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Nathanael Yellis By Nathanael Yellis • August 2, 2019

Acton MBA Lesson Learned: Email Subscribers are Customers

When I worked in a political non-profit, I ran the digital shop. Like most political non-profits, we had invested a lot of time and money in our email list. People subscribed to our messages because they agree with our objectives and want to do their part.

Most organizations send email to customers, donors, and other interested people. Even with all of the other digital channels, promoting online action still starts with email.

But too frequently, organizational needs drive how we talk to subscribers and what we say. We start with our goals instead of their needs. This common practice violates the most important lesson I learned during my Acton MBA: everything starts with the customer.

The ultimate example of emailing someone with your goals in mind has to be the “we need money” email that many nonprofits send. Maybe it’s the end of a fundraising cycle or the bank coffers are low, but the email talks about how important the subscriber’s cash is to the organization’s needs. That’s the opposite of starting with the customer.

My most successful email during my non-profit marketing career took the opposite approach: focusing on what our subscribers needed. It resulted in a massive fundraising win.

After a small legislative victory, the email we sent thanked our subscribers for their work and explained how the whole team worked hard for the win. We then asked them to support our continued efforts to promote the policy. The message was extraordinarily successful: it made more than some of our most effective (and expensive) fundraising gimmicks.

This makes sense: our subscribers signed up because they wanted to help us succeed. When we told the story of a small win, we were telling them what they signed up to hear. By remembering that email subscribers are customers and by focusing on their needs first, our email was a fundraising smash hit.