Should you try an email append?

It would seem logical:

  1. Mailing costs are rising but response is going down. 
  2. Online giving is growing and email avoids the most expensive elements of production. 
  3. What could make more sense than to move mail donors online?

Granted, there can be many good reasons to supplement your mail plan with online communications. But it’s seldom as direct and immediate a payback as the companies that provide email append services would have you believe.

An email append is when you add an email address to a constituent record in your database. This is done by merging your list of known supporters – those for whom you don't have email addresseses – with a broader database that includes those addresses; in cases where the records match, their email address can be added to your record.

But now, things begin to get a bit complicated.

Before returning the enhanced record to you, the service must first contact the address to let the individual know you also want to communicate with them by email.

There are three possible responses:
• the individual can opt in (“Yes, I want to receive email from xyz.)
• the individual can opt out (“No, I do not want to receive email from xyz.)
• or the individual can not respond.

(In one client’s recent append, 5% of the names opted in, 10% opted out and 85% did not respond.)

Clearly, you can email the opt ins and can not email the opt outs. But what about the non-responders?

Again, it’s a bit murky.

While these individuals didn’t opt in, neither did they technically opt out. Presumably, if this is your database of known supporters, you have a relationship with these individuals. Once they’ve been given the opportunity to opt out, you are CAN-SPAM compliant … or so the service bureau will argue.

And, by the letter of the law, this may be true. But in the spirit of the law – not to mention the spirit of honoring donor preferences – your stand may be more tenuous.

Regardless, you should consider that initial non-response an indicator of future involvement. For the append mentioned earlier, fewer than half of the non-responders opened an email in their first year on file. Fewer than 10% clicked on a link.

It took almost nine months, but donations from this group eventually did cover the cost of the append itself. But to call that breakeven would assume no additional costs for data management or to send additional emails.

Bottom line: the email append did add names to the file. We were able to engage some of those constituents and some have become online donors.

But it’s certainly no panacea.

In fact, I think with the same time, effort and expense, a more genuine outreach to build the file organically would deliver a better return. Certainly not in terms of the number of names added immediately. But unquestionably in terms of engagement.

And it's our engaged constituents who provide long-term financial support.