Free solutions for your direct marketing program

In a perfect world, all of our direct marketing costs would be marginal, so they scaled as we mailed, helping us to pick the exact right quantities and people every time.

Of course, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to solve the social ills we are trying to solve as nonprofits.  So that’s a good indicator that we are not in such a world.

In this world, most solutions (which are like products, but more expensive) have a fixed cost.  You are forced to do the math – am I going to use X enough to justify spending Y?  What if it doesn’t work?

But then there are the products that have the best fixed cost of all: zero.  Many free solutions are classic cases of “you get what you pay for,” but some rise above and can be valuable parts of your technology stacks:

  • Buffer.  Schedule your social media posts; I use this for some morning retro Twitter posts.  Paid version allows you to queue up more – be patient and it’s free.
  • Canva.  I suck at design. Canva makes it easy.  Like Photoshop, but free.
  • Fiverr.  OK, this isn’t free.  It is, in fact, $5.  But that’s five dollars for ad creative, copy writing, proofing, and other tasks you may need to get done, quickly and not by you.  Most solutions will cost more than $5, as there are increases for quantity or tight timelines, but it’s far better than many services that are much more expensive.
  • Google Analytics.  Really, there are many Google products that could be on this list.  And while the free version doesn’t have the bells and whistles of its paid counterpart, neither does it have the $150,000 price tag.  You’ll be able to track traffic, see how your site is functioning, and, best of all, set up your goals and see how you are generating your conversions (and how you aren’t).
  • Google Scholar.  Want to see if anyone has tested what you are thinking about testing?  Or learn the psychology of donors?  Google Scholar brings you scholarly articles about all manner of subjects.
  • Hemingway. Put your copy here.  It will simplify it.
  • M+R’s Toolbox.  Quick tools to help you with your T-tests, chi-squareds, benchmarks, and more.  Subscribers to my newsletter have known about this for months (become one here!).
  • QuickSprout.  An audit of your site to let you know what you can be doing better.
  • Simply Measured free tools.  They have a lot of paid tools, but their free ones will give you a good idea of the basics around your social media presence.
  • SplitTester and Split Test Significance Calculator. Never again wonder if you will ever achieve statistical significance on your ad test.
  • WordPress. I use it for this blog.  Some may say that isn’t a huge endorsement, but there are other, more attractive sites there as well.  You can also have static landing pages in addition to your blog using the Pages tool.
  • Wordstream’s Free AdWords Grader. What it says on the tin.

And, of course, my free newsletter – it’s what every stylish marketer will be wearing this summer.  Or reading.  Or something.

Free solutions for your direct marketing program

Let’s get small: microbudgets

Unless you are at a very large nonprofit, you have probably had a miniature budget at one time or another.

True story: I ran MADD’s first pay-per-click search engine ads over a decade ago with $20 from my own credit card (this was pre-Google Grants).  I said I would only claim for reimbursement if we raised back that money.  One $30 donation later and MADD had its first proto-paid-donation-acquisition budget.

The challenge is that many nonprofit budgets are zero to start; they only come about because they are willed into existence.

The one and only bit of good news about a budget of zero is that your budget isn’t negative.  When you think about it, most direct marketing budgets are negative: you are given an amount of money and you have to return an even larger amount of money when you are done.

So you have an idea you’d like to pursue (let’s say display advertising to fuel online donations).  You have no budget.  The first thing you need to do is go to your boss and tell her or him:

  1. About your idea
  2. How much it would normally cost
  3. You are willing to do it for nothing
  4. If you are able to reinvest the new revenues you get in your idea

This last part is the critical thing you are looking for.  Your boss doesn’t have to hear about you talking about your idea ever again if you were wrong.  And if it goes wrong, it won’t cost her/him anything.  But if it goes right, you want to help make it go more right.

This is usually an agreement a boss should be willing to make.  If not, examine 1) you, 2) your boss, and 3) your boss’s impression of you.  At least one of these things is not very good.

So, now that you have your reinvestment plan, you need efforts that will generate net revenue at no cost.  

The first way is Google Grants.  You knew I was going to say this, didn’t you.  There’s almost no way not to be able to additional revenues from this:

  • If you don’t have an account get one.
  • If you have an account, maximize your spend.  
  • If your spend is maximized, optimize your spend.
  • If your spend is maximized and optimized, apply to go to the next level of revenue.
  • If your spend is maximized, optimized, and at the highest level of Google Grants, you are at a large enough non-profit that you should be able to get a small budget for an innovation if you are justifying it well.

The thing is that your grant dollars in AdWords are fairly easy to maximize and optimize, because every time you log into AdWords, they will have recommendations for you to have a sentence in the first half of your ad to increase clicks or split your ad groups up or add keywords or create a dynamic ad or what-have-you.  Follow the recommendations and continually refine.

Failing that, list out your ads and see what has the lowest interactions.  Re-write the ads and test the new ads against the old.

Failing that, list out your ad groups, see what URLs to which you are sending traffic have the lowest conversions and work on the conversion side of things on your Web site.

Eventually, I’ll do a whole week on AdWords, because it is a highly useful tool, but if you continually refine like this, revenues will follow.

The other way to start to create a budget online is with services like eMiles that run cost-per-acquisition donor campaigns.  That is, they will offer to get you donors for, lets say, $40 per donor.  If your average gift is generally $50 per person, run the campaign and take the extra profit.

If these options aren’t open to you, running a co-targeting campaign to your cream of the crop donors online will also generally have positive results.  That will put some of your own money at stake, but, as I mentioned at the opening, I’m not adverse to that.

So these are some ways to kickstart your budget.  Once you have strategies that work for you, grind on it.  Your goal is to be at the poker table continually garnering chips.  You may lose some hands, but with the law of large numbers and the ability to reinvest, you will almost certainly come out ahead.

And, with your $0 budget, you can also subscribe to my free newsletter here.  Hopefully, I’ll have some tips there that will help you get into the high single-digit budgets in no time.

Let’s get small: microbudgets

Setting your direct marketing budget anti-goals

Yesterday, I argued that the three things that matter in your budget are net revenue, file/program health, and cross channel/multichannel/omnichannel health (how much are you contributing to other fundraising and non-fundraising efforts.

That ignores some key traditional metrics.  And that’s intentional.  Here’s why:

Costs.  Many nonprofits look to minimize their overall costs (and believe you me, I have seen some nonprofits transcend lean and mean and become emaciated and ticked off).  But this is a fallacy in direct marketing.

Let’s picture direct marketing once again as if it were a magic box that you put costs into and got revenue out of.

If an additional $100 in the magic box brings you an additional $150 in revenue today, you should do that.  That’s covered by net revenue.

If an additional $100 in the magic box brings you an extra $200 next year, you should do that (unless you are in a hyperinflationary market).  That’s covered by program health.

If an additional $100 in the magic box brings you an additional .5% chance of a $100,000+ bequest (crosschannel health), you should do that.  That’s covered by crosschannel health.

The problem with overall cost as something you look to minimize is that it could ignore these three investment opportunities.  Don’t do that.

Gross revenue.  If the impacts on file and crosschannel health were the same, would you rather spend $2 million to make $4 million or $3 million to make $5 million?  Clearly the former, as you can getting more return on your investment.

Yet some nonprofits have a goal of “we will increase our revenues to X” instead of “we will increase our revenues to Y, net of direct marketing costs.”  The former gives an incentive to overspend at the expense of net revenue, program health, and crosschannel health.

This is yet another reason why Charity Navigator’s financial rates are so very, very flawed and actively counterproductive.  They have cost of fundraising in their model so that a 10% drop in ROI could cost you 2.5 points (out of 100 (actually 70 because they spot you 30 points)).

However, if that turns your organization into one that is growing substantially in income and program expenses as a result, instead of shrinking, you get an additionally 20 points (because revenue growth and program expense growth are two 10 points categories.  This is why Charity Navigator rated an active cancer charity scam three stars – because it was growing.  If you doubt me, here’s their rating from the handy dandy Internet archive.

Conversely, a charity that has encountered tough times will get zero points out of ten on both of these growth indicators, giving them two stars on financials or less, hurting that struggling charity in its efforts to work its way out of the hole.  I will at some point dedicate a week to the perverse incentives of Charity Navigator, which sets itself up as a watchdog but instead chews up your shoes and poops on your carpet.

Return on investment is important.  But it should be strived for, not budgeted for.  Later this week, you’ll see why, as we look to get to our optimal program.

So tomorrow, I’ll talk about the nuts and bolts of budgeting and some pitfalls to watch out for.

Setting your direct marketing budget anti-goals

Setting your direct marketing budget goals

So, you want to budget for your direct marketing…

Wait.  Scratch that.

So, you have been told to budget for your direct marketing.  None of us really want to set a budget.  Yes, you want to be able to project what communications and campaigns will do, the better to measure expectations for the future and learn from our successes and failures.

But the ideal direct marketing world would be one where there was not a number to hit, but rather a series of goals.  You would set up your communications and tests, learn from what was done, retool the program for the future given what you’ve learned, and get hot oil massages from attractive members of your preferred gender(s).

Back in the real world, though, it is imperative that our causes know what they can count on from the direct marketing program and, ideally, from the bridges you have created to events, major gifts, planned giving, monthly giving, and corporate outreach.  Someday, I will blog about multichannel attribution, just as soon as I feel like I’ve figured it out myself.  Or, to speed things up, if you think you have a handle on it, email me at nick@directtodonor.com and I would love to give you a guest blogging opportunity.

These budgets let us know what staff we can bring on, projects we can take out, people we can help.  It’s imperative that we set them and that we stick to them.

I would argue there are three relevant things for which to budget:

  1. Net revenue. Think of your direct marketing program like a black box for a moment.

    black_box-aeroplane

    No, not that type of black box.  Hopefully.  Our black box is magical.  You can put in $100,000 and get $200,000 out.  You can put in $1.8 million and get $3 million out.  And, most importantly, you can put in X and get out Y, because our magic box is algebraic.

    Your organization needs to know what Y minus X is – how much does the magic box add to the money that is put into it.  Or, but another way, this is how much extra are you contributing to the mission through your activities.

  2. Program health. Your number and quality of donors determine how good your black box is going to be in future years.  There is a point at which this conflicts with #1.  A good program will take a maximized net revenue and reinvest some of that to help sustain and grow the program in the future.  Simplistically, this means acquiring donors.  Beyond that, it also includes the tests that fail so you have the benefits of the ones that succeed, cultivation communications that may not bring in immediate revenues but set donors up for better things down the road, and other tactics that sacrifice net for lifetime value (e.g., acquisition of monthly donors).
  1. Crosschannel health. This is more difficult to measure, but it will be to your benefit to start trying.  That is, how much if what you are doing helps out with other efforts.  A good example is with planned giving efforts.  An ideal target audience for planned giving appeals are 70-plus year old “tippers,” who give to your organization often, but not much, and who have substantial assets that may not be known by your organization or even conventional wealth screening indicators (living in modest homes and neighborhood, little to no stock activities, certainly no M&A or Wall Street stuff, and few political donations).  This is also a borderline audience for most direct marketing activities – they require more expensive (mail and phone) solicitation, they are unlikely to convert to monthly giving), and models will show them to have low lifetime value.  But what value do they have in the long-run?  A focus only on net revenue and traditional RFM-based file health metrics will ignore folks like this.

Purists will note that there are several things that are traditionally part of a budget that I don’t include here.  But that’s tomorrow’s post – the things that people think matter, but don’t.

Setting your direct marketing budget goals

Testing for smaller lists

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

miracle

 

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

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

Next steps in direct marketing

Hopefully by now you’ve tried out some free ways to stay in touch with your supporter base and attract new supporters and you are ready to test out spending some money on direct marketing.  I’ll start with your existing donors.

Acknowledgement

thank youOften, thank yous are an afterthought or a legal requirement.  In reality, they are a great way to deepen a relationship with a donor.  Every donor should get at least one thank you, generally in a similar format to how they gave the gift.  That is, if they mailed you a gift, mail them back a thank you note; if they gave a gift online, make sure they get an email receipt.

Please note I say “at least one thank you.”  Gratitude is something to be practiced throughout donor communications largely for its own sake, being the right thing to do and all, but it can also be profitable.  A way to dip your toe into the mail water is to start sending thank you letters to online donors of a certain amount or more.

What is that amount?  Whatever you are comfortable with to start.  You can dial back if the mailings get too onerous (a nice problem to have) or expand the program once started.

This mailing does a couple of things.  It conditions the donor to expect things from you in the mail and that those will be good things.  Also, just as it is better to be a bit overdressed instead of a bit underdressed in everywhere except the tech sector, it is better to be just a little bit more appreciative of a gift than your competitors other worthy causes.

Donor mailings

To keep your early losses to a minimum, start your mailings with a few tried-and-true pieces.  Some that generally work well are:

  • Membership pieces. Even if you are not a membership organization, creating a supporter club or whatever name you feel comfortable with gives your donors a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves alone, which is great, because they are.  Also, you then have a reason to ask for renewals each year.
  • Holiday giving, especially end of year. Online end of year will be its own topic at some point (incidentally, I count nine topics I’ve promised to talk about after only six posts; I may be creating a monster), but during the holidays works well for mail as well, where a holiday spirit generally increases response rates.  It’s also a good time to thank your donors and wish them well in the New Year and with whatever holiday(s) they choose to observe.
  • A newsletter. While traditionally a cultivation device, you can write ones that will more than pay for themselves. We’ll talk more about that in another post (ten!), but if you are champing at the bit, I strongly recommend Making Money with Donor Newsletters by Tom Ahern. You get what’s on the tin.

So that’s what to do with current donors.  How do you talk to potential donors without breaking the bank?  We’ll (try to) cover that Tuesday.

Next steps in direct marketing