Digital Outlook 2016: Trends and Best Practices in Nonprofit Online Strategy
Digital is the future.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who disagrees with the idea that the online environment can allow nonprofits to build support and deliver their missions more cost-efficiently and more effectively, a fact the corporate sector has used to raise revenue. The question becomes: How should a nonprofit best take advantage of online opportunities to reap the greatest benefits?
The “2016 Digital Outlook Report,” a collaborative effort from Care2, hjc and Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, tries to answer those questions—not just by providing best practices, but by helping nonprofits understand where they lie in the universe of digital outreach. Researchers surveyed nearly 400 organizations in North America across 16 issue-verticals, from environment to faith-based, to catalog current digital strategies and highlight successful tactics and areas of improvement.
Across the board, one theme kept bubbling up: alignment. More successful organizations optimize everything—marketing, brand building, advocacy, fundraising, staffing—for digital. They create systems that integrate digital across departments and strategies that integrate content across platforms, and find digital experts who can coordinate across disciplines and personalities.
The nonprofit sector has a lot of work ahead to fully realize the potential of digital. But with the hard work comes a wealth of possibility. No matter where a nonprofit starts from, there are steps it can take to marshal its resources; develop a content strategy; and take advantage of the reach, visibility and opportunity at its fingertips.
Get the right resources in the right place
Just 40 percent of survey respondents have dedicated digital staff, which can set a nonprofit up for failure before it even begins. Digital is just like any other arm of an organization: It requires time and expertise to be executed well. Forgoing digital-dedicated staff and expecting success is akin to dissolving your development department and expecting donations to increase. While every team member should be aware of and engaged with your digital tools and strategy, at least one person needs to make its implementation and success his or her priority.
Beyond having specific digital staff, how they fit within the organization and interdepartmental relationships among communications, marketing and fundraising teams can impact success. Working concurrently toward the same goals improves performance and, conversely, can hinder it. More than a third of respondents said “proving return on investment internally” is a challenge, suggesting a lack of cohesion across departments around strategy and metrics.
Interestingly, while you’d think the increased resources of larger organizations would make them clear leaders on digital, it was the smaller organizations who best exemplified this collaborative spirit. Some of this is likely by necessity—with fewer staff, departments are often more multifunctional, with communications and fundraising staff under the same umbrella. Larger organizations tended to suffer from their bureaucracies being both more siloed and harder pressed to prove the value of digital. Still, across the board, respondents identified lack of staff and budget resources as the biggest challenges to building and implementing a digital strategy.
Figure out the what, who and how
The bedrock of a successful digital strategy is great content. No matter how savvy and creative your marketing plan is, the payoff for folks who interact with your organization needs to be high-quality and engaging content. This is much easier said than done, especially as the market and preferences for content forms evolve. Increasingly, constituents want more visual content—a video instead of an article, or a photo instead of a Facebook soliloquy.
Good content strategies center the constituent. Too often, nonprofits build their content strategies around their organizational priorities. This leads to long treatises on new initiatives and newsletters chock full of legislative updates and event recaps. While there are undoubtedly some supporters who like this, you can reach and engage a wider swath of people when you tailor your content to meet their lifestyles—fast, on-the-go and personalized. Rather than informing your supporters, think about building a relationship with them.
So how do you do this? A simple tactic is “journey mapping.” Start by thinking about where your supporter comes from, then think about what kind of content would drive them to get more informed, engaged and involved with your organization. This can help you decide where to reach out to folks and what that content should look like. Most importantly, you want to be consistent. Online marketing is less about quality over quantity and more about maximizing your touches with a variety of shorter, faster content that catches people’s attention and keeps it.
Just like with resource allocation, integration is the buzzword. The internet is rife with methods for reaching people. There are the traditional social-media sites most organizations use, like Facebook and Twitter. But more groups are using new and growing ones, like Instagram and Snapchat. All of these have unique paid and free opportunities. There’s also tried-and-true email, as well as an organization’s own website to manage. Plus, just because you’re building a robust digital strategy doesn’t mean you should forget direct mail and telemarketing.
The number of platforms can be overwhelming, but the key is to make them work in harmony. That means understanding each platform’s audience, algorithms and advantages and tailoring your content accordingly. The message may be the same across all channels, but the delivery is different.
Don’t forget the why
Ultimately, the value of digital is its ability to help you expand your reach to find and engage new supporters. Yet, despite the huge potential to tap into new audiences online, the survey found this makes up just a small piece of overall digital-strategy budget. Many organizations stated plans to get into the lead-generation game through vehicles such as content marketing and conversion rate optimization, and created petitions and pledges on their own and third-party sites. The sector is only beginning to realize that lead generation is a large, untapped opportunity.
Underlying and, in many cases, stymying forays into online recruitment is a need for robust metrics. Without good data to provide insight and inform strategy, it’s hard to build on the online investments organizations have already made. It’s paramount to define success, both as a sector and as an individual organization, to be able to measure and codify ROI. Yet, nearly all survey respondents said their organizations failed to track how many of the people who consumed their content converted to donors.
Beyond measuring success, data is a powerful and integral tool to develop and roll out a strategy. More savvy nonprofits are undertaking “persona work,” a way to segment your audience and provide content directly targeting their particular wants and needs. The more you can learn about your supporters, the better chance you have of connecting with them and convincing them to give. In fact, organizations that engaged in persona work found that conversion times were shorter, and that the length of time between first and second gifts averaged less than two months.
No matter where your organization lies on the spectrum, there’s digital potential to be grabbed. One of the greatest strengths of online marketing is the ease with which you can deploy, test, measure and make improvements. Digital strategies are iterative, and each campaign is an opportunity to learn and grow. The nonprofit sector is in the nascent stages of its own online journey. But with some tips, tricks and best practices, it is poised to have its best year yet.
Eric Rardin is vice president of business development at Care2 and serves on the board of directors for DMAW.