Learning from political fundraising: hypercustomization

fireworks4_amkOn the path to his win in Iowa, Ted Cruz took an unusual position for a presidential candidate. He spoke out against fireworks regulations.

Usually, Iowa contests focus on broad national issues that a person would be expected to lead on as president (plus ethanol).  Fireworks range as a national issue somewhere around garbage collection and why-don’t-they-do-something-about-that-tacky-display-of-Christmas-lights-on-Steve-and-Janice’s-house.

But from a data perspective, the Cruz campaign knew its supporters.  There’s a great article on this here.  Here’s a quote:

“They had divided voters by faction, self-identified ideology, religious belief, personality type—creating 150 different clusters of Iowa caucus-goers—down to sixty Iowa Republicans its statistical models showed as likely to share Cruz’s desire to end a state ban on fireworks sales.

Unlike most of his opponents, Cruz has put a voter-contact specialist in charge of his operation, and it shows in nearly every aspect of the campaign he has run thus far and intends to sustain through a long primary season. Cruz, it should be noted, had no public position on Iowa’s fireworks law until his analysts identified sixty votes that could potentially be swayed because of it.”

As we unpack this, there are several lessons we nonprofits can take from this operation:

The leadership role of direct marketing.  Cruz’s campaign is run by a direct marketing specialist.  Contrast this with Marco Rubio’s campaign, which is run by a general consultant, or Jeb Bush’s, which was run by a communications specialist.  As a result, analytics and polling in the campaign are skewed not toward what generalized messages do best with a focus group or are the least offensive to the most number of people.    

In fact, in the campaign, the analytics team has a broader set of responsibilities than normal.  Analytics drive targeting decisions online and offline.

The imperative to know your constituents.  Much political polling is focused on knowing donors in the aggregate.  The Cruz campaign wanted to know them specifically.  So they gathered not just people who were supporters and asked them about local concerns.  This came up with 77 different ideas, including red-light cameras and, as you probably guessed, fireworks bans.  We’ve talked about knowing your constituents by their deeds and by asking them; what’s important about this example is the specificity of the questions.  It’s not “what do you like or dislike”; it’s “what do you care about.”

Testing to know potential constituents.  One the campaign had these ideas, they tested them online with Facebook ads.  The ads weren’t specific to the Cruz campaign, but rather asked people to sign up for more information about that issue.  Once they had these data, they not only had specific knowledge of what people cared about, but the grist for the mill of data operations that could model Iowa voters and their key issues.  

Focusing on actual goals.  Cruz’s end goal is to drive voters, just like ours is to drive donations.  By simplifying things down to what gets people to pull their levers/hit the button/punch the chad, they had a crystallizing focus.  One can debate whether this is a good thing, as the campaign sent out a controversial Voting Violation mailing that attempted to shame infrequent voters with Cruz leanings to the polls.  (It should be noted that these mailings are the part of campaign lore — they’ve been tested and found to be very efficient, but few campaigns have ever wanted to backlash that comes inevitably from them.)  But that focus on things that matter, rather than vanity metrics like Facebook likes , help with strategy.

Hypertargeting: All of this led to some of the most targeted direct marketing that has been seen in the political world.  When telemarketing was employed for particular voters, not only would the message reflect what they cared about (e.g., fireworks bans) but also why they cared about it (e.g., missed fun at 4th of July versus what seems to some as an arbitrary attack on liberty).  This came from both people’s own survey results and what models indicated would matter to them.

So now, let’s look at this in a nonprofit direct marketing context.  How well do you know your donors and potential donors?  Or how well do you really know them?  And how well do you play that back to them?

I’ve frequently advocated here playing back tactics to donors that we know work for them and focusing our efforts on mission areas and activities we know they will support at a segment level.

But this is a different game altogether.  The ability to project not only what someone will support, but why they well, and designing mail pieces, call scripts, and emails that touch their hearts will be a critical part of what we do.  And once you have this information, it’s cheap to do: if you are sending a mail piece or making a phone call already, it’s simplicity itself to change out key paragraphs that will make the difference in the donation decision.

This also applies in efforts to get donors to transition from one-time giving to monthly giving or mid-major gift programs.

So, how can you, today, get smarter about your donors and show them you are smarter about them?

Learning from political fundraising: hypercustomization

Welcome step two: Learn more about your donors and engage them

You’ve now created a gap between now and your normal communication stream for your new donor.  What do you do next?  As any Londoner can tell you, you now need to

bakerloo_line_-_waterloo_-_mind_the_gap

We know in case after case that personalization increases the effectiveness of direct marketing.  And not just making sure the person’s name is spelled correctly: it’s about making sure you know why they are giving and are thanking and soliciting them under those auspices.

With a new donor, you will have a single data point with which to start.  They responded to theme A through medium B.  You can leg your way into donor knowledge as we recommend by changing one thing at a time, but that won’t help you get that second gift.  And even if you are doing well, 60-70% of the time, you won’t get that gift.

Previously, I’d talked about the two ways of getting information about your supporters: watching their behavior and asking them.  It turns out those are the two things you should be doing in your welcome communications as well.

The critical step, and the one most often missed, is setting up opportunities for behavior watching and for feedback.  Or sometimes we go to the opposite extreme and send an email for every little bit of our mission we can think of, drowning the donor or prospect with a deluge of did-you-knows.

The way to maintain that balance with your supporters is to give them three major opportunities:

  • To use you as a resource.  People are more likely to support organizations that solve their problem.  This can range from “I want to eat more sustainably but I’m drowning in a sea of cage-free, organic, cruelty-free, etc. labels and don’t know how” to “I donated to suicide prevention because a friend committed suicide, but now I’m having these thoughts…”.  We nonprofits are (or should be) experts in our area and we can help in these areas.  And, as a much secondary effect, it allows us to see our supporter as a person. 
  • To use you as means to accomplish their goal.  If they donated to a particular issue, they may also want to write their legislator about it — that may give them the same (or similar) warm feeling that donating did.  Or they may want to volunteer in a very specific way that helps them achieve the same end their donation did.

 

  • To learn what they think.  You want to know how you can serve them better.  This can be through a survey or an open-ended question.  Or this can be an opportunity to bring in a different medium by having a human call them, thank them, and ask for why they gave and why to you.

The larger point here is that these should be framed in how they help the donor or cause, not how they help you.  It’s amazing how much of a difference there is between “We are also on social media, so like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!” and “Our Facebook community helps parents of children with autism support each other, so please join in if you’d like to hear from others who have been where you are.”

It goes without saying that you should track these activities.  If someone sends back the petition in their mail package, advocacy is something that appeals to them.  Thus, the way to get them to be a higher value donor may not be to get a second gift through the mail (although you should try); it may be to get them to be a frequent online advocate, then ask them after an online petition to become a monthly giver to support the specific advocacy activities they enjoy.

It’s even easier online.  If someone clicks on your link for more information for parents of kids with autism, you know they almost certain fall into this category themselves.  This is a programmatic opportunity as well as a fundraising one, but all boats will lift if you have this information and use it to help the person in question.  Links that you send should be trackable and appended to each supporter’s record so you can customize your messaging.  

The alternative is to become the cable company that asks you for your phone number with their automated system, then has a person ask you for it, even though caller ID is a thing that has existed for a while in this universe.  If someone tells you something, they will expect that you know it.  And clicks are, believe it or not, communication.

There is a lot of ink and virtual ink used on how many emails or mail pieces you should have in a welcome series, how long it should last, etc.  You’ll notice that I don’t cover any of that here, because I don’t find it to be all that important.  If you can accomplish the thank you, learning, and engagement all in one communication, go for it.  On the flip side, as long as a welcome series is about supporters’ interests, it’s difficult to say that it is going on too long.

Welcome step two: Learn more about your donors and engage them

Why welcome your donors?

I’ve read a lot about online and offline welcome kits, packages, and series.  These are almost always treated in separate articles by separate people in separate universes.  If your organization is sufficiently large, chances are they are written by separate people; if it’s even larger, they are written by separate people in separate departments.

In studying, I’ve found one deep and profound difference between welcoming donors and constituents online versus offline:

One is made of dead trees; the other is made of electrons in tubes.

Other than that, not much difference.  There are four major purposes for welcoming someone:

  1. To appreciate them in a way that makes them like you.  Online, there’s research from Powerthru Consulting from their work with Environmental Action that is worth a read.  They found that everyone who opened an email from their welcome series, it increased their likelihood of opening an email over the next six months by 20%.  Further, it increased their likelihood of opening all of the emails over the next six months by 1-3%.

    Welcoming emails also are well-opened and clicked on, far more than regular emails, according to MarketingSherpa

    It’s more difficult to get such data on mail pieces, but I’d wager they run the same way.  This first post-thank you mail piece is going to be (if you are doing it right) in the honeymoon phase of the relationship and thus affect the trajectory from there.

  2. To learn about the person and engage with them.  If you doubt why should know about your donors, sneak over to my Winter is Coming end-of-times prediction about nonprofits who do not know their donors.  Suffice it to say, your best chance of getting future donations from someone are by making sure you are customizing your asks to their desires.  You won’t know how to do that if you don’t know them.

  3. To allow them to learn about and engage with you.  In this honeymoon period, you are still a bit new to them as well.  Maybe they are actually more interested in something that you do than the one they donated to.  Maybe they are interested in advocacy, volunteering, downloading materials — who knows at this point?

  4. To get another gift, perhaps an upgraded one.  A one-time giver is not really a donor.  About a quarter will give another gift.  While this is better odds than putting your finger on a name in the phonebook (side note: we really need a new analogy for this), it’s not someone who is committed to the organization.  Double this for online donors, who are even more fickle on average.

    A donor who gives a second gift early in the process is more than twice as likely to retain as a long-term donor than someone who waits.  Do not be in the “oh, they just gave; let’s not ask them” crowd that does not strike hot iron.  The debate over whether or not to ask in thank you’s is a legitimate debate (I say you should, but other smart people say no), but not asking in the welcome series at some point is simply incorrect.

This should not be restricted by medium.  I’ve already talked about this extensively in the post on breaking down your thank you silos.  So, I’ll just add two quick things here:

  • You usually will have someone’s mail address when they donate online, but not their online address when they donate through the mail, so this is easier to do from online to mail.
  • fMRI studies show that reading from dead trees causes more emotional processing than reading from electrons.  Roger Dooley and his Neuromarketing team have the story here.  So there probably is greater applicability of these techniques going from online to mail.

This week, I’ll go through each of these purposes in turn for a welcome strategy that is medium-agnostic.  Personally, I view hitting all of these points as more important than whether you send two emails or five or the exact timing of when the mail gets out, so we will focus on technique and usable tips.

Why welcome your donors?

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.

If you would like more tips like this one, please sign up for our weekly newsletter. There you will get to pick new topics for the blog, see related content to what you get on Direct to Donor, and get a TL;DR version of the week’s news.  Thanks!

Acquiring new advocates in (and for) 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.

10-trail_208

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