An quick update on the science of slacktivism

Back in January, I posted about three studies on slacktivism.  And back in March, we looked at whether people who think of themselves as good do good things.  Generally, these studies found:

  • People tend to keep their commitments and do the good things they say they are going to.
  • They do this unless they did a public pledge first.  The public pledge seemed to allow them to manage their reputation as they wished, with not as much need to follow through.
  • Social media fundraising campaigns don’t really do much unless involving buckets, ice, and/or challenges.

There’s a new study out in the March edition of Sociological Science (yes, I know, March isn’t entirely new; my copy must have been held up in the mail by the fact that I am not a subscriber) that bolsters these claims.

They went through a sample of 3500 pledges for donations made through an online social media/donation facilitation platform.  Of those pledges, 64 percent were fulfilled, 13 percent were partially fulfilled, and 16 percent were deleted. However, people who broadcast their pledges on social were more likely to delete and not fulfill their pledge donations.  This fits the thesis of people who pledge do so largely to look good and are less likely to follow through.

They also found from using Facebook ads and other social media techniques, and I’m going to just let them tell this part from their abstract:

The experiment also shows that, although the campaigns reached approximately 6.4 million users and generated considerable attention in the form of clicks and “likes,” only 30 donations were made.

Please print out this quote and point to it every time someone says mail is dead because of low response rates.

So, to replay the recommendations from 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.

Thanks.  This is my first shorter weekend content.  Let me know if you liked or didn’t like at nick@directtodonor.com.  I saw the story and wanted to get the word out, but want to know from you, the reader, if this is valuable.

An quick update on the science of slacktivism

More donors versus better donors: long-term and external benefits

To review, yesterday, Betty (arguing in favor of better donors over more donors) won a slight victory over Mo (arguing in favor of more donors over better donors) in talking about costs of fundraising.  Today, they will debate again: this time on the topic of external benefits of donors.

Mo: The case here is manifest.  To put a value on a constituent that comes only from what they give through direct marketing is myopic.  Having more donors means having more people that support you and having more people that support you means:

  • More awareness of your mission in the community
  • More volunteers
  • More advocates

Betty: It’s nice to believe that there are something things you can’t put a price on, but you can.  You can get awareness with PSAs and earned media. You can advertise for volunteers (and incidentally, thinking someone who gives $5 at time is dedicated enough to your mission to be your top volunteer is wishful at best.)  And you can get online advocates for $1.50 a pop from Care2 or Change.org.  If you want real change, the high-dollar donors in a congressperson’s district will hold more sway; they are who you get through consciously soliciting for value.

Mo: That works for some districts, but if you are doing the things that you need to do to get high-value only donors like zip selects, you are going to be ignoring a lot of districts that are just plain poor.  And you are going to be ignoring them with your message, mission, awareness, and advocacy.

But if you want to boil it down to dollars and cents, let’s go there.  Some smaller donors make for extremely effective peer-to-peer fundraisers.  You rarely know who is a deacon at the church and can pass the hat at the plant.  And casting your net broadly gives you a greater opportunity to get those types of donors.

Betty: You may have a point on peer-to-peer fundraising, but low-dollar peer-to-peer fundraisers are likely to bring in more low-dollar donors.  Now you have twice the problem.

Someone who gives more money at the outset is also likely to give more outside of a traditional single-channel direct marketing program.  They are the ones who will become the multichannel givers, major donors, and monthly givers.

Mo: Yes, if you go exclusively for the people who eat with multiple forks and pinkies out, you will get more of those high-value upgrades.

But you will rarely get bequests.  There is a great case study from the ASPCA.   Because they had focused on higher-value donors, they were not getting as many bequests.  In fact, they were excluding the 70+-year-old, $10 and under givers that were their best planned giving prospects.  So they made a conscious choice to go back and reacquire these donors, sending them (only) the best house mailings and working to upgrade them to bequest giving.

The verdict: Have to give this one to Mo on points.  A traditional lifetime value calculation ignores the value of donors as volunteers and advocates, which do have their own quasi-monetary value.  And bequest giving often comes from “tippers” on your direct marketing file of a certain age who give to help you in their lifetime, but are saving a nest egg for donation at the end of their lives.

This is certainly not to say that higher-average-gift donors don’t have greater major donor prospects; it’s just saying that a portfolio approach of quantity will have hidden benefits that should be uncovered.

More donors versus better donors: long-term and external benefits

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 nick@directtodonor.com.  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, Change.org, 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 nick@directtodonor.com; 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 nick@directtodonor.com), 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:

    smurf
    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:

o-snl-weekend-update-facebook

“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