5 Email Marketing Lessons Learned During the COVID-19 Pandemic 

5 min
covid email marketing lessons
Robert Carnes

Seemingly everything has changed during 2020, and that includes marketing, social media, and email marketing. Events are no longer in person and fundraising campaigns have been disrupted. We must rely more on digital communication more than ever. 

That is probably why 78% of marketers have seen an increase in email engagement this year.

Email delivers some of the best ROI for marketers. It’s a direct and personal connection to people, who are currently spending more time stuck at home, and in front of a screen.

However, you must take care with how your organization uses email, especially during 2020 and beyond. In a year of uncertainty, we’ve learned a few things should help nonprofit professionals get better at email marketing.

Free Download: 9 Email Templates for Nonprofit Annual Communication Plan

1. Have Empathy With Your Audience

Never forget that on the other side of that inbox is someone who may feel overwhelmed with everything that’s happening. 

As a marketer, your first instinct should be to find creative ways to increase the feeling of connection with your audience. Before pressing send, picture what a few of those people look like. What are they experiencing? How can you make their day brighter with an email?

One small way to bring empathy into your email marketing is with a little personalization. Adding a first name into the subject line or body of the email makes it feel more unique. In fact, emails with the person’s name in the subject are opened 50% more often. Personalization done well makes an email feel less like a mass blast, and more of an individual touch point.

Start composing every email campaign with empathy in mind and people will be more likely to listen.

2. Be More Personal

During this COVID-19 pandemic, arguably the biggest thing people crave is interaction with each other. The more you can make your email marketing feel like it’s coming from a real person, the more engaging and effective it will be.

The top factor that determines whether or not people will open an email is who it’s coming from. Rather than having all of your marketing emails come from a generic email address (like [email protected]), have them come from a relevant staff member’s email. That could be the fundraising director for all donation requests, your email for all event updates, and the executive director’s email address for all major announcements.

Even including a personalized signature at the bottom of each email elevates your message. That’s because it feels like it’s coming from a human, rather than marketing software. That personal touch should also apply to the tone of how the email is written.

Invest time to segment your email list based on interests or categories such as online donors, event donors, monthly givers, and so on. Sending emails to smaller, more targeted groups allows you to highly individualize your messaging per cohort. For this reason, segmented email campaigns increase audience engagement rates as much as 760%.

3. Be Encouraging, Not Desperate

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted the social sector, and if you’re like 83% of nonprofits out there, your giving might have dipped during 2020.

Rather than pleading, consider shifting the tone of your email marketing messages to focus on your organization’s important work and its life-changing value For example, rather than bringing up how far behind you are on your fundraising goal, remind people the impact your organization has on the community and how reaching your goal will help you accomplish specific outputs

Continue to ask for those donations, but do so in an encouraging and positive way that avoids the overly-negative and urgent messaging some organizations can default to during this time of need.

For example, avoid saying something like: Giving is down more than 50% this year. We don’t have enough resources to fund our programs. 

Try using messaging more along the lines of: Despite the challenges of 2020, we’ve still been able to make an impact in our community. With your support, we’ve been able to [insert your insightful statistic here]. Help us continue to make a difference by donating today.

Pro Tip
You can even use Grammarly’s free tone detection tool to automatically detect the tone of your emails (and other copywriting).

4. Stay Proactive, Remain Flexible

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that things can change, and quickly. It’s also shown us the importance of preparing for what’s coming with a unified strategy for dealing with problems. 

Nonprofits must strike a balance between being proactive and reactive. Plan ahead and have a strategy, but leave room for improvisation and adaptive thinking. 

If you had an email marketing calendar for 2020 at the beginning of this year, you likely had to pivot quickly in March. Consider pausing once per quarter to develop a short-term email marketing plan for the next few months.

Free Download: 9 Email Templates for Nonprofit Annual Communication Plan

5. Provide Value First

It’s estimated that the average person receives more than 120 emails every day. It’s all too easy to just become part of the noise. Standing out requires you to focus on providing value to your supporters rather than always hitting them up with an ask.

Nearly half of people still like getting promotional emails from their favorite brands. Leading with  valuable content that your audience actually wants helps to maintain that brand loyalty.

That could mean sending out a list of helpful articles or videos. That might look like sharing a message of encouragement or a funny video, or sending them a free resource, like an ebook you created. Perhaps you can promote an “ask me anything”-type session with your ED, or provide an inspirational quote or story simply to lift their spirits. You could even share your team’s favorite book recommendations during quarantine. 

When you do make asks, stagger your messages with soft and hard asks so that you’re not simply soliciting donations as your main message with each email. In emails where you make softer asks to sign a petition or share your campaign, you can still include a secondary call to action in the footer. There is no perfect formula for how many emails to send out. Studies have shown that most (86%) email subscribers want to get an email “at least monthly.” About 60% of that group said they’d like to hear “at least weekly.” 

One way to satisfy those differences in opinion is to ask your audience directly and see how many emails are right for them. You could even let them choose the frequency. Use email segmentation to let them subscribe to lists based on their preferences.

Here’s to Better Emails in 2021

As we stay socially distanced, organizations must become even more intentional with their email marketing strategies. Adopt some of these email tactics to make your nonprofit’s digital marketing more effective and rewarding for everyone involved.


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