This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.
A good broadcast email tool will let your organization email lots of people at once. It will also make it easy to incorporate whatever format you decide you want — plain text action alerts, fundraising requests that share the look and feel of your organization's website, or fancy formatted e-newsletters. You should also be able to send emails to select groups — both very large and relatively small — and a good tool will integrate with your offline database to let you customize content for large donors, send emails to tailored segments of your list, or track who has opened which email.
If you find that your current broadcast email software is no longer meeting your needs or supporting your NGO's strategies, it could be time to start looking for a replacement.
We asked a few nonprofit technology professionals about the most important things to consider when evaluating your existing system — and when considering a replacement if and when you're ready to move on. Here, then, in no particular order, are 10 reasons your nonprofit might change broadcast email providers.
- You're using Outlook or some other email client to send broadcast emails. If that sounds familiar, then your organization definitely needs a new broadcast email tool. Email clients are for personal interactions, not sending information to large groups of people. When you use your individual email instead of broadcast software, you run the risk of getting your email accounts blacklisted.
- You're paying too much. Getting a better price is a fair reason to switch to a new system. The decision might rely on a contract renewal or the sudden growth of your nonprofit's email lists knocking you into a different pricing structure. Broadcast email tools vary drastically in what they charge for their services and how — some fees are based on the number of emails sent, others on the number of addresses on your list. If you send emails frequently, but to just a small list of people, a software platform that charges based on list size may be the better option, and vice versa. There's even a free option, VerticalResponse, which offers 501(c)(3) nonprofits and charities up to 10,000 emails a month. Be sure to also consider the points at which the price will jump and how likely you are to exceed them.
- Your current software doesn't play well with others. Are you struggling to integrate your email functionality with your nonprofit's constituent database? Perhaps it's time to move to a system that handles both constituent data and email. Or do you need an email system that will talk to Facebook or Twitter? Sometimes it's possible to integrate these tools with a little customization, at added cost.
- Your current software won't play the way you want it to. Saying that an email platform integrates with another tool is one thing, but making it happen is something else entirely — how does it integrate? If it integrates via an Application Programming Interface (API) or some form of custom programming, you'll also need to take into account the cost of a programmer to create and maintain the integration. Ideally, integration fees will be built into the annual contract to help you avoid surprises down the road.
- You're struggling with templates. The inclusion and ease of use of templates, which let you pick and choose the look and feel of your emails, can truly differentiate the various tools. A good system will offer a number of preloaded templates that are easy to manipulate and should allow you to create your own custom template as well. Some vendors will create a custom template for you, often at additional cost. Two key considerations in this area are how closely you can match your email to the look and feel of your website and branding and whether you can create templates for mobile devices.
- You're struggling with images. If you regularly include photos or other images in your emails or e-newsletters, make sure the system supports it. If there's a limit to how many images you can store at one time, make sure it's sufficient for your needs. How large can they be? How easy are they to swap in and out, and how many can you use in each email?
- You can't segment your list the way you'd like to. For nonprofits, the ability to segment your email lists is critical, and the functionality of broadcast email software programs varies greatly. Even Constant Contact, a widely used tool, has difficulties in this area. A good program should allow you to identify and target list members based on multiple characteristics. Segmentation takes time when it's done properly, so the email system needs to make it as easy as possible. Look at how many variables you can include — such as location, past behavior, and even gender or age — and whether you can segment by custom variables, such as the number of events attended or the date they were added to your constituent relationship management (CRM) system. Can you use the segments to customize individual emails with dynamic content, or will you need to create different messages for each list and do the variation by hand?
- Ease of use. Don't underestimate the importance of the user-friendliness of a system. Some tools are just easier to use than others, and the value of this factor will vary among organizations. Does yours have an especially non-tech-savvy crowd? Consider ease of use for both the power user and the occasional user. How much time will it take to learn the software? How much support does the vendor provide? Is there a manual or website?
- Your emails aren't reaching their targets. All the advanced functionality of a system is meaningless if it can't send your email. Make sure the vendor hasn't experienced any issues with blacklisting and that the tool offers spam cleaners, Internet Service Provider–specific controls, and whitelist approvals. The vendor's reputation is very important. The best systems help clients maintain the pristine reputation that can ensure their messages get past spam filters.
- You don't know if anyone's reading your emails. Different organizations have different needs for reporting. At a minimum, you want to be able to track opens, clicks and conversions, and unsubscribes and bounces. The software's facility in this area will also depend on the available time and technical skills of your staff. Reports are only useful if you have someone to interpret the data. But if you're serious about your email program, you'll want the best reporting available, including the ability to see which links are clicked and trends over time. You'll also want the ability to export all of the data to a spreadsheet for more sophisticated analysis.
Whether you're evaluating your existing broadcast email tool or looking for a new one, there are several things to consider. There may not be a system that meets all your criteria, but you shouldn't settle for one that doesn't meet most of them. Think about your strategic goals. If your goals are fairly basic and your email list has only a few hundred recipients, a simple HTML editor and templates may be enough, but if you have more ambitious communication plans, you may well want to segment your audience to easily target specific groups with dynamic content and analyze the data afterwards.
Don't just consider your current needs and goals — think about where your nonprofit wants to go in two years — or five. If you anticipate increasingly complex email campaigns in the future, make sure your system will accommodate those needs going forward or, at the very least, allow you to export your list easily when you do change systems. How big will your list be? How often will you be sending messages? Do you want to send different messages to different lists?
Always start with strategy and then define your needs. This will help you find the right tool for your particular needs. All the bells and whistles won't help you if the software doesn't do the basic tasks you ask of it, and there's no need to buy a system with high-end features and analytics if you never plan to use them.
Do your research. Once you've defined what you can't live with and without, map those to the features available from the various systems. Talk to other nonprofits. Take some test drives by having vendors demo the software, showing you how they handle the features and processes you would typically use. Remember, you're not necessarily looking for the best system — just the best system for your particular needs.
Thanks to the following nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help: