Should Nonprofits Focus on Email or Facebook? | npENGAGE

Should Nonprofits Focus on Email or Facebook?

By on Jun 21, 2018


A question I have often heard: should nonprofits focus on email or Facebook? Of course, the correct answer is almost always “both.” In fact, the two channels work best when they work together — email and social CAN play as a team. How can we take advantage of the strengths of each medium to get more out of both?  

First, let’s think what each one is good at and what each one doesn’t do so well. 

Email Strengths: 

  • Nearly ubiquitous in the United States. Almost everyone in this country who uses the internet at all has an email account, whether they access it by phone, tablet or laptop. 
  • Asynchronous delivery. You don’t have to be online when an email arrives for it to reach you — you can see it hours or days later. 
  • High action rates. In practice, email appeals have among the highest action rates of any digital channel. An email sent to 100,000 people can easily spark tens or hundreds of times more messages to Congress than the same appeal sent via a Facebook page with 100,000 followers. 
  • Can deliver many kinds of information. You can give supporters truly in-depth information, particularly if you link to online articles or video. You can also send just a quick three sentence action alert with a link!  

Email Weaknesses: 

  • Delivery challenges. Spam filters serve as email’s natural predator, but even something as common as low open rates can get an organization’s messages sent to the “other” folder in the inbox. Email “deliverability” bedevils many online marketers, nonprofit and otherwise. 
  • Cluttered inboxes. Even if a message survives the gauntlet and arrives in someone’s inbox, they may simply not notice it. Groups compete to find subject lines that will cut through the clutter and catch a reader’s eye, but as soon as a tactic starts to work broadly, many people copy it — diluting its mojo. 
  • Little peer-to-peer sharing. Even when you ask them to, relatively few people will share an email action alert with friends and family — unless it’s your crazy uncle sharing the latest conspiracy theory. 
  • Exhaustion. We can only send nonprofit emails so often before our supporters begin to tune us out. 

Facebook Strengths: 

  • Peer-to-peer potential. Social media is all about sharing! Whether they share a video or invite friends to “like” your page, your supporters can spread the word about your cause with ease. 
  • Mobile. Though email is now a mobile medium as well, Facebook and mobile phones have long gone hand in hand (hah!). 
  • Pay to play. Why do I count Facebook boosting/content promotion as a strength? Because page owners can at least pay to get their content in front of their supporters, something denied (for now?) to email communicators. Note: we’ll see this one again. 
  • Targetability. This is a big one: particularly when we pay for the privilege, we can reach highly targeted segments of Facebook’s user base — whether they follow our page or not. As we’ll see below, a good email list can be a Facebook targeter’s best asset. 

Facebook Weaknesses: 

  • Synchronous. If you’re not looking at Facebook within a couple of hours of a page posting a piece of content, you’re not likely to even have a chance to see it organically. 
  • Low practical reach. Your Facebook page’s following may be 100,000 people, but what’s your actual reach? Most Facebook communicators are lucky to get a given post in front of more than two or three percent of their followers — unless they pay for the privilege. 
  • Pay to play. Did I mention that most of us have to pay to reach our supporters? 
  • Crowded communications environment. If you think your email inbox is cluttered, check out the average Facebook news feed. 

Connecting Email and Facebook 

Let’s look at a few ways to use email and Facebook together, including ways to use the strengths of each medium to make up for the weaknesses of the other. Most of these tactics will fall into two broad buckets: 

  • Cross-channel promotion. For example, you might use email to encourage people to share content socially or use Facebook to build your email list. 
  • Custom audiences. Here’s where we can get fun and creative: Facebook encourages marketers to use their email lists as targeting tools. When you set up a Facebook ad campaign, you have the option to upload a set of email addresses as a “custom audience”. Facebook will then match your list with the email addresses it has on file, letting you target content directly at those specific people. Or, you may want to EXCLUDE them from your ad campaign, for instance if you’re list-building and don’t want to waste ad impressions on people who already get your messages. 
  • To expand the power of Facebook custom audiences, you can combine them with “lookalike targeting” to reach people who are similar to those in your custom audience, leveraging all of the data Facebook possesses about us. It’s a great way to connect with potential supporters (and donors) who might not know about your organization and its causes but who are predisposed to be interested. 


Here are a few ideas to get you started: 

Send “share asks” via email, encouraging people to post a piece of content on Facebook (typically, you’ll be asking them to share a Facebook post on your organization’s page). To make it easy for them to do, be sure to create a Facebook share link that will post the content to their Facebook profile with one click. Like any email action, you’ll want to measure the results to see if it makes sense to do it again. Be sure to ask people to share something that they WANT to share! Bland content isn’t likely to cut it. 

Create a program to build your email list organically via Facebook. If list growth is a priority, build a comprehensive plan to provide opportunities for social media supporters to join your list, which could include petitions, surveys, action alerts, quizzes and contests. You’ll likely have to pay to promote these posts to make sure that they reach your Facebook followers and friends, but that also creates the opportunity to turn your email list into a custom audience and try some lookalike targeting. 

Use email to encourage supporters to create and post their own content to social media. Many organizations have gotten a great response when they ask supporters to post a photo or short video echoing the themes of an advocacy campaign, for instance by holding up a sign with a slogan or hashtag. Once people post something they’ve created themselves, they’ve shown — and likely deepened — their commitment to your mission. And while you’re unlikely to create the next ALS Ice Bucket Challenge craze, you may make new converts to your cause.  

Use Facebook custom audiences to target recipients of a particular email appeal with related Facebook content designed to boost the performance of the email action. Organizations have used this strategy to increase donations from a fundraising email or clicks on an advocacy action.  

You can try this tactic with segments of your list large and small: at times you may target everyone on your list, but it often makes sense to reach a smaller audience. For instance, you might send an email action alert or fundraising appeal, then use a custom audience to target the people who didn’t open the message (or who opened but didn’t complete the action) on Facebook. Then, send the appeal a second time to the non-openers/non-actors. This tactic has broad potential, and you may find yourself preceding many of your email appeals with Facebook content designed to prime people to act. 

Use Facebook lead-generation ads. Facebook now has an entire ad category designed to help you build your email list. Lead-generation ads are exactly what they sound like: they’re designed to yield email addresses, and many organizations (and commercial brands) have found them to be cost-effective compared with other list-building strategies. Of course, as with other kinds of Facebook ads, you can try them out with a small spend and evaluate the results.

Pro tip: Try a custom audience and lookalike targeting to refine your audience. Or, geotarget your lead-gen ads to build support in a priority state or city. 

Now that we’ve covered the basics, you can get as creative as time and resources allow. And the next time someone asks about email vs. Facebook, you know that the answer just might be “both.”


Colin Delany is an 18-year veteran of online politics, a former staffer in the Texas Legislature, a digital strategy consultant and the founder and editor of, a website that focuses on the tools and tactics of Internet politics and online political advocacy. He is the author of several ebooks, including the digital campaigning guide “How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014” and “Learning from Obama,” the definitive overview of the groundbreaking 2008 online campaign for president. As a consultant, Delany works with advocacy organizations and political groups around the world to help them leverage digital tools to achieve their communications, activism, advocacy and electoral goals.

Comments (2)

  • Annie Burke says:

    I get asked this question all the time. Thank you for spelling it out so clearly.

  • belgravia says:

    Yes, they should use both.

    More social tools for nonprofit promotion.

    10 Helpful Tools for Non-Profits

    Crowdrise – Crowdfunding platform ideally suited for nonprofit fundraising

    Amazon Smile – You can set up your organization to receive donations from Amazon purchasesClassy, First Giving & Blackbaud – Peer to peer fundraising

    Mention & Social Mention – Social media monitoring

    Buffer – Social media scheduling and management

    Google for Non-Profits – Discounts on products for nonprofits

    Piryx – Web payments for non-profits

    Boomerang – Fundraising management & software

    Harvest & – Online payments and donations for your website

    Charitweet – quick and simple microdonations with a tweet

    We use all for Non-profit Consulting

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *