email response rates

Quantity vs. Quality


Direct mail fundraisers have struggled for years to find the balance.

How deep in the file can I afford to mail?

More responsive segments will generate more revenue per piece mailed than it costs to mail; less responsive segments will not. Risk mailing too far past breakeven and the entire effort loses money. Mail too conservatively, and you leave dollars–and active donors–on the table.

With the lower incremental cost of email, digital fundraisers may not feel the same pressure.

But they’d do well to pay attention.

Consider the snapshot below.



In year one, this organization brought on the names of supporters for whom it already had email addresses. A respectable 3.25% of those new names made a donation.

In year two, far fewer new names came on (95% fewer!), but the percentage who donated was much higher.

In subsequent years, as efforts to build the file expanded, the likelihood of securing a first-year donation  from that new name has gone down.

Does this matter? (Especially if total revenue is going up as well?)

It may, but it’s just one indicator. Open and clickthrough rates have also declined, even though total opens and clickthroughs are up.

Thus, the more critical question: “What are you watching? And why?”

While file growth is a worthy objective, I would caution that higher file numbers may add a noise factor that can distort what’s really happening with the core supporters. Which means you'll need to look further than overall averages ... particularly if you want to meet the information needs of the people who matter most!

Do you consider what quantity vs. quality means for your file?

What should I expect email response to be?

My initial forays into email marketing were to qualify (or requalify) subscribers to an international b-t-b publication audited by BPAI.

It was great; initially we saw responses of nearly 20% or better for newly qualified subscribers and up to 30% or better for requalified (renewing) subscribers.

In the nearly 10 years since, email responsiveness has fallen considerably and today those sound more like open rates than response rates. (A recent Convio Benchmark report puts average open rates on fundraising appeals at 20%, click-throughs at 2% and response rates at .13%.)

Obviously, the results of any individual effort can vary widely from these averages … and will, based on how involved your audience is, what you’re asking them to do, how expected/unexpected your request is, etc.

As evidence, in the past year, one of our clients saw:
  • a fundraising appeal to a list of appended addresses have an open rate of only about 5%
  • a holiday greeting to a broad cross-section of the house file have an open rate of about 30%
  • a viral message to a select group of prior responders have an open rate of almost 60%

It’s important that you track all emails so that you can establish benchmarks against which to judge the success/failure of individual efforts.

In addition to open rates, click-through rates and response rates, three other key stats to follow include:
  • forwards (can indicate level of involvement/agreement with your audience)
  • unsubscribes (conversely, can indicate that you are out of touch and/or out of favor)
  • forward opens (can indicate level of appeal beyond those folks already involved with you)

Email response is a moving target. A quickly moving target. And unless you stay on top of it, you may miss your target all together!