If you help run a nature center, land trust, hunting club, or local river protection group, you've probably wondered how to best keep in touch with your members. After all, they won't come to an event, donate to support your work, or write that elected official unless they hear about it from you first!

A few times a year, I have the opportunity to survey the memberships of organizations like this and the answer is always the same: email. They like your paper newsletter, they visit your website once in a while, and they are open to the idea that they'll connect to you on Facebook or Twitter, but the communications channel they prefer is email.

So if you're serious about communicating to hundreds or thousands of members by email, then it's time explore using a modern bulk email tool instead of Outlook or Hotmail.

What's a bulk email tool? You may have heard of Constant Contact. They advertise heavily about how their service makes it easy to maintain a big list of email addresses, put together nice looking newsletters, and get your message past those pesky spam filters. It's true, but Constant Contact is just one of many tools that you can use to do this. Competitors such as iContact, Vertical Response, Aweber, Bronto, and MailChimp may be a better fit for your needs, so it pays to shop around.

Here's a few tips on how to make a smart choice.

Take the Test Drive. Most email tools offer a free trial, so after you've narrowed your list down to a couple of top contenders, sign up and kick the tires. Now is the time for a gut check -- "Do I like working with this program?" It takes a while to get the hang of a bulk emailer, so check out the various training materials and customer support options that are available. Can you get your question answered? Or do you just get more confused?

While you are testing out the service, do some Google searches -- "Constant Contact Review," "Vertical Response Review" etc. to see what others are saying. The more you play with the tools yourself a bit, the more sense those reviews will make.

Pricing. Your free trial will eventually expire, so it's important to scrutinize the payment plans, which fall into two major categories: pay as you go, and subscription.

"Pay as you go" is the a la carte version. You only pay for the emails you send, and just a penny or two each. It's a good plan if you have a small membership or don't email often. The subscription plan is kind of like an all-you-can eat buffet restaurant. You pay a fixed price per month it's cheaper if you mail often or to many people.

Many bulk email providers offer free or discounted service to nonprofit organizations, so check that out before you finalize your decision.

Autoresponder. Some of these email tools let you set up an "autoresponder." That means you can program a series of emails to go out whenever people sign up. So if for example, somebody visits your website and signs up to receive notification of your upcoming bird watching or canoe trips, you could program a series of "welcome" messages to go out once per week for three weeks.

Database Integration. If you already have a database of some kind that you use to keep track of your members, you may be able to sync it up to your bulk email tool. These can be a little tricky to get the hang of, but can save you a lot of time in the long run.

But perhaps the most important advice is this: Take your time and think carefully about your needs. If you are serious about keeping your members happy, then you need to get serious about email. There's sure to be a bulk email tool on the market that you enjoy using, can afford, and will make it much easier to stay in touch with the people who care about your work.

Author's Bio: 

Eric Eckl runs Water Words That Work, LLC., an environmental communication company. He helps nature protection and pollution control organizations plan and carry out environmental fundraising, issue advocacy, and behavior change campaigns. Eric has developed a unique "message method" for effective environmental writing.