INN newsletter audit – spring 2018 findings and recommendations

The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) conducted a manual audit of some member newsletters in spring 2018 to help members find best practices and tips for a design that supports a newsletter’s objectives, and to make the most of NewsMatch 2018 and member year-end fundraising campaigns.  

The audit included a strategic review of two samples that totaled 60 percent of INN member newsletters, or 96 newsletters from 160 total members. The first sample of 21 newsletters was specific to INN’s Amplify members in the Midwest, which accounted for 13 percent of INN’s total membership. Members selected for the second sample were chosen through a random number generator. In this sample, INN audited about 55 percent of its total membership (86 members) with equal representation from local, regional, state, national, and global news organizations. INN also audited 13 members’ click rates and open rates in MailChimp. Thirty-four different newsletter elements were then audited—from frequency to contacting an editor. 

Now is the time to make changes for a more effective newsletter to increase story exposure and also support for year-end campaigns for this year and years to come. Based on the audit findings, INN will also be providing additional newsletter training resources surrounding these key areas, so stay tuned!

Here are some of the top areas for newsletter improvement INN found for members to implement in the short term and long term---   


  1. Try using an organization’s name or acronym in the newsletter’s “from” field, so readers can identify who the newsletter is from. While it might be more effective to use different sender names for fundraising email appeals, keeping the “from” field name consistent could help increase open rates.
  2. Thirty percent of the newsletters audited (26 out of 86 newsletters) use RSS feeds to send newsletters. Although open and click rates performed at average or above average for nonprofit industry benchmarks, if more personalization was used through merge tags or editorial notes, this could help increase donations.
  3. Test MailChimp’s Send Time Optimization feature—other email providers have similar tools—to send newsletters at the time of day when readers are most likely to engage with the content.
  4. Readers could be more compelled to make a donation with stronger and clearer calls-to-action. Try to include a short pitch or value statement with links or buttons. For example, Mother Jones provides a little background of the organization right before the donate button and the Center for Responsive Politics uses a tagline and information about how to donate. Here are some other examples of newsletter donation asks:

Examples of newsletter pitches from INN Member newsletters

Here are some general calls to action created by INN for usage within member newsletters. Feel free to modify these and make them personal and specific. Remember to put donors and supporters at the heart of the message. Consider changing them on a consistent basis as there are new stories to tell about donation impact and/or fund usage.

  • We couldn’t do this watchdog reporting without YOU. Become a monthly donor today to help us continue to provide award-winning reporting to our community. Please be as generous as you can.
  • Thanks to YOU, our newsroom can continue to provide news to underserved communities. Give today and become a monthly supporter. Please be as generous as you can.

5. If another newsletter needs to go out because of breaking news, try testing “Breaking News” in the subject line for a higher open rate.

6. For members who are looking to increase click rates on buttons, consider placing them at the beginning of newsletters. In INN’s audit of metrics in MailChimp, data suggested that buttons placed at the beginning of newsletters tended to have higher click rates.


1. Fifty-eight percent of newsletters audited (50 of 86 newsletters) could have a more livelier subject line, which would help increase open rates. Avoid subject lines that are the same as the headline of the first article or are the same daily (e.g. “Your Daily Read”). Try using a subject line that previews the newsletter’s content but leaves the reader wanting to open the email. Here are a few standout subject lines from the audit sample:

“One order of farm bill, on the House”

“Kansas Has A New Accent”

“[SPECIAL INVESTIGATION] Trapped: a three-part series”

2. Try using Google Analytics UTM tracking or use this function within MailChimp or other email service providers. This feature can help members learn more about their readers and gain insights from the data they receive. Use the link below for more information on using UTM tracking:

3. Sixty-three percent of newsletters audited (54 of 86 newsletter) use a one-sentence summary as an article description, or have no description at all. Data from INN’s audit suggested articles with a description leave the reader wanting more, thus having higher click rates. Here are some examples:

INN Member newsletters with an optimal length for article descriptions.

4. Design of newsletters could be improved by including high-quality images, avoiding the use of the traditional blue used for links as the font color for headlines, and finding color combinations that work well together to increase aesthetic, click-throughs, and donations. For example, colors such as red and green work well because they are complementary colors, and colors such as green and turquoise work well together because they are analogous colors. When choosing colors, newsrooms should first consider color combinations that reflect the organization’s color palette and are on-brand. Test and see how well it performs against key performance indicators. 

Here are some examples of newsletters with an evolved design:

INN Member newsletters with optimal designs.

5. For those interested in finding the optimal number of articles their audience will read, conduct A/B tests when sending newsletters. An A/B test is when two versions of the same thing are created, in this case,
 newsletters, but with one variable being different in each version. Results will inform which version performed better and “won.”

Audit conducted by Institute for Nonprofit News Emma Bowen Foundation summer intern Nikita Advani