Email strategy, Creative and brand strategy, Digital strategy, Fundraising

The Four Most Successful Email Strategies We’ve Borrowed from E-Commerce

As digital marketers for candidates and causes, we know the value email campaigns have in informing and inspiring action – and it’s clear we’re not alone. If you’ve taken a peek in your inbox lately, you’ll notice that retailers and e-commerce brands agree with us: Email is alive, well, and being used to sell a lot of retail items.

Yes, this means increased competition for your messages – but it also means there’s a whole world of content strategy and design you can look to from the e-commerce industry to inspire your own emails. We’ve done this for years, “borrowing” from brand names big and small to increase conversions and engage our nonprofit partners’ lists. Here, we’ve rounded up four of the most successful tactics from e-commerce that you might consider trying in your next email campaign (perhaps even during the end-of-year season!):

1. Be your own “hype man.”

Everyone knows when certain retail sales are coming: holiday discounts, end-of-season clearances. The same is true for nonprofit email: You can expect to see high response rates on Giving Tuesday, at end-of-year, or during other key moments for your organization’s mission.

But there’s nothing quite like a surprise sale – the email announcing a huge markdown for no specific reason. Well, we thought, why shouldn’t this exist for nonprofit email as well? E-commerce’s surprise-sale tactic teaches us that when you make your own hype and offer your list an out-of-the-blue opportunity, response rates have the potential to skyrocket! Examples might include offering limited availability for a match or other special offer, or hyping the “release date” of something new: a donor premium, an upcoming event, anything that makes sense for your program.

The key takeaway? Create your own moment, then treat it like it’s as real and critical as an “expected” high-response moment. It’ll feel even better than stumbling across a 40% discount code from your favorite retailer.

2. Emphasize urgency.

There’s a reason why the concept of supply and demand are among the first taught to students of economics. Opening an email from your favorite clothing brand and seeing a warning that sale items are “going fast!” can send you scrambling to click and buy. That same urgency can extend to your nonprofit calls-to-action as well!

The power of social pressure has incredible potential in your email program. Maybe it looks like an explicit mention of your average gift, encouraging your audience to match the community’s generosity. Or it may show up as a note that there are only “X slots left” in an urgent focus group you need your supporters to join. However you apply it, this tactic leverages the communities you’ve built through careful list growth and cultivation strategy.

The key takeaway? Whether it’s a t-shirt or a fundraising match, saying there’s “just one chance left!” is sure to drive response. 

3. Eyes eat first.

People respond to strong visuals, a fact that retail advertisers are crystal clear on. Selling retail is largely a game of attracting the eye – how many e-commerce messages have you received that are almost exclusively filled with graphics and product images? And how often do those image-only e-commerce messages pique your interest enough to earn a click?

We can all admit the answer is definitely not “zero.” So we recommend borrowing this for your nonprofit emails as well: Go big on graphics! If you’re a humanitarian organization, show photos of your teams on the ground. If you’re a conservation organization, lean into imagery of climate disasters or animals at risk of endangerment. Rigorous testing has shown us time and again that an image of a situation drives a higher response than a description of that same scenario. This isn’t by chance – it’s an e-commerce strategy.

The key takeaway? If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine how many clicks and conversions it might be worth. 

4. Help your platforms help each other.

We framed this blog post around email strategies, but we know your digital program is firing on multiple cylinders: email, yes, but also web, social media, paid acquisition, and potentially SMS. E-commerce retailers are working across platforms as well, but a trick they’ve really mastered is making those platforms work for each other.

Social media is a massive playground for retail advertisers, feeding straight back into e-commerce email lists and sending all the tactics we’ve talked about into your inbox. You can do the exact same thing, and the cross-platform possibilities are endless. A common example here is a sign-up lightbox on your website. But don’t forget about newer channels, too: We’ve seen great success building an SMS list by teasing opportunities and campaigns via email. Tell your email audience that SMS subscribers will be the “first to know” about an upcoming opportunity and see how your numbers grow!

The key takeaway? Retailers cross-promote their digital channels all the time. So don’t shy away from using emails, social, and SMS together to drive a message home.

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