Sure, raising money online is a bit more complicated than renting a mailing list and testing various packages on the names to see what works and what doesn’t. For starters, in the spam-challenged online world, you need donors’ permission to continue communicating with them. And to be sure, your organization can raise serious cash online without sending a single e-mail, particularly during December when many donors seek you out. Heck, you can even raise a few dollars (but only a few) on Facebook these days.
But eliminate all the jargon and the steady stream of innovative ideas, and you’ll find that acquiring donors online boils down to five key steps.
Secure the technology
There’s little point in acquiring donors online unless you have the tools to build enduring relationships with them. Fortunately, several companies provide the tools you need to send e-mails, create donation forms, manage Web sites and host events (among other things). Linking these functions is a central database that captures every action your members take online with you.
Why is such software critical? It enables you to build relationships with your supporters online in a way that maximizes their lifetime values — by delivering timely, relevant e-mails that are likely to be of most interest to your supporters and persuade them to respond. If you’re a national group that lobbies at the state level, for example, you can e-mail everyone in a particular state to call their legislators about an important bill. If you know that one of your donors has made several gifts over the past two years on a specific issue, you can try to convert her into a monthly supporter around that same issue. By basing your e-mails, including appeals, on past actions a supporter has taken, you’ll stay relevant to her and boost your donation income.
Drive prospective donors to your Web pages
After you’ve invested in the right software, you can begin the work of acquisition. Every nonprofit can graph a unique pie chart showing the various sources of donors acquired via the Internet — not to mention donors who contribute online but who were first acquired via offline channels such as events and direct mail. Here’s a rundown of the most common online sources and key tips to maximize them:
* Organic Web site traffic. Many people visit your Web site after Google searches, via links on third-party Web sites, or simply by typing in your Web address. To capture the most search visitors, search engine optimization is the best place to start. SEO involves tweaking your Web site and taking other steps to ensure that links to your site appear near the top of searches that relate to your mission so, for example, your food bank in Seattle appears near the top of the listings when someone types “food banks in Seattle” into a search engine. Hire a pro to help with SEO, and build it into your next site redesign.
* Tell-a-friend. This category includes those driven to one of your Web site pages by people they know who have just taken action with you online. The best strategy to recruit new supporters via tell-a-friend is to invite and empower action takers (or donors) to tell friends immediately after they take action (or donate). For example, when someone signs an online petition and clicks on the “Sign” button, land them on a thank-you page that also enables them to enter their friends’ e-mail addresses and invite their friends to sign it, too.
* Paid search. The concept of developing a budget for online marketing might scare some nonprofits — particularly in this economy — but it shouldn’t. Search engine marketing is an easy way to wet your toes. SEM involves placing ads (called “sponsored links”) on Google, Yahoo and MSN Live Search.
For starters, buy the search terms that are related to your mission — unless your organization is the first that appears under the organic (or free) search results. Even if your organization is the top organic search listing for keywords closely related to your brand, purchase pay-per-click ads for those keywords, too, and point them directly to a donation form. (For an example of how this works, type “Amnesty” in Google.) Search ads can be particularly effective when there’s breaking news related either to your organization or to one of the societal challenges you seek to solve. It’s best to hire an expert to help you with this, at least to get you started.
* Other paid ads. After you’ve conquered search, consider paid placements in e-mails and even banner ads. For the former, seek out online properties that actually “sell” space in their e-mails to organizations like yours, and run a test to see how the placement performs. Banner ads generally are the worst-performing from a cost-per-acquisition perspective — and require the hassle of actually creating the ads — but some Web sites and blogs that are good matches for your mission could deliver surprising results, especially the first time you run the ads.
* Paid acquisition. Some third-party online properties, such as Care2, will recruit a set number of new e-mail addresses for you on a cost-per-name basis. To do this, they set up online actions related to your mission, promote the actions to their own members and then enable those who take the actions to check a box to opt in to your nonprofit’s e-mail list. You then pay a set cost for each name. You might be able to entice third-party Web sites to recruit donors on your behalf, too, by offering to pay them a set amount for every donor they send your way. The cost per donor typically will be much higher than the cost of the e-mail address of someone you later try to convert into a donor.
Persuade your site visitors to take action (or donate)
Once you drive potential donors to your Web pages, the last thing you want is for them to click away immediately. The key is to convert their initial interest into a tangible action, one that makes it easy for them to leave their calling cards — their e-mail addresses — with you before they go. To do this, be sure there is agreement between what drove them to your Web page and the Web page itself. This is particularly vital for paid ads. Have you ever had the experience of searching for a specific product online, only to be driven to a Web page for a store where the product you want isn’t even mentioned? To avoid this scenario, don’t drive searchers to your homepage, but instead to a donation form or action page that relates directly to whatever they clicked on to get there.
The second critical element to maximize conversion is compelling content. Tell your story, and make it easy for the prospective donor to do whatever action you’d like her to do, whether that is taking some action online, making a gift or something else.
Get permission to stay in touch
Once you’ve driven a prospective donor to your site and persuaded her to take whatever action you’ve asked her to take, your next step is getting her permission to hear from you in the future.
The e-mail opt-in check box should be ubiquitous across your Web site, and it should entice the prospective donor with a clear and compelling value proposition: “Sign up to receive action alerts, tips and news you can use” or “Yes! I want to keep helping people with disabilities.” Some organizations offer premiums in return for signing up; if you try this idea, choose a premium that is somehow related to your mission.
Get the first (or second) gift
No relationship is more exciting than when you’re first getting to know each other, and your relationship with donors is no different. As in direct mail, recency is critical. Shortly after they join your file — whether via e-mail sign-up, an action or something else — send prospective donors a series of welcome e-mails designed to elicit initial gifts. If they first joined your online file via donations, this series should inspire second gifts.
Some organizations automate this process, sending two to 10 (or even more) e-mails featuring a standard mix of appeals, updates and/or actions. Other organizations, particularly those that focus on multiple issues, tailor their welcome e-mails to the specific issue the advocate or donor showed initial interest in.
For example, someone who signed an online petition about alternative energy with an environmental organization would get a series of e-mails about the organization’s energy campaign. She might later be exposed to the organization’s other campaigns, but the initial focus is on getting a gift related to the specific issue that first compelled her to take action.
To maximize the impact of your online communications, adopt a culture of testing. For example, if you send a monthly e-news-letter featuring two topics, instead try sending out two e-mails each month, each devoted to a single topic, to a test segment of your file. Then add a third e-mail — a direct appeal, say — in one of the extra weeks. After a few months, compare the test segment with the control group to see which performed the best.
Mastering these five steps takes time and resources, which are in especially short supply for the sector these days. Growing beyond these basics requires more investment still, along with a healthy dose of creative thinking on how to translate your organization’s unique passion and competencies into compelling online initiatives.
But growing your online fundraising program is particularly critical in this challenging climate and will position your organization to achieve great things — now and in the future.