E-FUNDRAISING: Click and give

- Draft proposals of the directive extend controls on unsolicited direct marketing to all forms of electronic communications, including unsolicited commercial email and SMS to mobile telephones.

- The regulations could also make unsolicited commercial emails and SMS subject to a prior consent requirement, except in the context of an existing customer relationship.

Email marketing offers charities significant fundraising opportunities, yet many still fail to take advantage of its potential. Rose Smith finds out who's doing what, and how organisations can negotiate new privacy regulations.

Next time a potential supporter opens their email inbox and finds a message from your charity, be sure that they were anticipating its arrival.

If a request for a donation or to take part in an event or campaign is unsolicited, your organisation could find itself guilty of spamming and in breach of new privacy regulations.

WWF-UK found itself on the receiving end of consumer complaints in May following the distribution of an email asking recipients to become donors.

When 80 members of the public accused the charity of spamming, it was forced to reconsider its policy of buying in lists of email addresses from third-party agencies. "We found that everyone who called to complain had agreed to receive the email, but not in the way we would want people to 'opt in'," says Andrew Foot, senior fundraising executive at WWF-UK.

And therein lies the problem with email marketing, believes Mel Stanley, head of planning at direct marketing agency Inbox. "Email lists are often bad quality," she says. "Companies build up large databases of people who sign up to receive emails from different organisations, including charities, on the back of a freebie or prize draw. But most of the time they are not interested in receiving information or they forget they signed up in the first place."

New regulations on electronic communications aim to clarify the nature of 'permission'. A European Commission directive on privacy is to be enforced in the UK by 31 October. When adopted, the rules will set in law the notion of 'informed consent', meaning that consumers will have to sign up to receive communications from a specific organisation by opting in. The ticking of this box compares to direct marketing, where a consumer is told what will happen to their data and they have the chance to opt out.

Justin Anderson, managing director of digital marketing company Frontwire, advises charities to segment their database into three. The first group being people who have given consent to receive messages, and the second those with an existing relationship with the charity, such as donors.

Anyone who doesn't fall into those categories can no longer be contacted by email from 31 October.

Until then, the people in that segment can be contacted and given the opportunity to opt in to communications, but from that point on charities will need to become more resourceful in how they collect opt-in email addresses.

WWF-UK is testing ways to get potential members on to its website where they can sign up and give their email details. It is spending £20,000 a month on placing banner ads on targeted websites, buying last-minute online space and sponsoring keywords such as 'tiger', 'environment' or 'wildlife' on search engines. During a two-month test last year, the charity netted 130 members a week online, says Foot, and since last summer it has recruited a total of 5,000 people.

The RNID gathers addresses through door-to-door and face-to-face fundraising activities, which tend to attract younger donors who are more receptive to receiving email follow-ups, according to head of individual fundraising Amanda Mathers.

Smaller organisations, such as Wellbeing, the health charity for women and babies, need to be more resourceful with email. "We've never considered buying addresses," says chief executive Jane Arnell. "We have opt-in subscribers for the leaflets on our website, who must give their email address before downloading, and through partnerships with companies such as Boots, which forwarded an email on our charity walk to its 10,000 staff."

The charity found that the 50,000 recipients of the Walk for Wellbeing email forwarded it to friends and family, who then contacted the organisation in a successful example of viral marketing.

But while persuading supporters to grant permission for them to be emailed is one challenge, it's quite another getting them to read the message and act on it.

"Although you are talking to a different audience through email, who may be more technically minded, it's still the same marketing approach - you've only got a few seconds to grab the reader's attention," says Foot of WWF-UK. The Guide to Fundraising, compiled by Inbox, recommends planning an email campaign in the same way as any off-line activity by considering target audiences, deciding on the message to deliver and setting donor and fundraising targets.

Once you have decided on the objective, the appearance of the email is often the deciding factor in whether it is read or not. The subject line is crucial. "This can be the biggest problem because of spam issues," says Stanley, "as people have detectors set up against certain words."

Before sending out an email, Inbox runs a controlled test of four to five different subject lines to determine which is most effective.

Content is equally important. "With only limited space to get your message across," says Foot, "it's best to take people on a journey by only giving headline facts and then allowing them to click through for more information." Stanley agrees and recommends limiting content to one screen with links to a charity's website, e-newsletter or donation page.

Format is also a consideration when putting together a message. The most commonly used are plain text or HTML and Rich Media, which allow you to use colourful graphics and some animation. Visuals can add fun or impact to a campaign, as long as the recipient can view it. Dataforce used tailored software to determine which type of email a PC could receive and found that the majority are able to receive HTML.

If you plan to send an e-newsletter, you must decide on frequency. Anderson favours monthly contact. "Weekly is too much, quarterly is neither here nor there, but no one is likely to complain about an email once a month," he says.

Stanley is a strong advocate of personalisation and advises charities to tailor each e-newsletter to the recipient's interests and previous level of involvement with the charity. Some specialised software packages match content with data.

Anderson believes personalisation opens the door to a closer rapport with a donor. "Use an email to give personal thanks to make the donor feel appreciated," he says. "You can then intersperse this with other communications such as online raffles, and eventually move your supporters up the donation ladder."

Greenpeace International sent a trial email to supporters encouraging them to go to a preferences page where they could request different interactive content and specify the frequency of contact. More than 20 per cent of supporters used the personal preferences service and the charity found that these people were four times more likely to respond to a request.

Jason Potts, director of Think Consulting Solutions, which worked on the test, says: "People want to be communicated with on a personal basis and online communications overcome many of the additional costs."

The ability to send repeated communications at a low cost is one of the main advantages of email marketing. Wellbeing put together its Walk for Wellbeing viral email featuring an animated snail (see box) for £800 and estimates that it went on to raise £50,000.

Christian Aid found its email marketing was the most cost-effective channel for its Christmas 2002 campaign but discovered that a standard 'ask' lost out to awareness. It sent four emails, which achieved different response rates depending on objective. An e-card, which allowed receivers to decorate a Christmas tree with presents and then send it to friends had a 54 per cent response rate, but an appeal email asking for a gift of £2 a month had a 0.6 per cent response.

"Humour works best for email campaigns," says Kati Dshedshorov, online PR officer at Christian Aid. "People are also more likely to respond to emails featuring emergencies or something that is novel and newsworthy."

Whether it's humour or crisis that grabs your readers as they browse through their inbox, email communication is cheap, fast and potentially effective. But as charities dip their toe into the online water, they need to be sure that the enforcer of the new privacy regulations, the Information Commissioner's office, isn't waiting to bite it off.

CASE STUDIES: EMAIL FUNDRAISING CAMPAIGNS

Justin Anderson, managing director of digital marketing company Frontwire and director of the Direct Marketing Association, gives his views on three marketing emails

- Greenpeace campaigning email

"This email has a good layout. The use of an animated spinning globe is very attractive and you don't need clever technology to view it. The signature is a nice idea but we don't know who Karen and Ludmila are, which is a bit confusing. I like that it has Greenpeace in the address so the recipient knows where the email's come from before opening it. But the content of the email misses the chance to give more information - it would be better to have a short summary and list of headlines instead of taking the reader straight to the e-newsletter."

- Wellbeing 'Walk for Wellbeing' email

"The animation of Cyndy the Snail (see above) grabs interest and is a quick bit of fun, which is what people respond to. Although 'Simply click here' is not the strongest call to action, it is not lost among text and the visual provides a reason to link through. However, the second window is too text-heavy and misses a chance to grab people's details. The background information on the charity is unnecessary as the reader is already a subscriber. But there's a good consistent theme and the subject line is clear in what the charity wants the recipient to do."

- WWF-UK member acquisition drive

"This message is too text-heavy and the choice of colours makes it look grey and lifeless. I like the rhino at the top but it needs a bit of animation to liven it up. The call to action, which is a link to the joining form, should be stronger as it is too easy to miss. It also needs to be more upfront that this is an 'ask' from the charity. The subject line - Take Action for a Living Planet - has no real meaning. It would be better to make a plea to the reader's emotions with something more punchy."

DATA PROTECTION RULES

- The Department of Trade and Industry ran a 12-week public consultation on how to implement the EC Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications in the UK, which closed in June. The RNID, Christian Aid, Oxfam and St Ann's Hospice were some of 400 organisations which responded.

- The deadline for implementation of the directive by secondary legislation is 31 October, but the DTI admits it may go beyond this date as regulations will not be released until the end of August and affected parties are given a three-month familiarisation period before any prosecution can be made.

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