Email marketing

Email can be an effective way to reach decision-makers and get your message across to thousands of people. Many experts think email is still the key tactic to use in communicating your cause. In this section we'll show you how to make the most of this tool by designing an email campaign, making your email messages clearer, creating and sending e-newsletters and managing your contact lists.

Email has the potential to:

  • Reach decision makers directly, with a personal communication.
  • Propagate your message and build awareness. A successful viral email campaign, where people pass the message on to others, has the potential to reach thousands.
  • Keep interested individuals and organisations up-to-date and involved with your activities via e-newsletters and ad-hoc emails.
  • Save money.

Best practice for email marketing

  • Don’t show all recipients in the 'To' box. When sending an email, rather than entering all the email addresses of the recipients in the 'To': box, put them in BCC (Blind Carbon Copy). That way recipients cannot misuse the other email addresses.
  • Don’t pass on viruses
. It’s very important to check that the computer you use has a proper virus protection programme. See Security in-a-box for more about computer security.
  • Don’t spam. 
Don’t sell or pass on email addresses to people who might use them for indiscriminate commercial emails (known as spam). This can get you blacklisted, and result in your emails being blocked by the recipients' ISPs.
  • Make sure you keep your mailing list
 up to date. It puts people off if you get their personal details wrong.
  • Have a privacy statement in the footer of your email and give people the opportunity to unsubscribe. Whether or not your country has a data protection law, you should have rules about how you store and use data. Always include an email address at the bottom of any email you send that enables people to unsubscribe. For example: 'If you no longer wish to receive emails from us please send an email to unsubscribe(at)advocacy(dot)org with 'unsubscribe' in the subject line'.
  • Take steps to ensure the security and privacy of your list of email addresses. Make sure you keep email addresses secure, particularly if you are working with sensitive information.
  • Always include a link to your website. Provide people on your mailing list with a way of learning more by including 'for more information' and a link to your website.
  • Target your emails as accurately as possible.While email gives you the ability to reach thousands of people with the click of a mouse, the more you personalise your messages and target them to the interests of each reader, the more effective they will be. Think about 'pressure points' in your campaign and be strategic about how and when you ask people to participate.
  • Ask the recipient to forward your message to others who may be interested. Encourage the people that your are emailing to pass your message on to appropriate friends, without encouraging them to become spammers.

Links and resources:

Build your email campaign

Be clear about your objectives. Your email campaign should be a tactic that is used within a larger advocacy strategy. You will obviously be using other tactics as well and your email campaign should fit into your strategy and have clear desired outcomes. Consider other forms of communication such as phone calls and postal letters, and make sure before you begin that email is the right tool for reaching your target audience.

Know your audience. Consider your readers when you compose an email. Be compelling, use language your audience will respond to, and keep it clear and concise. Make sure you clearly state what you would like the recipient to do as a result of receiving the email.

Instigate partnerships with other organisations that already have a strong reputation. This will increase the chances of people reading and acting on your email.

Have a follow-up plan. 
Plan what you will do if people respond to your emails, and what you'll do to follow up if they don't. Make sure that you decide how and when you want to follow up on your messages. Always record how many emails you've sent out for each campaign or message in a series, and how many responses you receive to each email. Over time this will help you get a measure of what works.

Plan for your message to be forwarded. It is very easy for a recipient to forward an email. Make sure that your email contains necessary background information, links to your website and ways for new people to get involved.

Get people to read the emails that you send them

If you want to use email for an advocacy campaign:

  • Use a clear & compelling subject line. This is probably the most important part of the content of the email since this will determine whether recipients read the body of the email. Don't use a heading that may be filtered out as spam, such as 'urgent'.
  • Send your email as plain text. Your email programme or browser will have the option to email in plain text or HTML (which is laid out more specifically with images, colours and stylised headings like a webpage). It’s better to send a message in plain text format because plain text messages are often regarded as more personal than HTML. What's more, ISPs (internet service provider) sometimes screen out HTML messages as spam.
  • Personalise the greeting: ‘Dear <name>’
  • Make sure the main points you wish to make are viewable in the first part of the email – called ‘above the fold’, as people often make a decision about whether to continue reading based on this part of the email.
  • Break your paragraphs up so none are more than four lines in length.

Email systems 

Building a list

One of the benefits of email is building a list of people who are sympathetic to your campaign and may support it. Ask anyone who provides you with contact information for their email address. Explain exactly how you will use it; for example, to keep them up to date with your activities. 
Use email campaigns to build your emailing list: when you have an important message, ask supporters to forward your email messages to colleagues and acquaintances.

Only add people to your email list who have expressly agreed to receive email from you. Be careful not to send spam.

Managing databases

Email programmes have address books with the capacity to store a variety of information about each contact. In the initial stages of developing the list this capacity could be used to build up information about contacts. Using personalisation such as first names in emails increases response rates.

As your list grows you will need to consider how you store the contact and response details of your supporters. Using a database to store the details or manage your contacts will give your organisation extra flexibility. You could use a spreadsheet to track these and your exchanges with them if the number of contacts is very small.

If you are trying to manage a large contact database over time, you will find a CRM system (client relationship management system) very useful. This will not only allow you to keep track of contacts, but also to keep track of your interactions with them and to target them specifically according to groupings you create or subjects that they have expressed interest in.

One Open Source CRM worth investigating is Civi-CRMCiviMail is the mass-mailing component for Civi-CRM, which allows you to engage your constituents with personalised emails and newsletters. It works alongside internet Content Management Systems like Drupal and Joomla too (Read more). With CiviMail you can:

  • Target mailings by including or excluding any number of CiviCRM groups, or previous mail recipients.
  • Personalise your messages using mail-merge tokens.
  • Track when recipients open your message.
  • Track click-throughs.
  • Manage bounces and unsubscribe requests.

You can also manage event registrations and donorship programmes with CivilMail. If CiviMail doesn't meet your needs, have a look at commercial services that can help with managing your email marketing campaigns for a reasonable price. The time you will save and the results you get might make the expense worthwhile. Remember the potential security risks of a third party having access to your communications.


Communicating regularly with supporters, funders and advocates ensures your message stays uppermost in their minds.

  • Establish a schedule, sending an e-newsletter on a regular basis.
  • Keep your newsletter fairly short, equivalent to a couple of sides of A4 paper.
  • Give concrete information about current activities.

Be sure not to abuse your mailing list. Bombarding people with emails can result in people signing off your list or putting it on to automatic spam. Plan your regular communications carefully over the year. You need to gauge your audience and their level of interest in your work; be aware that a single well-targeted and-conceived email will be much more valuable than a large number of emails people may not be interested in.

If you have specialist information that some of your audience may be interested in, try targeting a smaller group of people with this more detailed information. 

When to email?

An effective email campaign means sending your messages at the right moment. The timing is similar to that which applies to issuing a traditional media release; for example:

  • When you have a major announcement to make
  • Some crucial information has come to light
  • When you want people to take action
  • For the launch of a new campaign or initiative

Remember always to include links to key pages on your website (if relevant) and a call to action.

Viral marketing

Viral campaigns are an established part of online marketing. Viral marketing usually refers to creating content that you hope people will want to forward via links or email.There's a thin line between viral marketing and spam, but you can reach so many people this way that it's a good tactic when sheer numbers are important.

One of the most common forms of viral marketing to attract traffic to your website is using a video that is funny or shocking. As well as creating the video you will need to spend a lot of time seeding it, that is putting links to the video on all sorts of relevant sites and discussion forums. Be prepared for a low percentage of sign-ups – it's not uncommon to get 10,000 viral video views and less than 100 people signing up to your campaign as a result.

Read more about publishing & distributing video.

Simple online games are another good way to generate traffic from something that people will share with their friends.

The essence of a viral campaign is that it's something that people will feel motivated to share, and this need not depend on fancy video or flashy games. Some of the earliest viral emails (also circulated via fax and fliers) were from the Zapatistas during their uprising against the North American Free Trade Agreement in early 1993. These were simple communiqués, straight from the source, and they served as an alternative to the traditional media at a time when information from the activists themselves was extremely hard to come by. See First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle and EZLN Communiques.