Want to Cultivate New List Members? Skip the Small Talk

Want to Cultivate New List Members? Skip the Small Talk

Find out the best way to raise funds with new list subscribers

By: Eve Fox


July 10, 2006

Make a good first impression and make it fast. That's the bottom line when it comes to building new list members.

If your goal is to cultivate good activists and/or donors, skip the carefully crafted "welcome" message designed to help introduce new list members to your organization. M+R Strategic Services conducted research with several of its nonprofit clients and the results show that welcome messages are not the most effective first communication for new subscribers.

So What Does Work?

It might seem way too easy, but it appears that a typical action alert or fundraising appeal on your most current, most compelling issue or campaign is far more effective at engaging new list members — and retaining them — than a well-crafted welcome message.

If your goal is to cultivate activists for your cause, send new recruits an action alert within their first week on your list as members are most receptive and responsive to communications from your organization in their first six weeks on your list.

The data from a recent test welcome message and an advocacy alert tracked clicks, actions, and unsubscribes and compared how well two groups responded to subsequent action alerts.  (Note: the welcome message included a request to take action via an online petition, in addition to information about the organization and what to expect as list members.)

Group A received the welcome email while Group B received only the action alert message. The response rate for Group A was 9.92 percent while Group B's response rate was 12.52 percent.

The test data indicates consistently higher open rates for the first message people receive than for subsequent alerts. That's why it's critical to move fast and really make that first email count!

What about Cultivating Donors?

The same exact rules apply when it comes to cultivating donors. If your goal is to build a list of donors, the first message new recruits receive from your organization will be a fundraising appeal. Be sure to send it within their first week on your list.

While the idea of sending a fundraising appeal to your brand-new online supporters might cause your policy or advocacy staff to issue howls of protest and begin foaming at the mouth, the data shows this is the best way to encourage people to become loyal donors. You'll also find it comforting to know that an early fundraising appeal does not seem to have a significant impact on advocacy response rates down the road. (See results in chart below.)

Keep in mind that this first fundraising appeal is likely to receive a far lower response than a first action alert would (as is true of any fundraising appeal) and is obviously not a good way to generate actions. However, it will help you raise more money over time.

The data in the chart below shows the results of a test conducted with three equally and randomly split groups of new subscribers to an environmental group's email list.  All of the subscribers were recruited via a petition for a Roadless Forest campaign.

The longer welcome series actually made list members more likely to unsubscribe. Also, the members of Group C that received a fundraising appeal as their first message from the organization made more donations overall than the other two groups. Although the other two groups did not receive a fundraising appeal as their first message, they did receive one as the third message in the series, so each of the three groups received the same number of fundraising appeals. The welcome message included a request to take action via an online petition, in addition to some information about the organization and what to expect as list members.

  Group A Group B Group C
* Does not include actions from welcome message.
** The difference between the three groups in terms of actions taken is not statistically significant.
Received Week 1: Welcome
Week 2: Online survey
Week 3: Fundraising appeal (Arctic Refuge)
Week 1: Welcome
Week 2: Online survey
Week 3: Fundraising appeal (Roadless Forest)
Week 1: Fundraising appeal (Arctic Refuge)
Initial Members 4,200 4,200 4,200
Current Members 3,782 3,806 3,845
Churn Rate 14.05 percent 13.50 percent 12.61 percent
Total Actions 10,091 10,093 9,680
Actions Per Member* 2.67 2.68 2.52
Members Who've Taken Action at Least Once 2,954 2,981 2,993
Total Donations 55 57 70

Total Donated

$2,565 $2,270 $3,100
Amount Raised Per Member $0.68 $0.60 $0.81

But I Want to Cultivate Activists and Donors!

Given that the mix of advocacy and fundraising is a powerful and effective combination for many groups, it's quite likely that your organization will want to cultivate both activists and donors.  Unfortunately, there isn't a single magic formula for this. Instead, think of it as a continuous balancing act.

Weigh your organizational priorities. For instance, do you need to collect as many public comments as you can before the comment period closes or are you desperately trying to reach a certain monetary goal before a matching gift offer expires? Also consider the relative strength of your advocacy and fundraising asks at any given time.

And try to stay flexible. If your colleagues are uncomfortable with the idea of sending either a fundraising appeal or an action alert as the organization's first communication, propose a test with a subset of people to make it seem less intimidating.

Don't be afraid to play around with the sequence and timing of the messages you send to your new list members.  For example, you could try sending them an action alert and following it up with an appeal a week later, or vice versa. If you or others on your staff are concerned about over-messaging your new subscribers, you could start with an action alert and follow up with the people who took action by sending them an appeal requesting donations to support some aspect of that particular advocacy campaign.

Data from another recent test determined the impact on advocacy and fundraising response rates of sending a generic welcome message versus an action alert versus a fundraising appeal as the first communication.

  Group A Group B Group C
*Does not include actions from welcome message
(The churn rate and response to actions for this test does not follow the pattern noted in the other test results.)
Received Generic Welcome Advocacy Alert Fundraising Appeal
Initial Members 2,540 2,657 2,678
Current Members 2,321 2,338 2,358
Churn Rate 8.62 percent 12.01 percent 11.95 percent
Total Actions* 348 335 343
Actions per Member 0.15 0.14 0.15
Actions per Member per Month 0.05 0.05 0.05
Total Donations 7 9 17
Total Donated $249 $340 $689
Amount Raised per Member $0.11 $0.15 $0.29

Based on the test results, there are two very encouraging things to note:

  1. It does not appear that receiving a fundraising appeal as their first communication has had any negative impact on Group C's response rates to advocacy campaigns.
  2. It does appear that receiving a fundraising appeal as their first communication from the organization has made Group C significantly more responsive donors than either Groups A or B.

So rather than sticking to the same formula and sending out the same welcome message to your new list members, try out some different ways to generate funds for your organization. As research shows, the best way to generate more funds for your organization is to get right to the point and send your fundraising appeal first.

About the author:

Eve Fox is a vice president of the eCampaigns division of M+R Strategic Services. M+R provides integrated strategy, field organizing, communications, lobbying, online advocacy and fundraising, and direct mail services for a range of progressive nonprofit groups, candidates, and organizations.

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