Testing for smaller lists

One of my favorite non-Far Side single panel cartoons is



This is often what it feels like to be a small nonprofit or small division of a nonprofit.  You know exactly what you would do if you were big.  But you aren’t (yet).  And absent that miracle in the middle, you aren’t going to be there soon.  It feels like a Catch-22 – you aren’t big enough to test, but you aren’t going to enough to test unless you test.

A lot of people have this problem.  One of my favorite conversion sites, unbounce.com, recommends that you have 1000 conversions per month to do A/B testing.  That takes a large nonprofit to accomplish.  Like the Oakland As in Moneyball (both book and movie are recommended), you have fewer resources, so you are going to have to be smarter than your competition other worthy causes.  Here are some tips on how:

Learn what’s important first: Before you do your first test with online traffic, look at your analytics reports (do you have Google Analytics on your site?).  Where are people bouncing from your site?  Where are they dropping out of the donation process?  What forms aren’t converting?  You may be able to do more with one-tenth the traffic or donor list if you are testing the things that will matter to you.

Steal from other people first: There are some things that are almost immutably true.  Requiring more information on a form means lower conversion rates.  Having a unique color for your donate button that stands out from the other colors on your Web site will increase clicks.  Using a person’s name, unless it’s in a subject line, will likely increase response rate.  I commend the site whichtestwon.com to you.  I’ve had the privilege of presenting at their live events and the type of information that comes of them in terms of what others have tested first will save you time and money on things you can do, rather than test.

Go big: I’ve talked about things like envelopes and teasers and things to test.  If you don’t have a large donor or traffic base, ignore that.  You want to be testing audience and offer – the things that can be global and game changing.

Test across time: If you are testing an audience, an offer, or a theme, that doesn’t have to be accomplished in one piece or email.  Rather, you can test it over a year if you want.  Let’s say you want 25,000 people in each testing group, but only have 3,000, you can get a similar feel for the response to large-scale changes over nine pieces, rather than testing it all in one.

Require less proof: Chances are you are used to doing more with less already.  If you are Microsoft, you can run your test until you get 99.9% certain you are correct.  You should be willing to be less certain.  Some nonprofits choose 80% certainty as their threshold.  Even 60% can give you directional results.  Bottom line, this is a restriction you may be willing to relax.

Test cheaply:  Testing direct mail and telemarketing is expensive.  You want to do your learnings on your site with Google Analytics and either Google’s optimization tool or Optimizely, in email, or on social media.  I would go so far as to say that even larger nonprofits don’t want to test an envelope teaser that they haven’t already tested as a subject line to see if it grabs attention.  Survey tools like SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang can also help you pre-test your messaging either with your core audience (free) or with a panel of people who fit your demographic target (cheap, if you can keep your number of questions down).

Get testing subjects cheaply: I know it sounds like I’m in Google’s pocket, but they have many nonprofit solutions at the right price for smaller nonprofits – free.  One of these is Google Grants, which allows you to use their AdWords solution with in-kind donated advertising.  Get this now, if you don’t have it.  We’ll do a whole week on AdWords at some point, but in the meantime, if you have a form you are testing and you don’t have enough traffic, pause all of your campaigns except the ones directed to that form.  You will get your results a lot more quickly.

Test by year: It’s not an ideal solution, but if you test one thing one year and then another tactic the next year at the same time, you can get a gut feeling as to what is more effective.

Avoid word salad: Consider the time on West Wing (which I remember better than many real-life presidencies) when the Majority Leader who was running for president was asked why he wanted to be president:


“The reason I would run, were I to run, is I have a great belief in this country as a country and in this people as a people that go into making this country a nation with the greatest natural resources and population of people, educated people … with the greatest technology of any people of any country in the world, along with the greatest, not the greatest, but very serious problems confronting our people, and I want to be President in order to focus on these problems in a way that uses the energy of our people to move us forward, basically.”

Good writing converts.  Good writing mandates active verbs and few adverbs (my personal crutch).


“It’s an adverb, Sam. It’s a lazy tool of a weak mind.”
— Kevin Spacey in Outbreak

Good writing ignores the mission statement, discards stats, eschews your jargon, and touches you in a very personal place.  OK, perhaps not that active a verb.  I’m talking about your heart, you sicko.

Don’t test good copy versus bad copy.  Come up with your best before you test, lest you learn what you already should know.

Conspire.  You have coalition partners and people who are in similar positions around you.  Get out into the big blue room and see what they are doing.  And be generous with your own tests – deposits in the karma bank rarely fail to pay interest.

Finally, embrace the advantage of being small.  As a smaller nonprofit, you are going to have to be smarter about testing than bigger ones.  But you will be able to swing for the fences while they are still trying to get their different versions of teaser copy through the Official Teaser Copy Review Subcommittee.  You can be bold and find your voice honed to what works, rather than what your boss’s boss’s boss’s brother-in-law said you should try out over Thanksgiving dinner.

Tomorrow, we’ll go into some testing modalities that allow you to test things beyond a single communication or theme.

Testing for smaller lists

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