Ten years ago, online communications were more of a luxury than a priority for fundraisers. Not anymore. In the past decade, online fundraising has become a vital necessity as society continues to become ever more reliant on digital technologies.
While online is now a staple of every organization, there are still several common mistakes fundraisers make in their online communications, says Thomas Gensemer, managing partner at online technology provider Blue State Digital. And Gensemer would know. Prior to joining Blue State, he was the director of Internet strategy for America Coming Together, where he managed the organization’s online fundraising, grassroots recruitment and marketing. Here, he shares those common online fundraising mistakes and provides ways fundraisers can overcome them.
Mistake No. 1: Treat it like direct mail
Direct mail has been the backbone of fundraising practically since the dawn of time, and it’s still the major driver, especially for older donors. But too often, fundraisers try to ascribe the learnings from direct-mail testing to the digital space, Gensemer says. “They’re talking to people in generic ways. They’re writing e-mails that are too long. They are asking people to take actions that may not be appropriate online,” he says.
Asking donors to respond to a direct-mail package is a different type of ask than one that comes online. It’s just as much about cultivation as it is about getting a check. “So when we see an e-mail that is either really long or we see an e-mail that comes from an organization as opposed to from a person, or on the other extreme we see an e-mail that looks like a postcard,” Gensemer says, “we raise a red flag. All of those are practices derived from something that you should be receiving in your post box as opposed to your inbox.”
The key, he says, is to make online communications stand out not as a piece of marketing, but as a piece of relationship-building.
Mistake No. 2: Focus too much on control
Fundraisers can’t control what’s happening online in this era of social media, and they can’t control what happens in the world around them — a far cry from the standardized, preapproved processes in direct mail.
“Fundraisers focus on so much control and preapproval and thinking about what a Dec. 29 e-mail will look like today, and I don’t know that we should know that answer because I’m not writing e-mails today for Dec. 29 in anything else I do,” Gensemer says. “While we work schedules for clients that may go a month, two months, even three months out, there’s always flexibility because if today something’s in the news about cancer and I’m working for the Cancer Society, the e-mail that mentions something in the news is probably more relevant than what was planned a month ago on the schedule. So you need to have the flexibility in your approval process and communications plan and technology infrastructure to take advantage of that moment.”
Mistake No. 3: Focus too much on asking for money
“It gets back to the point if I’m sending direct mail, I’m never going to ask you to do anything but give me money because I’m paying money on the postage. For an online relationship, be it e-mail, social, a video on YouTube, website content, you really don’t only have the opportunity, you have the obligation to mix it up so that you’re in equal parts cultivating the relationship in non-fundraising ways and then going in with a targeted ask based on the interest of that individual,” Gensemer says. “You can do it, and it doesn’t cost you any more and it raises you more money.”
Ways to avoid these mistakes
Gensemer offers these online fundraising communications best practices to cut down on the mistakes and optimize your online communications:
- Diversity the message. “Don’t just ask for money, but deepen the involvement or potential involvement in the organization.”
- Be ever more transparent to where the dollars go, and be very practical about how quickly you respond to news and milestones that put the personality of your organization out front.
- Have your technology infrastructure service your relationships. “So don’t require because of technical choices five days until you can get something out, because if you’re in the news today yourself or your issue is in the news, you want take advantage of it. Newsworthiness is such a limited currency.”
- Understand your messages from the point of view of your would-be donor or e-mail subscriber. “Don’t just speak to the army. Don’t just speak to your immediate insiders; don’t speak insider tone. Bring them into the fold. Cultivate the relationship more than you normally would in traditional direct response.”