When thinking about how to improve the efficiency of your marketing programs, always begin at the same place: the tech stack. Your best branding concepts might as well stay in the idea phase if you don’t have a solid operational answer to tracking and scaling response.
What’s a tech stack? It’s the collection of systems you’re using to build and run your program. If you don’t have a clear handle on which technology systems you have in place and how they’re being used, you’re likely not optimizing them to the fullest extent.
Oftentimes, you’re paying for disparate systems that are collecting information about your audiences but aren’t communicating that information back to one customer relationship management system (CRM). This robs you of the ability to personalize your audience’s experience – and the impacts of that are wide-ranging.
For example, you might have no idea that the major donor that your philanthropy team is working with just signed up online to volunteer next week, because your online sign-up system doesn’t sync regularly. That’s a missed cultivation opportunity. Or, you might have given people the option to sign petitions on your site, but you did not realize that the system collecting those signatures didn’t sync back to your email CRM. That would-be dedicated advocate went without further contact from you after raising their hand as interested in your mission. Or, you might be investing in paid advertising but not considering how to implement sourcing information in your Uniform Resource Locator (URL) parameters, so you’re missing the opportunity to learn about your audience’s interests and customize their experiences.
All told, the efficiency and structure of your tech stack impacts crucial business decisions you’re making every day, not the least of which is knowing where to allocate both your staff and monetary resources to further your mission work and the fundraising efforts that support it.
The good news is that as long as you can work backwards to create a map of how your data is flowing, you can also work to correct it. And the better news is that the map doesn’t even need to be pretty.
See the accompanying hand-drawn snapshot from a developer who was helping people understand his organization’s tech stack. The map’s basically chicken scratch, but it works. And it helped us to determine where there was room for improvement.
It’s easiest to start from the experience of your end user and come up with a list of questions you can ask your staff that’ll help you start to piece things together.
Understanding how your teams (there are likely a few of them engaging in this work) are collecting and ingesting email information about your constituents is a good place to start. That’s because the answer to this is usually a Wild West-y hot mess. That’s okay. Perfect isn’t the goal here. The goal is to implement a few operational rules that will make things cleaner.
With an in-house working group, navigate through addressing the following. When a person visits your website, where are the main places they can sign-up to receive emails from your organization? Be sure to look at the places you’re directly asking them to sign up for a newsletter or something of the sort, but also, and especially, the places where they’re going to be opted in if they take other action – such as signing a petition, donating, or signing up to volunteer. What systems ingest the email addresses collected from these actions? Do all of those systems sync back to your primary CRM? If not, this is your first optimization point.
Once you have a handle on implementing syncing rules, the next step is optimizing that sync. How often do your systems communicate with each other? If it’s not nightly, that’s worth looking into for a potential change. Generally speaking, an action taker on your website is most primed to take secondary action via email in the 48 hours after they’ve first raised their hand. That means your email welcome series with a donation ask needs to get to them – fast.
Repeat this process for people who aren’t visiting your website but who are expressing interest in receiving communication from you in another form. The key question you’re asking: Are they actually getting that follow-through communication, and how? Here is where you’ll dig into people who are signing up for your email list offline – at your events or via your local, state, and affiliate team offices. How often is your staff getting these names uploaded digitally?
Look as well at other digital avenues by which audiences could sign up. Two huge culprits of data misses in this area are your lead generation advertising and microsites, past and present. If you’re running ads that allow audiences to sign up or sign a pledge directly in-platform (i.e. on Facebook) instead of on your website, you’re likely realizing a cheap cost per lead. But, if you don’t have a process in place to ensure those names are getting into your CRM daily, you might as well not collect them at all for the reasons mentioned above.
The same is true for any rogue microsites you have still living online somewhere. Every nonprofit has at least a few. Understand how much traffic you’re generating there and make decisions about the costs and benefits of implementing an operational process accordingly.
For your future self’s happiness, create a standard operating procedure document that any team who wants to build a microsite must follow to ensure data regimentation is in place from the start next time.
Digital advertising is the place that allows you the most top-down control over what’s going to end up in your database of record. With the right infrastructure in place, it’s the venue best built for scale, one that dives deepest into understanding your core audience and helps you reach the fringe – the newest audiences who could drive your next successes and the ones you determine aren’t going to do that at all. Data infrastructure helps you understand all of that.
There are questions for your in-house working group in this area.
What tracking parameters are we putting in place when we run digital ads? Here, you’ll want to understand the information you’re collecting about your constituents as they get to your site. Make sure you have infrastructure set up in such a way that you can tell at least a few key things: which channel drove a person to your site, which audience segment the user belonged to, and which piece of creative and/or campaign drove their action.
As you learn about what information you’re already collecting, you’ll likely find that some optimization of your ads set-up format is required to get everything you want out of the data. Without getting in the weeds (because that’s a column unto itself), you’ll want to ask a few pointed questions on whether you can more tightly organize your Google Ads keywords or Facebook ad campaigns to ensure that content and campaign parameters reflect the values most important to you.
For example, if you’re running a Google Ads campaign targeting both current and prospective donors with similar creative, break that campaign into two so your sourcing can reflect which targeted current donors and which targeted prospective donors. With this change, you also add the opportunity to serve deeper asks to people you know and support you already.
As you address advertising, you’ll dig into the capabilities of your Content Management System (CMS) and your donation forms to understand possibilities to enhance your cost per donation. Are there opportunities to personalize on-site experiences based on what your CMS can recognize from source code information when an audience member arrives on your site? For example, can your ad’s source code signal to your CMS that it should display one set of buttons on the homepage versus another set? The answer to this might be no, depending on your CMS of record. If so, CMS improvements could become a line item to add to your budget for next year.
If you’re having trouble understanding opportunities to personalize, pull in your CMS’s support service team member. They can likely get you started in your thinking process and help you determine whether you need to hire consultant help to make best use of opportunity.
Personalization is particularly helpful in ensuring you’re leveling up the asks you’re making of your audiences as you know more about them, deepening the engagement based on the constituent’s capacity for investment.
Last, and probably most important if you have an external party running your ads for you, is understanding how you’re set up to have data returned to you. Unless there is a very good use case for it, it’s always best for an agency or consultant partner to run ads out of your organization’s owned advertising accounts rather than theirs – i.e. your Facebook Business Manager or Google Ads account.
It’s at times easier on the agency partner to run ads out of their accounts, but the difficulty that arises is that an external party now manages your data, and you’re dependent on them transferring it to you to have a clean and replicable record of audience engagement. If things get tricky when and if you sever services with your agency, this can and does become difficult to claw back. Protect yourself both by avoiding having vendors run ads from their systems and, in cases where it’s unavoidable (such as when you’re running programmatic display ads), state data reconciliation terms in your contract that address how often the vendor will export data for your system’s ingestion.
When all of your data is in one place, weigh ad touchpoints in juxtaposition with all other recorded audience touchpoints, such as from email and direct mail. This helps you understand the full picture of your path and cost to conversion. Be sure to bear in mind that a weighted attribution model will help you best assess cost here. As we know, human behavior simply doesn’t fit into nice boxes. A person’s last-click attribution source might not tell the story of how they found your organization.
Use the information your tech stack provides to help you make decisions about how you’re going to measure each channel’s success. There will be no perfect answer to this. Make the decision that’s best for your organization and stick to it to ensure year-over-year measurement is possible.
Following the advice above will get you to a place of being able to illustrate the majority of what your tech stack looks like and how each piece is communicating with the others. This map is likely to point you in the direction of further optimization.
You might find, for example, that you could achieve with one system what’s currently being done with two. You might have new thoughts about how frequently you should run your data sync, or how often contact records are merged and what field determines that contacts are the same person. You might decide you’re not collecting nearly enough data about your constituents and opt to put a data append process in place to secure additional information like physical addresses, birthdays, and more. You might find that you need a new answer to your analytics platform is the right next step for you.
This is the point at which it’s a good idea to pull in consultant help or assign work to a dedicated staffer who can address those areas for optimization. Small tweaks will get you to improved results, but assistance from someone who can ensure that the full depth of technical projects are scoped, buy-in and adoption are achieved, and changes are documented for posterity is a win for all future iterations of your team. Technology migration projects require an experienced project manager.
Done well, tech stack optimization will yield you significant improvements in your costs to acquire and retain audiences. You’ll see that in the form of improved abilities to target your donors and find more of them based on what you now know about their path to conversion and their topics of interest. You’ll see it in decreased time to conversion and upgrading on your email file. And you’ll see it in your ability to put your staff’s attention on the marketing tactics that are yielding the highest gains, leaving room for them to invest time on innovation that will help you diversify your revenue streams.
Elyse Wallnutt is the senior director of Brand, Advertising, and Marketing for World Food Program USA, where she leads the strategic development and execution of an integrated, multi-channel marketing strategy that maximizes new donor acquisition and brand awareness, engagement, and loyalty. Her email is email@example.com.
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