Katie Bisbee, chief marketing officer for DonorsChoose.org in New York City, had to learn the hard way that “admitting failure and apologizing ends up engaging donors in a deeper way,” she said.
DonorsChoose.org usually sends a thank-you package of notes to donors from students benefiting from classroom projects that the donor funded. “Occasionally we fail to deliver the package,” said Bisbee. “When we fail, we send them a (DonorsChoose.org) gift card and explain what happened, and we let them come back and choose another project.”
The organization tested the gift card package plus an upbeat apology against a “dramatic” apology. Donors responded equally well to both packages, but 50 percent of those receiving a gift card made another donation. “Gratitude and thanking donors is so key,” said Bisbee. “It sounds so obvious, but I see a lot of nonprofits not doing that. That’s a really obvious ‘aha!’ that might not be so obvious.”
Bisbee said that failing is one of the best ways to learn something. Managers at DonorsChoose.org “wanted to be the first nonprofit to figure out online ads,” she said. A digital marketing expert was hired and “tried every digital advertising channel that for-profits drive a ton of revenue with,” said Bisbee.
The results were less than stellar 18 months later. “The best we got in per-donor acquisition was $300,” she said. DonorsChoose.org leaders learned that not every strategy that works in the for-profit realm will work for nonprofits, and sometimes you need to cut your losses.
Many marketers report that their professional educations have been more of a gradual ramp-up than a series of great leaps forward. However, those leaps do happen, and they can elevate a savvy marketer’s business practice if the person is ready to capitalize on the knowledge.
Tom Harrison, chairman of agency Russ Reid, headquartered in Pasadena, Calif., agreed with Bisbee’s sentiment that failures are valuable teaching moments. “I think we can learn along the way and have ‘aha!’ moments, but we also learn from our failures,” he said.
One of Harrison’s epiphanies came after a few years in direct response. Harrison entered the direct response industry after 10 years in public relations, an industry that he said places a high premium on intuition. “We were doing acquisition for a client, and we created a new package to test against a control,” he said. “I thought it was so much better. The client thought it was so much better.” The client wanted to roll it out before testing, but Harrison ran the test anyway. “The new package didn’t work at all,” he said. “This is why you never go with your gut.”
Harrison said he loves direct response because everything is testable. “Whenever something is testable, I’m compulsive about wanting to test it,” he said. “When it’s not, I revert back to taking the information available and making the best decision.” In direct response, “We can find out what the truth is and then we can roll it out,” said Harrison. “One of the things that’s most frustrating to nonprofit organizations is they’re often angry at donors because they give to the ‘wrong’ things. The donor wants a simple problem and a simple solution, and the marketers ask rhetorically, ‘What’s wrong with them?’”
That lead to Harrison’s second “Eureka!:” Keep it simple. You need tangible, urgent offers in the context of the big picture, he said. But if you focus solely on the big picture, your offer won’t work. Context and focus are key.
He used the example of a homeless shelter that provides a safe place to sleep, feeds the homeless, gives them clothes and helps them get a job or a general equivalency diploma. “You can write a direct mail piece on any of these things,” said Harrison. “One that works is, $1.79 feeds one person. If you talk about any other program, enough (prospects) won’t give to justify the expense. You have to distill it; of all of those things, here’s how to make it simple.”
When less is more
Simplifying its website allowed marketers at Heifer International in Little Rock, Ark., to better converse with donors while increasing conversions, said Christy Moore, vice president of marketing. She realized that donors wanted to converse, not be talked at by the organization. “In years past, the website was designed as a one-way conversation,” she said. “It was all about donating. We decided to reduce the number of ways to donate and develop a story arc that takes the donor on a journey, ending with the opportunity to donate, not beginning with the donation.”
The website placed an increased emphasis on photos, videos and stories to foster more of a connection between donors and the recipients of Heifer’s aid. Moore said since the new website launched in September 2013, “we’ve received positive feedback from donors and have seen our conversion rate up by 7 percent.”
It’s easy to get caught up in his clients’ enthusiasm and passion, said Harrison. “But a donor has a matter of seconds to glance at a direct response piece, understand the problem, understand the solution and decide whether it’s important to give,” he said. “Major donors and foundations give because they take the time to investigate. With normal donors, we have a few seconds. If we (the agency) investigate, we can drink the Kool-Aid too.”
Sometimes drinking the brew can help an “aha!” moment to coalesce. Melinda Halpert, vice president of marketing at First Book in Washington, D.C., recalled a visit she made to the field. “Because we’re not a direct service nonprofit we don’t always interact with the kids and teachers who are getting our books,” she said. She was reading to kids from a high poverty area, and one boy wanted her to read the book again. The boy was stunned and delighted when he found out each child would get a copy of the book to keep.
“It hit me hard because it helped me appreciate the vividness of the need,” said Halpert. Now, “When we’re looking at social media or email analytics, it’s easy to remember why we’re doing the work.”
Bill Sayre, president of Merkle: Response Management Group in Hagerstown, Md., won’t take a sip, but he does listen to his clients. When more than one said they had trouble with processing certain types of donations, Sayre had an epiphany. “My ‘aha’ is really impacting how I interact with clients, from a standpoint of really listening to what their needs were and their points of pain versus approaching them with a solution already in hand,” he said.
Merkle RMG processes most donations for its clients, but until six years ago it would return back some of the revenue to the nonprofit in the form of donations made in honor of someone or matching gift donations. “The ‘aha’ moment was realizing what a burden it was on nonprofit staff to have to deal with that type of work,” said Sayre. “That allowed me to think outside the box.” Sayre created an Exceptions Services Group to handle those sensitive types of donations. “It’s a differentiator for us,” he said.
Listening to constituents led to another of Bisbee’s marketing epiphanies at DonorsChoose.org. “Until two years ago, I felt uncomfortable with teachers fundraising for their classrooms,” she said. “Teachers are our beneficiaries. I didn’t think it was their job. We wanted to do it for them.”
DonorsChoose.org added functionality for teacher crowdfunding, and Bisbee said approximately 40 percent of teachers using the site have opted to take advantage. “We decided we would never force or push teachers to fundraise, but decided to give them the tools to empower them,” she said. “Why not empower people to fundraise on your behalf? We were running our organization for 11 or 12 years before we realized we should be giving teachers the tools.”
First Book regularly surveys its constituents, and the results are often enlightening, said Halpert. Something that surprised her was that kids and educators were looking for more digital content. Halpert didn’t think most of the children served by her organization had the technology to consume digital content. “We don’t want to see kids stranded on the digital divide,” said Halpert.
She was also surprised the first time answers came back that said First Book’s network members were looking for more diversity in children’s books. From those conversations, the organization’s staff created the Stories For All project, which seeks to obtain more books featuring characters of color.
First Book purchased $1 million worth of books featuring characters more representative of its end users. “We can directly serve kids like the one who was so excited,” said Halpert. “Stories For All is a big one because it’s identifying a huge need, and it allowed us to go to the publishing industry and tell them there’s a vibrant market for this.”
Personalization, said Bisbee, is disrupting traditional marketing. Approximately three years ago, DonorsChoose.org emails began to resonate less with recipients. Open and click-through rates were down. “The way we tackled that problem was adding major personalization,” she said.
DonorsChoose.org used to run generic back-to-school campaigns. “People come to us because they can choose the exact project to fund,” said Bisbee. “That’s why they care, because they’re in control of their money. So why are we sending out a generic campaign?” The organization changed its messaging to encourage donors to give in their own postal ZIP codes or classrooms for specific projects based on what a donor has previously funded. “As marketers, we’re definitely in the age of personalization,” said Bisbee. NPT