[FAQs] How to Use Online Surveys to Send Better Nonprofit Emails

Older couple looking at online surveys on tablet

Please step away from the email blast. Up-leveling your nonprofit communications means getting more strategic about who you target with your messaging and appeals—and not taking the shotgun approach. One way to do this is by sending an online survey to collect data about your supporters’ interests and then adjusting your campaigns to align with their needs and goals.

If you’ve been building your email list for a while, there’s a good chance that you’ve run into situations where you wanted to send a message to a smaller group of people that meet some kind of criteria like lapsed donors, volunteers or event attendees. These are all examples of email list segments that are based on your subscribers’ actions. But what if you want to send emails according to their interests? 

As modern marketing practices continue to trend toward personalization, learning how to segment nonprofit emails will be increasingly important. For example, let’s say you’ve captured a great story about a participant from one of your organization’s programs. Rather than sending it out to everyone with a generic message asking for support, you could send it to a smaller segment of potential volunteers and donors who’ve expressed interest in this area of your work with a strong call to action to take the next step.

To get on the path to more strategic campaigns, we’ve gathered some frequently asked questions and answers about using online surveys to build your email list segments.

FAQs: Email Segments and Online Surveys

You probably have a few questions about getting started with email segmentation. Learn what to consider when surveying your list about their interests and dealing with the logistics of it all.

What is segmentation?

When it comes to email marketing, segmentation is the practice of dividing up your list of subscribers into smaller groups based on a wide range of criteria.

Segmentation enables you to send relevant messages to the right people rather than blasting everyone with generic information or appeals. Segmentation becomes increasingly important over time as your newsletter list grows and you run into issues managing subscribers or you want to improve the performance of campaigns by sending them to people who are most likely to care.

What types of segments should I create?

There are endless ways to split up your nonprofit’s email list depending on your marketing goals and what you know about your subscribers. Segments like donors, volunteers, event attendees, or by location should be relatively easy to put together if you’re using a database or CRM that tracks people in this way. You can also segment people based on their email activity, like whether they are new subscribers, clicked on a past email or have never opened an email. 

Where online surveys come in handy is when you want to segment by subscribers’ interests and preferences, like which parts of your mission they want to hear about or how often they want to hear from you. If you don’t collect this type of information in your newsletter sign up form—and most organizations don’t do this anymore—sending a survey can help you gather the information you need to create these segments.

What questions should I ask in an online survey?

The most important consideration when putting together a subscriber survey is to focus on their needs and not yours. This isn’t the time to toss in a couple of questions that another staff person also wants to ask about. Nor is it a good idea to ask for communication preferences and include options that you’ll never consider implementing, such as sending monthly emails instead of weekly.

Keep your survey to 10 questions or less, avoid leading questions, and keep your open-ended questions to a minimum so that you have some clear data to work with when creating your segments. A good place to start is a question asking about the types of content your subscribers want to receive, such as breaking news, people profiles, short videos, or recommended reading. For more question inspiration, check out these resources:

How should I send the survey?

When it comes to selecting a tool for sending your survey, prioritize options that will integrate with your existing technology, like your CRM or email marketing platform. It will make dealing with the survey results so much easier! 

For example, Mailchimp and SurveyMonkey work well together, allowing you to segment your email subscribers based on survey results. Constant Contact also offers an online survey feature. On the flip side, using something like Google Forms is free and easy, but then you’re stuck exporting the results and manually trying to create your segments in your email marketing platform. Get started with your research:

What do I do with the results?

Once you’ve gathered information about your subscribers through a survey, it’s time for some hands-on email list management. I’m going to use Mailchimp as an example here since I use it often with our clients, but other email marketing platforms like Constant Contact and Emma have similar capabilities. 

Mailchimp offers different ways to divide up your main email list: putting people in groups, tagging subscribers with specific attributes, or creating segments based on profile fields. You can then refine who you send an email to by including or excluding the group, tag or segment. The easiest place to start is typically by organizing your list into groups, as outlined in a previous post on email list management

Most email platforms should allow you to create groups or segments by importing a list of addresses that belong in the group, which is a perfect way to start organizing your subscribers based on their survey responses. Have a subset of subscribers who want to hear about upcoming volunteer opportunities? Put them in a group.

What about people who don’t respond?

It’s pretty much a given that you’re not going to get a 100% response rate on your online survey. You might even be lucky to get 50%. If you’ve done your best to get people to take the survey and still have a bunch of non-responsive subscribers, that’s OK. You could consider making them a segment all of their own so that you can keep track of how these subscribers interact with your emails going forward. They might be good candidates for a future re-engagement campaign.

How do I deal with new subscribers that are added to the list?

One of the trickiest things about subscriber surveys is that new subscribers are being added to your email list all the time. Sending an online survey once just won’t cut it if you want to keep your new segments up to date. This is where automation is your friend. 

Do you have an automated Welcome email series for new subscribers? (Or maybe you’ve been itching to start one?) You can use your welcome series to send the survey to every person who joins your list from here on out. If you’ve selected a survey tool that integrates with your email marketing service, it’s possible that your segments will also be automatically updated based on survey responses. Otherwise, you’ll need to manually update your segments regularly (monthly at the very least) based on the survey results.

Put Your Findings to Good Use

Sending online surveys as a way to segment your mailing list has some added benefits. You can also use this data to inform and adjust your marketing efforts.

  • Based on subscriber preferences and interests, you might decide to change your newsletter strategy to include different types of stories or send at a different frequency.
  • Use your survey results to make your marketing strategy more effective. Since you’ve gone to the trouble of doing some stakeholder research, see if you can apply some of your learnings to your “big picture” marketing.
  • When was the last time you updated your target audience personas? The survey might offer some additional insights into your supporters’ goals, challenges and motivators that can be added to your persona’s profiles.

That said, one of the downsides of online surveys is that you’ll only be reaching out to those who have access to email and are more likely to prefer email communications compared to other channels. As you work to improve your marketing, remember that online surveys are just one of the tools that can help you know your audience.

Visit our marketing plan resource hub to learn more about effective strategies

If you’re looking for ways to make your nonprofit communications stronger and more strategic, working on segmentation is a foundational step. Online surveys are a helpful tool for gathering the information you need to create meaningful email segments, and they also demonstrate to your subscribers that you care about their needs and what they want to achieve by connecting to your cause.

Has your nonprofit used surveys to divide up your email or mailing list? What other ways have you segmented your communications? See you in the comments.