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How to create SMART objectives to measure nonprofit email marketing engagement

Nonprofit Email Marketing

I hope email marketing is a big part of your 2016 strategic plan.

It is still the best tool at your disposal for increasing engagement with your community of support.

Below I will discuss how to create SMART objectives that will help you achieve improved results in email marketing engagement.

What is a SMART objective, you ask?

A smart objective is Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound.  These are good parameters to follow when you want to create objectives that can easily be tracked and monitored.  If an objective is SMART then it is much easier to see if you are on schedule, meeting targets, or need to take additional action to ensure achievement.

SMART objectives work well when it comes to email marketing because email interactions are easy to measure and feedback is in real-time.  SMART objectives will always let you know if you are on track or if additional efforts may be necessary.

Get specific with email engagement KPIs:

Being specific with email marketing objectives can seem difficult at first. After all, how exactly do you measure engagement?

The key to being specific with your SMART email marketing engagement objectives is to identify your key performance indicators (KPIs).  The standard key performance indicators (KPIs) for email marketing engagement are:

  • The number of email list subscribers
  • Open rates
  • Click-through rates
  • Unsubscribe rate

I’d also recommend setting an objective for how many emails you will send. It is important to monitor if you are giving your audience enough opportunities to engage with you at all.

  • The number of emails sent to subscribers

All of these KPIs can be and already are measured by your email marketing software so they are very easy to track and report.

Get real!

The biggest challenge with establishing SMART objectives for these easily measured and reported KPIs is establishing realistic, achievable goals.

For example, you may find that your average open rate in 2015 was 19.3%. According to MailChimp’s reporting, the average open rates for nonprofits is 25.26%.

Hmmm, seems like you have some work to do here.

But how quickly can you go from 19.3% to 25.26%? Can you expect to increase your average open rate by 2% per quarter? Or 1% per month?

Unfortunately, I cannot give you a quick and easy answer. There are just far too many variables. A lot will depend on your tactics and current practices.

For example, if you only send out one email quarterly it will be a lot more difficult to increase your open rates; whereas, if you email monthly or weekly it might be a lot easier to increase your open rates.

See why you need to measure the number of emails you send?

If you have been measuring and tracking your email marketing engagement for some time, start by looking at past trends. Have your numbers been going up, down, or have they been static? Analyzing trends is a good starting point to determine how quickly your numbers can change.

Until you set a goal and start measuring it is hard to tell what you can achieve, but it is better to aim a little high and really push yourself to do better than to set targets that are easily achieved and thereby inhibit your progress and growth.

By aiming high you are more likely to achieve your full potential. Aiming high can also change the conversation to focus more on what tactics and resources are needed to make a higher target possible.

Use hard numbers

Email engagement KPIs are usually measured and reported in percentages, but the targets you set for your objectives may serve better as hard numbers instead of percentages.

For example, when determining the number of new subscribers you want to achieve, it is often more concrete and helpful to have a set target number you want to achieve.

Which is a more useful and more easily understandable target?

Increase the number of email list subscribers by 10% quarterly.


Increase the number of email list subscribers by 250 quarterly.

The hard number is more concrete, easier to understand, and easier to show your progress. Note, you can still report on the percentage of your target achieved:

We have added 75% of our target number of 250 subscribers in the first 2 months of the quarter.

This statement clearly shows you are making good progress and likely to reach your target for the quarter.

It is also better to use hard numbers when working with very small percentages. The average nonprofit unsubscribe rate according to MailChimp’s figures is 0.19%.

When working with data this small, it is often better to work in hard numbers and not percentages.

It is not easy to understand what it means to reduce your unsubscribe rate from 0.19% to 0.17%. It is much easier to grasp your progress by saying you will reduce the number of unsubscribes to 56 per quarter.

How much time?

Time-bound objectives are important because they give you clear reporting deadlines and allow for greater accountability toward meeting the objective. They also help raise awareness when things are not going as planned.

But how much time should it take for you to make improvements in your email marketing numbers?

Again, there are quite a few variables to consider, but I recommend tracking your metrics at least weekly and then reporting quarterly.

But what about nonprofits that only send out emails quarterly?

I’d say read this: Are you sending enough email?

One thing that is great about email marketing is that metrics are tracked in real-time. You know exactly how many of your emails have been opened and when they are opened. You know exactly how many people have clicked on a link in your email and when they did it.

This is extremely helpful because you get immediate feedback on your efforts to increase these numbers.

Did you employ a new strategy for improving subject lines? Great, you will know in 24 hours if that new subject line increased open rates.

Did you employ an incentive strategy to get people to click links in your email? Great, you will know in 24 hours if that strategy led to a higher click-through rate.

You should be constantly monitoring your data to determine what works and what doesn’t, what new tactic is gaining traction, and which ones are getting you nowhere.

Then you keep what works and ditch the rest.


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SMART objectives work for nonprofit email marketing

I hope this has helped you better understand how to create SMART objectives to measure and improve your email marketing efforts.

Email marketing objectives are easy to track and report and can lead to more confident data-driven decision-making.  The biggest challenge is making sure your targets are realistic, but looking at past trends can help determine what is possible. When in doubt, aim high and write more email.

Set your targets with hard numbers instead of percentages to make your targets more meaningful and easier to understand. Track your progress regularly, stick with what works, and forget the rest.


  1. A smart objective is Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound
  2. The key to being specific with your email marketing objectives is to identify your KPIs
  3. Aim high so that you don’t leave the potential for improvement on the table.
  4. Hard numbers are easier to understand and communicate than percentages
  5. Monitor weekly and report quarterly

Keep doing good work,
Jeremy Signature



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