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This is a guest post by Carl Diesing at DNL OmniMedia.

Events can be major investments for any type of organization, and that’s especially true for nonprofits. Relying on events both large and small for fundraising, community outreach, and supporter engagement means nonprofits need must see results. Naturally, they want a return on the time and resources it takes to both plan and host major events.

The most surefire way to ensure a return on investment? Marketing. Increasing visibility, awareness, and excitement for your event among the right audiences will increase attendance.

In an increasingly internet-reliant world, digital marketing has become a central piece of any comprehensive nonprofit strategy. Chances are you’ve already worked to develop an effective website, active social media presence, and useful email list.

The level of expertise your nonprofit has on marketing concepts and techniques will vary based on your background and the size of your organization, but there are always opportunities to brush up on new trends and improve your strategies.

For many growing nonprofits, the single biggest improvement to be made is email marketing automation for their nonprofit emails, and promoting an upcoming event is the perfect test run to begin implementing new techniques.

Read on to discover the basics of email marketing automation and how you might use it to help promote your events.

Want to drive attendees to your next nonprofit event? Read this article.

Email marketing automation for nonprofits

At DNL OmniMedia, we work with nonprofits to develop customized tech solutions and large-scale strategies and we specialize in Blackbaud platforms. The tips in this quick guide are primarily geared towards nonprofits that are already using a professional-grade CRM, like Blackbaud CRM, Raiser’s Edge, or any of the other solutions on the market.

However, you can totally adapt these strategies to your nonprofit’s particular context and needs. Standalone email marketing tools, like Campaign Monitor, are very effective and can typically be integrated with your database platform later on, as needed.

Designing a stream graphic - A stream is part of your email marketing automation for nonprofits journey

1. Designing an email stream

Whether you’re using a Blackbaud product, another nonprofit-specific CRM platform, or a standalone email marketing tool, it’s important to understand what email streams are and how they fit into your broader marketing tactics.

An email stream is a pre-configured set of email messages that are automated to be sent to readers in a particular order, once that reader has triggered the stream to begin.

We encounter these emails all the time (and we’ll cover a few tips to make sure yours stand out in Section 3). Nearly every type of organization (e.g. businesses, nonprofits, and schools), relies on email marketing to accomplish specific tasks, while also taking the manual guesswork out of the marketing process.

Automated email streams might be designed to address all kinds of needs, including:

  • Welcoming new members, donors, advocates, or customers to your community
  • Keeping donors, constituents, or members updated on new developments and stewarding them for future donations or engagement
  • Advertising special offers from your shop or gift catalog after a customer completes a purchase, or reminding potential customers to complete their abandoned carts
  • Promoting upcoming events, incentivizing registration, and sharing more information and directions leading up to them

For example, here’s how you might set up a basic welcome stream (series) for new volunteers in your advocacy campaign:

welcome email stream: email marketing automation for nonprofits

This stream keeps readers engaged with your message and adapts based on how responsive each recipient is. Each message should contain increasingly engaging information that builds on the reader’s past actions and directs them toward getting started as an official advocate.

A stream like this could fit well into a multichannel marketing campaign designed to reach new supporters and train them to use your campaign’s mobile app. Check out the TeamDNL guide to advocacy apps to learn more about these tools.

Email streams and the constituent lifecycle

One of the core concepts behind automated email marketing is the idea of the customer or constituent lifecycle. Your marketing efforts should be designed to guide new supporters through their relationship with your nonprofit and its events. If you’re familiar with the sales funnel, it’s a similar idea but as a broader, more relationship-oriented cycle.

The main stages in a lifecycle marketing strategy are Reach, Act, Convert, and Engage. Check out Campaign Monitor’s in-depth guide to lifecycle marketing for real-life examples. In the specific context of nonprofit event marketing, though, your email stream might look like this:

  • Reach – Send initial invitations to previous attendees, current donors, and any others who’ve expressed interest online.
  • Act – Show off your event to readers, including special activities, speakers, etc., and encourage them to learn more on your website.
  • Convert – Secure new registered attendees for your event by directing them to your registration page. Special offers are useful at this stage to incentivize registration.
  • Engage – Send updates to keep attendees excited leading up to the event, and then follow up with them after the event too.

This is a fairly general example, and your own email stream will need to be more fleshed out. However, it’s important that your stream can be broken down into these distinct stages.

A jumbled email stream that’s too generally directed to every supporter regardless of their relationship to your work can be a big turn-off. For example, if a reader isn’t even fully aware of your event or its purpose, immediately pressuring them to register probably won’t work.

Or, if your email stream drags on for too long before providing registration information, readers who were initially excited might’ve begun to tune you out and ignore your messages.

Building a list graphic - Build a quality list to encourage event attendance

2. Building an effective mailing list

You’re going to need a list of recipients before you can even begin thinking about how to design your email stream to promote your event. An effective mailing list will be segmented in strategic ways to maximize impact and increase the chances that readers will take the proper next steps.

If you’re already using a dedicated CRM or donor database, use the data you collect and record on supporters to help you segment them for targeted email streams. Chances are you already use segmentation strategies to guide your marketing efforts, but it’s particularly important when it comes to email automation.

For instance, you’ll probably want to develop different email streams for past attendees, donors who’ve never attended an event before, and your contacts who’ve never donated or attended before.

Each can and should be engaged in different ways. Additionally, the target audience for your event might already be a very specific segment of your community, like volunteers or mid-range donors.

Having access to comprehensive, easily sortable donor profiles is invaluable for your marketing efforts. There are plenty of best practices you can still use even without a dedicated CRM platform, though. Consider a few other best practices for refining your email lists when promoting your events:

  • Use event planning software and registration tools that report attendee data in intuitive ways. They should either have internal analytics tools or they should integrate with your CRM. Check out ePly’s event software guide for more information on data features to look for in your standalone event tools.
  • Make sure your various digital marketing outlets are helping to drive some traffic to one another. A multi-channel marketing strategy will increase engagement with the campaign as a whole and ideally result in higher attendance for your event. Integrating your email and social media strategies is a great way to start.
  • Use previous campaigns to help build out your mailing list to include one-time donors who’ve expressed interest in your mission but haven’t stayed directly engaged with your nonprofit. Donors to your last crowdfunding campaign are good examples. Your marketing strategies for crowdfunding campaigns should ideally contain a way to collect email addresses for sharing additional updates in the future.

It’s generally a good idea to brush up on current segmentation strategies before launching a new campaign to promote your next event, and a quick online search should put you in touch with plenty of helpful resources.

Check out our nonprofit resources here.

Always make sure to take full advantage of the stream configuration and list-building features of your email marketing tools.

Optimizing for performance graphic - optimize your email marketing automation for nonprofit events in order to get the best results

3. Optimizing your emails to perform.

By “perform,” we mean your emails actually need to engage their recipients. They’ll have no impact at all if your potential attendees don’t even bother to open them.

Pesky advertising emails are, unfortunately, a fact of life for most of us, but why do we ignore some messages and not others? There are a few typical reasons:

  • The subject line is boring, obnoxious, or too long.
  • We already receive tons of ad emails from the sender, so we tend to tune them out.
  • The email looks completely irrelevant to our interests.
  • We don’t recognize the sender as an organization that we’ve interacted with in the past.

These are very common reasons that email campaigns might have low open rates and, subsequently, very little impact on the larger project at hand, and they’re all completely avoidable.

By implementing smarter strategies from the very beginning, you can strengthen your campaign as a whole.

Looking for the open rates you should be aiming for? Check out Campaign Monitor’s email benchmarks guide for nonprofits.

This is essentially what we’ve been talking about in the above sections. Taking the time to carefully segment your lists and then design highly targeted email streams for each key segment of your audience will result in a much more effective campaign for your event than a general email to your entire contact book ever would.

Aside from building smarter strategy into your email automation from the beginning, though, there are plenty of additional design-related steps you can take to make your messages more engaging (and, therefore, memorable and effective) for readers.

Interactivity techniques are great for encouraging more click-throughs to your social media profiles, registration pages, and additional information on your website. Strong visual design in your emails’ images and layouts are very important investments of your time and thought as well.

Make sure your email marketing tools let you track performance analytics—most importantly, the open rates and click-through rates for each message.

These metrics will immediately tell you how effective each email was at engaging recipients and driving more engagement for your event, and you can then use those insights to identify which techniques work well and which don’t.

Wrap up

Email automation can seriously boost registration rates and overall engagement for your nonprofit’s events, but only if you incorporate smart strategies from the beginning. Keeping a highly focused approach will be your best bet. Remember, just because it’s automated doesn’t make it hands-off.

Use this quick guide as a starting point, and continue your research on marketing automation techniques and email marketing software. You’ll be designing your next campaign in no time.


Carl Diesing co-founded DNL OmniMedia in 2006 and has grown the team to accommodate clients with on-going web development projects. Together DNL OmniMedia has worked with over 100 organizations to assist them with accomplishing their online goals. As Managing Director of DNL OmniMedia, Carl works with nonprofits and their technology to foster fundraising, create awareness, cure disease, and solve social issues.

This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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