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eWire Reader Response: One Way Obama's Tech Strategist Missed the Mark

By David Hughes

(March 23, 2009) President Barack Obama's chief technology strategist, Thomas Gensemer, dropped a bomb on nonprofit marketers and fundraisers in February with this:

"Charity email newsletters are a waste of time"

This quote spread like wildfire on philanthropy-oriented online publications (Third Sector Online, cited by AFP eWire, and others) and led to perhaps unprecedented buzz among online communications specialists. So what are the facts? Is all of the research and data showing that email newsletters are successful cultivation vehicles for prospective and existing donors alike wrong? Are they indeed a "waste of time"?

Or was Gensemer overstepping his bounds with this blanket statement about the usefulness of email newsletters? After all, he's the mastermind who led Obama's online effort that raised more than $500 million online, breaking all previous online fundraising records from a political campaign. How can he be wrong about the intelligent use of email?

There are many takeaways from the Obama campaign, and there are many experts who have expanded on the lessons we can learn from their success. Donor and advocate engagement, how/why/when to use social media appropriately, effectively utilizing email marketing, and mobile marketing's potential are just a few.

It's clear, however, that the strategic team behind the Obama campaign didn't invent anything new that led to their success; they simply used existing tools in new and novel ways to leverage each medium beyond what any organization has done in the past.

As marketers and fundraisers, there's a lot to learn about the success that can come from having every marketing medium working together toward a common cause. But there are fundamental differences in donor and organization type that make direct comparisons between what worked for the Obama political campaign and what will work for most nonprofit organizations difficult. Gensemer may be right about the usefulness of email newsletters for political campaigns, but he may be a bit out of touch with the needs of most nonprofit organizations.

The differences boil down to demographics, cultivation and sustainability.

Traditional nonprofit donors tend to be older (even those online) and are less likely to use new media in the same way, or to the extent that an Obama supporter would. The campaign's greater success at energizing a younger demographic than most political campaigns and nonprofits is a clear differentiating factor.

A series of short, frequent emails (as Gensemer advises) might be very effective at converting donors in a political campaign, but constituents for most nonprofit organizations need to be reminded on a regular basis what their donor support will help to fund before making a gift.

Abundant data supports the idea that email newsletters act as great cultivation tools to convert new and existing constituents into supporters. Email newsletters provide the perfect vehicle for accomplishing this: regular, targeted communications with compelling content and a soft donation ask. Prospects are cultivated to make a first-time gift and existing donors are reminded of what their past support has gone on to fund. For some clients, we've seen up to 20 percent of direct response email income originate from email newsletters.

We embrace some key facets of Gensemer's argument: short emails are effective, short emails take much less time to produce than full-length newsletters, and constituent segmentation and engagement tools are critical to success. But while these guidelines can be used to great effect in overall email marketing, they don't replace the need for an email newsletter in most cases.

The major issue that Gensemer's declaration does not address is the question of sustainability. What can the typical organization expect to sustain based on its resources and available content?  The Obama campaign didn't send out any traditional email newsletters – they didn't have to. With the 4-7 emails per week sent to constituents throughout the campaign, newsletters were simply not necessary and would have been redundant. But the volume of content generated by a political campaign cannot compare with what most nonprofits have at their disposal.

When you're talking about the resources and content necessary to send 4-7 short emails a week, compared to what is needed to send a monthly, bimonthly or quarterly newsletter, what is sustainable becomes crystal clear.

Most organizations—even large ones that have a variety of initiatives going on throughout the year—cannot sustain the type of frequency and relevant content that made the comprehensive email communication strategy for the Obama campaign work so effectively.

If every organization had unlimited resources, staff time, technology and the inherent public interest and momentum of an historic presidential campaign, then yes, email newsletters would indeed be a "waste of time."  But until then, their benefits as a cultivation tool for most nonprofit organizations are clear and should not be abandoned.

David Hughes is account director at SankyNet in New York. SankyNet, a subsidiary of Sanky Communications Inc., provides an array of Internet services in fundraising, marketing and communications to nonprofit organizations across the United States.

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