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Growing Your Email Open Rates: 10 Tips for Your Nonprofit Newsletter Subject Lines

Elodie

Growing your newsletter open rates is often a nonprofit marketing objective, but how exactly do you make that happen? By creating enticing nonprofit email subject lines that encourage your audience to click, that is how! Sounds simple, but the truth is that with the average person receiving over 100 emails a day, standing out can be harder than it seems. To get you started on the right path, we want to share our top tips to a more engaging subject line. 

Let’s get started! 

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Why the Subject Line Matters

The subject line is your draw. It is the first thing that a reader will see when your nonprofit newsletter hits their inbox. If your subject line does not peak interest immediately, your email may not be opened. The average email open rate for nonprofit organizations as of 2021 is 29.5%. Not bad compared to some other industries, but not stellar. All companies and nonprofits are competing for attention in the inbox. Most people will look at a subject line for less than 2 seconds before deciding to click or not, so you need to engage quickly and effectively. 

Even if you have the most interesting and informative content, with amazing designs and a powerful CTA, none of it matters if the email is not opened. Let’s make sure the readers have the opportunity to see what your team has compiled by ensuring your subject line resonates with them. 

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What Makes a Good Subject Line

What exactly makes an email subject line effective? In nonprofit email marketing, more than anything else, you want to inspire your audience to act. What that action is, (e.g., fundraising, help at the holidays, or ending child hunger) and how you achieve it, may differ depending on your type of nonprofit and its specific goals. 

growing-your-email-open-rates-10-tips-for-your-nonprofit-newsletter-subject-lines_-what-makesOliver is ready to spruce up his subject lines!

We are going to get into specific tips, but the primary goal is to make your subject line disruptive. Whether it stands out because it is funny, shocking, friendly, or personable, you want the reader to pause when scanning their inbox. Some additional important basics to remember are:

  • Watch your spelling. Errors get your emails trapped in the spam filter or trashed due to suspicion. 

  • Make sure that your subject matches your content. You may think of a subject line that disrupts and gathers attention but if it does not actually align with the content the reader may wind up confused or frustrated. 

  • Keep your tone consistent with your brand and mission.

Pro Tip: A good subject line has a lot to do with email personalization. Email marketing software (i.e., Springly or Mailchimp) allows you to customize fields automatically so that your message can vary between recipients.

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10 Subject Line Tips

Let’s break this down a bit more. You have only a very few words to capture your audience, so you want to choose these words very carefully. Here are some tips to keep in mind when drafting an email subject line. 

Tip #1: Invoke Emotion

This is a line you must walk carefully. The goal is to incite a click from your subscribers while avoiding sounding "salesy" or exploitative. The best way to do this is to be specific about who or what they are helping. 

Avoid simply saying "volunteer with us" or "donate now." Instead, create an emotional connection by sharing with your audience just how they are helping. Evoke that human touch and intrigue the reader with a snapshot of what their funds or time are actually achieving. That may seem like a tall order for a subject line. However, you can always personalize the subject line to include the impact of their last donation amount e.g., "Your $25 donation in January purchased 340 servings of vegetables."

Tip #2: Ask a Question  

Do you remember the old "to be continued" trick used in movies and TV, the one that is still used in episodes that keep you binging modern shows? When a show poses a question at the end of an episode, it works like magic to keep you watching because human beings do not like unanswered questions. 

In the same way, using questions in your email subject line can get a reader wondering and taking action to find out more. Here are some examples:

  • Have you ever wondered how many meals a $15 donation provides to children in need?

  • What’s important to you, Jackson?

  • Have you ever wondered what happens when a well breaks in rural Senegal?

  • What can you do right now to help Ukrainians? 

This simple technique is a great way to get your emails opened. 

Tip #3: Use Action Verbs

Using action verbs in your subject line is a strong drive for action (in this case, opening the email). They immediately share what it is you are looking for while inspiring the reader to take initiative. Some excellent action verbs for nonprofit emails include the following:

  • Change the future for giant pandas

  • Give 1,500 people the gift of safe drinking water

  • Save the bees in just 5 steps

  • Help refugees today

  • Volunteer your skills to save the earth

These powerful verbs serve as a call to action from your audience. 

Tip #4: Use Emojis

There are some more mature individuals who may not find emojis professional, but the truth of the matter is that they are eye-catching. And, like it or not, they are a staple of current writing and language. They cross language and cultural barriers and can evoke a smile. 

Used judiciously, emojis are an excellent way to get eyes on your subject line. For example, animal lovers may be drawn to the following: 

"🐼Change the future for giant pandas"

Pro Tip: As much as we love a well-placed emoji, overdoing it may get you caught in spam filters. Need an example? Take a look at the top six emails in my “junk” email. The one thing they all have in common are the graphics in the subject line, so use this tactic sparingly. 

 

Tip #5: Keep it Short

You want your email to be opened, not write the great American novel. Each email system has a maximum number of characters that will show. In order for your subject line not to be truncated, you need to stay within that range. According to Wylie Communications, Outlook displays 78 characters when viewed full-screen on a 15" laptop screen. However, Gmail on an iPhone only displays 36-38 characters so creating a cutoff of about 40 characters is ideal. 

Remember that all of your good stuff is IN the email. You can relay the specifics in the message body, so seek to inspire in as few words as possible to ensure that the message is opened and every word is read e.g., "$25 will feed Carla for 3 weeks." 

Tip #6: Keep it Simple

In the same vein as the previous tip, simplicity is your friend when it comes to an email subject line. It should be a punchy call to action, not anything too terribly complicated. You want your message to be crystal clear. Let’s revisit our example immediately above, "$25 will feed Carla for 3 weeks." At 31 characters, the message is short. It is also straightforward. Once you read the subject line you have an understanding of what the message will be about. A title like, "Only a $25 donation is needed" is also short, but does not necessarily meet the "simple" requirement.

growing-your-email-open-rates-10-tips-for-your-nonprofit-newsletter-subject-lines-simpleSimple and concise is Emily's bread and butter!

In fact, a message like that may have the reader wondering which of many organizations may have sent it but, without a simple understanding of what the message is about, they are unlikely to click to find out more.

Get them interested and guide them to the meat of your mission and the information you want to share with a simple and engaging subject that encourages a click open. Think of it as a headline that tells the story, rather than the story itself. 

Tip #7: Make it Personal 

Building relationships is one of the most important ways to get your members and donors on board. When you send an email, adding a user’s first name to the subject line can make it feel like you are engaging them in a personal conversation. 

If you were asking a donor for money in the "real world", would you think of approaching them and calling them "hey you?" Of course not! Connect to your recipients by offering the warmth of a personalized greeting. Consider taking it a step further and add their last donation amount, membership level, or make it specific to the city where they live. Get creative and run tests to see what type of personalization works best for your audience. Which works better, "Your $25 donation in January purchased 340 servings of protein" or "Tyrone, another $25 donation will buy 340 servings of protein in Baltimore?" Try it out and see!

Pro Tip: Another strategy to try out is a subject line without any capital letters. This gives the message a personal feel as many friends communicate with each other in this same way. Val Geisler, a freelancer who specializes in email marketing, attributes her 80% open rates to this tactic.

Tip #8: Thank Your Audience

While it is quite likely that your members and donors are honored to help and be a member of the team, it is also important to thank them for their time and money. Appreciation is a powerful motivator for most people. 

In the spirit of forging that relationship with your people, do not neglect thank you subject lines on your emails. For example, let’s say a woman took a pile of new blankets to an animal shelter and received a message a few days later that read,  "Becky, these 15 puppies are using their new blankets!" Do you think there is any chance she will skip an opportunity to see photos of 15 adorable puppies using her gift? No way!

Tip #9: Create Urgency

It is very easy to continually put off taking action when we are not feeling the pressure. We all do it at one time or another. No matter how much most people genuinely want to help, giving is something that drops down to the bottom of our priority list. 

Get your readers motivated to give in the moment by creating a deadline for giving. This can be through offering a donation match for a limited time, or setting a deadline for a specific goal e.g., "Sponsors will match donations made in the next 24 hours!"

Tip #10: Inspire Your Reader

Remember that the most important thing is to create that feeling of urgency in your recipient. When you are working as a nonprofit, one of the best ways to do this is through inspirational writing. Share what your organization has done, and what it continues to do in the world. You can always add a donation button at the end of your email. Get the message opened with a well-written inspirational message like, "Habitat for Humanity changed 4.2 million lives last year, let’s make 2022 even better." 

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Enticing Subject Line Examples

Now that you are well-versed in the elements of an excellent nonprofit subject line, let’s take a look at some of the best subject lines we have found from nonprofits. 

Patagonia: Volunteer Your Skills for Our Planet

Why it Works: This subject line has several of the features that we are looking for. It uses an action verb (volunteer), it personalizes the action (your skills), and it inspires by sharing exactly what your skills are being utilized for (our planet). The "our planet" also offers a bit extra by also leaning into the personalization with the "our" qualification. It is also short, simple, and to the point. 

World Wildlife Federation: Give + Choose Socks this World Bee Day 🐝

Why it Works: World Bee Day–what is that? And what is this about socks? By choosing to promote a rather intriguing and not-widely known holiday, the WWF has already created a desire to find out more. It also uses an action word, offers a reward, and tops off with a cute emoji. Admit it, you want to open this email. 

UNICEF: How Many Children Will You Save Today?

Why it Works: UNICEF is not pulling its punches here. This is the ultimate call to action. It is not asking whether you will save children, but how many. It evokes emotion, it creates urgency (note the use of the word "today"), and it asks a question. This subject line is not taking no as an answer. 

Charity: Water: You Did It! 

Why it Works: This is a very positive example of an effective subject line. It is short, punchy, and thanks the audience with a personal touch. YOU did it. It invokes a feeling of excitement and a warm feeling of gratitude. It also invites the recipient to open the email to find out more about just what they did and how they helped. 

growing-your-email-open-rates-10-tips-for-your-nonprofit-newsletter-subject-lines-examplesSimon is loving these examples!

Easter Seals: It’s Not Too Late to Help!

Why it Works: Again, this uses several of the elements of a good email subject line. The most important in this case is "creating urgency" for the pending efforts. It is not exactly setting a deadline but is implying that there is still some time to get in on the donation action ("though it may not be for long" is the underlying, unwritten message). It is also short and punchy and speaks directly to the recipient as a friend and benefactor. 

US Against Alzheimers: We Can’t Stop Alzheimer’s Without You, *Name*

Why it Works: This is a prime example of a personalized email. It speaks directly to the reader by name, and gives them an important mission. It evokes emotion, is short and simple, and while it does not create a deadline, it does create urgency. 

Make a Wish Foundation: How You’re Helping Deonna Stay Strong

Why it Works: Talk about your immediate positive feelings. The subject line is intended to make the reader feel like a hero. It offers a thank you along with a personalized story, using the name of someone that they helped. It also encourages the recipient to open the email to read more about just how their donation is being used for this particular child. 

Pro Tip: Make a separate Gmail account and sign up to all the best nonprofit newsletters you can find. Let this serve as your bank of great subject lines from which you can draw inspiration if you get stuck. 

Open rates on email are historically low, far more competitive than any nonprofit direct mail campaign. And yet your email marketing is just as, if not more important. We do things like invest in email services for nonprofits, and nonprofit email hosting to reach as many people as possible. However, it is all for nothing if users scroll by our communications. In summary, with these simple subject line tips we hope to make your next nonprofit campaign a huge success. 

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Communication & Marketing
Elodie