Don’t half-ass email

At Hines Digital, we often speak out against bad email practices like renting lists or using “debt collector” style copywriting to trick people into donating. But today, I’m talking about a different, but equally cringe-worthy tactic: repurposing direct mail content in emails.

Direct mail and email are not the same. In fact, they couldn’t be more different. And sending direct mail prospecting letters to your email list will have disastrous results.

These emails will almost always fail in every measurable way: you won’t raise money, you’ll lose the interest of your supporters, your open and click rates will decline, and your deliverability will greatly suffer, meaning your email program will be a non-starter.

The root problem: faulty assumptions

There is a broad assumption that you can use the same tactics in email that you do in direct mail. But that assumption is wrong. Email is not direct mail online. Email is unique, and it requires a unique approach.

Direct mail, for starters, is printed on paper — and therefore needs to adhere to the formatting norms of the printed word. The copywriting needs to be long to fill the page, for example.

Most emails, however, are read on mobile devices — where long-form text feels like a cumbersome nuisance.

Direct mail is normally sent to prospecting audiences who are rarely contacted directly by the campaign. Email, however, is intimate: you’re contacting your core group of strong supporters, often on a daily basis (if not more frequently).

Different mediums need different strategies

There is a lot that goes into email marketing and fundraising: deciding which messages go to prospecting audiences vs. opt-in audiences (and how to segment based on other data points), what asks to make, how frequently to send, etc.

When you repurpose a direct mail piece for email, you lose the ability to work with those different strategies. When repurposed as email, direct mail letters often have the following problems:

So poorly formatted that they’re unreadable.

Direct mail copy often leverages long paragraphs, underlining, italics, etc. — but in an email blast this formatting can be distracting and hard to read.

Instead, emails ought to lean on bite-sized paragraphs that can be easily scanned, and a single, clear call to action that can’t be missed.

Scatterbrained, with no story arc and no cohesive message.

Every direct mail letter I’ve ever read seems to change the subject every 2–3 paragraphs, and every subject is hyperbolic dramatic. It’s like they’re trying to throw every possible message at the reader to see what sticks.

A good fundraising email, however, has one, clear message. Yes — just one. Get their attention, frame your point, and make your ask. Then, thank them for everything they’re doing to help the cause and get the hell out of there.

So lengthy that you lose your supporters’ attention.

Direct mail has limitations. You can’t send them on the fly or with a high level of frequency, and there’s a cost to every piece you send. So, to get the most bang for your buck on direct mail, you need to fit as much of your message into each send.

Email doesn’t pose these problems. You can spread out your message over more frequent sends, tell your story, and keep your supporters engaged with diverse and more personalized asks. So take advantage. Our most successful fundraising periods are those where we tell a story over several emails and following with a hard and singular ask.


Related to my previous point, you can’t be frequent with direct mail, so week- or month-long periods between direct mail pieces is an acceptable gap. And it’s expected.

But not with email. If you only send emails every few weeks or months, then you’re doing it wrong. One of email's greatest benefits is that you can grab and keep the attention of your supporters over longer periods by speaking with them frequently.

Asking for the “maximum allowable donation.”

Because of the built-in cost of sending direct mail, the primary goal is to break even. That cost, and the lower conversion of direct mail pieces, means that higher asks are necessary to reach that goal.

When it comes to email fundraising, one of the most telling metrics is the value that you place on each email address you have — you’re going for higher open and conversion rates from grassroots supporters. But the last thing a supporter wants to read is that their $5 or $10 donation is insignificant — and that’s what a $2,700 ask conveys. Keep things simple and keep the barrier low — people will donate what they can, always. As an added benefit, smaller donations mean your potential donor pool remains large.

Email is hard. Really hard.

The key is making it look easy and natural.

Digital fundraising is a marathon, not a sprint. It isn’t an ATM and there’s no magic bullet — being sloppy and unplanned in any aspect of it will almost always lead to failure. But a well-done email program can yield massively higher ROI than direct mail, which often aims simply to break even.

Share this post