February 3, 2016

Email Segmentation: The Whys and Hows of Targeting Your Audience

If you’re anything like me, your email list is your work baby.

You’ve worked hard to build your organization’s email list. You send out a regular newsletter with all your latest links and information. You A/B test your subject lines and monitor your analytics to see what’s working and what’s not.

You do all these wonderful things to take care of your list and as a result, your open and click-through rates are on par with nonprofit averages.

But you don’t want to be average. You want to be great: a leader, the head of the pack, the top of the class. You want your boss to say “wow!” at your next review.

Meanwhile, your boss and fellow staff members don’t quite understand what it takes to increase open and click-through rates, especially in this day and age when people are so inundated with information. And sometimes, they can get even get in the way of your organization’s success without even realizing it.

For example, one day during a check-in meeting with your boss she tells you how excited she is about the newest partnership you’ve formed with another organization. She can’t wait to tell the world about it and wants you to put an announcement the next e-letter.

The problem is there’s not much of a story to tell quite yet so this information is only relevant to a small group of your closest supporters. Now what?

You’re in a bind—you don’t want to be the one to always say “no” to these kinds of requests, because you know how important this partnership is to her. At the same time, you also don’t want to keep sending out announcements that not many people care about and risk having low click-through rates or people unsubscribing.

Don’t you wish there was a way you could say “yes” to your boss’s request and improve your open and click-through rates?

This is where email segmentation comes in.

Instead of sending information to everyone, you can use email segmenting to send an email to one specific slice of your list.

If you haven’t used this tactic yet, this will bring your email strategy to the next level. When done right, you’ll see much higher open and click-through rates for emails sent to one segment. Another benefit is people on your list will get more information about things they like to hear about, and less information about topics they don’t care about. You can interact with influencers more often without bothering your more casual subscribers. And, finally, you can say “yes” when your boss tells you to send out an announcement you know your entire list doesn’t want to hear about.

Here’s how to get started segmenting your email list:

The first step is to figure out how to divide your list. You can break up your list by interest, audience type, and/or an action they’ve taken.

Let’s use an email list for an animal shelter as an example. Here are some ways to divide that list:

Interest: Dogs, cats, rabbits, or some combination of the three types of animals you take in.

Audience type: Volunteers at the shelter, animal foster parents, animal activists, and people who have adopted an animal from your shelter or who are interested in adopting.

Action they’ve taken: Whether they’ve donated in the past, signed up for your animal wellness training, or opened or clicked one of your recent email campaigns.

More than likely, many people on your list will fall into more than one of these groups, and that’s ok.

Next, figure out how to sort people into those groups.

Here are some ideas:

  • Use the information you already have in your database to segment your email list
  • Ask people about their interests when they sign up for your enewsletter
  • Track which page people were visiting when they signed up for your enewsletter online
  • Sort people based on what kinds of events they attended: If they attended a volunteer orientation, you can put them in the “volunteer” group; if they attended a bunny basics class, you can put them into the “rabbits,” “attended training,” and “potential adoptee” groups, etc.
  • Use their open and click activity from past emails to sort them into groups. This is a good practice to help you divide the more and less engaged subscribers and target your emails accordingly

If you use MailChimp, this guide can walk you through the process in more detail.

Finally, start sending targeted emails to your segments. You should target both your highly engaged subscribers and your more casual subscribers in different ways.

For more engaged groups, send emails that feature one highly-targeted article, announcement, or resource roundup. Don’t worry—you don’t have to create new content just to send emails to your segments. These emails can include information that you may have already featured or are going to feature in your regular newsletter. You can also send these groups “sneak peeks” of new resources to generate some buzz before you make a more formal announcement.

For less engaged subscribers, use email segmentation to experiment with new messages and subject lines. For example, if people didn’t click on the “donate” button in your latest email fundraising campaign, target that audience and try a new email format, video, or story to see what might resonate with them.

Another easy segment to target is people who didn’t open a previous campaign. Copy your most recent email and send it again a week or two later with a different subject line to the people who didn’t open the first one.

Don’t be surprised if emails sent to less engaged groups have a lower open and click-through rate than your regular newsletter. However, this practice gives you another opportunity to reach people on the outskirts of your list and may boost the total number of clicks to the articles in your newsletter.

Final note: Email is one of your best communications tools to reach multiple audiences. Segmentation gives you many possibilities to increase engagement with both your power users and your more casual subscribers. Go give it a try!

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Rebecca Reyes
Rebecca runs Spring Media Strategies helping nonprofits and social enterprises analyze their marketing channels, create digital marketing campaigns and strategies, and train people to use new technologies. She identifies tools and strategies to help organizations work smarter. She is also the communications manager at Everyday Democracy, managing all of the organization’s online communication channels. Connect with her on Twitter @mnrebs.
  • John Kin

    We’re trying to decide if we should switch to a more sophisticated email platform so that we can begin to use some of these types of segmentation and targeting strategies. We are currently use the email tool in our CRM, which has very limited tracing and reporting tools but has the advantage of automatically recording email history directly in the constituent records.

    This article is a great case for the benefits of segmentation. But our concern is the time and effort of maintaining two different databases of information and not being able to sync the segmentation and behavior data collected in the email platform with the constituent data in our CRM. Do you have any suggestions about dong segmentation and managing an email list across two systems that don’t share data very well (or easily).

    • Rebecca Reyes

      Hi John! comment. The best case scenario is to find a CRM that integrates with a more
      sophisticated third party email program, and there are many options for CRMs
      and email program integrations. If you like the CRM you have now, I would do
      some research to see which email programs it integrates with, if any, and try
      out some of them and see which one might be a good fit for your organization.

      The main question for you to consider is: How do you use the information in
      your database when you’re sending out your enewsletter? Does your enewsletter
      list need to be connected to your database for you to be most effective?

      I don’t know all of the ins and outs of your organization, but it might
      be helpful to keep the people who donate or who have a personal relationship
      with someone at the organization in your constituent database, and think about
      your enewsletter list as a way to communicate to your more “general”
      audience, if you will. You can still send periodic targeted emails to groups in
      your database, but it sounds like you’ve gotten to the point where your
      enewsletter should have a strategy and role of its own.

      • John Kin

        Thanks for your response, Rebecca. We’re kind of stuck with our CRM for the time being and are looking for an interim solution until we can move to a platform that integrates with an email platform. The research I’ve done so far says its going to be a very manual process of export/import.

        But your question about what data I really need to track in the CRM made me think that I should map out the workflow and data flow. Tracking subscriptions and groups is one part of it. But tracking behaviors and interests for segmenting the audience is another. Maybe more of that can happen in the email system than I realize and the data that needs to be integrated with the CRM can be limited and updated more periodically.