How to Create Emails That Drive Action + Tips From an Email Expert

Want the good news first?

Digital is having its day. Last year’s onset of COVID-19 drove most of us home to work, live, attend school, shop and more. Consequently, internet services experienced a surge in usage from 40% to 100% compared to pre-lockdown levels.

The not-so-good news? Everyone else has figured out the power of digital too.  

The real question then becomes: How do we get our email to rise above the din? To be opened, read and acted upon—a gateway to connect despite an intermediary screen.


Stelter’s Content Director Katie Parker previously shared in “Your Email Is a Magazine Cover & 6 Other Marketing Analogies,” that emails are like a magazine cover.

“When I worked in magazine publishing, we called our cover lines ‘sell lines.’ They’re there to get you to buy the publication. Imagine: You’re checking out at the grocery store and there’s a home design magazine plugging ‘Must-Know Home-Arranging Tips’ or ‘The Best Paint Color for EVERY Room’ on page 54. It gets you to pick up the magazine and start reading. An email does the same to get you to engage with the website.”

What it’s not, Katie adds, is the full story.

“Email drives you to where the full story appears.”

-Katie Parker, Content Director, The Stelter Company


Your emails, whether a newsletter or single appeal, are “drivers,” or digital vehicles that move donors through the process of engagement, from first glance (email) to final read (landing page or website). They create emotional context to drive action.

Use these tips to create emails that drive readers to your intended destinations or actions:

1. Write engaging subject lines.

Imagine subject lines as your first words to readers. What would you like them to hear? Make subject lines short, six to 10 words, and choose simpler, skimmable words: “get” vs. “receive,” “need” vs. “necessity,” and “talk” vs. “discuss.” If the subject line looks heavy, it’ll likely get skipped.

2. Tell them the next step.

These are your calls to action (CTAs), when you join readers’ compassion with their action. Use short, direct and relevant phrasing that refers to the subject of the email. Tie the CTA to the donor’s proclivity to help and their ability to advance a mission they care deeply about.

See two great examples of strong CTAs here.

3. Share the story, not the stats.

Whether sharing donor or impact stories, connect the hearts, then the dots. This means getting donors personally invested in a story. Then show them how they can help solve the problem.

Uncover more elements of a great story with this handy infographic.

4. Help them solve the problem with CTA buttons.

Offering more than “donate,” your CTA buttons should foster the bond between recipient and nonprofit by providing a culminating action to take action. Consider: “Talk to us,” “Buy her breakfast,” or “Help Spot run free.”

More tips: Avoid friction words (like “donate now,” and “give now”) and hyperlinks as stand-ins for a button. Use a pop of color to draw attention to the button—but stick to the email’s color palette—with white space around the button to attract the eye.



Let’s talk to Stelter’s Maggie Carlson, email marketing associate.

­­­­­­­Maggie helps fine-tune and implement clients’ email strategies. Here’s her take on how to create emails that drive action.

Q: What’s the #1 thing that nonprofits can do to make their emails work as effective drivers?  

  • On the back end, list management. Offer plenty of opportunities to opt-in to communications and grow subscribers organically, rather than purchasing lists. Regularly scrub your lists of duplicates, incomplete data and unengaged or unsubscribed contacts.
  • On the front end, clear opening and CTA. Use a bold headline or concise open message with a CTA button in a contrasting color.

Q: How can nonprofits create emails that 1) get opened and 2) drive readers to take action?

  • A/B test your subject lines. It helps inform you of the language and tone that best connects to your audience.
  • Make the read quick and easy. Use a strong headline and bold button above the fold.

Q: Any tips for crafting those types of emails?

  • Segmentation and personalization.
    • Segment by age range, geographic location, programming supported, for example.
    • Personalize using names in subject lines, salutation or copy; acknowledge the type of gift they made; also note, emails should come from a staffer’s email, not an “info.” address
  • Mobile-first design and content strategy.
    • Use short text. Subject lines should be 28-39 characters, including spaces.
    • Use a preheader, which is the first line of copy under the subject line.
  • Connect with a sense of urgency.
    • Discuss a problem your donors care about.
    • Talk about why their support is needed now.

Q: Other thoughts on how to craft emails that drive audiences to action? 

  • Develop a focused campaign strategy with a consistent pace. Create regular touchpoints/drips rather than one-off messages. There can be a tendency to make one email do too many things when sends are paced too far apart.
  • Optimize accessibility. An inclusive code helps you reach more audiences.
  • Nurture and evaluate analytics. Set objectives. Establish baseline data. Consider key findings. Continue to evolve strategies.


Think about the last email you sent to your donors and supporters. How did you use it as a driver to get donors to take action and reach your intended marketing destination?

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