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Rubenstein Impact Group's email welcome series study results

October 24, 2022
This group of nonprofit employees is working around a table to craft an advocacy email welcome series.

If you’re a nonprofit organization’s digital strategist, fundraiser, or other practitioner, you know how much potential lies within the first emails a new supporter receives after subscribing to your email list. After all, those initial messages need to capture the person’s attention, tap into their imagination, and transform them into a true activist, donor, or volunteer (and maybe even all three).

Recruiting new supporters is an incredibly important project. To optimize recruitment efforts, organizations invest many hours and resources into creating and branding campaigns, testing recruitment ads, and optimizing landing pages. Standard questions for measuring a campaign’s success usually include, “What was the conversion rate? What was our cost per acquisition? How many impressions did we get?”

However, the following questions are equally important: “Then what happened? What did we do to keep engaging these new volunteers for the long run?” These questions are what led Rubenstein Impact Group to launch its study reviewing almost 30 nonprofit organizations’ email welcome series. 

Keep reading to discover how we designed our study, what we found, and our recommendations for creating a highly effective series.

Research methodology

The methodology of this study focused on a select group of nonprofit email welcome series. Rubenstein Impact Group joined the email lists of 27 national organizations using a new email address created specifically for this project.

The goal was to sign up specifically to receive advocacy information or become an advocacy volunteer. Researchers visited each organization’s website, navigated to the advocacy section of the site, and completed a form that appeared to be advocacy-specific. For each organization, we tracked all of the emails received during the first 30 days after completing the sign-up form.

Keep in mind that even if your nonprofit organization doesn’t engage in advocacy, these findings can help you too.

Key findings

There is no one right way to execute an email welcome series, and the results of the study illustrate that. Some organizations used a more aggressive approach, quickly dropping us into intensive email fundraising campaigns, while others were more deliberate in taking the time to cultivate a relationship with their new advocacy subscribers.

Despite these differences, we were able to identify some clear findings and recommendations that serve as a useful guide for organizations. Our findings are split into these three areas:

1. How many emails are organizations sending?

After the research team signed up for advocacy emails, they tracked how many messages were received from the organizations—and the results ranged widely:

  • Some sent as many as 13 messages. 
  • Four out of the 27 organizations in our study sent us zero messages in the first 30 days after acquiring our email address. 
  • Overall, the test email account received an average of 3.1 emails per organization during the first 30 days as a subscriber.

It’s also important to acknowledge that the results for this finding might have been different had the account signed up to receive emails through a different entry point, particularly one that reflects a stronger, more immediate affinity for the organization’s work (e.g., a donation form or event sign-up).

Regardless of the entry point, there is ample data external to this study that documents the positive impact a welcome series can have on driving a second engagement. A study found that welcome emails are 320% more efficient than other promotional emails.

2. How often are organizations sending these emails?

While the first question organizations often ask is how many emails to send, how often to send them is usually the immediate follow-up question.

There was less variance in the pacing of the emails than in the number of emails sent. Of the 27 organizations in our study, we observed three clear trends in email frequency:

  • Nearly 60% of the organizations sent an autoresponder email immediately after the form was completed. Of those that sent emails, only two organizations sent their first message more than five days after the initial sign-up.
  • The timing of the second email was also fairly consistent. Of those who sent more than one email, 80% of the organizations sent their second message within five days of the first one.
  • Just under half of the organizations in the study sent a third message at all. Of that group, a small number of organizations (less than 20%) paced their email stream aggressively by sending their third message within five days of the initial form completion.

3. What kinds of content are organizations including in their emails?

Email ask content

To evaluate the email content, each message received was sorted into the following 10 types of asks:

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An advocacy-related ask (i.e., send a message to your lawmaker,) was the most common. This was to be expected since this was the most relevant type of ask for the form we completed. This was followed closely by a donation solicitation, and then by links to more information about the organization and its work.

However, only 48% of the 87 emails received included at least one mention of advocacy. In order to be highly relevant, welcome series content should reflect the reason a subscriber filled out your form and joined your list.

While most of the emails we received included a clear call-to-action, just over 16% of them included no ask at all. With Apple’s release of iOS 15, email open rates are becoming a more limited measure of email performance, meaning that having a clickable ask in your message is more important than ever to determine your emails’ success.

Other email content

To be successful, every advocacy welcome series should make advocacy the main focus. However, a well-written email can also promote other key programs like donation opportunities or events while making clear how they’re related to advocacy. For example, an email promoting a fundraising walk to an advocacy audience should explain how that program helps fund the organization’s advocacy work, or explain that the organization will be collecting petition signatures at the finish line.

Our advocacy email welcome series recommendations

Recommendation #1: Three(ish) is the magic number

People who sign up for your list want to hear from you. Based on the study’s findings, it’s recommended that organizations implement a three- to four-part email welcome series for new subscribers during the first 30 days. This provides volunteers with the ability to learn about the organization and engage in a variety of ways without flooding their inboxes.

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Recommendation #2: Let your data guide you

To know whether you’re sending too many emails too quickly, monitor your performance data and follow its lead. Clickthrough, unsubscribe, and conversion rates will empower you to make informed decisions about the intensity of your welcome series. Additionally, be on the looking for data that suggests technical issues that impact deliverability could be occurring. A/B testing that varies your pacing is also a great way to optimize that cadence.

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Recommendation #3: Diversify and refresh your content, and always include an ask

The key to maximizing engagement with your ask is to diversify your welcome stream content, keep it relevant with connections to the reason your audience engaged with you (in this case, advocacy), and include a clickable ask. Offering a range of relevant content provides volunteers with multiple ways to grow their connection with your organization.

Impressive industry examples to emulate

There are some very impressive welcome series out there from nonprofits that are doing great work. Save the Children Action Network and the Leukemia Lymphoma Society have two of the best we saw! If you’re a digital content strategist or wish to one day become one, we’d recommend signing up for their lists and checking out these inspiring examples.

Make your organization’s voice heard to supporters

While this study was focused on advocacy email welcome series, all of the findings are highly relevant and transferable for non-advocacy organizations. Ultimately, your audiences want to hear from you and engage—and they want to do it before they’ve forgotten that they signed up for your list. 

About Rubenstein Impact Group

Rubenstein Impact Group helps nonprofit organizations and companies drive greater engagement with their audiences—volunteers, members, employees, customers, and partners—to deepen relationships, run successful campaigns, and strengthen their brands.

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