The Obama Effect Part II: 10 More Takeaways for Multichannel Fundraisers

Originally published in Inside Direct Mail
May 1, 2009
by Britt Brouse

In part one of this article, published in April, we discussed how the Obama for America campaign became so powerful online, raising half a billion dollars total in small donations. It is true that a political campaign has unique elements that make it ripe for online marketing, such as constant media attention, big name recognition, high emotions and a quick deadline to meet, yet there are many best practices that fundraisers can take away from the Obama campaign.

We’ve already covered the first 10 basic foundations of multichannel fundraising in part one, including online donor demographics, channel integration, lead conversion, landing pages and using online not just to ask for donations, but also to empower constituents.

The discussion continues below, as our panel of expert multichannel fundraisers share detailed tips on crafting successful online messages. They also discuss emerging applications in social media, mobile and integrated data, which fundraisers can employ in online campaigns.

11. One-to-One Messaging Is Imperative in E-mail
“There is no question that the effort to achieve some degree of verisimilitude online is one of the ways that online fundraising and direct mail are similar. Certainly the personal message, addressed to the individual from an individual, is just as much a necessity online,” comments Mal Warwick, founder and chairman of Mal Warwick Associates, a direct mail and internet fundraising consultancy based in Berkeley, Calif. One-to-one messaging is one tactic that the Obama for America’s campaign executed perfectly. The campaign’s communications, whether sent via e-mail, direct mail or mobile, were personalized whenever possible and came from either the candidate himself, his wife Michelle or David Plouffe, the campaign manager. “It made me feel like such an insider. I got the emotion of Obama speaking directly to me, that he knows who I am,” says Karen Taggart, manager of fundraising innovations for PETA.

12. Carefully Select the ‘Voice’ of the Sender
In direct mail appeals, most messages come from the head of an organization, but in e-mail appeals, the sender is visible right away and is as crucial as the message’s subject line. “I don’t think it’s a matter of the message being ‘from the president’ every time; I definitely do not see that working online,” states Paul Phillips, online fundraising manager for PETA. That the Obama campaign created three or four key communications characters, Taggart says, was a brilliant strategy for varying the messaging and also using voices donors knew and trusted. As long as it’s someone people know and can relate to, varying the sender interrupts the monotony of the inbox, says Vinay Bhagat, founder and chief strategy officer of Convio, a software-as-a-service provider for nonprofit marketing and online donations based in Austin, Texas. “Some charities will go down the route of asking celebrities to make asks for them like St. Jude often does for Children’s Hospital,” he adds.

13. Test Text-Only E-mails
Warwick points out that the Obama campaign used a technique that is not widely practiced in e-mail marketing: plain text e-mail messages. “If you received a lot of their e-mail appeals, then you will have noted that a great many of them were essentially text-only, with very little in the way of graphics, and they didn’t often use sidebars with graphics or video on them,” he says. Warwick believes the simplicity of plain text e-mail makes sending e-mail less intimidating for marketers, especially those new to online fundraising, who can reach a larger number of people with their messages without getting bogged down in image and design details.

14. Wrap Appeals Around Newsworthy Items
“There are some charities that can use current events and news to motivate a gift … Especially in this economy, it’s about giving people context and creating tangible opportunities around which they will feel motivated to support you,” Bhagat says. The Obama campaign made great use of the constant media attention it received, transforming headlines into appeals, but for smaller organizations or those with different areas of focus, a little more creativity may be required. “For a social services group, if there’s a particularly new success story that they’ve published on the impact they’ve had on the community or an individual … they could use something like that to create a tangible reason to give now,” Bhagat illustrates.

15. Invest in Integrated Data Systems
To support a multichannel appeal, fundraisers will need to invest in data systems integrating mail, e-mail, and other channels and systems. Taggart says PETA continues to work toward an integrated data system to help deliver more timely and relevant donor communications across all channels. “If we have someone sign up online to do a fur-free pledge, then we can follow up with those people whether it’s in the mail, or online, or both, and say, ‘Thanks for pledging to go fur-free. Here’s some extra resources that can help you. And by the way, we’re launching a campaign against Armani, and could you help with a $15 contribution today?’” Taggart describes. She also encourages fundraisers to invest in data systems now to take advantage of the explosion of behavioral data becoming available online. “There’s so many bits that you can collect about what a person is doing or not doing online, which you can then put into a more traditional direct marketing model or a predictive analysis or ranking,” she says.

16. Be Flexible With Online Asks
One advantage online fundraising affords over direct mail is a new way to test and develop asks. “I don’t think the science of asking strings is nearly as fully developed online as it is in the mail … I think there’s a lot more room for experimentation online,” Taggart says. For example, she says you may find that you can vary your asks for particular appeals or ask for a higher amount on your first attempt, then a slightly lower amount the second time around. By looking at giving history across channels, you can assure that you are not downgrading donors in follow-up asks. “If I have a donor who gave $200 to the online Dog House campaign and then in the mail only donated a $35 renewal gift, I don’t want to then go back online and just ask them for $35,” Taggart advises.

17. Make Segmentation and Personalization Pay
“The cost of segmentation and the means of production are less expensive online than they are in the mail. In the mail, you can’t afford to have 4,000 different versions of the package for 4,000 different kinds of donors, whereas online there’s just so much more flexibility and potential,” Taggart points out. The personalization available online allows fundraisers to capture more constituents on niche hot-button issues and appeals. “If there’s somebody out there on a social network and they’re talking about the China fur trade and they have a group of 30 friends, then we can talk to them and give them the tools to do fundraising on our behalf on that issue … whereas before we’d have to lump those 30 people into this mass mail acquisition about factory farming, and that just wasn’t where their hook was,” Taggart explains.

18. Use Mobile Wisely
Marketers are talking about mobile across all sectors, even fundraising, but only a few organizations have successfully employed this channel. Bhagat points out the obstacle of consumers’ sensitivity to mobile messaging volume, because oftentimes they pay for each message received. But, he says, mobile does have some intelligent applications, which the Obama campaign made clear. “When they said if you’re an Obama mobile subscriber you’ll be the first to hear the VP announcement … they did a lot of things like that to really leverage the fact that we are today living in a multichannel world,” Bhagat says. The mobile channel still has relatively little marketing clutter and can feel very personal when done right. “Whenever the direct marketers talked about the Obama campaign, we all joked, ‘When he texted me the other day …’ He didn’t text me! But it really felt like that,” Taggart laughs.

19. Augment Traditional Marketing With New Media
“One thing that [the Obama campaign] did well was exploit new media channels … both social media, like YouTube, and social networks, like Facebook and MySpace,” Bhagat shares. He says that such venues are especially effective in reaching Generation Y and millennials, two groups who are on these networks daily, some individuals for hours at a time. “The amount of clutter in those channels in terms of competing messages is still less than in channels like e-mail or your mailbox. So they’re exciting in that sense … but they’re not a replacement for traditional marketing channels like e-mail, websites and direct mail; they’re really an augmentation,” he explains.

20. Social Networking May Be the Future of Giving

Facebook and MySpace are only really precursors that highlight a larger trend: It is a cultural norm to share your online experience with friends and family. Social networking had a powerful effect on Obama’s fundraising. Bhagat points out Obama’s online tool set, called “my vote,” which enabled users to reach out to friends and family to raise money, promote local events and encourage voting. He says that today constituents are forwarding appeals to friends, sending e-cards to raise awareness on issues, and creating personal pages to raise money from family and friends. “I am excited about the prospects of social networking and the prospects of people being able to do their own fundraising. That’s something that hasn’t been a big part of the equation so far, and people are still working to get it right. But I can imagine that five years from now, it will be a much, much larger part of all online fundraising,” Phillips enthuses.

In many ways, the Obama for America campaign’s success online represents a sea change in how donors function and how fundraisers must adapt. “What’s most exciting about [the Obama campaign] to me is that people in the millions are becoming engaged more actively in the causes and campaigns that are most meaningful to them,” Warwick says. He believes fundraisers will begin seeing more and more people coming online to research nonprofits and take advantage of giving opportunities.

While channels like direct mail are declining, online is growing. “This channel, while it’s still a much smaller contributor than the mail and other channels, it’s growing far faster than any other channel,” Bhagat points out. To demonstrate the growth he’s seen in online fundraising, Bhagat cites his company’s recent study showing 25 percent year-over-year online growth across 300 organizations. “Any prudent charity ought to be putting in place a thoughtful, well-defined strategy for the web and make sure they have the right tools and the right resources in place to be successful online.”

While most large national and international organizations have adopted sophisticated online fundraising techniques, Bhagat says it will be a few years until the smaller organizations catch up. “For some of the groups that we work with … online fundraising is outstripping how much they raise in direct mail or over the telephone, and so it is a major vehicle now for some charities … But most charities are sort of dipping their toes in the water,” he says.

What’s needed is a more measured, sophisticated and scientific approach to online fundraising. It may be years before most fundraisers are able to employ best practices online. “What is possible online is not necessarily what is within the reach of everybody who is attempting to raise money online now. Some of the metrics require a degree of sophistication that is not universal,” Warwick points out. “I don’t think that best practices are the norm in direct mail even now, and we’ve had direct mail in more or less its current form for about half a century. So maybe one of these days this will become a reality online,” he muses.

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