The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

How to Test Your Nonprofit Emails

Sending the most effective emails to your donors doesn’t have to be a guessing game. Even the smallest nonprofits can use simple testing methods to uncover the subject lines, content and calls to action that inspire supporters to give.

Split Testing Your Emails

If you have a file of 40,000 email addresses or more, it’s pretty easy to create two segments of 5,000 email addresses each. When you want to test something for your entire groupfor example, a subject lineyou can take these two test segments and send the first message with the first subject line, a second message with the second subject line. (Send them on the same day as close to the same moment as possible, because the time of day does impact the results.)

Wait about 24 hours and look at the results. Decide which message worked the best and then mail to the rest of the list.

Some nonprofits won’t have a list that’s big enough to do that with. If your list is 5,000 or 10,000 names or less, then you really can’t take two 10% segments. With a small list size, you won’t get reliable split testing results that you could extrapolate to the whole list. If that’s the case, simply split your list in half and mail one half one of the things you want to test and the other half the other thing you want to test. Again, mail them on the same day and mail them as close to the same time as you can. You will still be able to learn what works best for your nonprofit


Testing Subject Lines

When testing subject lines, you’ll likely find that newspaper headline style subject lines tend to work better than complete sentences or verbs that call to action. So instead of saying, “Help us to fight Congress to get an increase in your social security,” a subject line that says, “No increase in social security protected for 2013” will generally get more people to open it. Test to see what style works best for your issues and audience.

You will find that having certain things in your subject line will typically generate a higher open rate. Once they are opened, emails with different subject lines but the same content generally have the same click-through rate. Once people get into an email, whether they get into it from one subject line or the other, they usually read the mail and act on it the same way.

It’s important to structure your subject lines in a way that helps target the people who are going to take the action you ultimately want them to take. If you say “video” in the subject line, more of those people will likely click through to view your video than the people who opened a message without not knowing there’s a video inside.  

This is also true if you are sending a survey. Tell people in the subject line that you’re looking for their opinion. You should get the people who really want to offer their opinion, and more of them will click through and fill out the survey.


Keep it Fresh

Even if you get good results with a certain email subject line, don’t think that a specific type of message will have the same impact over time. Don’t send the video out every month with a subject line that says “video” and expect that the returns are going to continue month after month. People have very short attention spans sometimes online, and they are always looking for something new. Make sure you continue to make an effort to stand out by being very descriptive, and avoid falling into an email rut. Measure your results over time and make changes when your results begin to stall.


Test Your Layout

You can also test the layout of the emails that you are sending. Many nonprofit organizations send terribly unreadable email newsletters. They are cluttered up with HTML and graphics, they are two or three columns. People open it and have no idea what they are supposed to do next.

Keep your emails very simple: preferably one column of links/content, big buttons where you want them to click, not too much background color. Think of how people will read your emails from their computer and from their mobile devices. Test different layouts to find out if you’re able to increase the percentage of people who click through to your website to take the action that you need them to.

Don’t Forget About Your Landing Page

Some of the most valuable testing that you can do in an email has nothing to do with the email itself and everything to do with the results of the email. This usually means the landing page. If you get people to open an email message because you’ve given them a great subject line, and then you’ve written compelling copy and have some visuals in there to make them click through, but they don’t ever sign the petition, make the gift, buy the book, whatever, it’s probably not the email’s fault. It’s probably the fault of the landing page itself.


Testing provides valuable insight into what works for your campaign and audience. You can be more successful by taking the time to understand what types of emails inspire your supporters to read and act. Even if your email doesn’t get the results you were hoping for, make sure you’re able to learn something each time with careful measurement, then take those results and fine-tune your approach! You will see your nonprofit email outreach become more successful with each try.


Adapted from the webinar presentation: 4 Easy Steps to Better Email: Improve Your Results through Careful Testing by Heather Dixon (Emma) and Rick Christ (Amergent)


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About This Blog

Amanda Khoury
Marketing Manager

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

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