Converting advocates to donors

Let’s say you did the calculation of the value of an online advocate yesterday and it came out to thirty cents per.  Thirty measly cents.

After all the work you put into making sure every advocacy action was liked and retweeted and forwarded to friends.  You’d checked your bucket for holes and plugged them.  You’d dedicated real estate on your site and in your emails to the advocacy action.

But those darn advocates aren’t converting to donors.

Part of it may be your advocacy actions.  Remember the research from Tuesday: actions taken privately convert far better than public declarations that can be used as Facebook aren’t-I-a-good-person-today-so-I-guess-I’ll-have-that-brownie wallpaper.

But more often, the problem is that the communication stream for your advocates looks exactly like your communication stream for everyone else.  Remember our “change one thing” philosophy of expanding constituent horizons: if someone tells you that they like doing advocacy petitions online, your best bets for their next actions are going to be:

  • Doing advocacy petitions online
  • Doing other interactions online
  • Doing other advocacy efforts besides petitions
  • Doing advocacy petitions in other media

The next logical actions are not mailing in a check to support your annual fund or taking a call from a telemarketer who don’t know anything about the constituent or even joining your walk coming up in 42 short days.

And yet that is frequently our next action as nonprofits.  We want to expose people to so many different aspects of our nonprofits we might as well wear a sign that says

This organization doesn’t know who you are
or what you care about,
but they want your money.

A singularly unappealing message.

So how do you convert your advocates?  A few thoughts:

Strike while the iron is hot.  Quick, remember what the last survey you took online was about.  Unless it was in the past week, remembering the when or the what is probably not happening.  The same holds true for online advocacy — people are busy and may not remember they took an action a week later unless the issue is really important to them.

Thus, your communications to them need to start with the confirmation email and take advantages of those first few weeks where they remember you who are and what you do.  This will be easier if you…

Playback their action to them.  This shouldn’t take the form of (I swear I’ve seen this) “thank you for emailing your legislator about the importance of K-12 swimming education on Monday, January 13, 2013 at 8:43 PM.”  This is a conversation — play it just a little bit cool and bring it back to why they did what they did: “Thank you for helping protect kids from drowning by emailing your legislators.”

This playback reminds them that they did act with your organization and primes them for consistency influence: “I am the type of person who does things to protect kids from drowning.  Therefore, I should take this other action to do likewise.”

Report back on their action.  The best thing you can do to keep someone engaged is to make your action more than just a one-time event.  If someone emails their assemblyperson to pass a bill out of committee, let them know when the bill gets a hearing (with that picture of your organization testifying) and when it passes out of committee.  Now, you need that same person’s help to get it passed through the full Assembly.  You are able to get that passed, thanks to this wonderful person and people just like them all across the state.  Now, we need to get the Senate to act: would you email your senator as well?

And so on.  Most actions aren’t a one-time thing (or don’t have to me).  Reporting back on that action lets a person know that their action wasn’t wasted — they are helping to make a difference.  And asking again to help make the same or similarly things happen in multiple ways helps build a pattern: take an action, feel good about yourself, hear that it made a difference, feel good about yourself, take another action, feel good about yourself again…

At that point, it isn’t that big a leap for the final email in that series to say “your support helped pass the Zebra Endangered Animal Law (or ZEAL, because every bill has to spell something now).  Now we need to make sure that judges enforce the laws in place.  Your $17 monthly donation, in honor of the 17 zebras you will be helping to save, will monitor the courts to make sure that zebras will not be poached in our state.”

This leads into…

Customize the ask.  When you ask for a donation, the donation should be to help achieve the same ends that they took an advocacy action about.  If they wanted to save zebra habitats, don’t ask them to stop cosmetics testing on rabbits.

Go multichannel.  A simple campaign that I’ve seen work is mailing online advocates an offline petition for a similar action that they’d taken online, then doing an outbound voice mail campaign to let them know to watch their mailboxes for the petition.  They also received an online version of the same petition and both the offline and online petition asks also asked for a donation to support advocacy efforts.  This tight package can help bolster all efforts.  Similarly, some organizations have seen success telemarketing to advocates post-action thanking them for their action and asking for a monthly donation conversion.  This ties together the idea of a customized ask and striking while the iron is hot.

Any other best practices you have seen for advocate conversion?  Please let us know in the comments or email me at  I’d love to publish your success story, whether anonymously or to your greater glory.

Converting advocates to donors

Acquiring new advocates in (and for) direct marketing

There are several services now set up to bring advocates into your organization on a cost-per-acquisition basis. Care2,, and CQ Roll Call are the main ones that have come across my desk.

In full disclosure, I have not yet tried these services. I hope that anyone who has can tell about their experience in the comments (or contact me at; I’d love to set up a guest blog opportunity to help correct my vast areas of ignorance).

But I do know what would be required for me to participate in these types of campaigns:

  • Maximizing free/content marketing efforts
  • Optimized advocacy forms and efforts
  • Strong knowledge of the value of each advocate and a strong projection of the value of these externally acquired advocates versus internally acquired ones.

I’ll go through each of these in turn, as these would be valuable whether or not you decide to invest in cost-per-acquisition campaigns.

Maximizing free/content marketing efforts

First, get your Google Grant.  I know, I’ve said it before, but some of you still don’t have one.  So get it.  Consider it free traffic to your advocacy efforts.

Speaking of, after donation forms, advocacy activities are the best thing you can direct search traffic to, as they convert very well.  It’s usually a safe bet that the person searching for “email congress seal clubbing” wants to email their elected officials about seal clubbing.  And if they click through on your ad, they are probably on the con side.

(A note: as of this writing, there are no nonprofit ads for the term “seal clubbing,” but Humane Society and PETA are on the first page of search results.  Opportunity?)

And, as we mentioned last week, now you know something about your constituent’s interest as you work to, one change at a time, probe their interests and convert them to a donor.

That’s on the search engine side, but the more important part is to make advocacy a part of your communications. The more you talk about activities and activations in your blog, enewsletter, social media, and Web site, the more people will interact with it.  Here are some potential topics:

  • Highlight news stories about your issue.
  • And don’t just retweet that article about your issue; add the note that that’s why we have to pass HB1489 (or whatever) with a link for people to take action.
  • Blog a first-person account from one of your volunteers who lobbied legislators and how rewarding it was.
  • Talk about your lobby day (state or national) and invite your constituents to be a part of a virtual lobby day online.
  • Honor legislators who have been champions of your cause.
  • Tell success stories of passed legislation (since you should be doing these for your online and offline petition signers anyway).
  • Post a legislative agenda for the year and report back on it with the legislature(s) is/are closed.

Hopefully, these will increase interests in your petitions or emails to legislators.

Optimize advocacy forms and efforts.  I probably should have mentioned earlier that you need a platform for emailing legislators that allows you to own the constituent, not whatever petition service you are working.  These can range from setting up your own form on your site to ones that come with your CRM to paid solutions of all stripes.  If there’s enough interest (you can let me know by emailing me at, I can review these solutions in a future post.  For now, suffice it to say that the value in advocacy online is to whom the constituent belongs.  If it’s you, you can ask for future actions — advocacy and otherwise; if it’s someone else, you are helping them build their house, not yours.

Once you have these forms, it’s important that you treat your advocacy form like a donation form (if possible), where you are continually testing and refining your system.  For example, if you are doing a national petition, you may just ask for name and email address in order to maximize form completion.  I would advocate also asking for zip code; if you are going to be asking people to participate in other advocacy efforts, you will have to know in which districts they fall.  That may be it in order to get people into your organization.  Physical address may impair your form activation rates to the point that it is more profitable (side note: we need a term for profitable, but for non-profits; non-profitable sounds like the opposite of what it is) to leave that off and either ask for or append (or, more likely, both) the data afterward.

Further, there are all the usual things to test:

  • Does your petition work better at left or right?
  • Pictures on the page or spartan?
  • One-step action or multi-step?
  • How much copy to sell the petition action?
  • And so on

You definitely want this tested before trying any sort of paid campaign so you are not pouring water into a bucket without a bottom.

You also want to put similar rigor behind what communications you send advocates after their advocacy.  This would include a customized advocate welcome series, what (if any) is the first mailing they would get, what other actions you ask them to take, etc.  More on this tomorrow.

These are significant determinants of lifetime value, so you want these well in place before…

Determining the value of an advocate

For some organizations, having an advocate is its own reward.  For most, however, it’s also an activity on which you will want to break at least even.  Unfortunately, lifetime value is hard and multichannel attribution is its own week of blog posts at some point.  So here’s a quick and dirty hack for figuring out how much you should be willing to invest to get an advocate:

  1. Pull a list of everyone who came into your online database via advocacy action.
  2. Pull a list of the donations these people made online over the past year.
  3. Average the sum of the donations by the number of people in your database via advocacy action to find the one year value of an advocate.

That’s it.

I can hear purists out there screaming at me: “what about future year revenues from an advocate?”, “what about the value these constituents have in recruiting other constituents?”, “what about the gifts made in other channels?”, etc.

I agree: this is not the best way to pull an average advocate’s lifetime value.  It is, however, a quick one.  And it sets a baseline: if you know the average advocate is going to pay for themselves in 12 months, all of their other activities will be gravy.

That is, if you work this equation and it says the average advocate on your file gave you $3 last year, you know that acquiring an advocate for up to three dollars is valuable.  If your advocacy page converts at 10%, you know that you can put up CPC ads on search networks and pay up to $.30 per click.  You can experiment with online petition sites, which charge at least $1.50 per advocate (in my experience).  And you can value your online communications that bring in new advocates versus those that bring in new donors.

So this dart throw, primitive though it may be, can help you determine your communications mix and investment.  Not back for something you can do in Excel in 15 minutes.

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Acquiring new advocates in (and for) direct marketing

Mailing the humble outbound petition

Yesterday, I mentioned how allowing people to take private advocacy actions for your cause helps them take additional actions like donating.

You can think of it as a foot-in-the-door technique if you’d like, but prefer to think of it as a valuable part of cultivation.  If there are people who believe in the rightness of what you do, you are providing them and those you serve a benefit by allowing them to take action in an easy and organized way.

And you can see the planets of social influence aligning in a petitioning strategy.  You are triggering:

  • Consistency by asking people to put their money where their advocacy is
  • Scarcity of time, as petitions frequently have a due-by date to them (e.g., “while the legislature is still in session”, “before we testify on the bill”, “so we can present the petitions at our national conference”).
  • Authority, as you will have to be presenting a strong case for your legislation or action
  • Social proof, as you can talk about the thousands who have already taken an action.

So how can you mail a petition to maximum effect?  Here are some tips:

  • To maximize social proof, you can run an online campaign first, so you can honestly talk about how many have taken action already.  In fact, you can think of it like you would structure a matching gift campaign (or, if you read the study on matching gifts, perhaps a lead gift campaign): we have X petitions already; we want Y to have maximum impact; please send your petition by Z along with your most generous donation.
  • Petitions can be a strong way of driving your offline donors online, so be sure to include a URL where the person can learn more about the issue, take the petition action online, and donate.  After all, if you are building urgency properly, they may want their action to happen now.
  • Let your donors exactly what you are going to do with the petitions.  This concreteness will build trust.
  • Actually do what you say you are going to do with the petitions.  So much the better if you can get a picture of the stack of petitions you are delivering to the governor/senator/congressperson/delegate/etc. and report back to the donor with the impact their voice had.  This can be done through a caging vendor if you wish.
  • Avoid policy speak. I have had the pleasure of working on the US highway bill in years past.  When writing about this, it’s tempting to use the language policymakers use for the bill: e.g., “we don’t want another continuing resolution.  We need to get the authorization through the conference committee, so we can then appropriate the money to the program and distribute the Section 402 funds to the states.”  Here’s what your constituent hears:

    If they didn’t cover it on Schoolhouse Rock, don’t expect the person to know it.  Remember, your donor/advocate is likely looking for impact, rather than the minutia.
  • Customize your petition to appeal to opinion leaders.  Let’s say your goal is to get Senate cosponsors for a federal bill.  If you have 12 already, you should ask your advocates for those senators to thank their senators for taking the action you want, rather than sending them the same “do this action” petition everyone else gets.  This helps your organization’s credibility.  And since thanking officials is infrequent, you will get a positive reputation that will help you in the future.
  • Make sure your donation ask is tied to your advocacy ask.  You can get specific here — send in your petition to pass this bill and donate to help us advocate for this and other vital legislation.  Those people who are advocates know that advocacy is important and thus are likely willing to donate to support it.
  • Make this one of your conversion efforts for your online advocates.  This fits with the idea of the “one change at a time” conversion effort I advocated recently.

How have petitions worked for you as an organization?  Please let us know in the comments.

Mailing the humble outbound petition

The science of slacktivism

Online advocacy has a bad name.  Specifically: slacktivism (or clicktivism).  Seth Meyers put the prevailing opinion into funny words on SNL:


“Look, if you make a Facebook page we will “like” it—it’s the least we can do.
But it’s also the most we can do.”

This frames the debate well.  Some think that online activism is a prelude to future action — a way people signal they are interested in your cause and are working to do more.  Others think it is a way for people (and here they will often say Millennials — check out my posts from a couple weeks ago as to why this is bull) to feel good about themselves while doing very little.

So what does science say?

I’ll give you the TL;DR version now: campaigns that are good help future action; campaigns that suck don’t.

OK, perhaps that wasn’t all that satisfying.  But you wanted to read about the science anyway, right?

There are three interesting studies on this that I wanted to highlight.  The first is from Lee and Hsieh here.  They found that people who signed a petition were more likely to donate to a related nonprofit afterward.  This makes sense given what we know about the importance of consistency in persuasion.  

The more interesting part of the study is that they also found that people who didn’t take the advocacy action were more likely donate to another unrelated nonprofit thereafter.  They call this moral balancing.  The idea is that people feel a bit guilty that they didn’t take a pro-social action, so they want to balance this with an unrelated prosocial action.  I’m not sure yet what practical effect this has (unless I can rent a list of another nonprofit’s non-petition signers), but it’s interesting and it shows that people perceive an online petition as a positive thing that they generally should be doing.

The second study I would recommend is from Kristofferson, White, and Peloza. They come right to the question of whether a token action leads to greater action in the future with five different studies.  My favorite, and the easiest to explain, is one where had three groups: one who were given a poppy to wear in honor of veterans, one who were given that same poppy in an envelope so it would be for private support, and one who were given nothing.  At the end of the hallway, the groups were asked to donate.  Those who showed private support (poppy in the envelope) gave an average of $.86, public supporters gave $.34, and the control gave $.15.  They further refined this study in other ways and found that generally, people who gave private support were more likely to support in the future; people who gave public support were either no more likely or less likely to support the cause than those who did nothing.

The third study, from Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich, found similarly — that Facebook activism (perhaps because it is public) doesn’t often translate to any further activity.  Looking at a Save Darfur campaign, 99.7% of people did not make a donation and 72.2% didn’t recruit anyone else.  Of those who donated, 95% did only once and of those who recruited, 45% recruited only one other person.  Hardly a sustainable effort.  The authors hypothesize that this is because Facebook is full of both strong and weak social ties, so you want to advertise your best self to this group.

However, there was a committed group of people on Facebook: it was just very small.  The top one percent of advocates made the 80-20 rule turn away in shame, responsible as they were for 63% of membership recruitment and 47% of donations.  The study also found that recruits were more likely to donate and donors more like to recruit.  So once you got someone over a very high threshold, some people would work wonders, but these were unicorns in a world of horses.

So here are the implications that I see for advocacy campaigns:

  • Do them.  A properly run advocacy campaign can increase the likelihood that someone will donate and take other actions for your organization.
  • Make them private.  Public petitions appear to satisfy a person’s desire to manage their reputation, so they were less willing to take other actions.
  • By extension, don’t do them on social networks.  Not only are they not public, but you do not have the easy wherewithal to communicate with them to get the first gift or convert to other activities.
  • Make the ask.  It can be as easy as having an ask for the donation on the confirmation page or receipt for a petition.  Folks who take private actions want to help and are in a mindset of helping.  I personally have seen advocacy campaigns with a soft ask after taking the petition raise more money than a hard ask to a full list.  Crazy, but true.

Hopefully, this has given you the data to incorporate advocacy into your campaigns the right way.  For the rest of the week, I’ll be talking about how to incorporate in the mail, acquiring online advocates, and converting advocates to donors.

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The science of slacktivism

Advocacy and nonprofit direct marketing

The most common question about nonprofit advocacy efforts is “can we actually do that with our nonprofit status?”

Absolutely.  I’m not an attorney and this is not a legal opinion, but I can point you to the IRS Web site:

In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying).  A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.

So what does “substantial part” mean?  There are two ways you can quantify this.  The first is a Potter Stewart-esque “the IRS knows it when it sees it” type test.  The second, and more logical, one is as a percentage of revenues.  The full chart is here.

The thing to note is that it applies to expenditures.  If you set up an online petition about a specific bill and allow constituents to email their representatives, there are no marginal costs — only the costs of the platform that allows for this type to advocacy and your time working on the alert.  This is part of why online advocacy is so popular among nonprofits.

Mail is a little bit more challenging because of the expense involved but attorneys of my acquaintance have said (and remember, I’m not a lawyer), not all advocacy is lobbying.  Mentioning a specific bill number or a highly publicized issue that has a bill on it qualifies, but sending in a petition asking for higher priority for breast cancer research or environmental preservation probably does not qualify.

So now that you know you can do it, should you?  I would answer absolutely.  As nonprofits, we are working to solve social ills.  There is almost always something a governmental entity can do, or stop doing, that will help with some of the underlying parts of the ill you are looking to solve.

Additionally, as you might guessed since I am bringing up advocacy in a direct marketing context, advocacy is often an outstanding way to acquire, retain, and cultivate donors.  Advocacy appeals frequently have outstanding urgency to them (which I’ve noted helps with persuasion) and give you people with a deeper connection to your mission.  Additionally, as we discussed last week, having knowledge of your donors and which like advocacy appeals can be vital for customizing your communications to them.

But they have to be done the right way.  Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the debate on the value of online slacktivism and how to craft your online communications to make sure your advocacy doesn’t end with the Like.  And for the rest of the week, I’ll cover petitions in the mail, acquiring advocates, and converting advocates into donors.

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Advocacy and nonprofit direct marketing

Getting donor intelligence by asking your donors

Yesterday, I said you can get a good idea of who your donor is through their actions.  The trick here is that you will never find donor motivations for which you aren’t already testing.  This is for the same reason that you can’t determine where to build a bridge by sitting at the river and looking for where the cars drive in trying to float across it, Oregon-Trail-style.


Damn it, Oregon Trail.  The Native American guide told me to try to float it.
Don’t suppose that was his minor revenge for all that land taking and genocide?

To locate a bridge, you have to ask people to imagine where they would drive across a bridge, if there were a bridge.  This gives you good news and bad news: good news, you can get information you can’t get from observation; bad news, you get what people think they would do, rather than what they actually will do.

True story: I once asked people what they would do if they received this particular messaging in an unsolicited mail piece.  Forty-two percent said they would donate.  My conclusion — about 40% of the American public are liars — may have been a bit harsh.  What I didn’t know then but know now is that people are often spectacularly bad at predicting their own behavior, myself included.  (“I will only eat one piece of Halloween candy, even though I have a big bucket of it just sitting here.”)

There is, of course, a term for this (hedonic forecasting) and named biases in it (e.g., impact bias, empathy gap, Lombardi sweep, etc.).  But it’s important to highlight here that listening to what people think they think alone is perilous.  If you do it, you can launch the nonprofit equivalent of the next New Coke.

“The mind knows not what the tongue wants. […] If I asked all of you, for example, in this room, what you want in a coffee, you know what you’d say? Every one of you would say ‘I want a dark, rich, hearty roast.’ It’s what people always say when you ask them what they want in a coffee. What do you like? Dark, rich, hearty roast! What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? According to Howard, somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee. But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want – that ‘I want a milky, weak coffee.’”  — Malcolm Gladwell

With those cautions in mind, let’s look at what survey and survey instruments are good for and not good for.

First, as mentioned, surveys are good for finding what people think they think.  They are not good for finding what people will do.  If you doubt this, check out Which Test Won, which shows two versions of a Web page.  Try to pick out which version of a Web page performed better.  I venture to say that anyone getting over 2/3rds of these right has been unplugged and now can see the code of the Matrix.  There is an easier and better way to find out what people will do, which is to test; surveys can give you the why.

Surveys are good for determining preferences.  They are not good for explaining those preferences.  There’s a classic study on this using strawberry jam.  When people were asked what their preferences were for jam, their rankings paralleled Consumer Reports’ rankings fairly closely.  When people were asked why they liked various jams and jellies, their preferences diverged from these expert opinions significantly.  The authors write:

“No evidence was found for the possibility that analyzing reasons moderated subjects’ judgments. Instead it changed people’s minds about how they felt, presumably because certain aspects of the jams that were not central to their initial evaluations were weighted more heavily (e.g., their chunkiness or tartness).”

This is not to say that you shouldn’t ask the question of why; it does mean you need to ask the question of why later and in a systematic way to avoid biasing your sample.

Surveys are good for both individual preferences and group preferences.  If you have individual survey data on preferences, you absolutely should append these data to your file and make sure you are customizing your reasons to give to the individual’s reason why s/he gives.  They also can tease out segments of donors you may not have known existed (and where you should build your next bridge.

Surveys are good for assessing experiences with your organization and bad for determining complex reasons for things.  If you have 18 minutes, I’d strongly recommend this video about how Operation Smile was able to increase retention by finding out what donors’ experiences were with them and which ones were important.  Well worth a watch.

If you do want it, you’ll see that they look at granular experiences rather than broad questions.  These are things like “Why did you lapse” or “are we mailing too much?”   These broad questions are too cognitively challenging and encompassing too many things.  For example, you rarely hear from a donor to send fewer personalized handwritten notes, because those are opened and sometimes treasured.  What the answer to a frequency question almost always leads to is an answer to the quality, rather than quantity, of solicitation.

Surveys are good when they are well crafted and bad when they are poorly crafted.  I know this sounds obvious, but there are crimes against surveys committed every day.  I recently took a survey of employee engagement that was trying to assess whether our voice was heard in an organization.  The question was phrased something like “How likely do you think it is that your survey will lead to change?”

This is what I’d call a hidden two-tail question.  A person could answer no because they are completely checked out at work and fatalistic about management.  Or a person could answer no, because they were delighted to be working there, loved their job, and wanted nothing to change.

Survey design is a science, not an art.  If you have not been trained in it, either get someone who is trained in it to help you, or learn how to do it yourself.  If you are interested in the latter, Coursera has a free online course on questionnaire design here that helped me review my own training (it is more focused on social survey design, but the concepts work similarly).

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned focus groups.  Focus groups are good for… well, I’m not actually sure what focus groups are good for.  They layer all of the individual biases of group members together, stir them with group dynamic biases like groupthink, unwillingness to express opinions contrary to the group, and the desire to be liked, season them with observer biases and the inherent human nature to guide discussions toward preconceived notions, then serve.

Notice there was no cooking in the instructions.  This is because I’ve yet to see a focus group that is more than half-baked. (rim shot)

My advice if you are considering a focus group: take half of the money you were going to spend on the focus group, set it on fire, inhale the smoke, and write down the “insights” you had while inhaling the money smoke.  You will have the same level of validity in your results for half the costs.

Also, perhaps more helpful, take the time that you would have spent talking to people in a group and talk to them individually.  You won’t get any interference from outside people on their opinions, introverts will open up a bit more in a more comfortable setting and (who knows) they may even like you better at the end of it.  Or if you hire me as a consultant, I do these great things with entrails and the bumps on donors’ heads.

So which do you want to use: surveys or behavior?  Both. Surveys can sometimes come up with ideas that work in theory, but not in practice, as people have ideas of what they might do that aren’t true.  Behavior can show you how things work in practice, but it can be difficult to divine deep insights that generalize to other packages and communications and strategies.  They are the warp and weft of donor insights.

Getting donor intelligence by asking your donors

And you shall know your constituents by their deeds

There are two ways to know your constituents better: listening to what they do and asking them what they think. Today, I’ll talk about the former; tomorrow, the latter.

Yesterday’s piece talked about how you can roughly define an individual’s responsiveness by medium, message, and action.  The trick is that we often segment by only one, possibly two, of these.  We have medium covered: most large-scale programs of my acquaintance distinguish among people who are mail, telemarketing, online, multichannel, etc. responders.  And many small-scale programs haven’t begun to integrate medium, so in a way this is its own segmentation.

Sometimes, we will use action as a determiner.  We’ll take our online advocates segment and drop it into one of our better-performing donor mail pieces (frequently not customizing the message to advocacy, more’s the pity).

We rarely segment by message, even though picking something that people care about is the most basic precondition of the three.  After all, you may not like telefundraising, but you’d at least listen if it was immediately and urgent about something that you care about.  And it’s much easier to get someone to do something they haven’t done before for a cause they believe in than to get them to do something they’ve done many times if they don’t believe in the message.

The good news is that you have your constituents’ voting records, of a sort.  Consider each donation to a communication a vote for that communication and each non-donation (or, if you can get it from email, non-open or non-clickthrough) as a vote against that communication.

[tangent] This is also a helpful technique for when your executive director comes into your office and says “I’ve had five calls today from people who aren’t happy about [insert name of communication here].”  If you reframe it as five people voted against it by calling and five thousand people voted for it by donating, the noisy few are not nearly as concerning.[/tangent]

A proper modeler would use the data from these votes to run a Bayesian model to update continually the priors on whether or not someone would respond to a piece.  As you can probably tell, I’m not a proper modeler.  I prefer my models fast, free, and explainable.  So here’s how I’d use this voting data:

  • Take all of your communications over a 3-5 year period and code them by message.  So for our hypothetical wetlands organization from yesterday, this might be education, research, and conservation.  Hopefully, you don’t have too many communications that mix your messages (people donate to causes, not lists), but if you do, either take it by the primary focus or code it to both messages.
  • Determine the mix of your communications.  Let’s say that over five years this wetlands organization did 25 conservation appeals, 15 education appeals, and 10 research appeals.  This makes the mix 50% conservation, 30% education, and 20% research.
  • Take your donor file and pull out only those people who donated an average of at least once per year over that 3-5 year period.  This will ensure you are looking only at those people who have even close to sufficient data to draw conclusions.
  • Take the coding of communications you have and apply it to the pieces to which the person donated.  Generate a response rate for each type of message for each person on your file.
  • Now, study that list.

In studying that list, you are probably going to find some interesting results:

  • There are going to be some people (a minority of your file but likely a healthy segment) that only gave to one type of message.  And you’ll see the pattern immediately.  Someone who gave eight times over five years to education appeals and never to conservation or research appeals is clearly an education donor.  You will look at all of the other communications you sent this person and all of the people like her in the X-issue-only segments and you will weep a little.  But weep not.  You can now save your costs and these people’s irritation in the future by sending them only the communications about their issue area (with the occasional test to see if their preferences have changed).  It’s only a mistake unless you don’t learn from it; if you do learn from it, it’s called testing.
  • You can also probably lump people who gave rarely to other messages in with the X-issue only people.  So if someone gave to nine of the ten research appeals and to only one each of education and conservation, they clearly have a strong research preference.  This is why it’s helpful to look at these data by response rates — you can see where people have ebbs and flows in their support.
  • You will also see people who like two messages, but not a third (or fourth or however many you have; I will warn you to minimize the number of buckets, as you will not have a large enough sample size without).  So if someone gave five times, three to education appeals and two to research appeals, education and research both appeal to this person with a 20% response rate.  However, conservation doesn’t apparently appeal to them, so you can reduce communications in this realm.
  • You’ll also see a contingent of folks who donate to communications in roughly the same proportion that you send them out.  These people can probably be classified as organizational or institutional donors.  It will take far more digging than mere file analysis to figure out what makes this donor tick.

This leads into an important point: these will not get you to why.  Even things like how often a person gives for how long or Target Analytics Group’s Loyalty Insights, which can show if the person is giving uniquely to you or to others, are transactional data.  While useful proxies, they can’t tell you the depth of feeling that someone has for an organization or let you know what ties bind them to you.  To do that, you must ask.  That’s what I’ll cover tomorrow.  But hopefully this gets a little closer to information that will help you customize your donor’s experiences.


And you shall know your constituents by their deeds