What Startups Can Learn from Watsi’s Wildly Successful Email Campaign
PR & Marketing

What Startups Can Learn from Watsi’s Wildly Successful Email Campaign

Watsi became the first nonprofit backed by Y Combinator in 2013 and is still breaking new ground with brilliant marketing campaigns. Here's what startups can learn from their winning streak.

In the winter of 2013, something unusual happened. Y Combinator backed its first nonprofit, accepting Watsi into its batch and sending the message that nonprofit organizations could operate like startups, and that tech companies could learn a lot from the social sector too. Suddenly, that leap of faith Grace Garey had taken two years earlier — deciding to join Watsi’s tiny founding team rather than getting a traditional job — seemed remarkably prescient. Just out of school, she found herself running marketing for an organization that had captured the attention of both the tech and nonprofit communities.

By all accounts, she’s done an epic job, catapulting Watsi to the top of industry lists, attracting enviable influencers, and making a name for herself in the process. Just last month she was named to Elle Magazine’s list of ‘Women Who Rule Silicon Valley.’ But the job’s been far from easy. While Watsi’s mission to fund health care for underserved patients worldwide is compelling, keeping a large donor base engaged is an unrelenting challenge. Any enterprise sales team striving to grow customers while minimizing churn can sympathize.

Garey has answered this challenge with a new product: Watsi's Universal Fund, allowing anyone to donate automatically on a monthly basis. Users can set the amount they feel comfortable giving, and every month they receive an email about the patient their money supported. The incredible success of the Universal Fund has given Watsi breathing room to do what they do best: figure out how to get more funding to the people who need it most.

But none of it would have been possible without the master-crafted email campaign encouraging new and existing Watsi users to sign up for the Fund. This is where Garey got to flex her marketing muscle, and she’s emerged on the other side with seven test-driven tools for knocking huge campaigns out of the park. In this exclusive interview, she shares experience helpful for any founder or sales team looking to leverage email to boost revenue.

Brand It to Make It Memorable

If you’re marketing something that isn’t your core or best-known product, branding becomes incredibly powerful. At its core, brand is your ability to define something and make it stick in people’s brains. Most nonprofits give people a way to donate on a recurring basis, but it’s just part of the existing product. To really make a splash and get people excited, Watsi spent a lot of time and effort shaping the Universal Fund into something concretely new, and the results were magical.

“We knew that if we just slapped a recurring donation feature into our existing donor flow that we’d be missing out on a huge opportunity,” says Garey. “Existing donors probably wouldn’t even see it, we’d be giving up our chance to tell a new story, and we’d collect much less in the end.” By launching a branded product, the organization was able to jumpstart a new wave of interest among both new and existing Watsi fans.

Being able to tell a fuller story was also critical to the fund’s launch. The team wanted to assure people that they wouldn’t miss out on the personal connection of learning about individual patients. They wanted to be clear that the best parts of the Watsi experience wouldn’t change, while also giving the product and campaign a life of its own.

To arrive at a compelling brand, Garey and the team initially launched a simple checkbox as part of the normal signup process asking if people wanted to make their donation recurring. Gathering data on how people would react was so critical that they took this step before building a backend to the system.

Instead, they ran a couple beta tests to see how people would respond and processed the transactions manually. “We spent a lot of time thinking about how to make this a named, standalone product that would roll up into the same mission people loved,” Garey says. “We wanted to find a word that would convey a borderless approach to health care as a fundamental right. We hit on ‘universal’ because we believe access to care should be universal.”

Along with the name came a landing page, emails and a distinct look and feel different from Watsi’s main website.

Watsi's Universal Fund landing page.
Watsi's homepage. As you can see, the brands are very distinct.

To their surprise, the team found that this new product actually helped expand the definition of Watsi’s bigger picture mission.

“For the longest time, we had it in our heads that people donate on Watsi because they are moved by a patient photo or story and they act on impulse. When we started to see droves of people sign up to donate continuously through the Universal Fund, we realized that users’ motivations were really varied and there might be new ways to reach them we hadn’t ever thought about. We didn't expect that people really bought into a much broader vision for what Watsi was about — that they didn’t want to just help the person whose profile they were looking at, but underserved patients in general,” says Garey.

Their best move when developing the brand? Asking their most engaged users what they liked most about Watsi and what motivated them to stay involved.

“We sent an email to the first few hundred people who had checked the box for recurring donations in the normal signup flow and basically asked them to describe in their own words what the concept of the Universal Fund meant to them,” she says. “When we launched it in November of last year, we lifted many of the words they used verbatim to build the fund’s site and for our initial outreach.” A lot of that language has also been repurposed to talk about the organization and service in general.

The takeaway here is that companies don’t need to integrate every new feature or idea neatly into their existing product. Often it pays to break it out, give it its own strong brand, let it have its day in the sun, and see how people respond to it. This is especially true if you need to attract a lot of upfront attention to get the social proof or engagement you need to market it long-term.

After seeing the enthusiastic response to the Universal Fund, Watsi has made building it out the organization’s top priority — which it never could have predicted had it not doubled down on the brand and launch. “Today, it’s supplying about 20% of our monthly revenue on a consistent basis so that we can focus on other things. It’s bought us a ton of flexibility,” Garey says.

Watsi Marketing Chief Grace Garey. Photo by Lisa Wiseman.

Help Your Users Self-Identify as Awesome

“A lot of nonprofits have a hard time raising money because they aren’t selling a product. They don’t feel like they’re giving people something in exchange," says Garey. "I think that’s why so few nonprofits have sustainable or recurring revenue. It’s intimidating to ask for it. I think it’s something we’ve always known that we had to build Watsi to be a substantial experience that people get in return for giving.”

Part of this experience is receiving news about the patients they’ve funded when they get their treatment or surgery, and a follow up about how they're doing afterward. Watsi is dedicated to giving its users all the information they need to fully understand the difference they made. In doing so, they send messages that help users self-identify as caring, compassionate, engaged, informed. That way, every time someone gives on the site, their positive sense of self is reinforced.

Garey and the team wanted to inspire these same emotions around the Universal Fund while also letting people claim a new identity. Namely, people who give to the Universal Fund believe deeply that everyone on the planet deserves health care and want to live that value day-to-day. That's the type of person you are if you participate.

We wanted people to feel like, when they took action, they were buying into a much bigger vision of themselves and who they are.

“When we asked our first beta testers why they were interested in recurring donations, we kept hearing this refrain: 'Everyone deserves health care, and I want to do my part, even if it’s a small part,'” she says. “So we took that line and repurposed it in our marketing emails, the landing page, social media and more: ‘Everyone deserves health care. Join the Universal Fund and help make it happen.’”

The key learning for Garey is how strongly people want to express what kind of person they are. “You want to learn what vision people want to have of themselves and then relate it to taking the action you want them to take. Are you a person who values equality? Do you run a company that values transparency? You can prove it by making this commitment or buying this thing.”

When the Universal Fund first launched in November, the news made it to the top of Hacker News and Product Hunt. Even more encouraging than that, though, were the long comment threads of Watsi fans and users answering people’s questions and urging them to join. Existing users were quickly becoming the org’s best source of word-of-mouth marketing and customer service.

“People love being Watsi experts,” says Garey. “We noticed they would jump in and be helpful before we even had a chance to. Obviously that was behavior we wanted to reinforce. It showed how bought into the platform they were, and we wanted to make them feel rewarded for it.”

To do this, Watsi marketed the Universal Fund to this group first, making it clear that they were getting the earliest opportunity to get involved because of their past support and activity. This positioning made them feel special and incentivized them to join to maintain their identity as experts.

Don't assume you know who your customers are until they've had a chance to show you.

There’s so much data you can gather about how people think of themselves (or want to think of themselves) simply by watching out they act on your product. Whatever you do, and whatever messages you send, you want them to feel like you not only understand but endorse their best beliefs.

One of the most telling data points is the actions someone takes before making some sort of commitment. Does a customer need to read a blog post and follow you on Twitter before they feel comfortable making a purchase? Or do they buy simply after puttering around your site for a while? Taking note of this will help you design communications to prevent drop off part of the way through your funnel and re-energize users who have been away for a while.

“When we started thinking about how to make these efforts more sustainable, we had to get serious about segmenting our audience around their self-identities and how that feeds into their reasons for donating,” says Garey. “Some people will donate after reading about Watsi once. Others need to go through the full cycle of giving and receiving a patient update. We made sure to market the Universal Fund differently to these different groups. We would change up the language and also our timing on outreach in particular.”

The biggest lesson she learned was the no one size fits all. Not everyone who uses your product or subscribes to your service does it for the same reason. In order to move the needle, you need to suss out the top 5 major reasons people do what they do and then reach out to them in a way that makes them feel recognized, known and excellent.

To make this easier, it’s extremely helpful to pin down what Garey calls “unequivocal goods” that your brand delivers. In Watsi’s case, this includes their patient update emails with beautiful photography and a short snippet of text explaining how health care changed their lives. All Watsi users love and celebrate these emails. So when she thinks about customizing her messaging to speak to different audiences, she’s able to start with this baseline and differentiate other components.

For-profit companies may think they’re at a disadvantage because they can’t confer the same halo effect as a nonprofit. But helping people self-identify isn’t just about making them feel like good people. It’s much more about making them feel like the people they want and strive to be, Garey says.

Show People What They’re Getting

“One thing that’s been really important to us is showing people — not just telling them — what was going to happen with their money.”

One of the biggest concerns the Watsi team had about the Universal Fund is that users were going to feel like they were missing out on the experience of choosing a patient to support themselves. This is a full circle that all users have really come to love. It was something they hoped to maintain by making sure Universal Fund donors, like regular donors, would receive emails showing exactly who their donation helped.

“During this campaign, it became really critical for us to overcommunicate to people where there money was going,” says Garey. “We spent a lot of time engineering a new type of monthly email that Universal Fund members get that reminds them that they are donating on a monthly basis, even if they aren’t coming back to the site. We still introduce them to a patient benefiting from their support, and reassure them that they’ll get a follow-up about their condition. Since we’re not giving people something tangible, we need to make this reminder really impactful and clear.”

You want to have at least one email that's designed solely to make people's day.

Part of showing people what they’re getting is investing in communications where you aren’t asking for anything. Instead, you’re thanking people for their business or their participation. You’re acknowledging your end of the deal where you’re committed to delighting and surprising them. This is something that for-profit startups tend to neglect — the importance of not just sending a receipt for a purchase, but honing that interaction to make customers feel something more.

For Watsi, getting to this email took some doing. Initially, Universal Fund members would receive a monthly email update that required them to click through to see and understand their sponsored patient’s story. A lot of these early donors gave the team feedback that they wanted an email where they could get all this information at a glance without having to click through. The team delivered on this ask and actually saw an uptick in engagement, even though they weren’t purposely driving traffic back to the site. It was great confirmation that ultimate clarity, brevity and transparency in emails was the right move.

“What we ended up with was an email that reads like a real-life introduction to a person, like, ‘This is Chanda. He’s a 14-year-old student in Cambodia who needs surgery to use his hands again after severe burns, and is really happy to connect with you to get the treatment he needs,’” explains Garey. “We wanted to infuse a really human voice into that email, show what exactly was happening, and ask for nothing more.” These emails still include a link back to an even more fleshed-out profile for the patient, allowing users to engage at different depths, but it’s not required to get the full story.”

Watsi doesn’t stop there. Universal Fund members also get a follow up email after a patient’s treatment with an update like, “Chanda is now healthy. The surgery went well. Here’s what his mom had to say afterward.”

One of the best performing emails Garey’s team sent was a note from the doctors of patients providing a positive update. This required much more work than anyone would guess. They had to manually fill in doctors’ names for many different patients and segment the lists accordingly. But it turned out to be worth it given the warm, effusive response from users.

“We realized the closer we can bring people to the work we’re doing on the ground — to the patient, to the hospital providing the care, to the person’s family — the more they will feel like they are having a signficant interaction, and that’s the product we deliver for every donation,” says Garey.

The lesson here is widely applicable. The highest value customers for any business are the ones who feel the closest tie with the brand and its mission. In order to forge these types of ties, you need to be extremely honest and celebratory of the actions they're taking. You need to be crystal clear about what you provide to them. You shouldn’t be shy about following up with additional information that will generate this type of intimacy. And you shouldn’t make the vital information they crave difficult to access or find. If you have a major campaign planned, make sure that it hits high bars of clarity and transparency.

Make Every Single Recipient Feel Special

Two years into building Watsi, Garey and her team realized that there’s no way for donors on the site to interact or even have a sense of each other. There was no community to speak of, making using the site a very individual experience — while also making it harder to champion users for their contributions. To applaud someone, you need a crowd first.

“We knew that we were probably missing out on a lot of users who would be convinced to join by the other types of people on the site.” Still, they weren’t sure how to bake a user network into the Universal Fund without changing the infrastructure of the existing Watsi site. This is where the constraint of working at a nonprofit breeds creativity.

Paul Graham tweeted about the recurring donation option in the early early days, and there ended up being this huge thread on Hacker news with people announcing that they were 10th, 11th, 20th, 30th to join the Universal Fund. It was amazing. Someone would be like, ‘I’m 8th! Who’s lucky number 9?’ There was all this pride around the number,” Garey says.

The team realized that the idea of belonging to a community around the Fund was a strong incentive and a conversation starter. “We filed this away in our minds, and when we were thinking of how to surface social proof on the fund’s landing page and in emails, we immediately thought: ‘How can we use people’s numbers to drive interest?’ We created text in both places that would reinforce which number they were to join the fund, and it was clear that it made people feel like their contribution was real and made a real difference.”

Making users feel special can be this simple. There are some basic instincts here that span industry and creed. People want to be the owner of something unique, a tiny patch of virtual property. This is even true when you’re a number on a waiting list. When the Mailbox app came out, people were waitlisted into the hundreds of thousands. They’d get a screen that said, “Congratulations, you’re number 700,032 in line.” The first thing most people thought was, “Wow, so many people want this product, it must be awesome!”

To make the numbers even more meaningful, Garey and the team decided to attach significance to getting into the Fund early. This stirred up a sense of exclusivity and light competition that motivated even more people to join. Now over 1,300 people have pledged to donate monthly.

The biggest win was offering matching donations for the first 1,000 people to sign up for the fund. Sponsored by Teespring, the matching campaign drove a ton of signups as people perceived the spots before 1,000 to be even more valuable and limited. In fact, the matching incentive was so successful that after the Universal Fund hit 1,000 members, Tencent came aboard to pick up where Teespring left off and continue matching. Finding a relevant incentive to urge people to take immediate action is massively influential.

Whatever it is — whether you’re offering a discount or an experience or entry into a drawing — you want to increase the cache and reward of acting right now.

The golden rule of email is that personalized content always works better.

With mail merge software, a lot of email content can be tailored to recipients, but providing something like a number that can literally be assigned to only one person can make your communications even more hyper-targeted. And evidence shows, the more you can focus on individual users, the more lifetime customer value you create.

“These numbers are still a huge source of pride among our users,” says Garey. “They’re all over Twitter. People love them. It’s one of those things that we discovered organically by closely observing our users and just ran with it. Now we put that number in as many places as possible, email of course being the most resonant.”

Take Customization to the Next Level

Knowing that highly-customized content performed the best, the Watsi team set out to segment its audience into narrower and narrower categories. The more targeted the approach, the better response they would get. The effort started with asking one incredibly loaded question: “Really, who is our audience?” Sounds basic but it actually isn't.

In this instance, the organization was looking specifically at who the audience would be for the Universal Fund. The obvious answer was people who had made a one-time donation to an individual patient on Watsi. These are people who have demonstrated interest — they get the concept. Many of them would probably sign up. The real goal was to recruit people who didn’t fit this profile.

“Our next step was to ask who was like our core audience. Where do people like our donors hang out?” Garey said. “We wanted to target a similar demographic. We wanted to land some testimonials from people who seemed to be just outside our slam dunk users. We thought about all the communities where we might gain traction like Hacker News and we wanted to reach out to power users there so that there would already be people using it when the conversation popped up.”

Watsi made personalization the focus of 2015, and they continue to refine their strategy every day. “In 2013, we were mostly catching up with people’s interest in the organization. We launched the thing, it worked, it took off more than we expected. All we could manage was sending receipt emails to the people who donated. Then we started figuring out our operations. How do we get updates from our medical partners? How do we get great content in the field to share with our users?”

Garey and her team also made 2014 the year of experimentation. They tried a series of one-off marketing campaigns to see what content motivated the most action. “We wanted to see where there was heat. What kind of updates did people like to receive? How much info did they want about the patients they funded? We would run trials and realize that one type of email really worked. We landed on some distribution channels — particularly email — that really drove a lot of activity on the site. We pinpointed where high quality traffic was coming from,” Garey says.

This year is about doubling down on all the experiments we ran that worked.

“In the for-profit world, people test an email or an advertising strategy, and if it works, the goal is to automate it,” she says. “When something works, make it part of an evergreen retargeting campaign, or a drip campaign. That’s how we think about growth and marketing. We test little things and try to find the nuggets that motivate people — that causes them to come back, donate, donate more than once.”

When Watsi started marketing the Universal Fund in earnest, it combined all the winning tests from the previous year into one effort.

They started by emailing all the existing recurring Watsi donors with an early-heads up, basically introducing the concept of the Universal Fund and saying they had a special early-bird chance to join as valued members.

The message was delivered to half these users in a plain text email from Grace herself. The text was simple and spare: “Hey, thanks so much for supporting patients on Watsi. We wanted to let you know that we just launched the Universal Fund and donations will be matched for the first 1,000 people. We would love for you to check it out. Let us know if you have any feedback.” It was purposely casual.

The other half received a stylized, branded HTML email containing a patient story as well as the Universal Fund ask — a run of the mill marketing email.

“The personalized plain text note just blew the HTML out of the water,” says Garey. “The numbers were crazy.” The verdict was in: That ultra personalization was worth the time and attention.

Seeing how well their core audience responded, the Watsi team set out to find more ways to make them feel exceptional and celebrated.

Eventually, they hit on a plain-text email that said roughly, “We just launched the Universal Fund, a way to donate to Watsi patients monthly, and we’re doing something really special for the first 1,000 people to join. Check it out here.”

Of course, this was an allusion to the matching opportunity, but the curiosity gap it created drove more interest than they had ever seen before. “It was really a full combination of what we knew worked, giving them early access, rewarding them for their participation, thanking them for their earlier support, all of it.” It continues to be one of the most popular emails that they’ve ever sent.

Deliver Shock and Awe

There’s a lot of pressure on Watsi’s ‘Thank You’ email. “The most joyful moments we see among Watsi donors are when they receive really simple, happy news about patients,” says Garey. “We feel really strongly about make the most of this moment to really draw people into our community.”

This email became even more important for Universal Fund members who would only receive one of them a month. “We really wanted this to be the best email that they would get all month — a total jolt of happiness that wouldn’t require them to take any further action.”

Most marketers, especially at for-profit companies, always ask, “How do we get people back to our site from email?” But this might not be the best motive for your brand overall. You need to take into account what you’ve just asked people to do. Did they just make a large purchase? A big commitment of some sort? Most likely, the immediate response shouldn’t be to ask them to do more. The best move is probably to make them feel really good about the action they just took — that’s what will solidify brand affinity. “No one wants to feel cheated or tricked back to your website.”

Some brands use a tactic they call “surprise and delay.” Watsi calls it “shock and awe.” Regardless, the point is to make your customers or users feel appreciated when they least suspect it — that’s what creates the most impact. Garey and the founding team wanted to brainstorm the ultimate shock and awe offering. So they delivered a beautiful printed book containing original photography and behind-the-scenes storytelling from its regions of operation to its most faithful donors.

“Sounds like a big investment for us, right?” says Garey. “We’re positive it’s worth it. These days when someone receives something tangible: a written note, something they can hold in their hands and save as a keepsake, it cements a bond between them and the organization. Going the extra mile for the first Universal Fund donors is really important to us and the community we’re building.” These members are the ones who are most likely to be brand ambassadors for Watsi, providing free word-of-mouth marketing.

Our campaigns are all about being a really positive part of people's lives, not just another thing they do online.

Every company or organization should aim to cultivate a long-term relationship with the people they serve. Email campaigns are a big part of this — arguably the most impactful and direct form of communication you can have with your userbase. Fine tuning every aspect of them is worth the pay off of a relationship that yields a lot of value and recruits new people into the fold.

While Watsi is a nonprofit, the lessons Garey and her colleagues have gleaned from promoting the Universal Fund are universal themselves. For-profit companies have significant opportunity to get to know their customers, segment, educate, and delight them in the same ways. So few companies do this now that if you make a real effort to follow these steps, you won’t just earn conversions — you’ll earn loyalty.