Donor and Other Emails: You've Got Four Seconds

I do a lot of research on the effectiveness of online marketing to donors and others through relationship building for nonprofit organizations – mostly by sitting around thinking about my own experiences as a reader of email.

I do a lot of research on the effectiveness of online marketing to donors and others through relationship building for nonprofit organizations – mostly by sitting around thinking about my own experiences as a reader of email.

Of course, I am (among other oddly assorted things) a trained ethnographer, so this sort of reflexive research methodology comes easily to me.* However, I’d be the last person in the world to patronize nonprofit professionals by saying, “Kids - don't try this at home!”

In fact, I encourage everyone to reflect on his/her own experiences as an end user, and see if he or she doesn’t agree with my so-called “research findings.”

The Four Second Rule

Let’s reflect on what it’s like to receive an email from an organization that has – or would like to have – a relationship with you as a donor, community activist, client, constituent, voter or friend. When you scan your in-box, you probably take two seconds at most to decide - on the basis of the sender’s name, the email address and the subject heading - whether to delete, skip or read the message.

If you decide to read the message, you probably take another two seconds at most to scan the first two lines and decide whether you are going to continue reading, delete the message, or to save the message for later reading and skip to another.

Ok. That’s a total of four seconds.

You know it’s true - or pretty close to the truth. Right?

Making the Most of First Impressions

No matter how brilliant paragraphs two to 15 of your email message are, you won’t have a chance to use them to build your relationship with stakeholders unless the name of the sender, the sender’s email address, the message’s subject heading, and the first two lines of your email provide your reader with an incentive to keep reading.

If he/she quits after four seconds, then he/she will never know how brilliant the rest of the message was. That particular window of opportunity to build your relationship with a stakeholder has already closed.

One of the problems with this insight is that it’s much easier to arrive at it - and to identify some things that you should definitely not do - than it is to lay down the law about what is going to work most of the time. I struggle with this constantly, and have no grounds for boasting about opening lines that compel everyone to read every word I write.

But in the meantime, I’d like to offer, with all due humility, some ideas about what doesn’t work well:

  • Jagged, unjustified lines and multiple generations of quote marks.
  • Names or email addresses of senders that are unfamiliar or don’t make any sense. The latter can be a result of a mass emailing application that generates a unique string of numbers and letters for each mailing - although this may help you track responses, a hefty number of recipients will simply assume that you are sending spam.
  • Duplicate messages. Some of these are inadvertent, especially if your outgoing email stays on the screen after you hit the “send” command. However, if you get the same message from me three times because I haven’t triple-checked my list, then I’m to blame, and I owe you an apology.
  • Fancy-schmancy graphics that take a long time to load. In theory, it’s great to have your logo appear in the body of your email message to stakeholders, but if it takes 20 seconds for the logo to materialize onscreen, you’ve already lost a lot of readers.

Tell Us What Works for You

I’ve heard from the folks at TSNE that certain conventions help them increase their email open rate. These include:

  • Using short subject lines that are clear about the email’s content. They recommend avoiding “catchy, kitschy” titles that give the reader no idea what your email is about or, worse, that mislead the reader about the content. The latter situation can annoy the reader and lead him or her to dismiss subsequent emails from your nonprofit.
  • Capturing your readers’ attention with a dynamic title (in html emails) that communicates why the recipient should read on.
  • Clearly stating the purpose of the email in your opening sentence, which also clarifies why he or she is receiving the information from your organization (i.e., as a member of the XX Training e-List).
  • Stating the benefits you are offering in the second sentence. What will the reader gain from your email and organization?

These are just a few ideas of what not to do and what to consider in your emails to donors and other stakeholders.


Deborah Finn is an independent consultant who brings resources and needs together seamlessly in the nonprofit sector, mostly through strategic use of information and communication technologies. Read more about her insights in this area on her blog.

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