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.

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  • My inbox has too often been bothered, mostly advertising, and social networks, you have a way to help me?

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  • I tend to think of open (and conversion) rates in exactly the same way. And I also hate how most advocacy emails follow the same format — they even look alike to the point that they’re often interchangeable.

    That said, I’ve tested shorter formats vs. longer and what I’ve found is that shorter works much better for advocacy (or any non-fundraising action, like watch our video) while longer wins every time for fundraising emails. So I’m with Noah — time for some testing! I’d be curious to find out the results.

  • @Sam Spence Would love to see your image link, but it’s broken.

  • This is a great post, and great topic! I suspect it’s not going to be as simple as applying a new email-wide template–because just as has already happened, users will eventually tire of the format, yet again.

    That said–the idea presented here is near-perfect, for now.

    We do need to re-think the traditional content makeup of emails, and I would add that we must constantly be rethinking, reimagining, testing and adapting.

    I would love to see a follow-up post to your next campaign utalizing this format and the response rates.

    Great job!

  • Jake Brewer

    Thanks for all the feedback, folks!

    We’re in the middle of a busy week, but just as an update, we’re going to be mocking up some ideas, and – as Jon suggests – testing to see what happens.

    Glad to see this resonating out there. And thanks again to Sid for being the catalyst he is!

  • I like it. Take a page from advertising. When was the last time you saw an ad that couldn’t be digested in a few seconds. I’m not necessarily saying we should all reduce our message to a couple of phrases but I do think that verbose descriptions of an issue and positioning statements aren’t helping the cause. Email action alerts really aren’t the place to convince, they’re the place for action.

    As far as the issue of too many emails in the in-box, you should periodically purge your email list of perennial non-responders. You might start to see open rates closer to 50% if you’re only mailing an engaged audience.

  • Seems like a nice twist on a stale approach. But who cares what I think, the data doesn’t lie. Let’s test it and see what we can learn! ;-)

  • The email format outlined in the article is a shortened version of the basic direct mail format. It doesn’t work.

    And I agree with Amy about petitions. I sign them now and then, but I assume that they are nothing more than list-building devices as I rarely hear back on the petition itself.

    My beef is that email alerts often click through to really long sample letters. Why? You don’t want supporters to copy and paste all that, especially since congressional staff won’t read it, so don’t start the sample text with “this bill on the pressing but much misunderstood issue of doggie day care safety regulations originated in the office of Sen. Hornswaddle, chair of the Committee on Furry Animals…”

    As they used to say in the movies, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

  • Mike Kondratick

    This is a really thought-provoking approach.

    It’d be interesting to test this general design along 2 parameters:

    1. A person’s prior level of engagement with the issue you’re emailing about. Is the response rate to the simplified email dramatically affected by prior knowledge of/action on the issue?

    2. The level of complexity of the ask. How simple must the ask be for the email to be successful? Can you get beyond ‘liking’, adding names to petitions, etc. If so, how far past?

  • Noticed this came through my inbox this weekend… MoveOn does deviate from the formula from time to time anyway, but I couldn’t help but notice a variation of the “READ, THINK, CLICK” model from @sidburgess.

    Screenshot here:

  • Wow. I have been in the e-mail marketing business since 2006 and I don’t think I have come across a better article on the reasons why we need to rethink the traditional go-with-the-flow pattern of e-mail action alerts.

    Maybe you can invite the end-recipient of the e-mail to share their thoughts on the issue that you are communicating with them about to visit a page on a social network such as a fan page on facebook so that they get their thoughts into the mix. Those thoughts, qualitatively can be assembled and disseminated to the powers that be making a policy decision on that given issue. Members can then support others in that community and help spread the word about that issue because they have invest their own thoughts on the issue.

    There has to be trust by the organization offering other to take action collectively that the audience will do the right thing after you have given them the facts. If you give them just a simple click and the form is already filled out so that a form letter will be mailed back to the person, that won’t get through. There has to be an engagement of the person saying their piece for their voice to get heard or heard in a collective fashion if others have the same thing to say about the issue (e.g. phone calls to our legislators get more weight than clicking to send a message over e-mail to our legislators).

    I talk about e-marketing on my blog often in relation to nonprofits and government entities.

    Here is one post in particular that may help you in your trade of e-mail marketing, if you’re interested:

  • This article is a must read because it’s true, so many advocacy groups send out their calls to action and at this point there is WAY more noise than signal.

    But I can’t help but worry about highly stylized emails that don’t end up looking as good as intended on older e-mail managing software or computers.

    Is this a concern anymore or am I just behind the times?

  • I think the design pattern proposed by Sid Burgess is spot-on.

    Credo uses a similar pattern fairly effectively–at least from my perspective as a recipient. Their emails generally have a main column of text that fleshes out the issue, but they almost always have a side bar that follows the pattern described pattern.

    The sidebar is generally composed of a photo (the only photo on the page, which draws the eye) a clearly stated headline usually in the form of a question, followed by a single sentence explaining there position. This is followed by a graphic button to act (usually “sign the petition”).

    The best part is in most cases, if you click the act button, you are sent to a page saying you’ve been added to the petition as a +1. You don’t have to fill out a form with your contact info every time.

    It makes it really quick for citizens to act, especially if their familiar with the issue at hand. And if your not, you can fall back to the longer passage.

    Sid’s suggestion to drop the longer text entirely and link out to a website with that detail makes a lot of sense. It moves the email into the territory of an invitation to act.

    The only trick might be how email blacklists work, (the spam filters of the web). The low amount of content might increase the likelihood of being automatically flagged. It would be something to test out if you cut your content down that far. The folks at CampaignMonitor or MailChimp might have some insight ont eh blacklisting subject.

  • Good point, Jake!
    I received the same Transparency email from your associate, Nicole Aro. Because her sender data did not include Sunlight Foundation, I almost tagged it as spam, since I don’t know Ms. Aro.

    Mr.Burgess’s idea is great:fast, to the point and with widgets to share it, to send it on,as well.

    Two slices of advocacy insight to share:
    1. Too many progressive groups invite their members to sign petitions that are invariably just a tool to verify email addressee’s continued interest and connectivity. Further, very few of these groups follow up on what, if anything, they DID with the ‘e-signed’ petitions.

    2.Though many sites claim privacy, I do receive email from new groups who have acquired others’ email lists. I vary the spelling of my name to track this; no doubt others do this, too.

    Thanks for posting this, Jake. And thanks, Jason Rosenbaum, for tweet-sharing this. #FF
    -Amy /aka ‘@Bleuz00m’

  • In I suggested that an itemized list of short statements of accomplishments and/or actions with links is all I need. Short here is not only in content but also in time to read the email.

    I like the effort around categorizing items as read, think, click but I would choose different categories. For example, “action taken” (what you have done since last mailing), “help needed” and “current awareness” (on possible future actions and/or help).

  • Time for some A/B testing!