If you think getting people to shop online is tough, consider the plight of nonprofit organizations. They ask people for their time and/or money, but instead of receiving goods, these donors simply get the satisfaction of doing good.
Although nonprofit organizations may have a different agenda from the for-profit online marketers, many of the goals (building relationships, income, brand awareness, etc.) are the same.
During the early part of the Internet era, many charitable organizations limited their Web activities to maintaining a website that accepted donations and member registrations, but over the past few years these groups have expanded to leverage many of the leading marketing tools.
Donations to nonprofit organizations are growing but remain only a small part of overall giving. Online donations in the U.S. doubled between 2003 and 2005 to $4.5 billion, but that is just 1.7 percent of the $260 billion in total donations, according to the GivingUSA Foundation.
Most people prefer to give off-line, so organizations establish different objectives for online activities and combine their direct marketing initiatives. In addition to getting people to donate, nonprofit online marketing goals also include increasing membership, encouraging activism, making resources available to those in need, issue awareness, building community and promoting word of mouth marketing. However, nonprofits typically operate under tight budgets where success is measured in lives affected and their experiences can offer useful lessons to all marketers.
Tools of the Trade
Employing search engine marketing and banner ads may be critical for many businesses, but nonprofits are selective if they choose to participate at all. Todd Whitley, vice president of e-marketing for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, is a proponent of SEM and display ads if the right audience segment is targeted. Whitley focuses his group’s search marketing plans on reaching caregivers who might need the organization’s services and “to find people who have relevancy to your mission.” Purchased keywords should be as specific to the target audience (such as “treatment”) as possible, Whitley says.
Joel Bartlett, marketing manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, bought banner ads on social networking sites such as MySpace but wasn’t satisfied with the traffic generated. However, when the group made its display available for posting on individuals’ personal pages and encouraged members to share them with their friends, traffic greatly increased. “The value of word of mouth goes further than any banner ad we could afford,” Bartlett says. As with commercial enterprises, customers (in this case organization members) are the best salespeople, and giving them the tools to increase brand awareness online can be very successful.
PETA is selective in its search marketing spending, limiting the scope to the related terms that have proven to be cost-effective. The PETA website has high natural search rankings for many of the terms related to protecting animals because of the abundance of links to the site, so Bartlett doesn’t see a need to participate in SEM for obvious keywords. “We’re already the No. 1 search term [for animal rights] so we don’t need to buy ads.”
Bartlett says that instead of using contextual or display ads on general interest sites, PETA advertises with advertising service Blogads.com to reach influential Web participants. Blogads works with bloggers who have loyal readership and are more likely to get involved and to spread the message to others, enabling PETA to reach a smaller but more receptive audience than mass media sites.
While search is not a major component of many nonprofits’ online marketing strategy, another performance marketing staple has proven successful – email marketing. Through newsletters and issue-specific alerts, PETA encourages people to forward the information from its website (including images of animal abuse) to their friends that will prompt action.
When it’s an email from a trusted friend, “people get outraged” about how animals are treated, Bartlett says. During PETA’s offline events, the organization collects email addresses to expand the audience of its newsletter and outreach activities.
Habitat for Humanity purchased Google AdWords for a time but cut back on online advertising recently, according to Senior Director of Direct Marketing Timothy Daugherty. The best-performing words were derivations of the organization’s name, and since the website could be found with natural search, search marketing was deemed unnecessary.
The group, which builds affordable housing for lower-income families, now focuses on increasing communications with people who have previously donated to maximize their marketing dollars, Daugherty says. Habitat for Humanity received about 10 percent ($8 million of the $80 million) of its total 2006 donations online, according to Daugherty.
The group has been successful in increasing awareness by getting list appends (email addresses for previous donors) for their direct marketing databases to reduce costs and open another line of communications, says Daugherty. Contacting donors via email is also effective in stimulating activism online and off-line, and is part of the organization’s effort to integrate marketing efforts, he notes. For issue-oriented campaigns, email works well in getting people to write letters and emails to public officials, he adds.
The National Council of Churches has collected more than 100,000 email addresses by getting members to forward information to friends and by requesting addresses on donation forms. “We ask people to share our email blasts with their friends,” and those who respond to forwarded emails are automatically added to the distribution list, says Daniel Webster, the organization’s director of media relations. The frequent communications about issues in the news help to build a virtual community and enable two-way communication, according to Webster.
In addition to most donations being made off-line, most word of mouth marketing occurs off-line as well, but email can be effective in spurring people to talk off-line with friends about an organization or contributions. Nearly 90 percent of people who have donated to a charity say they have urged others to give in person, but just 19 percent had done so by email, according to a 2005 Donor Trends survey by Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company and The Prime Group. Email has proven successful in promoting off-line activism that inspires people to attend and volunteer at events that are an important component of nonprofit activities.
Creativity Key for Tight Budgets
Operating within tight marketing budgets forces many nonprofits to be creative in their programs and partnerships, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Whitley.
While working for the American Lung Association, his group created a significant revenue stream by connecting for-profits to its members who voluntarily participate, according to Whitley. The organization created a campaign that asked members with asthma to provide input about how they managed their illness. Glaxo-Smith-Kline offered information about its related pharmaceutical products and gained valuable information by collecting data from the campaign, Whitley says. “[For-profit companies] don’t have access to live communities, so we provided a benefit to them.”
Whitley says nonprofits can also maximize their resources by collaborating with peer organizations with related goals. The American Lung Association joined with the Centers for Disease Control on an online campaign to publicize public flu clinics. By sharing the costs and their collective memberships, the two groups were able to reach a wider audience more quickly than acting individually. Companies with complementary products or services can likewise team up for their mutual benefit in marketing efforts.
The American Red Cross is using online communications tools and commerce to help replace its aging membership with a younger demographic, according to Darren Irby, the group’s vice president of communications. Irby says the base of its donors is over 65 and since “those people are dying off” and are less likely to be online, the Red Cross is targeting a younger generation with its online marketing efforts.
Since the under-40 crowd spends ample time chatting online, the group is generating revenue by piggybacking on advertising delivered via instant messaging (IM) software. The Red Cross teamed up with Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger advertising program. To encourage people to use the IM software, Microsoft is donating part of the revenue from the ads that appear during an IM conversation to the charity of the participants’ choice. Red Cross members feel good about encouraging others to use the software, and the organization gets exposure and extra income.
The Red Cross is increasing brand awareness by going retro with the branded merchandise on sale at its online store. To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the group last year, the Red Cross began selling T-shirts, coffee mugs and hats emblazoned with a vintage World War II logo. The garb, which has sold well beyond expectations, “is a way to link the older and younger generations,” Irby says.
Instead of buying banners on social networking sites, the Red Cross makes tools available so that members can provide free exposure by promoting the organization on their personal pages. The Red Cross has set up groups on MySpace and LinkedIn, and has created banners, logos and promotional widgets to spread the word.
Irby recognizes that younger people like the immediacy of being able to support the Red Cross’ response efforts to a national disaster, but so far the group has not produced any viral videos for sites such as YouTube. He says workers in the field are too busy helping to film their activities, and he doesn’t encourage people to film relief efforts for fear of “losing control of the messaging,” he says. Instead, the Red Cross has created videos and posted them on an FTP site that is accessible by the media.
The Red Cross is also reaching out to bloggers to make the blood donation process less intimidating. The organization is requesting that bloggers write about the music that they listen to while giving blood. “Charities need to engage in two-way communication” if they want to develop a meaningful relationship with members and volunteers, says Irby.
Most nonprofits do not utilize formal affiliate programs, but PETA provides merchandise as incentives for people to promote its organization online and off-line, according to Bartlett. Through the “PETA2 Street Team” initiative, the group gives volunteers missions to accomplish, such as contacting people via email, adding links to PETA on their websites, or off-line activities, and volunteers earn points that can be redeemed for merchandise from the group’s online store. By offering “posters, CDs and autographed stuff from a band,” PETA is connecting with the young volunteers’ interests through relevant rewards, Bartlett says.
PETA also employs viral marketing to increase awareness online. The group has set up a website protesting Kentucky Fried Chicken’s animal handling and created an automatic sign generator that enables people to create virtual billboards about the restaurant chain and post them on personal websites. The group created an area on the photo-sharing website Flickr for volunteers to post images. Creating tools for people to generate their own content around the group’s messaging is “part of the strategy of empowering users and encouraging word of mouth” that is highly effective marketing, says Bartlett.
Coordinating the online activities of the groups within a national organization can maximize resources and create a more cohesive strategy, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Whitley. Nonprofit departments (like their commercial counterparts) can be territorial at times, but sharing the online successes and collaborating on projects will unify the organization. Whitley says the Web group can break down barriers and it “is critical [for the online group] to become a leader for interfacing cross-divisionally within an organization.” Similarly, online marketing initiatives can unify the divisions within a company by sharing their experiences and using the collective intelligence to optimize campaigns.
John Gartner is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift and is the Editor of Matter-mag.com.