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Applying “Contagious Content” Framework To Non-profit Emails

Lori Halley 23 September 2013 2 comments

This month’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival, hosted by Elizabeth Ricca (Big Duck Blog) is about writing great non-profit email. As one of the Carnival hosts, I didn’t want to duck out of my responsibility to contribute a post this month. However, I’m no email or fundraising expert. But I am deluged with emails – like many of your donors and supporters. So I started thinking about what non-profits can do to ensure your emails make a splash or rise to the top of the email pond?

Emails need to be personal and powerful

What I know for sure is that to be compelling and prompt supporters to take action, the email has to be both personal and powerful.

If your organization sends out hundreds or even thousands of emails to donors or potential supporters, it can be easy to forget that emails are like personal, private conversations you’re having with each recipient. It’s an intimate, one-on-one connection. That’s why, as the nonprofit communications experts will tell you, it’s so important to understand and segment your audience so you can customize your message to make it more effective.

Moving readers to action with “contagious” content

In thinking about how to develop powerful email content that moves people to action, I remembered a book I read recently – Contagious, by Jonah Berger.  In the book, Berger outlines six STEPPS designed to promote sharing or word-of-mouth. While Berger has crafted these to help products or ideas "go viral", I started wondering if we can apply these six STEPPS to craft more powerful non-profit emails?

After all, if the STEPPS framework can help marketers “evoke a feeling of awe” and “create a state of physiological arousal” to prompt sharing and word-of-mouth, I think many of these can also be applied to help you develop nonprofit email content that prompts readers to open the email and take action.

“Six Key STEPPS to Crafting Contagious Content”

I’m not sure if you can apply all of the six STEPPS from Contagious, but a number certainly do apply, such as using emotion and stories. But all offer great food for thought for those of you trying to craft actionable emails. I’ve taken a few liberties to change a few of Berger’s words to make this more relevant to non-profits [my words are in brackets] – but have a look:

Social currency

Status by association. People like to look smart, funny, and in-the-know, so they talk about things that help them portray a positive image.
How can you unleash your [non-profit’s] inner remarkability? Is there something surprising or amazing that people might not realize?


People talk about things that are top-of-mind. Using subtle reminders to help them think about your [non-profit] will make them more likely to share.
What cues make people think about your product or idea? How can you grow the habitat and make it come to mind more often?

Emotion [emotional resonance]

When we care, we share. High arousal emotions—like excitement, anger, and awe—fire people up. This activation, in turn, drives them to share [and/or act].
[How can you make people want to share the experience with friends or share in the experience (e.g., of helping)?]

Public [observability]

Built to show, built to grow. People often imitate others. But you can’t imitate what you can’t observe. Making behavior more public enables social influence.
[For non-profits, maybe it's more about "showing and telling" how their donations make a difference.]

Practical value [usefulness]

News you can use. People share things to help others, whether it is advice on saving time, saving money, or making them healthier


Stories are like Trojan Horses: Information travels under the guise of idle chatter. 
People are more likely to share [and feel empowered by] a memorable story than a list of technical facts and features about a product.

What do you think?  Could applying some or all of these STEPPS help you craft more powerful and actionable non-profit emails?  Let us know in the comments below.

If you want to read more about Jonah Berger’s ideas, you can read his book – Contagious – Why Things Catch On or check out his website and download his free resource: “Crafting Contagious Workbook”.

You should also visit the Big Duck Blog on Thursday, September 26 to see Elizabeth Ricca’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival round-up on non-profit email.

Image source:  E-mail vector icon, courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 23 September 2013 at 8:30 AM


  • Michael Nealis, NTEN said:

    Thursday, 03 October 2013 at 9:32 AM
    Great tips and reminders here! It's important to remember that you're not writing an email to however many people are on your list, but to one person. The STEPPS are a great guide for writing an email that people can do something with - other than delete it.
  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Thursday, 03 October 2013 at 9:49 AM
    Michael: glad you enjoyed the post and yes - making it personal is top priority.
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