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

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?

Learn about your donors by changing one thing

Congratulations!  A constituent joined your organization!  Now what?  

Welcome series!  Then what?

Well, of course, you drop them into the communication channel of their origin right?

As our Direct Marketing Master Yoda* would say:


No. No. No.  Quicker, easier, more seductive.

But in this case, not ideal.  It’s not ideal for the constituent and it’s not ideal for learning more about what this person actually wants — you may be freezing what this person “is” before you’ve had a chance to find out.

The person has already told you that they are responsive to three things:

  • Medium: If they respond to a mail piece, for example, they do not hate mail pieces. It may not be their only, or even their favorite means of communication, but it is one to which they respond.
  • Message: Your mission probably entails multiple things.  Your goal may be wetlands preservation and you work to accomplish this through education, research, and direct conservation.  If someone downloaded your white paper on the current state of wetlands research and your additional research goals, you know that they are responsive to that research message.  It may not be their only or favorite message, but they respond.
  • Action: If someone donates, they are willing to donate.  If they sign a petition, they are willing to petition.  You can guess the rest of this about them perhaps being willing to do other things.

Other than welcome series, which I’ll talk about at another time, you are trying to sail between the Scylla of sending the same thing over and over again and the Charybdis of bombarding people with different, alien messages, media, and asks.

Thus, I would recommend what I’d call the bowling alley approach in honor of Geoffrey Moore, who advocated for a similar approach to entering new markets in his for-profit entrepreneurial classic Crossing the Chasm

The idea in the for-profit world is that you enter with one market with one product.  Once you have a foothold, you try to see that same market a different product and a different market your original product, in the same way that hitting a front bowling pin works to knock down the two behind it.

Here, we play three-dimensional bowling**. The idea behind the non-profit bowling alley, or change one, approach is that you should change only one aspect at a time of your medium, message, and action.

Let’s take our wetlands organization as an example — they work to educate, research, and conserve.  They have people who download white papers and informational packets, people who take advocacy actions, and donors.  And their means of communication are mail, phone, and online.

Let’s further take a person who downloads a white paper on research online and provides her mail and email address.  The usual temptation would be to drop her into the regular email newsletter and into the warm lead acquisition mail stream (and maybe to even do a phone append to call her).

But this would not be the best approach: you would be taking someone who, for all you know, is interested only in one medium, message, and action and asking them for something completely different.

Rather, it would be better if at first you probe other areas of interest.  Ideally, you would ask her:

  • Online for downloading additional information about research (same medium, message, and action)
  • Online for advocacy actions and donations related to research (same medium and message; different action)
  • Online for downloading information about education and conservation (same medium and action; different message)
  • In the mail and on the phone for getting additional information about research (same message and action; different medium)

Obviously, this last part is not practical; mail and phone are too expensive to not have a donation ask involved. However, you could make the mail and phone asks specific to “we need your help to help make our research resources available not just to you, but to policymakers across the country” — tying it as directly as possible to where their known area of interest.

Over time, you should get a strong picture of this person.  Maybe they are willing to do anything for your organization by any means as long as it is focus on your research initiatives.  Maybe they are willing to engage with you about anything, as long as it is only online.  And maybe they like research and conservation, but not education; online and mail, but not phone; and getting information and donating, but not engaging their representatives.

Taking it one step at a time not only helps you learn this over time, but also helps you learn it without culture shock.  If someone downloads a white paper and you ask them to take an advocacy action on that same issue online, they may not be interested, but they likely see the throughline to the action they took.  If they download a white paper and get a phone call for an unrelated action, they likely will not.

It’s the difference between a donor response of “I can see why you’d think that, but no thanks” and “what the hell?” (followed by the constituent equivalent of getting a drink thrown in your face).

It’s also why I recommend going back to the original communication mechanism for lapsed donors in the lapsed donor reactivation post.  In that case, it may be literally the one and only thing you know that works.

You may say that you don’t have the resources to do five different versions of each mail piece or telephone script.  But you can do this inexpensively if you are varying your mail messages throughout the year.  For a warm lead acquisition strategy, simply make sure the advocacy people get the advocacy mail piece and not the others for now.  If you find out some of them are responsive to a mail donation ask, you can ramp up cadence later, but for now, your slower cultivation and learning strategy can pay dividends.

This also helps prevent a common mistake: creating groups like “online advocates,” “white paper downloaders,” etc. and then mailing them without cross-suppression.  If you send each of three groups a monthly mail piece and someone is in all three groups, they may end up getting 36 mail pieces if you don’t cross-suppression (so that these groups are prioritized into like packages instead of everyone in a group getting everything).

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to get this type of intelligence from what you’ve already done.

* Don’t believe me?  Check Yoda’s outstanding donor newsletter here

** Science fiction always has people playing three-dimensional chess, but not three-dimensional bowling.  Why or why not?  Discuss.

Learn about your donors by changing one thing

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 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.


    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



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