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Reminder emails increase the number of donations, but…

New research shows that reminder emails make more people donate money to charity. But the extra email also causes a significantly higher number of people to unsubscribe from the mailing list, which can reduce donations by up to a third over the long run. However, the number of unsubscriptions can be reduced by simple means.

2017.03.12 | Andreas G. Jensby

In a large study, researchers from Aarhus BSS together with DanChurchAid have tested the effect of sending out reminder emails. A total of 17,000 previous donors received one email at first, and half the group received a reminder email one week later.

And the results were significant in both a positive and negative sense: The extra reminder got more people to donate money, but it also caused a significant increase (76 per cent) in the number of people who unsubscribed from the mailing list and who will therefore not receive emails in the future. In popular terms, these are called ‘unsubscriptions’.

“Although some people also unsubscribe upon receiving the first email, it is striking that far more do so in response to the reminder. It’s a warning to be careful with how much you try to push and nudge people to donate money,” says Mette Trier Damgaard from the Department of Economics and Business Economics at Aarhus BSS, who is one of the two researchers behind the study.

Can you make people stay on the mailing list?

In a 2015 follow-up study of 43,000 previous donors, the researchers tested if fewer people would unsubscribe if you, in addition to asking for a donation, promised them a form of bonus or that they would not receive any more emails in the near future. The researchers got the expected results: Fewer unsubscriptions.

“Being on a mailing list carries a cost. It’s an annoyance of sorts, and people make a quick assessment every time of whether staying on the list is worth the effort. As such, it’s important to recognise and perhaps honour that you expose people to a form of pressure and feelings of guilt by asking them to donate,” explains Mette Trier Damgaard.

She emphasises that the benefits of staying on the mailing list must naturally be of a certain scope for them to have an effect. Thus more people unsubscribed at the prospect of receiving one email per month, whereas more people stayed on the list at the prospect of the next email arriving in three months.

A success that might backfire

Based on data about the contributors’ normal behaviour, the researchers have created a model which shows how much money you typically donate to charity over the course of an “electronic donor life cycle”. Although the reminder email did get more people to donate money, the end result may be negative in the long run.

“If a lot of people on your mailing list unsubscribe, your donation base will grow smaller over time. So unless you’re good at getting new subscribers, increasing the donation size or getting people to donate by other means, you will all things being equal raise less money in the long run,” says Mette Trier Damgaard.

For obvious reasons, the researchers cannot measure the cash donations you give at annual emergency aid fundraising campaigns or by supporting charities via second-hand stores. The researchers have focused on reminders via the most commonly used, direct electronic channels, such as email and text messages.

Further information

Mette Trier Damgaard
Department of Economics and Business Economics, Aarhus BSS
Email: mdamgaard@econ.au.dk
Tel: +45 42729276

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