Rethinking Advocacy Email


Something really great happened yesterday when Sid Burgess deleted our email.

I see 30% open rate and think “70% delete rate.” I see 8% click through, and think… “oh jeez.”

About every 7-10 days, the Sunlight Foundation sends a mass email to all its supporters asking people to take action on behalf of our Public=Online campaign or to alert folks to new projects we’re working on. The email we sent yesterday from our campaign organizer Nicole Aro asked people to make calls to support the Earmark Transparency Act. (If you haven’t already, you should!)

Now, emails such as these are a big part of our job to engage the public here at Sunlight, and we’re generally thought to have a quite successful email program by any standard metrics. Typically, in an email to 40-50,000 people our open rates are between 30-35% and click throughs are around 7-10%. Sometimes much higher in exceptional cases (we’ve had open rates in excess of 100% when an email “goes viral”), but these are typical numbers and they’re well “above average” for those who think about such things.

I have a confession to make, though. I really don’t like email that much. I see 30% open rate and think “70% delete rate.” I see 8% click through, and think… “oh jeez.”

Email is an incredible tool for many things, but it’s also not a very good vehicle to communicate much of what most folks tend to use it for. And on top of that, we all just get so darned many! Reading email is more often a nuisance than an opportunity to many (most?) recipients. And that’s a particular shame because email is still considered the primary outreach channel for most organizations. In fact, it’s not just a shame, it’s an outright “problem” if your job is to engage both current and potential supporters in your cause.

(And note: if you work for a cause, then it IS your job to engage current and potential supporters.)

And then there’s another problem, particularly for emails that come from nonprofits or political causes: not only do people get too many, almost all of them sound and feel exactly the same. The model is something like this:

SUBJ: Something catchy/funny/intriguing/pun to get you to open the email

Here is the first line in which I try to surprise you or say something memorable so you’ll keep going down.

Now I back up that sentence with some facts, and tell you what’s happening out in the world that needs your action.

Link 1:

More information describing the problem, and why our action is going to help – maybe even solve – the problem. We really need to do this!

Link 2: (going to the same place as link 1)

Something nice that sums it all up and puts things in context, as well as thanking you for your support.



PS Here’s a link to something else I want you to see, knowing that the PS is one of the most clicked through parts of an email.

Go through your inbox, and I suspect the vast majority of advocacy emails look or feel something like that.

I’ve been thinking about how to do it better for quite some time, and so have others – including the guy who deleted our email yesterday, Sid Burgess.

After our email was sent – and after it was reinforced in a message we sent via Twitter, Sid sent a rather surprising tweet that said, “Just got (your email). Deleted it right away because it looked and felt like all the other political email spam I get.” It was wonderful to get such candid feedback, so I replied, “I hear ya, man. Been trying to find way around as well. All basically sound the same. Pls let us know if you have an insight!”

Well, within about half an hour later, Sid sent this (via email of course) as a mockup for what it might look like to rethink how we send our calls to action:

While this is an admittedly very rough sketch, and Sid was clear that he is not a designer, one can quickly see the virtues and possibilities of such a simple format.

First: most people simply don’t want to read all that you write. So why not give them a succinct summary of your problem with the option to read more in a link (but less requirement to do so) as Sid does here.

Second: create a moment of analysis that gets supporters or potential supporters to ask the most critical question you need them to consider.

Third: offer a simple way to act to help in solving the problem at hand – with the ability to dive deeper and get more information.

As you continue down the layout, you also see quick and easy buttons that could be used for sharing the message throughout the web. It’s decidedly un-email.

What are other’s thoughts on this or advocacy email at large?  How could they be different? And more importantly: more effective? What do you think of Sid’s mock up as a way to start?

If you’re reading this then you’re already someone whose opinion matters a lot to us. So let us know in the comments here or via Twitter by sending a message to @SunlightNetwork.