Selecting your content marketing topics

The enemy of any writer or content marketer is the empty sheet of paper.  It taunts you with its blankness, telling you that your last idea was, in fact, your last idea: you have nothing more to give.

Or you have ideas, but have no idea whether anyone will want to read/interact with/donate to them.  Here are some tips to get your focus.

Check what people are searching for in your market.  Yes, keyword research: it’s not just for search engine marketing any more.  Check out what people are looking for around your issues and see if you have content to match (that has calls to action around the content.  You aren’t just doing content for charity.  Actually, you are.  But you know what I mean).  

Also, search for some of these terms yourself. You will likely see some search terms where the person who searched for that item probably didn’t find what they were looking for.  You can be what they were looking for.

Conversely, you’ll find that some of the content is pretty darn good.  If you can’t improve on it, don’t tackle it in the same format.  But if you see that the blog posts are good, but there are no videos on the topic, then a video it is.  We’ll talk a bit more about media tomorrow.

Check what people are searching for to find you.  In your Google Analytics or equivalent, you can see how people came to your site and what they searched for.  This can be illuminating.  I worked with one nonprofit that went through this analysis and found that most people that found them through search were looking for one of their tertiary services — one that they rarely talked about or promoted.  What’s more, their content on it was scattered incoherently throughout their site.

Working together, we centralized their content into one coherent page that then linked out to the various locations where this service could be found, making it much easier to find.  We also increased the fee for this fee-for-service part of their mission, figuring that good marketing could increase participation.  That was, in fact, the case and that part of their mission now accounts for a more substantial part of their revenues.

Look at what content has worked in the past.  A peek behind the Direct to Donor curtain for a moment.  Since starting this, I’ve written over one hundred blog posts.  Yet two of these blog posts, The Science of Ask Strings and Anchoring, Ask Strings, and the Psychology of First Impressions are responsible for more than 10% of the traffic to the site.  In my world of topics, ask strings are Gladys Knight and each other topic I write on is a Pip.


So while I continue to write on various topics to diversify, I will likely be returning to the topic of ask strings sooner and regularly.  In fact, I’m looking to collect enough content on the topic to do my first white paper.  And what better topic than one that I know readers will appreciate?

Likewise, look at what people are clicking on in your newsletters and in social media.  While this won’t get you outside of the types of posts you’ve already been doing, it will help you find some guaranteed crowd pleasers.

Embrace content fractals.  If you really have a serious case of empty-page-itis, try rereading some of your previous strong efforts.

My theory is that every paragraph in a blog post could be its own blog post.  Take the “Now, start up your email newsletter” post I mentioned yesterday.  Obviously, starting up an email newsletter could be its own post (and will at some point).  One of the points in starting your e-newsletter will be choosing who your newsletter is from.  This idea of an online persona can make for its own post (in fact, I’ve talked about it in my post on liking as an influence point).  In it, I refer to the success of the Obama campaign in using different people for different ask.  Hey, that would make for a great topic about the success of the Obama campaigns and the lessons we can draw from that!  One of those lessons would be selling goods associated with your organization as a list building strategy.

And so on.  When you think you “don’t have any good ideas,” look at your previous content and dive deeper into one of your important points.  My post tomorrow is on the best type of content for each media type.  In writing it, I realized there’s a place for a whole post on each content type and what works there.  If these content marketing posts prove popular, expect that to be coming down the pipe.

Repurpose your content.

  • Three blog posts = an enewsletter.
  • Nine blog posts = white paper.
  • One white paper = one slideshow
  • One slideshow slide + verbiosity = blog post.
  • Your boss who loves to talk about her favorite program your nonprofit does + camera = video.
  • Your enewsletter + editing = donor newsletter

And so on.  People mind if you rip other people off.  People don’t mind if you rip yourself off.

Ask.  There’s a reason I’m writing about my process for writing, even though I feel I have a long way to go: people asked me.  There’s also a reason why I ask people to email me at or hit me up on Twitter at @nickellinger: I want more ideas for content.  There’s a rule for complaints that for every one person who complains, there’s nine more who didn’t.  I think suggesting content is the same way: if someone wants it, ten people probably want it.

Take from recent or upcoming events.  I personally try to stay counter-programming, but there is a great deal of content created about things like a new Star Wars movie, the NFL Championship, and Donald Trump to try to stay topical.

Now that you know the topics for your content marketing effort, how will you take advantage of it?  Tomorrow, we’ll talk about media and maximizing your topic advantage.

Selecting your content marketing topics

Testing for smaller lists

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



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,, 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 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

Setting up your online acquisition funnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting up your online acquisition funnel