Thursday, December 29, 2011

Four essential marketing goals for 2012 – inspired by Cirque du Soleil

I saw Quidam, my first-ever Cirque du Soleil production last night (I don’t get out much) and I was mesmerized, thoroughly entertained and very much inspired. It was clearly one of the most creative spectacles I’ve witnessed. Even though being there had nothing to do with business (it was my wife’s birthday present), my mind was flooded with the ways in which Quidam offers advice to all of us involved in marketing. So here’s my Cirque du Soleil prescription for 2012.

Be totally, completely, unquestionably unique
Cirque du Soleil is not only different than any other circus. Its different than any other live entertainment – with its own  character and ambience. And it was memorable. If I heard a snippet of the music or saw the flash of an image from the show, I’d recognize it in a heartbeat.

To survive and thrive, the brands we market, create or develop are going to have to be unique. OK, so you’ve heard that so many times that you’re about to close this tab, but think about it – and be honest. Odds are we’re not really distinguishing ourselves from the competition. We’re just part of the pack taking our fair share. To truly stand out, you’re going to have to dig deep – do some research (customers, supporters, employees, the public), soul searching, innovating and come up with a premise and a persona for your brand that is like no other.

Take chances but be prepared for uncertainty
The clowns in Cirque use people from the audience as an integral part of their performance. It’s an incredible risk. What if the chosen people do something totally unpredictable? It’s clear that the clowns are prepared for just about anything and are skilled at manipulating the “performers” while playing the audience.

In the coming year, charge into uncharted territory. Do something you’ve never done before or better yet, something your competitors have never done before. Create that campaign that will have people saying, “I can’t believe they did that – and I love it.” But, be sure you know the risks involved and have a plan (communications, crisis management, back-up campaign) in place in case it doesn’t work.

Sweat the small stuff – it makes a huge difference
While the acrobats and jugglers in Quidam deliver their performance there are all kinds of other things going on - dancers twirling, men in white spinning. people on stage having conversations. You might think these things would be distracting but they’re not. The balancing acts would be no less breathtaking without them but they are little flourishes that just add to the overall ambience – and make it unique.

It’s the small stuff – the attention to design detail, the unexpected thank you, the token of appreciation, the personalized letter – all the things you didn’t have to do but chose to do  - that will get and keep the attention of your customers and supporters.

Create ooohs and aaahs - don’t settle for second best
The unbelievable skill of Cirque’s performers and the perfection in all aspects of the production were key to the quality of the presentation. And yes, there were lost of oohs, aaahs and wows.

There is no substitute for excellence. We have to set our standards high – higher than they ever have been. The people we are marketing to are increasingly sophisticated and discerning. Whether on a conscious or innate level, audiences know the difference between good enough and outstanding. More importantly, they will demonstrate that knowledge in their purchasing or giving decisions. To achieve results  - which is the goal of all marketing - it’s going to take copy, campaigns, initiatives and tactics that create oohs and aaahs.

That’s my take on Cirque du Soleil and marketing in 2012. What’s yours?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Quality v. Quantity in Philanthropy

Does the size of a philanthropic gift determine its meaningfulness to the donor?

As part of our book project The Philanthropic Mind my writing partner and I recently conducted one of our interviews with Canada’s top philanthropists. In it a donor told us that his first meaningful gift and the one that may have given him the most pleasure was $200 to the university of which he was an alumnus. Not surprising. But what he told us about the rest of his giving history to the institution deserves attention. His most recent gift is quite significant – in the mid seven figures. However, he can recall little detail and nothing notable about all the gifts between the $200 gift thirty years ago and the multi-million dollar gift most recently.

Listen to his words in describing that first gift. “A couple of hundred bucks felt significant at the time. I was only making about $30,000 a year. It was my alma matter and I had a good time there and obviously universities need money. It wasn’t necessarily meaningful financially but it was meaningful spiritually.”

This is what he had to say about the intervening gifts. “Had I committed to other [gifts] before that of lesser amounts? Probably, but I don’t even remember any more. I might have agreed to a gift of $50,000, which at the time seemed significant but today I don’t even remember making the gift. I guess there had to be other gifts that preceded it [the multi-million dollar gift] because you just don’t one day donate that much money.”

What’s going on here? This is an intelligent and very successful businessman. Is it possible that he has forgotten the many intervening gifts? I don’t believe so but it appears he has forgotten their significance.

The reality is that he has been very generous to his alma mater. So what was lost by the forgotten significance? Who knows for sure. Perhaps he would have given more. Perhaps he would have been a stronger advocate for the institution, helping to solicit other gifts. Perhaps if he had spoken as “spiritually” about all his gifts, more people would have been motivated to give.

The message to today’s fundraisers and marketers is to try and make every gift as meaningful as that first $200. This donor had a strong sense of affinity, felt deep responsibility, perceived the need and was sure his gift was going to accomplish something. And he felt great – spiritual – for making it. What if every prospective donor felt that his gift could make that kind of difference – individually and organizationally? What if every supporter could feel that way every time she made a gift?

The lessons learned from listening to the top tier of philanthropists are profound. The number of zeroes in a gift amount won’t always make it more memorable to the donor. There are other, more significant considerations. It seems clear that when it comes to meaningful philanthropy – size doesn’t always matter.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Should we focus on donors – or users?

In a fascinating post yesterday on Duct Tape Marketing, John Jantsch presents a podcast with Aaron Shapiro who has written a book called Users Not Customers: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business.

As you probably figured out already his premise is that the experience that users have on a website and interacting online with that business are as worthy of attention as those who actually buy. Those who find the interaction satisfying and valuable will share those feelings online and the collateral benefit will generate future business. Using the example of Nike’s tag application, he says that forward thinking companies provide users with the tools to share that experience.

Using his premise, Shapiro says that companies shouldn’t be measuring conversion rates but rather compiling user satisfaction analytics.

So, as it relates to the fundraising sector, the question becomes are users more important than donors? Can improving the quality of the experience that someone has on your site or interacting online with your organization (whether or not that person ultimately becomes a donor) lead to increased donations? And if that’s true, should your website and online strategy be focused less on leading people to the donate now button and more on providing unique and useful experiences that people might want to share?

Not an easy question as is illustrated by two recent posts by prominent fundraising bloggers.

In detailing the online strategy of the Humane Society of United States, Beth Kanter asks When Is One Million Fans on Facebook Worth More Than A Million Bucks? In the end, she doesn’t answer the essential question. Can HSUS correlate a million Facebook fans with an additional million dollars in donations? But, her take is clearly that the visitor and online interaction surrounding HSUS’s 1 million fans campaign will lead to increased donations.

Tom Belford writing this morning in The Agitator isn’t so sure. As he sees it the HSUS campaign increases activism but not necessarily fundraising.

The empirical always has to come first. Is there any data that directly links increased online interaction and positive online presence to increased donations? Without those numbers, it could be hard to justify shifting resources to concentrate on the user as opposed to the donor.

Intuitively however, my sense is that Shapiro and Kanter are right. Clearly the way you choose to approach this issue has a lot to do with the size of your annual marketing budget (a point also made in The Agitator post). However, there is no reason not to take another look at your site and see if you can improve the visitor (who is not necessarily a donor) experience. And minimally, you may want to at least find out what is being said about your organization online.

I have some detailed ideas on what can be done – even on limited budgets – that I’ll share in my next post.

In the meantime, what do you think? Should we focus more on the user or the donor?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Truths and jests

Are nonprofits and fundraising organizations prepared to laugh at themselves?

Hats of to John Suart for helping us find out. His Non Profit Humour blog is hilarious and there’s a lot of truth in his jesting.

Recent posts include one that reveals both sides of the media release game. Others deal with unrealistic expectations of social media efforts and question their effectiveness.

There is often a sad side to humour. After I finished chuckling at these, I was struck by how genuinely they describe the situation many nonprofits are in. With restricted marketing budgets and too few resources, nonprofits do often find themselves flailing – and hoping. From the outside it’s easy to see that what they need is a realistic and informed plan. From the inside, marketing is often subject to unrealistic expectations. It seems that every stakeholder thinks that he or she is an expert in marketing and knows exactly what the organization should be doing. (Well, at the very least they know what is being done wrong.) The end result can be marketing efforts that are neither pretty nor effective.

The blog also takes on the large organization that so often takes itself far too seriously.

It seems to me it’s also the humorous side to Dan Pallotta’s HBR blog about thinking outside the box. Dan's point is that to think outside the box, you have to be able to confront what’s inside the box. John Stuart demonstrates that humour is a great way to do that.

So, let’s be prepared to laugh at ourselves and in the process become better nonprofit marketers.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Do your donor profiles deliver results?

Good marketers – and particularly fundraising marketers are always looking for good stories. A really effective form of storytelling is the donor profile. It’s an opportunity to present the case for giving in a way that’s personal and compelling. It’s a great way to motivate some donors while allowing others to feel validated. And of course it’s an ideal way to cultivate the donor that’s being profiled.

The problem is that many donor profiles end up sounding cold, simply repeating the messages that are part of the case for giving. Many times they could have been written about any donor – almost according to a formula. “For many years (insert donor name here) have been proud to support ABC because they know that it is brightening the lives of those that it serves by...”

Here are some ways you can ensure that your donor profiles deliver results.

Insist on an interview
Don’t settle for the donor’s biography, articles about him or her and a giving record as the basis for your profile. You need to speak to the person directly. Donors are often busy so this will require some planning and lots of flexibility. But the opportunity to speak personally will make a huge difference.

Ask the right questions
The right questions will yield the material you need for a good profile. Clearly there are some questions that must be asked. “Why do you support ABC?” is an obvious example. I addition, try asking questions that are likely to elicit more emotional responses like, “Is there a personal or family experience that makes your support of ABC more meaningful?” Also, people tend to prepare for interviews and have responses ready for the expected questions. As a result they often sound cold and rigid. Ask the unexpected question like, “If you were fundraising for ABC, what would your appeal be?”

Get stories and anecdotes
A summary of the donor’s philosophy and personal case for giving will be dry and frankly boring. You want to know about the personal experiences that are behind the donor’s support. Ask them about their personal interaction with the organization or the constituents it serves. Perhaps there’s a story from their past that accounts for their giving. If the donor profile is itself a story, then it’s the stories within that story that will make it rich.

Write from – and to the heart
You cannot overestimate the degree to which giving decisions are made emotionally. So, if you are going to accurately convey the donor’s reasons for giving, you must know and be able to present the emotional basis for their support. On top of that, your profile won’t be an incentive to any other donor without words that come right from the heart.

Use their words, not yours
A good interview using the right questions should yield lots of great quotes and comments. Let those tell the story. Use just enough narrative to hold them together and add context. Readers want to know about the donor more than your perception of the donor.

Open and close with a theme.
In reviewing your notes or recording of the interview, look for a recurring theme that can be the basis of a headline, opening sentence and a powerful ending. Some times donors will make that theme explicit but other times you may have to review the interview a few times. Often times it’s the response to a very particular question will apply generally to the donor’s support.

One final suggestion - that may not always be possible. While many donors are listed individually, they often view their spouse as a partner in their charitable giving. Interviewing the donor and his or her spouse will add tremendous depth and perspective to an interview. You will almost definitely get different answers to questions from each spouse. If nothing else it will give you more material with which to make the profile more powerful.

Hopefully these ideas will help make your donor profiles more interesting and more effective – and ultimately make your fundraising more successful.

I’m sure there are many of you with other – and probably better suggestions. Please share them.

Image from digitalart /

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The heart of fundraising success

Sales is a transfer of emotion. That lesson was drummed into me early in my working life. If you want to make a sale, you’re going to have to make someone feel something and your job is to figure out the right emotion for the right person. It’s taken me a long time to accept the tyranny of that principle. I often want to believe that people buy/give for rational reasons – that they research, comparing objective criteria and make decisions on that basis. But that’s not reality and some recent online material as well as a research project in which I’m involved have made me think about the extent to which the heart rules the head when it comes to giving decisions.

A recent post from my Torontonian colleagues at Nyman Ink explored the concept of Emotional Branding, even citing a Wikipedia entry.

But isn’t all branding emotional? Seth Godin defines a brand as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” – or in fundraising terms to donate to one cause over another. How do you even begin to separate the emotional from the rational in that definition? And why bother?

Katya Andresen focused on analysis vs. emotion in a post earlier this week that presents data/studies that not surprisingly confirm that emotion trumps analysis – as I would say it does every time.

That led me to a really interesting post by consultant Tony Macklin and his “Grand Unified Theory of Donor Desire.” Tony says, "if you want to increase charitable giving, first, listen to a person’s story and hopes. He asserts that perspectives on effective philanthropy will always take a back seat to the “fundamental search for meaning and belonging.”

The last online piece is the Money for Good study recently released by Hope Consulting. Their research consists of over 4,00 interviews with individuals representing household incomes of more than $80K. These are the people that you might think are most rationally discerning about their giving. However, the study concludes, “Few donors do research before they give, and those that do look to the nonprofit itself to provide simple information about efficiency and effectiveness.” Moreover, they found that, ” While donors say they care about nonprofit performance, very few actively donate to the highest performing nonprofits.”

All of this is borne out by research in which I am involved based on interviews with Canada’s top philanthropists. One of the most often cited criteria in major gifts decisions is the passion of the person that is driving the organization or project. Hardly an empirical or rational measure. Even at the major gift level, emotion is the major determinant.

The implication for fundraisers and marketers is clear. If you want someone to give to your cause, you’re going to have to make her feel something – even at the highest levels. And while you can’t ignore the need for clear information and accountability, the more you pitch to the heart, the more successful you will be.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Reality trumps advice

If you ever wonder whether fundraising theory and advice really work in practice, you’ll want to read this.

This is a story about my friend Ephraim who is a fundraiser on behalf of an educational institution overseas. He has been coming here twice a year for the past six years to raise money for the organization. His appeal has always been for the unrestricted funds that will allow the institution to continue to operate. Over the years he has enjoyed moderate success.

On his latest trip however Ephraim’s case for giving changed. A project had emerged. The organization needs $2 million over the next three months to take advantage of an opportunity that has arisen. With the money, they will be able to secure permanent housing for many of their students.

They began their fundraising efforts in their local community, aggressively reaching out to previous supporters, families of current students and alumni. They met with success. They also secured financing from local banks. By the time Ephraim came to Canada, 75% of the needed funds were in place.

At each appointment he described the project, its benefit to the organization and the time constraints. Then he talked about what they had already done to raise money and detailed the success they were having.

This has been his most successful fundraising trip ever. The response has been overwhelming with donors adding significantly to what they have given in the past and a number of new donors coming on board.

While there are many reasons for Ephraim’s success, I would point to three in particular. Not only do they account for the success of this appeal, they provide an action plan for the messaging in any campaign.

Purpose – donors knew exactly what the money was going to be used for. More importantly they understood the benefit to the organization. In turn, that meant there was a clear value proposition for donors. They knew exactly how they could make a difference.

Urgency – there was a definite time frame in which the money was needed and a reason for that window of opportunity. Donors understood that these were extraordinary circumstances and that the organization needed the money now.

Momentum – donors wanted to jump on the bandwagon. The efforts that had been taken locally built confidence and were inspiring. There’s something counter-intuitive at play here. You might think that the organization’s local success would lead donors to believe that they didn’t have to give. But the truth is that everyone loves a winner and demonstrating success is in fact motivational to donors.

It seems to me that any time you can authentically represent these three factors – purpose, urgency and momentum – in an appeal or a campaign, you will improve results.

But don’t take my word for it. Take Ephraim’s.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is storytelling the whole story?

Every “top ten” list in the fundraising arena talks about the importance of using storytelling but it would appear that using it well is another story. I recently read two online posts that demonstrate there’s a difference between good ideas and good execution.

In a recent post, M+R Strategic describes an amazing test they conducted to determine the effectiveness of storytelling in a direct mail ask. They created two random lists – each of 300,000 recipients – and mailed each list one of two versions of a direct mail letter. Version 1 was “written using a more general, institutional approach that outlined the organization's accomplishments and need.” And the second version was “written using a more personal theme based around the story of one young person diagnosed with the debilitating disease the organization is working to cure.”

Which one performed better? According to the experts, there would be no question. Version 2 with its storytelling approach should win hands-down. The reality? Version 1 – the boring organizational approach not only fared better; it raised four times the money of the storytelling letter.

In a similar test, Which Test Won (a great site to test your marketing intuition) reports on a split direct mail ask that was done for a hospital in Florida. One version of the letter briefly told the story of a patient that was successfully treated and included testimonial quotes from the patient. The second version talked about the advanced technology being used at the hospital, describing it in technical terms and advising the reader of the costs associated with acquiring equipment. To make it more interesting, both versions suggested specific donation amounts but the amounts in Version 1 (the storytelling one) were higher.

What would the experts say? No question – version 1 with its storytelling and higher suggested gifts. What really happened? Version 2 attracted a response rate that was over 40% higher and an average donation that was almost $60 higher.

So, what’s going on here?

It seems clear that just telling a story isn’t enough. Other factors must be considered. In fact the story in the Which Test Won storytelling letter isn’t particularly compelling. I actually found it a little confusing and the letter never really tells us what the money is needed for. In the end the suggested donation amounts seem unconnected to the rest of the letter. On top of that the non-story letter is easier to read and its layout is much better. Somehow there is a sense that my (smaller) suggested donation will make a difference. The M+R post doesn’t allow us to read or see the letters in question. So we don’t know if the story was well told or if the ask was compelling or the letter was laid out well.

Ultimately storytelling is a means to presenting a case for giving. It cannot be divorced from the strategy behind the campaign or the brand of the organization. The finesse of storytelling is to be moving and authentic while at the same time meeting marketing and messaging objectives. In addition, it must be incorporated into a letter that is well crafted and written with a target audience in mind. In the end, storytelling may be effective but doing it well is clearly not easy. And worse, if done poorly, it can have detrimental results.

End of story.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Targeting Affluent Donors

The most recent daily post from e-marketer may be worth taking note of as it relates to high net worth donors.

While I appreciate that it was brands/companies and not brands/non-profits that were the subject of this study, the results can still be instructive to fundraisers. Certainly those with financial means are going to be of interest to any charitable organization and understanding their online behaviour may help in building relationships.

While the most traditional and still most effective way of approaching affluent donors is in person, it would be a mistake to assume that social media can’t be an important tool in building relationships with this cohort. To that extent the study is very useful.

Some of the results were predictable. I would have assumed that “affluents” aren’t looking for bargains online so the differential in the responses to “I wanted to get deals/discounts” and “I love the brand…” isn’t surprising.

But the responses to the next four statements are far more telling. For the sake of analysis I would organize them into pairs. “I noticed someone following the brand/company profile” and “the social network recommended it,” both indicate the greater degree to which people in this category are influenced by the opinions of their peers and sources they trust. It’s not news to any major gifts specialist that the most important factor in any solicitation is the person doing the asking or who has brought the philanthropic opportunity to the donor’s attention. This is in fact borne out in interviews with Canada’s top philanthropists that I have been conducting as part of a book project.

The to do list regarding this factor would be to find ways to extend the influence of your current affluent donors. Perhaps consider setting up a Facebook page that reflects the interests/concerns of affluent donors. Make it easy for donors to convey information about your organization. Create giving opportunities targeted to affluent donors and strategically use social media advertising to create awareness and drive traffic.

The last pair that caught my attention was “An ad (print, tv, online) led me to it” and “It was mentioned in an article.” Both of these underline the need for cross channel marketing. It has been well documented that marketing and fundraising efforts that use multiple channels enjoy better results. In practical terms this may mean considering ads in targeted publications to drive traffic to an “affluent-focused” Facebook page. Perhaps the content of that page can be unique enough to attract media attention (with a little pr help of course).

There are undoubtedly many other practical ways to use these research findings to create and enhance your relationship with affluent donors and I’d love to hear some of your experiences and/or suggestions.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Walking the Mission Talk

Is your organization’s mission something you talk about or something you do? I think that was the essence of a recent brilliant blog post by Harvard Business Review blogger and author Dan Pallotta. And I believe the answer to the question is fundamental to the success of your fundraising marketing program.

Through a number of examples and quotes, Dan establishes that organizations must not only have a mission; they have to be on a mission. Organizations much have a deep sense of purpose. While Dan’s post is great guidance for those setting organizational priorities, there is a clear (but unspoken) message for those involved in fundraising.

Commenters to the blog post pointed out the undeniable necessity of mission statements. But any of us that have had to craft a mission statement know that the related negotiation, compromise and intense wordsmithing can lead to that which is meaningless to anyone outside of the innermost circle of the organization. The cartoon above from Tom Fishburne and makes the point perfectly. What’s worse is that sometimes fundraising asks and associated collateral get gummed up by these mission-based mantras. We end up talking about what we stand for and not what we do.

Donors on the other hand are increasingly concerned about what results will be achieved with the funds they provide. To be successful, solicitations must speak to those concerns. While this may sound ridiculously obvious, I challenge you to review the copy on your website and in your last direct mail campaign and see whether it meets the “on a mission” test. Does it convey a clear purpose? Do you explicitly and unequivocally tell donors what you will do with their money? Even better, is there a way that you can be accountable to your donors? Is there an objective measure of whether funds raised are achieving the intended goals? Is all of this stated simply and directly? My guess is that the answer to every question will not be yes.

I understand that presenting what an organization does in the absence of what it stands for can be equally ineffective. There clearly has to be some balance. In addition, the reality is that marketing material also has to satisfy the needs (and sometimes demands) of those on the inside of the organization.

It's a fine line but Dan’s thoughts clearly provide a great rubric from which to evaluate our marketing material and to decide whether it walks the talk.