Special Report: Fast FWD

October 1, 2001       Craig Causer      

When President George W. Bush proposed a restriction on federal funding for family planning last February, little did he know that his loudest rebuttal would come from none other than himself. Through the power of the Internet, and some fortuitous events, evolved a viral campaign designed to raise dollars in the president’s name to support contraceptive medical coverage.

Despite being the recipient of $321,000 which arrived via its Web site, Planned Parenthood Federation of America did not originate what became known as the President’s Day Campaign. It started out with a newspaper op-ed piece that suggested that people donate money toward family planning in President Bush’s name.

As a result, Planned Parenthood received about 50 telephone calls, and managers decided to put the idea up on the organization’s Web site. Once it hit cyberspace it yielded thousands of “Bush contributions” to both the national office and local affiliates. When the campaign tapped out, affiliates gained close to $10,000 in addition to national’s windfall.

Viral marketing is sending an email to a member and requesting that the member send it to as many friends as possible.

“The beauty of a viral marketing campaign is that they (donors) come to you,” explained Molly Smith Watson, director of development at Planned Parenthood in New York City. “That’s what happened to us in the President’s Day campaign. But what made it a truly phenomenal event was how incredibly viral this campaign became, to the point where I couldn’t talk to anybody without being asked about the campaign. I would say, ‘Oh, you got the email,’ and after a while I realized that everyone had gotten the email. Some people had gotten it three or four times.”

That email was sent to Planned Parenthoodmembers in hopes that they would spread the word. The message was clearly spelled out so that the originator of the email was the nonprofit and the subject line expressed an immediate need for action. Attention was paid to avoid any form of deception that is prevalent in other Internet solicitations to separate the serious from the spam.

“With viral marketing, if you can get somebody to start sending out the email on your behalf then it is no longer spam,” Smith Watson said. “They’re receiving email from their friends. It’s not spam in the unsolicited, mass-marketing sense of the word. Obviously, that’s a huge benefit. Plus Planned Parenthood is such a well-known name that among our supporters I don’t think that they would consider our communication as spam.”

One supporter in particular received the email and notified the organization that they had forwarded it along to 50 friends.

“That’s maybe on the more extreme end of things, but you only need a few people to do that for the power of viral marketing to kick in,” said Vinay Bhagat, founder and CEO of Convio, Inc. in Austin, Texas. Convio developed the template used by Planned Parenthood to put the viral campaigns in motion.

Bhagat said that the key is to convince your support base to take up the role of recruiters to mobilize support for the cause. “Any advocacy group or cause-related group, like international relief or disaster or a humanistic cause, would be a good prospect for doing this kind of work,” he added.

Viral marketing also serves organizations with time sensitive issues. President’s Day was coming up so there was a reason for people to forward the Planned Parenthood information. The president’s actions were all over the news so people were reacting to it and it was touching people in a way that the campaign capitalized on, Smith Watson said.

“We’ll lay the campaign out for three or four weeks, but any outbound email marketing that we’ve done you see that there’s a definite bell curve going on,” explained Smith Watson. “It starts out, picks up steam, hits a high point and then it tapers off pretty quickly. In the case of the President’s Day campaign it was essentially 19 days. The day after President’s Day it was basically dead – even the few days before the holiday it had pretty much slowed down.”

While Planned Parenthood did not conduct an in-depth evaluation to calculate the campaign’s response rate, Smith Watson was comfortable in predicting that 1 percent of people who received the email responded to its message.

The response rate may not have been eye-popping but the amount raised certainly stunned the organization. Smith Watson attributes the success in part to the functionality of the campaign. By allowing the donor to add a personal message to their gift it added a level of accountability to the numbers that were being reported to the White House, she admitted.

The core of those numbers came from an unlikely source – first-time donors. According to Bhagat, of the 11,000-plus people who contributed online, 85 percent of them had never contributed to the organization before. It was a success in both fundraising and locating a new group of constituents.

As is the case with any solid debut, a sequel soon followed as Planned Parenthood rolled out a second campaign, this one sandwiching the Independence Day holiday. The target was to secure petition signatures to protest President Bush’s proposed budget that would eliminate contraceptive coverage for the women employed by the federal government.

The action was designed to acquire email addresses rather than donations and according to the nonprofit’s numbers, 3,900 people signed up with Planned Parenthood out of the 45,000 message recipients. Despite foregoing a push for dollars, people still contributed $9,000 toward the cause. Not all of the 3,900 people gave. An average amount per donor was not available.

Numbers like these, although stunted compared to most direct mail campaigns, are appealing due to their cost efficiency. “It’s a fraction of a penny to send the outbound emails and we spend a little money to collect the contributions,” Smith Watson explained. “We never begrudged any money by processing a credit card. We usually hire freelance people for things like our HTML emails – which has better results than a text-based email. We have designers help us with Web pages if we decide to launch a campaign that has a graphic element to it. It’s an above and beyond service.”

Make no mistake, it’s a service with a shelf life. Smith Watson said that window of opportunity must be identified by any organization contemplating viral marketing. “I think that it’s very difficult to be totally successful unless you have a spontaneous action and it’s hard to judge what those are going to be,” she said. “It has to be something that picks up on a public interest or concern. Whether that is something that was hidden beneath the surface or something that’s easily identified. It has to be time sensitive and in the news and the public space.”

Since the public is averse to having their space under siege from constant solicitations, marketers must pick and choose only the most relevant issues to spur a viral campaign. Planned Parenthood anticipates rolling out its campaigns a couple times each year but will continue with other forms of communication with members on a monthly basis.

This will be in addition to the legislative campaigns that the organization does on a targeted basis through its advocacy program.

Most people that are doing viral marketing aren’t necessarily looking for donations. It’s mostly about spreading a message to new audiences for free, Smith Watson said. “But if you’re looking for a return on an investment on the Internet – I walk around now as a total Internet convert. You don’t know what it’s costing you not to be on the Internet.”

Other skeptics have turned the corner to become neophyte e-fundraisers, proving that viral marketing can work for both large and small nonprofits.

“When I first learned about the concept it was the idea of a nonprofit or an advocacy group kind of activating its members. You know, ‘Mail this message out to as many of your friends.’ To me it was like of one those angels on your shoulders, send this to 10 friends and your wishes will come true type things,” admitted Ken Stein, director of marketing and development at the Austin Children’s Museum in Austin, Texas.

After giving the idea some more thought, Stein saw similarities between a viral campaign and the traditional walkathon fundraisers that nonprofits have implemented for years. What evolved was a clickathon – where cyber sponsorship replaced door-to-door and workplace solicitations. Registered users at the museum’s Web site signed up for the program and proceeded to fire out emails seeking pledges from friends and family.

Interested recipients of the email were linked to the Web site where they could click on the name of the person they wished to sponsor. Proceeds were earmarked for the organization’s open door policy; if a person cannot afford the admission fee they may enter for free.

The clickathon ran alongside a summer direct mail campaign and yielded surprising results, raising $5,100 compared to the direct mail piece that raised $3,800. It was able to exceed the traditional mailing even with much less exposure. The museum’s email went out to 1,300 people while 5,000 received the direct mail piece.

The viral campaign began with the participation of 58 registered donors who went on to generate 116 additional individuals. The average gift online was $44, which is $17 more than the average gift from direct mail. The direct mail expenses were just under $2,000 and the clickathon cost “about 20 minutes of my time,” Stein said with a laugh.

The museum set an initial goal of $3,600 for the online campaign. By exceeding that total the organization has decided to set its sights toward building a larger audience for the next clickathon.

“One of our strategies to come out of this is to increase the number of people who have registered on our site,” Stein admitted. “If this were 13,000 people rather than 1,300 we could conceivably be talking about a $50,000 campaign. My expectations going into the next time will be higher and it will be directly linked to the number of emails that we have at that time.”

The more the merrier for Stein, as he professed that more names to solicit will not result in any additional measures. It’s just a click of the mouse to send the email to 30 people or 30,000 people, he said.

Data compiled on users of the museum’s site show that continued e-fundraising efforts should reap increased rewards. About 20 percent of recipients actually click on the link embedded within the nonprofit’s emails to learn about programs that are touted electronically. When tickets for special events have been offered online this year, as many as 60 percent of the tickets have been purchased online versus traditional outlets. The museum’s audience is highly cyber-savvy.

“What we’ve learned from the people who have registered on our site is that when we’ve sent them other emails they don’t opt-out – and we give them every opportunity to do so,” Stein explained. “We’re big on privacy. With the clickathon, I never see your friends’ email addresses. Your list remains private. You’re not turning your names and addresses into me; you’re sending it out with a special address that takes your friends directly to the clickathon that is a part of our Web site. I think people appreciate that.”

The clickathon has made Stein a fan of viral marketing for another reason – its significant return at a low cost. “I’ve paid nothing in printing. Nothing’s in hard copy. With a walkathon, if I print up 1,000 forms and I realize they came out blurry or there was a typo, I have to go through the whole printing and distribution processes again.”

Despite the success, Stein believes that the clickathon and other viral campaigns are still only viable supplements for an all-encompassing fundraising effort. “Most people ask, ‘Will it be able to replace direct mail?’ There will always be people who do not prefer to do things online. They might not have a computer. They don’t like giving out their credit card number or their dial-up service is slow so there will always be the traditional direct mail that we’ve been doing,” said Stein. “But what I’ve seen is that more people are beginning to gravitate to our Web site to communicate with us, renew memberships, buy tickets to special events and now contribute to a specific cause.”

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