A couple weeks ago, M+R’s Will Valverde answered some questions that Mediabistro reporter Patrick Coffee had about the 2014 Benchmarks Study. You can read Mediabistro’s great take: Here’s How to Optimize Your Charity Fundraising in 2014. And while you’re at it, check out the unabridged, unbridled, uncouth (only once or twice) version of the interview here:
Mediabistro: Why do you think traditional fundraising measures like email are less successful now? Will these numbers continue to decline?
Will Valverde: Whoa, whoa, whoa! Who said email is less successful now? Yes, we saw declines in key metrics, including response rates (which were down by 11% for fundraising messages) – but audience sizes still grew by 14%, and about a third of total online revenue still came in directly from email. So even if a given user is on average less likely to donate to a given message, email programs are not looking less successful and continue to be the centerpiece of online fundraising efforts for many organizations.
As for whether the declines will continue – well, predictions are difficult, especially about the future. From my perspective, a lot of these trends are less about what organizations are doing, and more about how people are using email and the internet more broadly. So as mobile increases its share of web traffic and our overall relationship with email and social media changes, there’s inevitably an impact on nonprofits. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these parallel trends continue: bigger audiences, more revenue, but a harder time breaking through with any given message.
MB: Given these numbers, should nonprofits speed the shift away from email?
WV: Short answer: no! But the long answer is almost always more interesting.
It’s true, about a third of online revenue in our study was sourced directly to email. But we think that number actually underestimates the impact of email. Maybe by kind of a lot.
An example. Let’s say a supporter on her morning commute reads a fundraising message on her phone, and is motivated to give by the importance of your cause, the urgency of the moment, and the brilliance of your copy. Good job! But maybe she doesn’t feel like pulling out a credit card and filling out the form while she’s sitting on the bus, so she waits until she’s at the office, gets on her computer, and goes directly to your website to complete her gift.
In that case, email drove giving, but it doesn’t get captured in the data as an email gift. We’ve taken a look at a handful of M+R clients, and it’s not unusual to see email subscribers give two to three times as much through non-email channels.
So the important thing is to make sure you are presenting a compelling case for giving that is consistent across email, social media, your website, even DM and telemarketing, so that no matter where your supporters find you they can see your most effective message and easily make a gift.
MB: What’s the key to fundraising success on social media?
WV: Our study didn’t track giving sourced directly to social media, but we are starting to see some successful strategies emerge. The first thing to keep in mind is that Facebook has made it much less likely that a given post from your nonprofit will show up in your supporters’ newsfeeds. So if you really want to experiment and find what works, you’ll need to invest in some paid promotion.
The good news is that this is relatively inexpensive. Increasing your ROI comes down to making the most of Facebook’s sophisticated lookalike modeling and other targeting techniques while testing a wide variety of creative. We are constantly surprised at which combinations of imagery and copy generate the biggest response, so nobody should assume that there is a magic bullet here. You’ve got to be willing to test and test and test if you want to find what works for you.
MB: What was the most successful organization and individual campaign considered in the study, and why?
WV: We try to keep our eye on trends and averages, rather than specific campaigns. But the differences between sectors tell some really interesting stories.
Environmental groups sent far more advocacy messaging than anyone else – and the intriguing thing is, their response rates for advocacy messages were twice as high as the industry average. If you’re concerned about over-messaging your list, consider that sending more advocacy messages correlated with higher response rates.
International groups saw huge growth in revenue, especially when you look at one-time giving and revenue per website visitor. We think this is most likely due to the outpouring of support after Typhoon Haiyan devastated so much of Southeast Asia. At the same time, Rights groups sort of came down to earth after a really huge 2012 – it’s not so much that they underperformed in 2013, but without an election and in a changed media environment, it was hard to match the year before.
This all adds up to one of the old maxims of online fundraising: the moment really matters, and you have to be timely, flexible and opportunistic if you want to be successful.
MB: We covered a recent study finding that most nonprofits struggle to raise money online, primarily because they aren’t aggressive enough with the ask and don’t make it easy enough for fans to give. Are these findings consistent with your own?
WV: If there’s one thing that drives me crazy, it’s organizations that hide their donation asks. Your donors are busy, and you are competing with a ton of other worthy, important nonprofits, so making it difficult to give is a disservice to your donors and your cause. If you want people to give, you gotta ask — and if you want to be heard, you gotta be loud.
That means making your email fundraising messages clear, compelling, and direct. In our study, nonprofits received $17 dollars for every 1,000 fundraising messages delivered — just 1.7 cents for each fundraising message that got delivered. That’s the baseline you’re dealing with, so building an effective email program means growing your list, creating an irresistible case for giving, and giving your supporters plenty of opportunities to give.
The same thing goes for your website. We found that 0.69% of nonprofit website visitors end up making a gift – which translates to 60 cents per visitor. And yet, web giving is a huge revenue driver for so many groups, and traffic is on the rise. Think of how much money is being left on the table by soft-pedaling the ask, hiding the donation page, and otherwise making it hard to give. If you could optimize your web page to bring that 60 cents per visitor up to 65, 70, or more – and then multiply that by a growing audience – wouldn’t that just dramatically change your online program?
MB: The same study found that the most successful teams often former online marketers who worked at for-profit companies. Why do you think this might be?
WV: I don’t know! That’s super interesting, though. I do think having a variety of perspectives is really important to pushing the boundaries on strategy and content, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a mix of lifelong nonprofiteers and fresh imports generated some good creative energy.
MB: How much does the success of a given campaign rely on the message as opposed to the medium?
WV: Good storytelling is good storytelling, and that’s essential to creating a connection with donors and moving them to give. But how you get that message across is going to look very different depending on the limitations and opportunities of your medium.
I personally love writing email copy — it’s this balance of concision, urgency, and flexibility. There are writers who thrive with direct mail, which tends to allow more space for a thorough and nuanced message, and I have colleagues who can write a 128-character tweet that will move you to tears. And the thing is, you can tell the same story in every one of those media and have them all be effective, even if on the surface they look very different.
The other thing to keep in mind with medium is reach. For every 1,000 email subscribers, our study participants had 199 Facebook fans, 110 Twitter followers, and 13 mobile text subscribers. Social media is growing faster than email, but it’s got a ways to go to catch up just in terms of size, let alone as a driver of revenue.
MB: What is the primary strategic mistake these organizations are currently making? How will the successful campaign of the future differ from the ones considered for this study?
WV: I think about all my overworked friends at nonprofits and I feel like a heel for saying it, but the biggest mistake is just not doing enough. Not asking enough, not testing enough, not pushing enough. More and more, you can’t just rely on your old standby strategies to grow. If you’re not trying something new, innovative, different (and maybe a little bit scary) with your program, then you’re missing the chance to be the first to blaze a fresh and successful path.
And that’s the answer to what the successful campaign of the future looks like: nobody knows. Somebody’s out there figuring it out right now (you can be sure we’re working on it!), trying something bold and different. And in a few months everyone’s going to be shaking their heads wondering why they didn’t come up with it first — and then racing to replicate it.
Download the 2014 M+R Benchmarks study for more insights, a few jokes, and more pretty charts than you are legally permitted to shake a stick at.