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Emails that move you: The science of emotion in subject lines

Emotion drives charity.

That’s something we’ve all known for a long time. And nonprofit marketers excel in using emotion to inspire and motivate people to donate to their favorite causes—and to discover new ones.

But how do you capture a donor’s attention with emotion in an email subject line?

Once someone opens the email, we can wow them with a touching story and beautiful, moving imagery. However, there’s minimal real estate to work with in the subject line—maybe five to seven words—and no visuals to support it. Not to mention competing with the dozens of other emails that people receive each day.

That’s why I was intrigued by some of the findings in Neon One’s recent release: “The Nonprofit Email Report: Data-Backed Insights for Better Engagement.”

Emotional sentiment in email subject lines

There are lots of benchmark reports out there in the marketing world. We even have a whole page dedicated to the benchmarks we do at RKD, and it can be easy to lose yourself in the mountains of data that come with these breakdowns.

Neon One’s report looked at 37,472 campaigns from 1,495 nonprofit organizations. It studied the standard group of email metrics: list sizes, bounce rates, open rates, unsubscribes, click-throughs, best times/days to email, etc.

The second half of the report, however, is what really stood out. They used AI to analyze the effectiveness of 27 different emotional sentiments expressed in email subject lines. According to the report, these five subject line emotions delivered the best email open rates:

  • 40%: Relief
  • 39%: Gratitude
  • 39%: Pride
  • 37%: Excitement
  • 37%: Optimism

Notice that none of these top performers is a negative emotion.

We know from years of research and execution that donors form identities about who they are, and they demonstrate that through their actions. For example, they might give to help people who are experiencing hunger; are rewarded by feeling good about improving their community; and therefore, continue their support and engagement.

The affirmation and demonstration of impact (positive emotion) helps overcome the expression of need (negative emotion). Thus, it makes perfect sense that donors would respond more favorably to positive emotions in email subject lines.

Positive and negative words affect open rates

The report also highlighted specific words that had positive or negative impacts. Here were the top three positive impacts:

  • +307%: Support
  • +200%: Survey
  • +194%: Donate

Words like “support” and “survey” tell the donor that they are important to the organization.

This aligns with the research RKD published in 2022 called, “Listen Up! The Nonprofit Marketer's Guide to What Donors Want.” In this survey, it was clear that donors want to feel valued and included.

On the flip side, these three words had the biggest negative impact:

  • -308%: Reminder
  • -224%: Member
  • -213%: Meeting

Donors want to think of themselves as ambassadors, activists, volunteers and supporters—not “members.” As far as the other two go, we get plenty of “reminders” about “meetings” at work. Enough said.

How emojis impact email performance

It’s clear that using the right emotional words plays a big role in open rates, but what about emojis? They convey emotional sentiment in a tiny image instead of a word.

Only 2.7% of the emails analyzed had an emoji in the subject line, and the results here were kind of a mixed bag. Open rates were better for subject lines without emojis:

  • 58% open rate with emojis
  • 71% open rate without emojis

Yet the click-through rate was higher for subject lines with emojis:

  • 95% click-through rate with emojis
  • 27% click-through rate without emojis

And donations were higher for subject lines without emojis:

  • $5,245 average amount raised with emojis
  • $5,710 average amount raised without emojis

Key takeaways about email subject lines

You only get a split second to convince someone to open your email, so you need to make it count. These stats tell us that nonprofit organizations should focus on positive sentiments in their subject lines. Also, it helps to use words that make donors feel important, valued and included.

Email subject lines are clearly not the place to provoke or incite donors into action. They must be warm and welcoming.

Additional resources:

Jenn Thompson

As Vice President of Digital Strategy at RKD Group, Jenn brings decades of experience working alongside nonprofits to create integrated digital strategies that lead to omnichannel growth and high-value donors. She has been with RKD since 2010, and she provides the digital plan of attack for dozens of nonprofit organizations.

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