Guidestar recently published a Q&A with our Creative Director Madeline Stanionis about how to raise money with email. Her answers about how email is different from direct mail and how you can make your email program awesome are below. You can also read the original post here.

Madeline Stanionis

Some say a subject line should be no more than 40 characters. Do you agree?

A subject line should be as long as it needs to be to do the job. Sometimes it’s a little longer, sometimes not. If you have a great, relevant subject line that’s 45 characters, use it! Of course, if your subject isn’t great, do keep it on the shorter side.

So tell me how to write a great subject line.

Okay, I’ll give you nine (I like to be specific) pieces of advice:

  • Climb inside your readers’ heads and understand where they’re at when it comes to your cause and lead with what THEY are thinking (not with what your organization wants to say!).
  • Consider what else may be in their in-box that day. How will you stand out (without using a bait-and-switch gimmick that doesn’t match the message inside)?
  • Pay attention to subject lines used by large organizations. Chances are good they’re testing sub lines and are using theirs for good reason.
  • Use relevant news and pop culture. Use the sub line to connect what your reader is watching or reading with what you’re messaging about.
  • Shock, but only when justified. Sometimes situations are horrific, gorgeous, unbelievable, deadly, hilarious, and/or devastating. Usually, they’re not. But sometimes!
  • Get personal by using everyday terms, casual sentences, and occasionally questions.
  • Read your subject line aloud and listen to how it sounds.
  • Avoid CAPS.
  • Don’t be afraid of sentence fragments, slang words, lowercase, and other casual conventions. E-mail is a relaxed medium.

And what are some of the best subject lines you’ve seen?

Well, the best subject line is the one that performs well today. It might not be the best tomorrow! But here’s a few I’ve liked recently:

  • Dunkin vs. Starbucks (you know you have an opinion!)
  • Hey, did I leave my jacket at your place?
  • 1982 called. It wants its pollution back.
  • 1,000 more likes and we get a puppy!

What distinguishes e-mail copy from other forms of writing?

Other forms as in a novel or the NY Times? Or other direct response forms? I’m going with the latter. E-mail is:

  • Certainly shorter than most direct mail.
  • More casual.
  • More personal.
  • Frequent and single-focused vs. occasional and complex. (Except for maybe, e-newsletters).
  • Visual! That doesn’t always mean lots of images, but it could.

Does a P.S. have the same power in an e-mail as it does it snail mail?

Jury’s still out on that. Some organizations have found a P.S. lifts response; others have seen no lift.

How are smartphones and tablets impacting the way donors read e-mail?

If your e-mail isn’t mobile-enabled, you’re in trouble. Same goes for your landing pages—and maybe your whole Web site.

However! The upside is that smartphones and tablets make reading and responding to e-mail when you’re on the bus or otherwise away from your laptop much more enjoyable. So chances are better that your busy reader might actually read your e-mail when she’s on the run.

The best timing for e-mail—is it still Tuesday through Thursday, 9:30-11:30 a.m. and 1:30-4:00 p.m.?

I always say the best time to send your e-mail message is when it’s ready. However, the real best time is the moment your audience is most expecting it based on the news, what they’re doing at the time, and what your offer is.

The tried and true weekday times still tend to be better for lots of things, but it does depend on a lot of other factors, so I wouldn’t make that a hard and fast rule.

Should I ask for a donation in the subject line, or would you recommend a less direct approach?

Depends on what’s happening in the world. In a crisis, when the only or best way to help is donating—sure. Year-end? It can work. Other times? Dicey. You don’t want to say you’re not asking for money in the subject line, but there may be a more enticing way into your story.

What’s the fine line, in terms of frequency, between sending enough e-mail to keep people engaged and sending too many, thereby lowering open rates and increasing unsubscribes?

I think you’re assuming way too many things in that question! First, you kind of imply that “sending a lot” of e-mail is the same as “sending too many” messages. And, whoa, I think you also decided that sending too many e-mail messages automatically lowers open rates and increases unsubscribes. Sure about that?

Look—I get that it can look that way. Sending too much BAD e-mail can seem like too many e-mail messages and can certainly decrease response. But you know what? If you send good e-mail—really good e-mail—every day, it won’t seem like too much, and it can actually increase your response metrics. The problem is that most nonprofits don’t have the time or skills to deliver good e-mail frequently. Or—eek—at all! And then we blame the frequency and not the content.

But if what you’re asking me for is some sort of rule, I guess I’d say that if you can’t gather your best together in an e-mail twice a month or so, then you really have no business sending e-mail at all. And if your words are golden more than twice a week, absent a crisis or critical time period, I’d be quite surprised.

What’s a respectable open rate for our e-mails to donors?

Respectable? Hmm. There’s a wide range! For big organizations, over 10 percent isn’t bad. And many small organizations see much higher open rates. Most important is that you’re tracking your open rates and setting your own (respectable) benchmark.

Compared to direct mail, is e-mail a good medium for acquiring donors? And, if so, is there a qualitative difference between the acquired donors?

Let’s broaden the conversation to say, simply, online instead of just e-mail—and in doing so, the answer is definitely yes! In fact it’s cheaper than many offline sources. Inspire prospects to head to your Web site to give, sign up for an e-mail list, or engage in social media, and you’ve got a great source of new names.

For a long time, we’ve known that long letters outpull short ones. Is it the same with e-mail?

Length, schmength. Most people have found that it doesn’t usually make much difference. Some have found that short—really short—e-mail at the end of a big campaign can outperform a longer message. But, by and large, it’s not a huge deal. And if so, why burn all that time and energy on a long message? Keep it short!

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