Useful Tools: Online petitions

Photo credit: Archives New Zealand via / CC BY

Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on online petitions.

The petition as a means of instigating change has been around for hundreds of years, but gone are the days when putting together a petition meant traipsing door-to-door collecting signatures. Now, anyone can start a petition with a few clicks and forward it through social media. There are a number of online petition sites, but is the largest and best-known. is a non-profit organisation that hosts online petitions for free. It bills itself as a social enterprise that aims to promote social change by giving ordinary people a platform through which to reach decision-makers.

The growth in online petition sites has coincided with a change in the media landscape that means journalists now source a lot of their stories through social media. Consequently, petitions that go viral on social media are likely to get picked up by traditional media and given greater exposure.

However, because there are now so many petitions out there on issues big and small, it can be hard to make yours stand out. Your choice of issue will be part of it—something that resonates with large numbers of people is naturally going to go further than something that is only important to a select few. However, although sheer numbers are important, it’s also important to consider who is signing. For example, you’re petitioning your local council about an issue important to your local community. You may have relatively few signatures because the issue is so localised, but if half of those signatures are from major community and business leaders, your petition will carry more weight.

As with all your other communications, your petition needs to be targeted and run in a professional manner. This means:

  • Tell your story professionally and succinctly, and make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors. Emotion can sometimes be a useful narrative tool, but decision-makers are more likely to be swayed by logic. Don’t just highlight the problem—put forward a solution too.
  • Target your decision-makers carefully. There’s no point sending a petition to someone who has no power to do anything about your issue.
  • Target your supporters. It’s good to get a large number of supporters if possible, but think also about targeting high-profile people who have an interest in your issue, as having some high-profile names will help add weight to your petition.
  • Deal professionally with your supporters. Keep them updated on any developments and let them know when you’ve reached a resolution. Also consider giving them information about other ways they can get involved.
  • Don’t feed the trolls. If you put forward a strong opinion, you’re likely to hear from people who oppose it equally strongly. Make sure you deal with any negative comments in a calm and professional way. Try to encourage conversations between people of differing views.

Used effectively, online petitions can be a good way for non-profits and community organisations to rally their supporters to a cause.

Useful Tools: Online graphic design sites

Photo credit:

Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on do-it-yourself online graphic design tools.

It isn’t usually possible or necessary for community organisations to hire graphic designers for everything they produce. Although important documents are best handled by a professional, smaller-scale projects like social media banners, some posters, blog posts, presentations and newsletters can be produced by untrained people using some of the great new tools now available online. Most of these are free for the basic package. Here we’ll take a look at some of the most popular tools.


Canva is an online graphic-design tool that uses templates and a drag-and-drop interface to allow people with no graphic design training to produce professional-looking graphics. It’s free if you use your own images or any of Canva’s free images, fonts and other design elements, or you can purchase upgraded elements for US$1 each and pay for your design when you download it. Designs can be downloaded as PNG, JPG or PDF files.

Templates include banners and posts for a variety of social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest), infographics, posters, brochures, letterhead, book covers and many more. The templates are particularly useful for social media as they already fit the various social networks’ specified dimensions, so you won’t have to spend time resizing them.

Canva is integrated with stock photos, photo filters, icons and shapes, and fonts. It is one of a growing number of fully integrated online design tools, and is one of the most popular due to its user-friendly interface. It also recently launched an app so you can design on the go.

Adobe Spark

Adobe Spark is the latest edition to the Adobe Creative Cloud stable, and is a free online tool that aims to compete with Canva. It’s broken into three sections: Spark Post, Spark Page (formerly Adobe Slate) and Spark Video. Spark Post creates social media graphics; Spark Page produces photo essays for the web; and Spark Video produces animated videos using graphics and photos.

A major difference between Adobe Spark and Canva is where the final files are stored. Canva lets the user download a high-quality copy of their design, which they can then use however they want. In contrast, Adobe Spark designs are all stored on Adobe’s servers—they can be shared on websites or social media, but the viewer is always redirected to an Adobe site.

Adobe Spark is also designed for use on iPhones and iPads (it’s not yet available for Android devices). Spark Post, Spark Page and Spark Video each have their own apps.

Adobe Photoshop Sketch

Adobe Photoshop Sketch is an iOS app that lets you create drawings directly onto your phone or tablet and then export them to Photoshop or Illustrator. Designed for artists, it gives more freedom than tools like Canva or Spark. It also supports styluses and other drawing hardware.


The Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is free, open-source, high-end image editing software. It is a free alternative to expensive image editing software like Adobe Photoshop and can be used for photo retouching, image authoring and image composition. However, its complexity is on par with Photoshop and similar software, so it probably isn’t the best choice for someone with no graphic design experience, or who isn’t prepared to put in the time to learn some of the nuances.


Prezi is online presentation software that integrates motion, animation and graphics, and is part of a growing number of visual storytelling tools. Rather than designing a presentation around a series of slides, like Microsoft PowerPoint, Prezi uses a limitless zoomable canvas to allow the user to develop flowcharts and other graphics and show the relationships between various kinds of data. It has been praised for overhauling the concept of the presentation and as a cure for ‘death by PowerPoint’, but some viewers may find the motion-heavy style nauseating. It’s available as a 14-day free trial, after which the user must sign up to a plan.

These tools can make it much easier to meet the day-to-day design requirements of your organisation, but remember, for rebranding or any significant projects it’s always best to hire a professional.

When to call in the professionals

Photo credit:

Because many volunteer organisations are operating on a shoestring budget, they’re often reluctant to spend money on professional design, editing or copywriting. This simplistic calculation, however, often fails to take into account the hidden economics of the decision.

Reputational damage. The longer-term impact on your brand from appearing unprofessional can have flow-on effects that outweigh the cost of employing a professional—such as failing to gain new members, or selling fewer tickets to your performance or event. Nothing turns people off faster than terrible design or sloppy writing. The assumption is that if you don’t know what you’re doing in these areas (or worse, you don’t care), you may not be great at organising the other, more important parts of your group either.

Money is obviously the catch with most volunteer groups, but you need to calculate the outlay against the return. If you’re running a fundraiser or a concert and a professionally designed poster will lead to more ticket sales, then it’s worth the upfront cost. Similarly, if you’re a theatre group producing programs, you’ll be able to charge more for something that’s well-designed and laid out (as opposed to put together in Microsoft Publisher, or, worse, Word!).

Time and opportunity costs. Unless you have volunteers with specialist skills such as graphic or web design, or editing, it will inevitably take them much longer to produce something of much lower quality than a professional. This is time they could be spending doing other tasks that better serve the organisation and that are a better fit with their skill set. In short, think about time as a resource. Are you spending it in the way that gets you the greatest return on your investment?

To take a personal example: I want to renovate my shed to turn it into an office. I could do it myself, fitting it around my other work, and teach myself the skills I need as I go. But I also don’t have the professional tools, so I’ll need to buy those too if I want to create something half decent. In summary, it’ll take me a lot longer than it would a professional, the quality won’t be as good, and I’ll have an outlay for tools as well. I’ll gain some skills, but I’m never going to be a builder and I really just want the shed done. I make as much or more than a professional builder, so in the end it makes more sense if I do what I’m good at and make money at it, and then pass that money on to the professional builder so they can do what they’re good at. Then I get a high-quality result without losing time that’s more valuable if I spend it elsewhere, and we’re all happy.

With this in mind, here’s a simple flowchart to give you some guidance when you’re undertaking a project with major design or writing elements.

Is this a big deal for our organisation?

Basically, what is the potential reputational cost of a poor-quality job? Things that fall into this category include:

  • Anything that involves your branding (new logo, slogan etc.)
  • Major events (e.g. annual fundraising gala, major performance)
  • Anything where you’re trying to attract new people to your organisation or sell products (e.g. markets/expos that may require banners or other publicity material)
  • Any foundational information about your organisation that potential members or supporters are likely to develop a first impression from (website, flyers, programs)

Do we have someone in the group with the skills we need?

Some groups are lucky enough to have people with either formal training in design, photography, writing, editing or related fields, or who are self-taught high-level amateurs. If you have a resource like this, use them! But most importantly, don’t take them for granted. Make sure you give them enough lead time and don’t have unrealistic expectations. Especially if they’re professionals doing it for free, remember that they’re donating potentially hundreds or even thousands of dollars’ worth of their time to help you. Make sure you credit their work appropriately, and at least give them some chocolate to show your appreciation!

Do they have access to the tools they need?

You can’t do decent graphic design in Microsoft Paint—it just doesn’t work. So if you’ve got someone with the skills but they don’t have the professional-level tools to do what you want (and you can’t provide them), then you need to think about hiring a professional.

Doing it yourself

If you do decide to do it yourself, make it as professional as you can by using all the free and low-cost tools available to you. Graphic design sites like Canva are discussed in this Useful Tools blog post, and you can now get high-quality printing for banners, fliers etc. done relatively cheaply. Someone with good writing skills will be able to do a basic proofread, although you won’t get the same level of detail as with a professional editor.

Above all, remember you get what you pay for. Good graphic design, photography, copywriting and editing don’t always come cheap, but they can make a huge difference to the success of your brand. Don’t just take the cheap option because it’s cheap—take the time to do proper calculations on whether you can expect to reap a large enough return from an improved image (and potentially charge higher prices for a professional product) to justify paying a professional.

Useful Tools: Google AdWords

Photo credit: Danard Vincente via / CC BY

Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on Google AdWords.

What is it?

AdWords is Google’s online advertising platform, and where it generates the bulk of its revenue. It allows advertisers to display ads to users based on keywords and cookies that link the advertising copy to the advertiser’s website. These ads take a number of different forms, with the most common being ‘search campaigns’ that appear at the top of Google’s search results (with a small ‘Ad’ banner next to them) when a user types in keywords that match. Search campaigns are useful if people are likely to be searching for your product, service or organisation in Google.

If you’re running a search campaign, you need to make sure you’re clear about what you want users to do once they’ve clicked on your ad, and that your ad copy contains your most effective keywords. Your ad should also comply with your overall marketing strategy and messages.

In your AdWords account you can track different types of ‘conversions’—how people behave after they view your ad. These include:

  • Online enquiries/sign-ups/completed orders
  • Clicks on a link or button
  • Installations of an app, or in-app purchases
  • Sales/transactions/revenue/e-commerce
  • Phone calls to a number listed in an ad or on a website

You need to make sure the Conversion Tracker is optimised in line with the goal of your ad so you can see if how effectively your strategy is working. In addition, AdWords can be integrated with Google Analytics so that you can also see what people who are directed to your site from your ad do once they get there.

The other types of AdWords ads are Display Campaigns, where banner ads are displayed on relevant websites, and Remarketing Campaigns, which tag visitors to your website and target them with advertising to get them to return. Display Campaigns may be useful for some volunteer organisations if you’re not well known or have a new service or event that you’d like to publicise but which people are unlikely to search for directly. There are also Video Campaigns, which get your videos shown in the top of YouTube search results (although you should only use this campaign if you have a professional-quality video and if doing so will fulfil a tangible objective). However, for most volunteer organisations, search campaigns will probably be most useful. Click-Winning Content has a useful article detailing the pros and cons of each type of campaign.

How much does it cost?

AdWords operates a number of different cost structures, including pay-per-click (PPC), cost-per-click (CPC), cost-per-acquisition (CPA), and cost-per-thousand-impressions or cost per mille (CPM). In all of these variations, you only pay for results (i.e. when people click on your ad). You are also able to set your own budget, including the maximum you’re prepared to spend, although you may not get the results you desire if your maximum spend is too low.

There are extensive online resources available that detail how to get the most out of Google AdWords. If your organisation is considering running a campaign, make sure you do your research and, most importantly, have an overall marketing strategy and clear goals in place before you start, so as not to waste your money.

Why your organisation needs a style guide

Many organisations, especially those involved in the media or publishing industries, have a ‘house style’—a way of writing that is particular to that organisation and is set out in their style guide. The style guide’s purpose is not to determine what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, but rather to serve as a reference point if there is any confusion and to ensure consistency across the organisation’s brand. Your style guide will lay out how to articulate the brand voice you decided was appropriate for your audience during your strategic planning.

There are two types of style guides. Visual style guides are aids for designers and contain things like your brand’s colours, font, logos and templates. Content style guides contain details of your organisation’s preferred spelling, terminology, voice, and word usage. Style guides can range in length from a few pages to an entire book; for example, the Australian Government’s Style manual for authors, editors and printers, which is the basis for all Australian government writing, is over 500 pages long and is extremely comprehensive.

As well as providing consistency across your organisation, style guides are also useful if you’re working with a freelance editor. Providing your editor with a style guide will speed up the process and ensure their edits are consistent with your brand.

Your style guide is a living document, so it should be updated regularly to take new usages into account. It should be easily accessible within your organisation, whether it’s produced in hard copy, published on your website or stored in a shared drive.

Visual style guide

Visual style guides set out all the elements related to your brand’s appearance, presentation and design. This allows you to ensure consistency across all your publicity material, whether physical or online, even if you’re working with different designers. Your visual style guide may include:

  • Logo size and placement (and how not to use the logo)
  • Colour palette (including hex codes/RGB for web use and CMYK/Pantone for printing)
  • Fonts (for headings and body text)
  • Any iconography or patterns that your organisation uses in its design
  • Photography style (including examples for reference)
  • Graphics style (including examples for reference)
  • Web-specific elements (such as navigation buttons or error pages)
  • Content templates.

Creating a visual style guide is a specialised skill, so it’s best to work with a graphic designer on this. Your designer can prepare a style guide as part of working with you on your overall branding, including designing your logo. If your organisation is likely to produce a lot of publicity material, a visual style guide is vital to ensuring brand consistency. The quickest way to appear unprofessional is to have a variety of fonts, colours and styles across your brand.

Content style guide

Style guides for written content contain details of the way your organisation expects its content to be written. These may include:

  • The version of English spelling that your organisation uses (e.g. American, British, Australian, Canadian)
  • Which dictionary/thesaurus should be used to check spelling or usage (e.g. Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Macquarie)
  • Preferred spelling of words commonly used by your organisation (e.g. Asia-Pacific not Asia Pacific)
  • Use of inclusive language
  • Any specific points of grammar, such as active voice
  • Specialised punctuation, including the use of bullet points or numbered lists, and the organisation’s preferred use of hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes (but not punctuation that should be commonly understood, like the correct use of apostrophes)
  • Formatting
  • Accepted acronyms and abbreviations (which ones are acceptable without spelling them out in full)
  • Terminology (how organisation-specific terminology should be explained)
  • Words that should be avoided
  • Capital letters (especially if there are organisation-specific proper nouns)
  • Headings
  • Numbers and measurement
  • Tone and register (casual, informal, formal)
  • Brand voice
  • Reading level
  • Phrases
  • Methods of citation
  • Any stylistic devices unique to the organisation.

Style guides can be structured in different ways, but the main thing is that they have to be easy to navigate. They’re not designed to be read cover-to-cover; rather, your writers will use them as a resource that they dip in and out of. For this reason, they need to have a clear table of contents and ideally an index as well. If you’re publishing it online, the contents page should be hyperlinked to the relevant sections.

The other important thing to note is that you don’t have to develop a guide completely from scratch. There are a number of comprehensive commercial style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (which is over 1000 pages long) that you can use as the basis for your organisation’s style guide. Think of the contents of your style guide as being in addition to the comprehensive guide, rather than repeating things from it. For example, most Australian government departments have their own departmental style guides based on the official government Style manual for authors, editors and printers. The convention is to first consult the departmental guide and, if it doesn’t contain specific guidance, to then consult the Style manual. This way, you’re prioritising your brand-specific style, but can still give your writers general guidance through the use of a commercial style manual. Many of these manuals, such as Chicago, now also have extensive online support. Developing your style guide this way will also allow you to keep it short (ideally no more than five pages), meaning that it is more likely to be used.

When developing your style guide, make sure you consult the people who will actually be using it—your writers and editors. They’ll be able to tell you if there are different usages in the organisation and help you select the most appropriate. Have a plan in place to regularly review and update the style guide, and a method for keeping track of possible changes in the interim. Your style guide is a living document and will need to adapt to evolving language, such as words going in and out of fashion or changing in meaning. This is especially true in organisations that deal with technology or media, where language changes fast.


Useful Tools: Google Analytics

Photo credit:

Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on Google Analytics.

Analytics is data about traffic to your website—such as how many people are visiting, where they’re from, which pages they visit, how long they stay, where they’ve been referred from, and the conversion rate (how many users achieve your goal for them, such as buying a product or filling out a contact form). Analytics data is useful for improving your search engine optimisation by showing you what keywords users are putting into search engines to find your site, and also for determining the effectiveness of your marketing—you can run a marketing campaign with specific goals, such as getting more people on your mailing list, and then use analytics to see if it has worked.

Depending on which provider your website is with, you may have basic analytics data already built in, but Google Analytics is the provider preferred by most websites.

 Google Analytics

 Google Analytics is a service offered by Google that allows you to monitor traffic to your website. It is the most widely used website analytics tool. The basic package is free, although there are also paid packages that offer more in-depth resources.

Although Google Analytics is free, your website provider may not support it, especially if you’re using an all-in-one provider such as or Wix rather than building your own site. For example, both and Wix only support Google Analytics as part of their paid plans, although they also have basic analytics tools built into all their plans.

Google Analytics provides basic high-level data on its dashboard, as well as reports that give more in-depth information about who’s visiting your website, where they’re coming from and what they’re doing when they get there. Your website profile can also be linked to a Google AdWords campaign to integrate your analytics and marketing.

Other providers

 Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of other analytics software providers and the cost of their packages.

Analytics can provide you with important insights into your site’s performance and the effectiveness of your overall marketing and communications strategy. If you’re serious about improving your organisation’s outreach, you need to ensure you have access to an analytics tool and learn how to use it effectively.

Working with freelancers

Photo credit: IntelFreePress via / CC BY

Many community groups and small nonprofits are operating on very tight budgets and are forced to do a lot of the day-to-day work themselves. But every now and again you’ll probably find yourself in a situation where you need to hire a professional to help you.

If you decide that you need to hire a professional writer, editor, designer or photographer, the chances are they’ll be a freelancer. They may be working as a sole trader or as a limited liability company, but either way you’ll be engaging a small business.

So how do you go about finding a freelance professional?

  • Word of mouth. Most freelancers get at least some, if not the majority, of their work through word of mouth, so start by asking around. Like tradespeople, a good freelancer will get recommended.
  • Industry bodies. Industry bodies, such as your local Society of Editors (or equivalent), usually have freelance registers. Going through an industry body will ensure the person you hire has the necessary training and experience.
  • E-work sites. Many ‘e-work’ sites have popped up in recent years. Just a word of warning—you get what you pay for. You may find that you can get your work done cheaply through these sites, but this will often come at the cost of quality. If you’re not prepared to offer a fair price, you’ll find that highly skilled professionals won’t respond to your ad. In fact, many established freelancers don’t use these sites as they already get enough work through other means. These sites also run on commission, meaning that, unlike hiring a freelancer directly, not all your fee will go to the person who does the work.

Working with freelancers

Before you start working with a freelancer, there are a few things to bear in mind that will help keep the relationship running smoothly.

  • Don’t ever ask a freelancer to work for ‘exposure’. Would you ask your local restaurant to give you your meal for free in exchange for ‘exposure’? No? Then why would you ask it of a creative professional? By doing this you also risk developing a reputation as a time-waster client—established freelancers won’t work with you and they’ll tell their networks. And apart from anything else, it’s just plain exploitative.
  • Freelancers are small businesses. This means they have to cover the costs of everything usually borne by employers, such as tax and retirement fund payments, out of the fees they charge. So while a quote might seem high to you, remember that anywhere up to 50 per cent of it (depending on the freelancer’s financial arrangements) goes straight to the government. It also means that time is money, so don’t ask for a face-to-face meeting unless you’re prepared to have travel time built into the quote. Go for email, phone or Skype instead.
  • Have a realistic budget. You get what you pay for, and what you’re paying for is the years of experience that established freelancers have behind them. The cost will vary according to the size of your project, the market in your location and the turnaround time, but it’s safe to say that $50 or $100 won’t cut it unless the job is very small.
  • Know what you want and write it down clearly. Freelancers of all stripes do their best work when they’re properly briefed. The quote you receive should outline the scope of the project, and for anything beyond that you may be charged extra. So knowing what you want will help you avoid ‘scope creep’ and will save you money.
  • Give them plenty of time. Rush jobs are always more expensive. Also, many experienced freelancers are booked up weeks or months in advance, so do some planning and enquire early.
  • Make sure you understand and adhere to the terms and conditions. Many freelancers will have terms and conditions listed that you agree to by accepting a quote. Make sure you understand and adhere to these—especially regarding payment and intellectual property—and if you don’t like them, don’t accept the quote. Some freelancers may also get you to sign a contract, depending on their business and the size of your project.
  • Pay on time. This is huge. Many established freelancers ask for full or partial upfront payment, and this is done for a very good reason—many clients don’t pay on time and freelancers have to pay their bills in the meantime. You are responsible for your organisation’s cash flow, not the freelancer, so if you don’t have the money to hire someone, don’t. You may be charged late fees if you fail to pay within the terms of the invoice, or in extreme cases you may be referred to a debt collection agency. In addition, many freelancers—especially graphic designers and photographers—won’t release the final product to you until the final payment has been received, and if you use the product without paying for it under these circumstances you’re violating their intellectual property and could leave yourself open to legal action. So make everyone’s lives easier and pay on time.
  • Be flexible and easy to work with. All freelancers get the occasional client from hell, and they usually only work with them once. Don’t be that person. This means keeping communication open and recognising that the freelancer will probably need to fit you around other projects, so stick to agreed deadlines and keep your expectations reasonable.

Rapid changes to the workforce mean that more and more people are choosing to work for themselves. A good relationship with a freelancer can be of enormous benefit to your organisation, and a relatively small investment in something like professional graphic design can have huge payoffs in terms of your organisation’s professionalism and ability to reach its audience. And, as I never tire of saying, a little planning goes a long way!

Useful Tools: Facebook ads

Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on Facebook advertising. 

What is it?

Over the last two years, Facebook has been positioning itself as a ‘pay-to-play’ platform, meaning that businesses and organisations now need to advertise in order to reach substantial numbers of people (including, controversially, their own followers, whose loyalty they have arguably already earned through unpaid means). Facebook ads usually contain a graphic or video plus some text explaining the ad. You can also link the ad to an outside site, such as an event ticketing page on your website. Note that Facebook now penalises ads with pictures that contain large amounts of overlaid text, so the best option is to use a picture or video with little to no text. Facebook ads show up in users’ newsfeeds, as well as on Messenger and Instagram.

How does it work?

When you design a Facebook ad, you customise it to the needs of your organisation, nominating a targeted demographic and budget. There are three different ways to advertise on Facebook, and they all offer slightly different features.

  • Boosted post. This option allows you to pay money for a post you’ve already published to be promoted more widely. It’s the easiest way to advertise but also the least effective as you have only limited control of targeting and can’t set an advertising objective.
  • Ads Manager. Facebook’s Ads Manager tool allows you to set an objective for your advertising—for example, clicks to your website, page likes or event responses—which will target your ad to people most likely to respond. You can also target your advertising to very specific audiences, including custom profiles that you create, and you have greater control over your budget and schedule. When used properly, this can be a very effective way of advertising.
  • Power Editor. The Power Editor is the next level up from Ads Manager, providing all the same functionality plus extra conversion-tracking features; however, it is also the most complex to learn.

How much does it cost?

You set your own budget and you can nominate whether you have a daily budget (a maximum amount spent per day) or a lifetime budget (a maximum amount spent over the life of the ad). You’ll reach more people with a bigger budget but you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot for the ads to be effective.

Where can I find out more?

There are many good online resources about how to maximise your Facebook advertising—including how to design an effective ad—so, as with all advertising, do your research before you jump in. The Facebook Business page is probably the best place to start, but there are also many third-party resources out there. At a minimum, you need to have a good understanding of your target audience, your advertising objective (how you want your audience to respond to your ad) and your budget. The good news is that Facebook ads are a very affordable way of advertising and, for many organisations, will be much more effective than other forms if used correctly.

Developing an effective mailing list

Photo credit: AJC via / CC BY-SA

In December’s Useful Tools post, we looked at options for email list providers, and why it’s a good idea to use a service such as MailChimp. But once you’ve got your list set up, how can you best use it to reach your audience?

Once you’ve decided to set up a mailing list, you need to encourage people to join. The first thing to do is create a sign-up form, embed it on your website and link it to your social media accounts. You may choose to put it as a pop-up on your website (although it’s important to note that Google now penalises mobile sites that use pop-ups) or just have it as a simple link or button. Make sure the design of your sign-up form adheres to your branding in terms of logos, colours and fonts. If you’re hosting an event, you can also have an area where people can sign up directly. MailChimp, for example, has an app that lets you display your sign-up form on a tablet.


In general, the best way to build a mailing list is by providing some sort of incentive—something subscribers can’t receive anywhere else. Although it used to be enough to offer ‘regular news and updates,’ these days some sort of free content or other material incentive tends to work best. Many authors, for example, use a free ebook as an incentive to attract new subscribers. The amateur theatre group above could offer a voucher for one complementary ticket to its next show, valid for a certain number of months from the date of the subscription.

Although this may seem counterintuitive, it’s what is known as a ‘loss leader’ in marketing and economics, where something is sold below its market value in order to drive sales of other related products .  For example, in the case of an amateur theatre group, the cost of one complimentary ticket will probably be offset by future ticket purchases from that subscriber, especially since people generally prefer to go to the theatre with others, so that subscriber may actually bring along new audience members who would not otherwise have come to the show.

Whatever incentive you offer, you need to make good on it. Don’t make an offer and then hamstring it with arduous conditions or otherwise make it difficult for the subscriber to claim. By giving you their contact details, your subscribers are placing trust in your organisation, and they are also giving you a very valuable marketing tool. Don’t take it for granted.

Sending emails

There are a couple of different ways to manage your mailing list. You could decide to send out a regular newsletter—for example, monthly or fortnightly (weekly tends to get a bit spammy)—or you could send out news emails on an ad hoc basis, such as when you have a major event. What works best will depend on your organisation and target audience.

Make sure your template is clean and easy to read, and that your content has been proofread and is properly spaced. Don’t make your email too long—people’s attention spans are short and their time is limited. Put your most important messages up front. The tone of your email should conform to your brand voice.

Embed links in your emails that subscribers can visit for further information, but avoid saying ‘click here’. It should be clear where the link is going to (‘click here’ could go anywhere) and bear in mind that many of your subscribers will be viewing your email on a smartphone or tablet, rather than using a mouse (so not technically ‘clicking’). Make sure all your links are active and unbroken before you send the email.

Send a test version to yourself before you send it to your list, so you can check the layout, design and link functionality, and check for any other errors.

Avoiding spam

You will need to comply with anti-spam legislation and your mailing list provider should have procedures in place to help you do this. Among other things, this means you will need to provide contact details, including a postal address, which will go out on every email you send. You will also need to make sure your subscribers are able to unsubscribe at any time (this is usually done through an automated link).

Remember that most people receive tens or even hundreds of emails per day, so don’t annoy your subscribers by emailing them too often. If your open rates are going down and your sending frequency is high, this could indicate frustration among your subscribers with the number of emails you’re sending them.

Keep your list up to date

This is a huge issue for volunteer organisations, particularly those with a lot of turnover in their membership. Although automatic unsubscribe buttons help, if you’re sending out members-only emails then you need to make sure that your list is kept up to date, that new members are added, and that anyone who is no longer a member is removed. This means the person in charge of your membership needs to go through the mailing list regularly to check that it remains accurate. There’s no point sending emails to people who no longer want or need to receive them, and in the worst case you may have issues with confidentiality if non-members are receiving members-only information.

A well-functioning mailing list is still one of the best outreach tools available as you’re going directly to your audience. Above all, respect their time and the trust they’re placing in your organisation.

Useful Tools: Mailing lists

Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on email list management tools.

An up-to-date email list is one of the most powerful marketing tools community groups can employ, because it allows you to communicate directly with the people that matter most to you in a targeted way and without having to pay for advertising. In the last few years, there has been an explosion of free software that lets you curate your list, produce branded sign-up forms for your website and social media, send professional-looking HTML emails, and track the data associated with those emails, making it easier than ever to develop an email list.

Using a mailing list provider also ensures you avoid privacy issues such as accidentally putting all addresses in the ‘carbon copy’ (cc) field rather than ‘blind carbon copy’ (bcc), or other practices that may put you in violation of various countries’ anti-spam legislation (such as not providing an unsubscribe facility or contact details for the sender).

Email marketing software

MailChimp is one of the best-known online email marketing software providers, although there are others that offer a similar service, such as Benchmark Email and VerticalResponse. These companies differ in the services they offer, but many have free plans up to a certain number of list recipients (2000 for MailChimp, 1000 for VerticalResponse) and a monthly email cap (12,000 for MailChimp, 4000 for VerticalResponse). You will need to investigate which software best meets your needs, and these are some things to look for in a free plan.

  • Time period: Is it permanently free or is the plan only offered as a limited-time trial?
  • Contact numbers: How many contacts can you have on your mailing list for a free plan?
  • Monthly cap: How many emails can you send per month?
  • Templates: Does the program offer HTML email templates, and how easy are they to use? Are they free or do you have to pay for them? Are they responsive (viewable on mobile devices as well as desktops)?
  • Sign-up forms: What sorts of sign-up forms can you create?
  • Importing contacts: Are you able to import existing lists of contacts or do contacts have to sign up individually through the software’s sign-up form?
  • Multiple lists: Can you manage multiple mailing lists through the one account?
  • Integration: Is the software set up for easy integration with the most popular free website hosts, like WordPress? Can you access it through apps on smartphones or tablets?
  • Reply functionality: If a subscriber wants to contact you, how easy is it?
  • Analytics: What sort of data does the program allow you to track? Are you able to request email notifications for certain types of data (such as new subscribers)?
  • Support and training: Does the software company offer good support and information to help you improve your email marketing?
  • Upgrades: What do the paid packages offer, and are they affordable should you need to upgrade in future?


One of the great advantages to using an email marketing provider is access to analytics. These are the most common data that you can track from your mailing list provider.

  • List growth. How many people are subscribing to (or unsubscribing from) your list each month?
  • Open rates. How many people on your list opened the email you sent them (as opposed to deleting it without reading it)? How does this compare to averages across your industry? This gives an idea of how engaging your subject line is, among other things.
  • Click rates. What percentage of subscribers are clicking the links in your email? This indicates how interested your subscribers are in your content.
  • A/B testing. Some providers let you run tests on two different versions of your subject line, sender name or content to see which version is the most popular. This allows you to make better-informed marketing decisions.

Although there’s an initial learning curve when you start using a mailing list provider, in the long run it will make it much easier to manage your list, and will also help ensure you don’t run afoul of anti-spam legislation.