Many nonprofits underestimate the intelligence of their constituents by sending out scores of “updates” and other messages that are really just thinly disguised pitches for money. This can be taken as patronizing and can leave recipients feeling as though they’ve been reduced to a human credit card. In any event, most messages fail to achieve the desired outcome.

Successful messages need to contain three elements. They need to engage, to educate, and to inspire action. When you set about creating a message, give careful thought to each of these elements.

Engagement, of course, has gotten harder than ever, because so many of us are overwhelmed by the torrent of communications that rain down on us from an ever-expanding range of communication technologies. Engagement now requires much more careful thought. First, you must decide whether to send or post a message at all. Unless it’s truly important for the recipient, don’t bother. A recent joint study by NTEN and M&R Resources reflects that nonprofits send out, on average, nearly five messages a month (2011 eNonprofits Benchmark Study). That is about 60 messages a year—far too many. It’s hard to imagine any scenario where a nonprofit has 60 truly important messages to share with its constituents. More importantly, as low—and generally dropping—open and click-through rates suggest, recipients ignore the vast majority of the emails they receive.

Second, keep it short. In the case of audio-visual communications, that means 30 to 60 seconds. For traditional email, it’s best to focus on one single point, and seek to drive a single action related to that point. Third, personalize the message and demonstrate to the recipient that you not only know something about them, but you genuinely believe that the message is useful to them.

I cannot overstate the importance of the last element: authenticity. Messages should have integrity; they should reflect the author’s genuine conviction that the content is valuable. If you don’t have true enthusiasm for what you are sharing, you can’t expect to engage the recipient.

Once they’re engaged, you have the opportunity to educate, to provide content that adds to the recipient’s life. Most messages are pitches; they are often a request for money with the veneer of being educational. Statistics prove that doesn’t work. The more you know about the people on the receiving end, the more interesting and relevant you can make the message.

If you achieve engagement, and you educate, you have a far better chance of getting the recipient to take the action you desire. In creating a message, the first step is to clarify for yourself what action you seek to inspire.

Then run a check: Clear your head, and send the message to yourself (or to a friend who has no relationship to your company). After absorbing the message, do you really feel engaged? Do you really believe that you’ve received educational content of value? Are you inspired to act? If not, wait until you have a message that achieves all of these things. It may mean sending fewer—but far more impactful—messages, and that’s a good thing. I suspect that you, like me, would rather receive one really engaging message each quarter than a bunch of mediocre ones.

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