here's a quote from someone else who just did it has an effect. Whereas we're like a smiley face or winky eye just in terms of the emphasis is still making sure that the subject line is perfected.

[0:08:54] Cindy: Yeah, okay, so I want to go through this step by step because we've talked about basically like getting your emails opened, having people read them and take action based on the email and then where we're sending them and how are they taking action there. And that's sort of the sequence and pre that, we talked about segmentation. So sending them the right email. So let's go through step by step in terms of subject lines. Like again, most people doing this work are not email marketers and so we don't know what makes a good subject line. Usually I think people oftentimes like, hey, it's your quarterly update, or a message from our executive director. So how do we get our emails open?

[0:09:40] Ben: Yeah, and I think we are email marketers if you're doing it in our industry. One of the downsides is that lack of standardization. And we're playing a professional game and we just let everyone play it is the difference. And so I think it is helpful when we think about email, one of the possible negative forces is people might have misinterpreted the past. For one is it used to be when you send an email, you have to do your darndest to make sure someone didn't think it was fraud. Again, that kind of sending email since 2009 was, I'm working for this one organization, I will do whatever I can to make sure they recognize the brand. This is from this organization. You see there's our colors in there. If it's mismatched colors, you'd get the sense because from an evolutionary perspective, you'd notice something and then you go to the landing page. And it wasn't a charitable organization who conducts gifts, it was your organization that you intended. And ideally, if you had a newsletter or a direct mail piece, it was in the same theme.

[0:10:51] Cindy: Yeah.

[0:10:52] Ben: So that was great when people weren't sure whether credit card giving online was going to be a thing. Yeah, and it is now, especially during the pandemic. And so where it shifted is every business is sending emails. It's really interesting to sign up for them, like the Gap or whatnot. And it's like every other day I think I get an email from a couple of them. We don't need to worry as much about organizational trust because email is a proven medium of communication now, and we are aware of how much security happens for credit cards online. But it's the shift towards more personal trust. Some of the quote unquote best practices were just like, send an email and you raise money. I think now we're better at understanding how people communicate over email. And so that's where if you're looking at yours and it seems more like it's funny with the name Frontier, let's say it's like Frontier Telegram, we'd be making sure that you can communicate, like my daughter Ellie, she survived the winter. Matthew writing that long Christmas letter that you ever got from a family member. And this is detailing what happened over four or five months. And then you send it via horse and then it arrives. That's what some organizations are still doing.

[0:12:12] Cindy: Yes, they are.

[0:12:15] Ben: And where email has gone now is like, hey, I thought you should see this, or in a week I'm going to send you an email. And then say, hey, remember how a week ago I said I'd send you an email? How do we more mimic our natural communication that we do send? And then the big one was around design, because when I send you an email. I'm going like, hey, Cindy, I'm five minutes late. I might even put anything in the body kind of thing. Right?

[0:12:42] Cindy: Yeah.

[0:12:43] Ben: And so the importance of communicating something in that subject line versus you could say a special announcement from Rd, but it better be a special announcement.

[0:12:56] Cindy: Yeah, that's so interesting because basically it went from, do we trust people on email? How do we vibe for attention in their inbox? And to do that, what I'm hearing you say is to communicate with people person to person. Stop being the brand and start just like we open emails from our friends. We open emails where we're having conversations. So how can we be that friend? How can we have those conversations? One thing people always comment on with our emails very often will start, we won't capitalize our subject line. And people are like, they notice it. They're like, oh, that felt really informal. Like, I've had people reply to our emails not realizing that it's actually a mass email.

[0:13:45] Ben: I remember the first time I got one of those, and it's like, okay, now I'm starting to see what I'm participating in.

[0:13:50] Cindy: Yeah, so we want it. So use the subject line to I've heard it called sort of like, open up the conversation. Right? Like, how do we get people opening and reading it? So then you said in terms of content, that it's not the long, wordy, here's all the things that have happened, that it's more conversational. What does that look like? Give us some more details on the content piece and what works.

[0:14:20] Ben: And then I should say, sometimes a long email really works. And one of my theories is we should be mindful of Gen X incoming. As soon as the primary donors, our industry and every researcher could care less about Gen X. It's a funny gap group. I've seen some reports that were in depth about every generation, and it didn't actually mention Gen X.

[0:14:43] Cindy: They totally leave us out. It's terrible.

[0:14:46] Ben: And those are people that learn to write. And then we're forced into email. And there's a tendency of longer written communication. When it makes sense, you can expand.

[0:15:02] Cindy: And funny, like, we tested with a client. Now, this isn't a big test, but we tested it as part of an e appeal. And we sent really short, we sent videos, we sent long and different people, kind of to your point, different people replied or responded to different ones. And so having that variety and I imagine the more you know your audience, you could even use the segmentation to target people, like, length of email as well. So it can be, like variety, but don't always go along is what I'm hearing.

[0:15:38] Ben: Yeah. And so one thing I suggest to anyone we're working with, I said jokingly, I want you to be a terrible fundraiser and see, think, engage, report, ask. And number one question I would get usually is how many emails should I send in a year? So if you're starting from that big picture and I was like, oh, great, great, and I want to write a book, how long should it be? And you get why is that an appropriate response? And it's like, well, it's like, you shouldn't write bad content is where I'm going. And then I was like, well, it turns out you can write seven books about a middle school kid who's a wizard. And it's like, if we do great content that's really engaging, like, keep going, please. And then I don't mean like, really long email, but if we are, again, use of video or photography is like, hey, this event just happened. We had a great day in our program. Here's a photo of what just happened. How can I prepare for my year so I'm doing that more often. And hyper fundraisers, like, yes, you're priming them, but thanking and pulling people in emails, so great for that. That was one of the first things I started doing where direct mail was so heavy and which has its absolute clear purpose. But I was able to be like, oh, we had Facebook back in 2009. It's still around. And it was like, oh, we just had Thanksgiving dinner. Here's a link to the photo album on Facebook. And we're showing that the thing that we asked for before is real. You may have missed out on it, but it still happened, and so there's a chance to rejoin it later. And then I think nonprofits really missed out. We were thinking that we were academics for a while with surveys like, oh, okay, these surveys are expensive, and what do we want to know about them? It's like, oh, what would you do if you were communicating with a friend? Or I used my mom, I have kids as an example of like, we don't want my kids to just write out a Christmas list once a year and say, give me some money. And the traditional nonprofit is like, that seems appropriate. I don't want to interrupt grandma. I'll just ask her for my Christmas list once a year. And I was like, no, no, we're going to take a photo or video of you using that toy afterwards, and she's going to be overjoyed that you're actually using it and the impact it's having on you. So I think a big part of that, it's January, why would we send an email in January that's for money? Because you just spent the money. Where did it go?

[0:18:14] Cindy: And if your kids are anything like my kids, if they're still playing with that toy two, three months later, that's also noteworthy because they turned over. So it's not just that one time. I love this analogy. I think it's so relevant to communications. It's like, okay, send it right away. Like, yes, we're putting this to work. And six months later, hey, your money is still having an impact. We're still doing things, and here's what it looks like.

[0:18:44] Ben: Just the one thing to build on is that the engagement part is we don't need to ask a demographic survey or think that they have a perception of what our industry is, which we struggle with as fundraisers. It's not as professional as I'd like, so why ask the end user? What do you think we should do? Engagement means like, hey, this isn't a fundraising email. We'd love your opinion, or can you share a story? What do you like most about Ellie's Christmas gift kind of thing? Do you think she should be wearing more blue or more pink and just reply back to this email? We have a two question survey, and I'm not saying throw out the results. It's just know that you said, hey, can I ask for a favor? And so I was just so glad they didn't ask for money all the time and my opinion is valued.

[0:19:39] Cindy: Yeah, and we'll just talk about surveys for 1 second because one of the other things and we actually have a podcast episode, we haven't scheduled everything yet, but it will be this season. So either it has happened or it will happen. Where we're talking about testing, and one of the things we talk about is that you can ask your donors, like, how often do you want to hear from us? And they'll tell you something and it's 100% not true. It might be what they think they want, but not actually how they behave. So don't ask those kinds of questions about what you want from us? I think your point is, how do you give meaningful feedback? How do we engage you in things? What do you like most about this? One of the things we love hearing is more like, what's going on? What are your thoughts? Like, I don't care if I can look at this data, step back and say, like, x percent felt this and Y percent felt this. I want to know what's in your heart. How do you feel about our work? Where do you connect with it? Those longer form answers actually give us more insight and give you an opportunity to share. And that build that's a two way conversation that we talked about. Any other design things? Because, again, I've seen organizations, we spend so much time thinking about what e-newsletters should be called and we need a digital masthead when it comes to design and actually getting these out into the world. Any best practices or trends there?

[0:21:14] Ben: Yeah, one is like if you are someone that we are sending our e newsletter, which even for us as an agency, I think it's the time sync where we don't see that much giving. There is a trend maybe among our clients of fewer articles and more like stories instead of the big thing is you're not updating staff changes. Please don't tell us we have a new janitor.

[0:21:40] Cindy: Oh, I know it's common. It’s so common.

[0:21:42] Ben: And the email is to tell you there is a newsletter. Not to be the newsletter, but you&#