By Keith Anderson
For all the advances in digital communications and social networking, email continues to be the most reliable way for congregations to digitally communicate with members and potential members. Why? Because according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 98 percent of people use email. In the transition we find ourselves between print and digital communication, email is the most reliable way of digitally sharing your ministry’s news and information. It’s as close to mailing a letter to everyone’s home as you can get, just without the paper and postage.
Unfortunately, most congregations fail to get the most out of their emails for several reasons:
- Uninteresting design
- Inconsistent scheduling
- Incomplete email lists (who gets it)
- Inability to measure their success (who reads it)
- Too much or too little information
- Lack of focus
However, for some that use email well, a weekly email update is becoming the anchor of their communications strategy, lessening the need for a time and paper intensive production of a monthly newsletter.
Here are some ways and a few examples of how to send great emails that people will read:
Email marketing services
Email marketing services like Constant Contact and MailChimp offer an array of services at very little cost. I’ve used both services and like both. They help you manage your email list or multiple lists, provide statistics on how many people read your emails, and offer templates to make your emails more visually pleasing than just plain text or stationary background. Constant Contact starts as low as $10.50 a month for up to 500 email addresses. Mail Chimp charges by the number of subscribers and emails sent. Most ministries will be able to take advantage of their “forever free” plan, if they have fewer than 2,000 subscribers and send less than 12,000 emails a month.
Avoid information overload
How do you feel when you open your email inbox? Let me guess: Overwhelmed with information. If you are like me, you delete all those emails that don’t require immediate attention or provide essential information. Remember that while the information in this email may be the most important in your week, it may not seem that important to those who receive it. You need to get their attention and get your information across well and quickly. Design and scheduling are the key. Provide content that is short and focused on “what you need to know” this week — not forever and all time. When there is more to say, but you want to keep it short, use links. Link to your website or another website where people can get more detailed information.
Be consistent in look and timing
Here’s a good rule of thumb: You want people to think of your emails the same way they think about The New York Times. That is, when The Times shows up on your doorstep, you know what you are going to get — the layout, the tone of the writing, which main topics will be discussed. You want people to open your emails feeling the same way. They think: This is what I need to know, when I need to know it, where to find it, and how it will look and feel. They basically know what they are going to get as soon as they see your name and subject line in their inbox. You want them to read it, so help them to feel that it’s worth their time. Include a few of those items briefly in the subject line of your email to help entice people to open it.
Keep your design consistent. Avoid clutter. Use the same template most of the time. You may want to change the color scheme or template to match the liturgical season, if that’s your thing, but keep the content arranged consistently. People will appreciate it. In a world of competing messages and overflowing inboxes, consistency is key to providing people a good experience. More is rarely better. Also, kill your clip art. Use photos instead. People love to see themselves, and you help people match names and faces.
Curate your email list
One of the advantages of email marketing services is the ability to easily manage your email list. These services report bounces or undeliverable mail. Mark sure all your members are receiving your emails when they sign up. Allow visitors to sign up and share their email on Welcome Pads or Guest Book. They will be getting your information, creating another link. Services also enable you to let people sign up for your emails through your website. Subscribers can enter their email address and sign up.
I subscribe to several congregational email lists, not only so I can keep up with their ministries, but also to see how they use design. Here are three of my favorites that are consistently excellent:
Mercy Seat, Minneapolis: Mercy Seat is an ELCA mission start. Their emails feature a great look that’s consistent and clean, using photos and sparing text. At the end of each email is a section called “For Your Edification This Week,” which is a little dose of pop-culture fun. This is a great way to encourage people to read down through your entire email, knowing they’ll find something fun at the bottom. (MailChimp)
St. Paul Lutheran, Arlington, Mass.: The weekly email from St. Paul is visually rich and filled with information about congregational life and the upcoming Sunday. It also includes several links to articles or blog posts on religious themes. It serves as a weekly reader, curating good and interesting information on the Web for members — good way to spark conversation. (Constant Contact)
Metropolitan New York Synod: Emails from the Metroplolitan New York Synod are very consistent in their look and feel. Each email has the same header as the synod’s website, a good example of branding across all your digital communication sources — a good idea for any social media you use. The effective emails use a summary of content on the side, a preview of the content without scrolling, and each email ends with a prayer concern — a reminder that this is not just about calendars and coordination but rather our life and work together as the community of faith. (Constant Contact)