Short Attention Spans

February 15, 2009       Michele Donohue      

“We live in a first-look society — you need to get the point across quicker,” said Wendy MacGregor, chief marketing officer at the Chicago-based Feeding America, which until this past September was called America’s Second Harvest.

The 30-year-old organization spent two years evaluating why it is had low brand awareness – finally deciding on the new name Feeding America to convey the organization’s mission.

“If we want to advance the mission, we need to be able to be more efficient about how we engage the public,” said MacGregor. “One of our biggest barriers is the fact that the public broadly knows hunger is an issue, but we are trying to create a much more elevated and aggressive fight against domestic hunger.”

Online advertising is just one strategy the newly branded Feeding America employed this past October to promote awareness about the name change and programs, focusing on the organization’s “Fill a Bowl, Feed America” campaign.

MacGregor said the wealth of back-end analytics and targeted messaging make for a great way to figure out what works with different audiences. “If you think about it, every dollar counts – so we want to be as efficient as possible around how we spend,” she said. The campaign ended in December, and now MacGregor expects the organization to analyze the return on investment (ROI) to determine how future online campaigns might perform.

Online advertisements aren’t limited to car companies, life insurance or bladder-controlling pharmaceuticals. Nonprofits are starting to get into the game with their own advertisements as a part of an overall marketing plan. Online advertising is still growing in an economy where gains are few and far between. Internet advertising revenues reached $5.9 billon for the third quarter of 2008, an 11-percent increase compared to the same period of 2007, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a membership group for nearly 400 media and technology companies responsible for selling 86 percent of U.S. online advertising. Some nonprofits are dipping their toes in that revenue pool.

“It’s a strange area. Different organizations are having different experiences with it,” said Simon Batten, head of International Supporter Development at the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). WSPA started using banner ads in early 2004 in Australia and tested online ads in the U.S. in September 2007 before rolling out the online campaign during February 2008. Batten explained the organization spent 2008 learning more about online advertising, but it would be the main acquisition tool for the organization in 2009. “My gut feeling is that to get any decent response out of banners you need a broad appeal,” said Batten, mentioning causes such as child and animal welfare and environmental endeavors have that broader appeal.

The U.S. Fund for UNICEF in New York City invested double the transit and print budget in online for its “I Believe in Zero” campaign launched this past October, which focuses on 25,000 children who die every day from preventable causes — a marketing budget shift that fits with the organization’s overall strategic plan.

“We wanted people to get on board with us over the long haul. We wanted to embark on a recruitment effort to bring more people to our cause and that was consistent with our strategic plan, which says we need to grow our new donor base and also retain our donors, which all nonprofits are dealing with that,” said Kim Pucci, marketing director the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. “So with an eye towards recruiting new people to get on board and this whole notion of ÔI Believe in Zero’ being a social movement now, we chose online as the most effective medium to recruit and make people respond immediately.”

Pucci said 2008 was a test year for online advertising, and as of the fall the results had been positive. “We definitely make the biggest investment in paid advertising in our fourth quarter calendar year. Based on what we know to date, I see online continuing to be a major part of our plan and a significant budget apportioned to that,” said Pucci.

Yeah, but where Part of testing what works for an organization is figuring out where the ads should be placed and which Web sites to include in the buy. Batten said WSPA wasn’t targeting a type of person, and instead wanted to test a large range of sites to broaden its base of supporters. UNICEF went with a media buy that had broad audiences and then tailored some advertising to include news portals and sites geared toward charitable audiences.

Feeding America completed a segmentation study to understand what people would be supportive of hunger issues, such as faith-based communities or efficiency-driven individuals that look at food redistribution as a form of waste reduction. Some online advertising networks can use technology to target a specific audience, geographic area, bandwidth and daypart, which pinpoints certain time placement that might work best for the organization.

“The extent to which any advertiser can narrow down its audience segment depends on the provider chosen and their specific capabilities. Audience targeting online is largely dependent on technology,” said Matilda Chung of Toronto-based Casale Media, with an online network that can place advertisers on more than 4,000 Web sites with an average of 135 million unique U.S. online consumers every month and segment over different channels. Once an organization figures out the best audiences for its campaign goals, the next step would be developing the ads. From the text to the ad format, nonprofits should look at what ads will maximize the media buy’s exposure.

“You have to look at the data and optimize it. If a certain creative is working a lot better and at a significant rate than others, change it out. If you see that a media buy on a certain site is doing well, but it’s really expensive, as a nonprofit you really have to basically maximize your budget,” said Esther Choi, interactive marketing assistant director at U.S. Fund for UNICEF. “You have to decide at that point is that click-through more valuable in dollars to you than the low-cost, high volume you would get on let’s say an AOL,” said Choi. “It may be reaching a very generic, mass audience so you are getting general awareness out there, but maybe on a narrow side, like The New York Times finance page. It can be more expensive to buy an ad on that page but you might be reaching more qualified potential donors. So you have to weigh your options and plan and adjust accordingly.”

Choi explained that nonprofits should tweak the creative based on where the ad is placed. For example, if the ad is on a financial news page, ask the donor to “invest” in the organization instead of using the word “donate.”

“Contextually relevant ads just scream success. If you are running a UNICEF ad on Gawker.com or TMZ.com, you never know if that girl walking around Hollywood shopping thinks about UNICEF. I think there are tie-ins when you are trying to think about the demographic and what you are trying to accomplish. Textually relevant online media is just standard smart planning,” said Choi.

She recommended looking into rich media ads or video ads, which will stand out, though they are more expensive.

Chung also suggested that nonprofits test several creative elements for different audience segments before rolling out a campaign. “Another form of targeting known as Ôcreative optimization’ can be leveraged to determine the most responsive audience segments for each different ad creative. This form of targeting is especially useful for nonprofits that might not know their ideal audience segment online,” she said.

“Keep in mind that the ad unit merely provides a high-impact nesting ground for the ad creative. The ad creative is what ultimately dictates the success or failure of a campaign,” said Chung. “Despite its advantages, nonprofits must be mindful of the user experience at all times when designing rich media executions. While they will certainly be noticed, disruptive tactics like auto expansion or host-initiated audio can annoy users, resulting in a negative impression of your brand.”

She explained that the use of floating ads and interstitial ads (a page that pops up before the content) is starting to decline. Instead, nonprofits should explore expandable ads, which give users more information once the cursor is on the ad area. This will ensure that the user isn’t interrupted outright and doesn’t require the upload of a separate landing page right away.

The campaign also requires thinking about what kind of conversion the organization wants. Online advertising campaigns can integrate multiple goals if the organization plans efficiently. “One of the facets is asking for money, but another facet is asking the public to participate with you as a brand. You are developing relationships in a different way,” said Feeding America’s MacGregor. Those who clicked on Feeding America’s ads were redirected to the organization’s Web page where they could learn more about the issue of hunger and ways to engage with Feeding America. “We do have an educational opportunity. We wanted to make sure that we had an opportunity to drive that and we will be measuring that as well. So it’s important for us to make sure we are sending that kind of messaging out to people who really care about the issue.”

It’s been somewhat challenging figuring out what’s going to get people the most excited to click through from that banner to the site, said Pucci, who explained that some ads in UNICEF’s “I Believe in Zero” campaign use celebrities, like actress Lucy Liu and NBC anchor Al Roker, to get people to click. “We don’t know yet what the impact is for celebrity versus non-celebrity,” she said. “What I can tell you is that the banners that don’t directly ask you to donate certainly seem to be performing better right now, in terms of driving activity.” That doesn’t mean donate banners aren’t working. The faltering economy and other factors might be why ads that ask for an action, like signing a petition, might be performing at a slightly better rate than donate banners.

Clicking on WSPA’s U.S. ads will direct users to a landing page that gives more information about animal abuse, like bear-baiting, which directly correlates to the original banner ad image theme, and allows for a donation. Before giving donation information, Batten explained some people will go to the WSPA main site and make a donation there instead. WSPA also decided to test a petition page to pop-up before a user navigates away from the site. “It’s trying to capture a small percentage of those people who leave the landing page with another proposition. And if we can generate leads that we can then follow up on, it’s a bonus to the campaign,” said Batten. Those who sign up via the banner’s landing page are put into a general communication series and offered more information about WSPA campaigns. “One of the things we are going to be focusing on next year (2009) is landing page conversion and we will be testing different images and see if we can increase the conversion rate. If we increase the conversion rate, even by a small amount, it can have large impacts on return on investment,” he said.

“There are no Ôstandard’ rates for conversion figures, as every campaign is unique. The nature of the action, and the degree of user involvement required, plays a significant role in determining a realistic conversion ratio,” said Chung. “For example, a campaign designed to collect email addresses in exchange for a free monthly newsletter is likely to generate a much higher number of conversions than one soliciting a $30 monthly donation,” said Chung.

She recommends working backward to determine an appropriate conversion benchmark for a campaign. For example, using historical data, determine what a conversion or lead generated from a campaign is worth to your organization. Then look at your media spend and determine your CPA (cost-per-action) goal. “If you don’t have any historical data to use, do some testing first to create a baseline from which to perform your analysis,” she said.

And many nonprofits that don’t have the time and resources to sort through the rich data should take a step back and question if online advertising is the right move. Dollars are tighter than ever. While online advertising is a cost-effective marketing tool, those who are testing the medium now warn that backend analytics are important in keeping it that way.

“You literally have to look at this every single week and spend the time optimizing it and reacting and make adjustments as needed. And that was a new way of executing our media buy. We never did that before. You usually plan it heavily, strategically place it, deliver the creative and walk away,” said Pucci. NPT