Creating the Tipping Point - Blog

Online Philanthropy Engaging Young Donors

August 22, 2007

There is a great article in the Wall Street Journal about how young people are reinventing philanthropy.  Instead of just giving money, young people are using online technologies to inspire their friends and family into giving to their favorite causes as well.  Interestingly, some of the individuals profiled in the article actually created their own online tools to create online communities in order to engage people they know.   

Traditional fundraising appeals do not appear to be effective with younger individuals.  This is a sign of things to come for those doing philanthropy.   Large direct mail pieces just don't have the power that they used to have.  Five to ten years ago, organizations could send out a direct mail piece to a good prospect list and expect a decent return.  But, as this type grassroots fundraising changes, organizations need to identify evangelists that will go out and talk to their community of friends and family about donating to your organization.  We continue to find that individuals are more responsive when appeals come from people they know and when action is easy to take, such as by the simple click of the mouse.

Developing these evangelists is not always easy.  Here are some steps you can take to cultivate your own group on evangelists:

  1. Identify existing evangelists
    See which of your supporters consistently open e-mails and take action.  These people are your evangelists.
  2. Personalize it!
    Allowing people to personalize a message increases the chances that the message will actually be listened to.
  3. Offer incentives
    Similar to rewards points for credit cards, incentives can go a long way to motivate people to take action.
  4. Recognize their work
    Volunteer recognition is critical component to volunteer management.

The Power of Personal Stories

May 17, 2007

Charities have always done a great job of using personal stories to motivate people to act.  Now marketers and advocacy groups have embraced this tactic. A Washington Post article reports on how marketers are engaging customers to promote their products through personal stories.  For example, major companies are asking customers to develop their own ads to explain why they purchase particular cars or deodorant. This is a sign that Madison Avenue recognizes that consumers are now in control of brands and the messages.

"Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist affiliated with MIT, says participatory advertising represents a "revolution" in thinking. It means marketers are actually ‘inviting’ consumers ‘into the production of meaning,’ he says. ‘Just a few years ago people were still talking about trying to find and push the hot button inside the consumer.’”

Fresh_airThis shift is also occurring in the advocacy realm.  Fresh Air Minnesota was created to reframe the debate around a state-wide smoking ban in Minnesota.  Initially, media coverage focused on how the proposed smoking ban may put some small bar and restaurant owners out of business.  The personal stories of these owners comprised a large part of the coverage.

In the face of these pressing personal stories, Fresh Air Minnesota recognized that the debate needed to focus on the health reason for supporting a smoking ban.  Bar and restaurant employees were being impacted by the negative health consequences of secondhand smoke.  The Fresh Air web site captured the personal stories on this side of the debate and helped distribute those stories out to the public.  In the end, this effort successfully reframed the debate and put a personal face on the health impacts of secondhand smoke in bars and restaurants and bars, which served as an effective counterpoint to the financial impacts first reported by the media.

This shows that personal stories can have a large impact in shifting public perception and elected officials’ opinions.  Collecting personal stories can effectively demonstrate how your issue impacts “people like me.”  And that is one of the most persuasive ways to make your argument.

Reading more online

April 06, 2007

A preliminary report released earlier this week found that people read more online text than print publications.  More importantly the report found that 2/3 of online readers read the complete article once they choose to read the story.  This is contrary to what most people have thought about online readers; the common myth is that people just skim stories and very rarely read the full article.

The report shows that people will take the time to read a lot of information about topics that interest them, while they stay from other areas.  This can impact how organizations, non-profits and institutions write for the web. 

There are a few lessons that can be taken from this study:

  1. Customize your content for the reader Allow your audience to customize its relationship with your organization, including the amount and type of information they receive.   Allowing your audience to make that choice will ensure that individual members get what they want.  This is critical to developing a long-term relationship with the individual.

    Conversely, there are other times when you should customize the information for the audience.  The easiest way to do this is to provide relevant, local community information. Although this strategy can be time consuming, it is often worth it.
  2. Use alternative ways to display information The report also found that people retained more information when it was displayed in a variety of different ways, as opposed to just plain text.  Using images, timelines, Question and Answer sections, and lists are an easy to improve the impact of a story.


The full report is expected to be release the week of April 9th.  I will revisit these issues after the full report comes out.

Too much of a good thing

August 01, 2006

Over the last few years, viral videos have exploded in popularity with advocacy groups and marketers. Numerous case studies have shown that viral videos are an effective vehicle to communicate a message to a wide audience very cheaply. But, an article in Businessweek points out that the novelty of viral videos is beginning to wear off.

Many marketers have been willing to experiment with viral videos. They felt that the small investment of $10,000 – 20,000 to create the video is worth the reward of reaching an audience in the hundreds of thousands. Normally, in order to reach an audience of that size, marketers must spend a significant amount of money thereby reducing their advertising budget.

However, the influx of marketing agencies in the viral video arena makes it more difficult for non-profit and advocacy groups to develop successful viral videos. While many marketers are able to spend much more money to create a polished ad, they increasingly tend to use focus group and polling to fashion their messages. This process can really take the edge off what makes viral videos so appealing to consumers because polling and focus groups only give an organization part of the story.

Conversely, non-profits and advocacy organizations will be more successful because they spend time developing creative content that engages their audience. These types of groups are less likely to rely on polling and focus groups this because they already have a strong understanding of their members.

The lesson? Only by engaging and listening to your members can you truly understand what will motivate them to act. As long as you do this, viral videos can still be an effective tactic in reaching your message. You now have less room for error because so many other organizations are now using this tactic.

When to send a message – Part II?

March 23, 2006

Over the years, there has been much debate about when the best time is to send an e-mail to supporters. The current standard is that Monday-Thursday are the best days to send a message. But, according to a recent study, that theory is just plain wrong.

The “eNonprofit Benchmark” study found that open rates are pretty constant from Monday through Friday. It also found that Thursday and Fridays tend to have a higher percentage of click-throughs. Click-throughs are when supporters click on a link in an e-mail.

This data shows that when you send a message is not as important as many of us once thought. I, for one, would always try to stay away from sending e-mails out on Fridays. It now appears that the end of the week is actually a good time to send out e-mails because the study showed that percentage of people that took action from an e-mail actually increased at the end of the week.

I would speculate that this shift has occurred because more people are now using e-mail for personal use and have Internet access at home. As use of high-speed Internet continues to increase, I expect that we will see an even greater level of Internet use at home.

The study also found that time-of-day or message length had no impact on click-through rates. But it did find that geographic and interest area targeting significantly increased the effectiveness of the e-mail. This sort of targeting is important for a few reasons:

  1. Prevents list burnout
    Targeting e-mails to individuals’ interest can help decrease the number of silent e-mails sent. This will prevent people from ignoring future e-mail messages.
  2. Demonstrates local impact
    Creating a local impact angle can be an effective way to show that your cause does affect them. When I was at the University, we had a database that showed how many students, alumni, and staff lived in each legislative district. This helped show the community and legislators that we had an impact in their area. Taking this to the next level by identifying anecdotal stories will make an even larger impact.

It will be important to explore ways to segment your audience into their specific interests. In the coming years there is going to be an even greater expectation that you are talking directly to the needs, wants and interests of your audience. Because, if you don’t provide it all they have to do is go to Google and they can find it.

Technorati tags - e-mail, targeting

Websites as media tools

March 19, 2006

We live in an age where the Internet opens up endless possibilities.  I recently read about the concept of a virtual pressroom.  This concept is a good example of what the future of the Internet will look like – segmented for different audiences.  The web used to be about just a place where you could cheaply deliver a generic message.  Now, the public is demanding messages to be tailored to them.

Segmentation first starts occurring with the explosion of cable television.  Audiences were broken up into groups like the Golf channel, Weather Channel, and Women’s Entertainment.  The Internet has accelerated this segmentation and has created a increased need to effectively target your message to your audience.

The virtual pressroom is designed to target your messages and resources for the media.  It is a resource that provides members of the press with a wealth of information that they can’t find anywhere else.  Members of the press are going to more likely to contact your organization if it is positioned as a knowledgeable resource.

“[The virtual pressroom] is a way to provide background for news stories, publishable photos and graphics, video clips, press contacts, and opportunities for setting up expert interviews—and make it available to the press 24/7, online.”

A great example of the virtual pressroom was put together by the biotech industry -

How do I compare?

March 06, 2006

This is a question that many groups have asked, but have been unable to answer, when it comes to online advocacy. There are not any benchmarks which groups can use to evaluate success in online advocacy because this is still a relatively new arena.

Two weeks ago the Advocacy Institute and M&R Strategies released a report outlining some of those benchmarks. These benchmarks help confirm some best practices and challenge some other ones. Here are some of the basic benchmarks outlined in the report:

1. The more you invest, the higher the return
The study found that the more resources (staff and money) an organization invests in online advocacy, fundraising and communication the greater the return they received.

It is important not to read too much into this finding; this does not mean one can achieve success by just spending a lot of money. The study did not evaluate the actual impact of any of the online campaigns that it examined. It only evaluated the number of people that read e-mails, took action, or donated money.

Creating an effective strategy is still the most important step to achieving success.

2. E-mail messaging
The average open rate for e-mail is 30%
The average click-thru rate on advocacy is 10%
The average click-thru rate on fundraising is 0.3%

This information can provide a good benchmark to help identify the success of an e-mail message or online campaign.

3. Expect a high turnover in supporters
The study found that on average 28% of the subscribers will drop off the list over a 12 months period. In the online world it can be “easy come, easy go.” The turnover rate is caused by people unsubscribing (it is much easier to unsubscribe online than offline) and because of the high number of e-mail addresses that go bad.

Supreme Court fight provides useful lessons

January 09, 2006

Today, advocacy groups kicked into high gear to influence Senators to support or oppose the nomination of Judge Alito. This battle can provide some useful insight in how higher education institutions can develop advocacy campaigns. A few weeks ago the Congressional Management Foundation, a think tank that works to make Congress a more effective institution, examined the recent Miers and Chief Justice Roberts nomination process. Here are a few recommendations they offer in improving online advocacy.

1. More effective targeting
Make sure that supporters are only contacting their own elected officials. Elected officials automatically discount the opinions of people that are not constituents. It is a waste of your supporters time and can frustrate elected officials.

2. Encourage personalized messages
Petitions and generic messages are not persuasive in influencing elected officials. A personalized message can go long way in convincing elected officials of your cause. Moreover, this message can help give specific examples of why your issue is important to constituents in that district.

This does not mean that you should stop providing generic messages to supporters because not every supporter has the time or interest to write a personalized message. A generic message will allow supporters who are too busy to send a personalized message to still have their voice be heard.

3. Create clear expectations with supporters
It is important to develop messages that motivate supporters but remember to not go overboard. You lose credibility when your outlandish predictions don’t come true. · Also, make sure that you are clearly express what you are asking supporters to do. Make it clear whom the letter or petition is being directed to.

4. Give supporters new and useful information
It is important to update supporters on a regular basis but make sure that you are actually providing them with new information. Many groups just repackage the same message. This can negatively impact the number of people that read and take action on your alerts in the future.

You can read the full story here

Taking your message directly to the people

October 11, 2005

The web, and especially blogs, provides an easy way to deliver an unfiltered message to the public. Before the advent of the internet, the media was the only way a group could get its message to the public cheaply and efficiently. Now that is no longer the case.

The Washington Post ran a story today on how more and more members of Congress are looking to the web in order to bring their messages directly to the public. Read the full story here:

Higher education institutions can use these same tactics to publicize their positive messages. I hear complaints from many public relations professionals that the press only covers the problems at their institutions. Maybe it is time to circumvent the press and take stories directly to the people.

Develop a blog/website that highlights the good news about your institution. Here are some steps that can help you be successful:

  1. Make the stories interesting
  2. Use viral marketing tactics to encourage readers to pass stories onto friends
  3. Promote the site everywhere – have University officials promote it, include it direct mail newsletters
  4. Incorporate RSS feeds
  5. Make it interactive – include quizzes, discussion areas

When to send out mass e-mail?

September 28, 2005

That is the question that many online organizers ask themselves.  A recent study by ExactTarget says that Monday is no longer the best day to send out e-mail.  Read the full report here:

The general rule of thumb is that you should send out e-mails Monday through Thursday to get the best results.  Their survey tries to make you think that the silver bullet to increasing your open and click-through rates is what day you send it out on. 

The best way to improve the effectiveness of your e-mail campaigns is to develop good and creative content.  No matter what day you send an e-mail out on - if you don't tell a story and make it interesting - people will not read it. 


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