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If you work in advocacy, nonprofits or public affairs, your title has the word ‘communications’ in it, and you’re not hungry as hell to get better at all things data, you’re falling behind. Fast.

You’re a storyteller at heart.

You got hired because you craft a great message and write damn good copy that jumps off the screen. You’re comfortable performing in front of a camera. You work fast, too, so your organization can go public with smart messaging at a moment’s notice.

If you check those boxes, you’re in good enough shape to get a gig in the Comms department at most respected advocacy outfits, if the year is 2012.

If you want to lead that department, or ascend quickly inside your existing organization, the modern job description needs one more detail: You’re an absolute hound for good data.

Email remains the most effective method for telling a story (or raising money, getting volunteers, recruiting new supporters, etc.) at scale, but in 2016 it’s really hard to get people to open an email. You know this already, of course.

Depending on the study, industry standard open rates are around 20%. Click rates, which measure how many people are persuaded by your email to just consider taking some kind of action, are far lower.

Why? The typical reasons include:

  • Digital saturation and competition. There’s been such an explosion in outbound email (most of it it impersonalized and poorly targeted), and online content in general, that we’re too inundated to even notice your message. Everyone else’s bad email practices have trained your supporters to ignore you. How many bulk emails do you ignore every day?
  • Email service providers are making it harder to deliver bulk email, and doing things like re-routing your promotional content in the ‘Promotions’ tab (where, frankly, it belongs).

The teams that are beating the industry standard, raising more money, growing their list, and getting policy wins, are doing it with data. There are lots of strategies for using data to better target your emails, but effective Communications teams follow two general best practices that you should always follow.

1. When they have a new message to get out, instead of sending it to the whole list, they send multiple versions of the message to segmented groups on the list.

Here’s a really simple example:

You’re holding an event. Instead of sending one email to your whole supporter base, you send 3 different invites (all of which should exclude supporters who don’t live close enough to the geographic area of your event, because, duh).

Invite A1

Audience: New supporters who haven’t been in your database long enough to have ever attended one of your events. The invite should:

  • Acknowledge that the recipients haven’t yet been to an event.
  • Tell a short story about why your organization hosts events.
  • Invite them to the specific event.

Invite A2

Audience: Supporters who have been previously invited, and maybe RSVP’d, but who have never attended.

  • Acknowledge that they haven’t yet been to an event, and possibly reference something interesting about the most recent event that they missed. (If you want to get fancy, try using Liquid variables in your email to slide into the email dynamic content that shows some of their friends who did attend — that’s social proof).
  • Invite them to the specific event, with language that reinforces that this would be their first.

Invite A3

  • Invite them to the specific event, with an acknowledgement of their past event attendance.
  • Provide a special offer to past attendees, to acknowledge and reward their previous engagement.
  • Ask them to share the invite with friends who should join your community.

The second best practice of great communications teams:

2. They do not send an email unless they can link the promoted content to a call to action. No exceptions.

Think of your email list like a stock portfolio. Every time a supporter (or individual stock) takes an action, you collect a new data point. This is the equivalent of the stock increasing in value. Why? Because that new data point increases your ability to target that supporter in the future, driving up the chance that she will engage and convert in the future.

If you’re not serving calls to action, you can’t collect any data, and so your list is totally unchanged as a result of sending the email. You establish a non-engagement habit with your supporters. So they stop opening your emails. Your portfolio is slowly but surely declining in value.

One surefire hint that you’re doing this wrong is that you send out periodic newsletter type emails, which proliferated with the onset of mass email practices a decade ago as a digital copy of what advocacy organizations did before that with printed direct mail.

The best emails have one clear compelling call to action. But, if you insist on sending newsletter type emails, I love this example from LA2050, where every single item has a clear, clickable Call to Action.



OK, I work in Communications, and I want to try this data thing, but I don’t have access to the data. What do I do?

The challenge for most Communications pros is that in order to target well, you need good, robust supporter data to begin with and most of you don’t have it. To do top-notch email work, you’re going to need access to the organization’s data (not just what’s stored in MailChimp), and an easy way to filter it. This is typically as much an internal political battle as it is a quest for the right tools.

But if anyone can tell a good story about why you need the data, it’s you, right?

If you lack access to your supporter data (beyond the email list), and your team is blocking you from access, instead of lobbying for full access, think of a specific campaign that requires a few specific data points. Ask for only that data to run a test. (By the way, if your team can’t furnish the data, that’s an opportunity for you to be a leader inside the organization, to push for better data tools). Once you have your data, run your experiment. Compare your average open and click rates to the engagement on your targeted emails. Don’t expect life-changing differences right away — it takes time and consistency to significantly move the needle. But the needle will move.

Also, if your targeted email doesn’t beat your average engagement rates, I’ll buy you a gelato the next time you’re in L.A. and help you figure why. Dead serious.

I am the Director of Advocacy & Brands at NationBuilder. I help large organizations implement technology, strategy and process to develop leaders and scale community.

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