Creating content that converts

Over the past couple of days, I talked about Google Grants and other CPC search engine tactics for driving people to your site.

But nothing beats getting people to your site without paying for them (or Google paying for them for you).  That’s where having quality content coming in.

There are three layers to having quality content in the sense that I’m using it – content that gets you to the conversion you are looking for.

First, the content has to be attractive to machines.  That is, a person looking for the content has to be able to find it on the Internet through search engines.  There is a whole science to this called search engine optimization and plumbing its depths is a topic for another time.  However, you can get a good portion of the way there by looking the keywords that you’ve selected for your CPC ads.  Focus on how many times they are searched for and how well they convert for you.  From this, you should get a strong perspective on the types of content people are looking for and what they want answered.  You can then write that content, using the keywords that people use to find such content.

I use write here even though there are other types of content that are not in written form.  However, to be searched for effectively, there should be some sort of written aspect that corresponds to your video, audio, picture, etc.  Search engines deal best with the written word.

Second, the content has to be attractive to people.  This probably goes without saying, but your content has to be on a valuable topic and written well.


Chris_Hemsworth_3,_2013Having attractive imagery or people in your ad will likely also help.
Thanks for the assist, Chris.

Third, the content has to make a person want to take the next step.  What that next step is is up to you.  You can approach it either with the end in mind (“I want people to email their legislators through our advocacy system; what would make them want to do that?”) or from what is in the content (“I have this white paper here on the dangers of bovine flatulence; what would be a logical thing to do as a result of this”) – either way works.  The latter is good for a content audit: collecting all of your assets and determine their use.  However, if you are starting from scratch, it’s probably best to have the end in mind when you set virtual pen to virtual paper, lest you write a great piece that don’t achieve your goals.

While I’ve done quite a few blog posts here on the site now with little else, it doesn’t really pay to have the same type of content or same type of next step over and over.  Varying your content types is a good way not only to prevent your constituents from getting board, but also segmenting your constituents for the future – e.g., this cluster like action alerts, these like surveys, etc.

I mention action alerts and surveys, because these are two generally nicely converting content types, because their existence is set up to cause people to interact with them.  Others include polls, pleas to share your story, petitions, contests, etc – anything with a form on it or a question is going to be a bit better at capturing constituents than anything without.

Speaking of, I’ve been writing mostly on things that interest me; what interests you?  I’d love to do a day or a week on the topics that would be more valuable to you.  Simply leave a note in the comments below or email me at

Creating content that converts

Acquire your own online donors

I know, it’s an odd title.  But every year, 30% of your online constituents go away not because they aren’t interested in you anymore, but because they changed their online contact information.  Seventeen percent change after six months.  That means that the half-life of your list is less than two years.

halffull.jpgIt doesn’t matter if it’s half full or half empty, just that it’s half of what it was.

This is going to be online acquisition week and I’ll go through a lot of tactics for bringing folks into your organization online.  But because of this, the best and the easiest way to acquire new online constituents is not to lose the old ones.  Conversely, it doesn’t make sense to start acquiring new online people if you aren’t ready to keep them.

So we’re going to go back to that old saw: data hygiene.  If you don’t believe in the necessity of data hygiene, then there’s a PSA you need to read.  We’ll look at the online specific ways to keep your data clean.

Scrubbing user-entered data.  Users will misspell their own names, then blame you when you address them by that wrong name.  Email addresses are no better, but those at least have a standard format that you can check.  Hopefully, you have an email validator on your forms, but you probably have data that predates your validation.  Some things to look for:

  • Does the email address end with a top-level domain (e.g., .com, .gov, .net, .org, .edu, .mil, or a country code)? Many an email has bounced back because it went to aol.con.
  • Does the email address have an @? If the email has a ! or # in it, chances are that, because these are right next to the @ symbol, @ is what was intended.
  • Does it bounce? That is, when you send the email, does it come back to you?  This is one reason that it’s important to send your email from a real email address – so you can change bounced emails or mark them for further work.  (Also, a real email address will help with charges that you are spamming people).

Put an email validator on your forms if you haven’t already.  Just to make that perfectly clear.

Run an ECOA service.  ECOA, or electronic change of address, is a service that functions a bit similarly to the national change of address (NCOA) registered with the USPS.  These services look at innumerable services across the Web to determine where a person might have gone.  You should ideally run both bad email addresses and email addresses that have not opened an email in a certain amount of time (say, six months).  If they haven’t opened an email in six months and they have a good email address…

Suppress chronic nonresponders from most emails.  If people aren’t opening your emails continually, they won’t miss you not sending emails (and, when you do send a very occasional email, it will be a bit more of a surprise).  And they won’t drag down your open rate or mark your emails as spam, making you more likely to survive email providers spam filters.

E-append your file.  Take your offline donor file and give it to an e-append service; they will return email addresses of people who would probably like to interact with you online, but haven’t yet given you their email address.  This also works like ECOA for bounced and non-opening addresses.

This isn’t going to stop your attrition from bad email addresses.  But it will help you hold on a little longer to the people who want to hear from you.

Acquire your own online donors

Customizing your direct marketing (aka Dear Mr. Jenny Roberts:)

In addition to looking for that sweet spot somewhere between “that nonprofit doesn’t know me and takes me for granted” and “that nonprofit has clearly been looking through my underwear drawer again,” the most grievous sin you can make in customizing and personalizing is being wrong.  Thus, a disclaimer that these techniques should really only be used when you are confident in the data used to customize.

When looking at your donor’s sweet spot, there is another optimization to be navigated – the cost of additional personalization versus the return.  Like all else that is good and pure of this world, the way to determine this is through testing.  But there is one way to maximize the bang for your customization buck, which is to customize only one side of, or page of, a letter.  If the printer can do most of your mail piece without variable printing your costs come down substantially.

Of course, these additional costs are nearly non-existent online or on the phones, where your customization is limited only by your imagination, the time you want to invest in creating different versions, and whether your telemarketers will rise up and overthrow you if you have a different script for every call.  I say this last only partly jokingly, in that some experienced callers will use the script with which they are comfortable rather than the script they are asked to use.  Thus, online can have the purest, cheapest testing, so please, please, please test your online asks.

Here are some simple customizations that I have seen increase response rate to the point that they more than paid for themselves:

  • Name: Duh. Infants as young as five months old selectively listen for their own name and this is fully developed by 13 months.  From then until up to 120 years later, we listen, watch for, and seek out our own name.  That name is very, very infrequently Current Resident or Friend.
  • Donation history: If someone has been a long-term donor, it’s great to recognize this. You want to do this casually, as in “You’ve stood for an end to feline boredom for over a decade.  Will you join us again when we need you most”, not as in “Since you joined EFB 13 years and three months ago,” as that gets creepy. If you have something like a member card or supporter club, acknowledging that someone has been “member since 2001” will usually lift response.There is a special version of this that is also very effective – playing back to people that they contributed to the same campaign last year, e.g., “you had your gift matched last year; now is another opportunity to double your impact on adult-onset flatulence.”  Here, you are reminding the person that they are the type of good person that donates to things like the thing they are reading or hearing.
  • Mission area: If you know how someone came into the organization or what they care about, it’s vitally important to play that back to them. Animal organizations, in particular, customize their messages to cat people and to dog people, knowing that each has their own reasons for supporting the cause.
  • Location: I saw a .5% percentage point increase in response rate when someone knew that the story we were using happened right in their state. Of course, this can require 50 different versions, so perhaps you’ll want to start with more easily variabilized copy.  Even easier is to reference the city and/or state in the copy without specifying the story.
  • Contribution level: This is partly for the donor or potential donor. You don’t want to insult someone who would normally donate $20 by asking them for $1000, nor a $1000 for $20.  I once received an acquisition piece from my local Boy Scout organization that asked for $250 as the lowest donation level.  On an acquisition piece.  With no return envelope.  Needless to say, while I was not helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, or obedient, I was thrifty.  This is also for your benefit.  You want to maximize the donation(s) from a donor, gradually increasing their giving over time as their trust in and love for you grows.  That process can be undermine by asking for the wrong gift at the wrong time.

In fact, there is an entire art to ask strings, one that we will cover tomorrow.

Customizing your direct marketing (aka Dear Mr. Jenny Roberts:)

Your first acquisition mailings

The first thing to know is that mail programs will generally lose money initially. Even if you have great donors and good packages at first, the cost of growing the program will likely outstrip the benefits of running it at first, especially because there are significant fixed costs in the mailing space (e.g., it costs just as much to copywrite a letter than does to 100 people as it does one that goes to 100,000).

Acquisition is where you can get into serious money. Acquisition is designed to lose money for all but the most (absurdly) conservative organization. It’s an investment in bringing new people into the organization and getting them to support you financially. Yet, it’s necessary to start to build your file and lower your marginal costs.

One way to do acquisition on the cheap is with warm and conversion leads. Warm leads are people who have engaged with your organization non-financially (e.g., remember those folks we got to download our white paper last week and give us their contact info?); conversion leads are people who have donated, but not through the mail (e.g., online donors, walkers, gala attendees, etc.). These are inexpensive ways to get new donors, as you don’t have to pay list rental fees.

The other way to get names is, not surprisingly, to pay list rental fees. Try to find organizations like yours to test their lists – often people who support an environmental/cultural/health/etc. charity support many of them. It’s much easier to convince someone to support something very like what they already support.

It also behooves you to put your list up for rental/exchange as well. This will lower your list costs because you will be trading lists with some nonprofits instead of renting theirs.

Charity Navigator will ding you for having a privacy policy that allows this, even if you allow people to opt out of list rental/exchange at any time. Like so many things in the nonprofit world, Charity Navigator is wrong about this. They would recommend, in fact, that you not mail your donors because of the cost involved and because they don’t believe that part of the mailing is a program expense designed to educate your supporters about your issue and promote awareness. That said, if you took the same mail piece and gave it out at a walk instead of putting a stamp on it, it could be considered almost entirely a program expense.

If this doesn’t seem burdened by an overabundance of logic, you would be correct. Generally, you would do well to take a George Costanza approach to Charity Navigator and simply “do the opposite” of their guidance.

In addition to rental and exchange markets, you can also work with cooperatives to get additional names. These coops include Abacus, Dataline, Datalogix, DonorBase, I-Behavior, Target Analytics and Wiland. I think I’ve tried almost all of these at some time or another. These coops share names among them and will build a model of response to get the best possible donor lists for your organization. Think of it as not renting from 10 different lists, but rather getting the best from 20 different lists. Some work better for some organizations than others and it may take a few to get it right.

The downside here is that your best names will start to get mail from a lot of different organizations. On the flipside, you have access to the best quality names from other organizations. Be sure to hold out part of your file to determine the impact of this mailing structure on your file.

After you look at your first bill for an acquisition and regain consciousness, you will rediscover the value of warm leads. Just because you started a paid mail program doesn’t mean that the free tips discussed earlier, especially about working to turn your Web site into a constituent generator, don’t still apply. On the contrary, free is often the best possible price. Adding to the original thoughts, now that you’ve run a program, look at lapsed donors as another source of (re)acquisition. Generally speaking, lapsed donors once renewed will be more loyal to your organization than an outside acquired name and they generally acquire more inexpensively.

So far, I’ve been talking about mailings – online and off – as one size fits all. In reality, if time and money were no objects, each communication you would send out would be handcrafted and uniquely personalized and there would be bespoke artisanal direct mail pieces coming out of Brooklyn and Portland in lavender scented envelopes.

In truth, you aim for something in the middle using customization. That will be the topic for the rest of the week.

Your first acquisition mailings

Turning on the online spigot

You have the forms, but now you need the traffic. Well, it’s important to remember that Field of Dreams was a work of fiction – building it is not a sufficient condition for people coming.

To start, you do have Google Grants don’t you? If not, we’ll wait right here while you apply.


So, how about that local sports team? I heard they won or lost yesterday. That coach is a genius. Or should be fired.


OK, you’re back. I’ll talk more about Google Grants in the future, but suffice it to say it’s a great way to start acquiring warm leads. There are limitations like the $2 cost-per-click maximum that chaff some in the nonprofit world, but try applying for this free money from Bing or Yahoo and you’ll find it doesn’t exist.  So $2 CPC it is.

As part of your Google Grant process, you need to identify some keywords and phrases that are important for your organization.

To do this, you will have to speak like a human being. There is a cognitive bias known as the curse of knowledge – once you know something, it’s really hard to act as though you don’t know that thing. Or, as the original authors of the paper describe it:

“In economic analyses of asymmetric information, better-informed agents are assumed capable of reproducing the judgments of less-informed agents. We discuss a systematic violation of this assumption that we call ‘the curse of knowledge.’”

There is a wonderful irony in this definition.

Anyway, in order to determine how people will find your wonderfully constructed conversion forms, you need to think like they will think. One example is from MADD. The organization teaches that there is no such thing as a drunk driving accident – that each crash is 100% preventable and that drunk driving is a violent crime.

Unfortunately, that’s not how people search for the terms.  Google Trends searches for drunk driving accident are in red; searches for drunk driving crash are in blue:

drunk driving accident crash

So MADD has ads set up for both accident and crash – they won’t say accident in their copy (ever), but they meet people where they are searching.

The same terms that you are advertising on with Google Grants should also be terms that you use in the page that you are looking to optimize. Not only will it help people convert once they come to the page, but it will also improve your performance for those terms in search engines. If you have partners in the space, be sure to link their pages and vice versa. This will increase your traffic and improve your search engine listing as well. There are a number of additional tips for optimizing for search engines that will cover at another time.

If you are developing and driving traffic to your online funnels and communicating with them regularly by email, you’ll have a better idea of what messages work for your audience and what don’t. From there, you can get a feel for whether a more robust direct marketing effort can further increase your net income. And remember, mo’ money means mo’ mission.

Thanks for reading. Please be sure to comment on this first week of blogging below, so that I can better write for your needs and thank you for your support!

Turning on the online spigot

Setting up your online acquisition funnel

Funnel is a bit advanced for what we are going to be doing today. What we mean is “how do we convert traffic to supporters?”

The earliest Web sites were little more than brochures. After all, when you don’t yet know what to do with a new medium, you replicate what worked in the old medium, like generals who continually fit the last war. There was the information and then there was a contact us link. Unsurprisingly, early Web sites were not conversion machines. That and they still used frames and the blink tag.

You, however, are more sophisticated than that. You know that someone that you know and have as a constituent of some type with permission to communicate is far more valuable than someone who simply comes to the Web site once.

Speaking of, did you know you can sign up for this Web site’s email list? Right here, in fact! You’ll get a weekly summary of these posts.

Anyway, you need to be able to get constituents through your Web site. And, since it’s still free-direct-marketing-program week, you need to do it without cost. So what ways can you get emails?

  • Specifically, you want to tell the prospective signee what is in it for them to sign up for emails. If you can link to a good sample email so they can see for themselves, so much the better.
  • Downloadable materials. Whether its program materials or factsheets, you probably have things on your Web site for people to download and print. You can gate these products by asking for a person’s information at this point. (You can also put in a “no thanks; take me to the material” link in there if folks are worried about cutting off access to information)
  • Petitions, pledges, and the like make people feel involved and given them an excuse to get their friends involved in the mission as well. Moreover, while these are an acquisition technique, they are something that makes your new constituent already feel a part of your organization.

There is a common question as to how much information you ask for on these forms, to which I would ask “How much do you need?” Know that generally every additional form field decreases the likelihood that someone will fill out the form. So, thinking of a petition, you logically need first name, last name, email, and state (so that it can go to the right representatives). If you are doing an email action alert to state legislatures or Congress, you may need a full address to make sure you are getting it to the right legislator(s). It’s rare that you would need more than that initially.

Before you turn on traffic to these forms, be sure to have some sort of tracking system set up to measure what percent of people are converting on your firm. If you want free, Google Analytics can be set up. Ideally, you’d also be able to do A/B testing, but the best tools for this involve money, so that’s a different week.

So now you are ready to have traffic come to your site. That will be tomorrow’s post.

Setting up your online acquisition funnel