The Omnichannel Nonprofit
At the turn of the millennium, there was no bigger rage in the nonprofit world than multichannel integration. It only made sense — donors began to utilize many more channels beyond just the phone and mail, and naturally nonprofits needed to reach out to supporters in those ways.
In the past 15 years or so, the industry has slowly but surely begun to master multichannel communications. But with the exponential rise in new media continuing to alter how people interact with brands and each other in their daily lives, simply touching donors in all the various channels is no longer enough. Nonprofit supporters demand that the brands they interact with know them and touch them in a consistent, thoughtful and personal manner.
In order for that to happen, a nonprofit organization must be more than just a multichannel marketer — it must operate as an omnichannel nonprofit.
What is omnichannel?
Anyone who has paid any attention to the retail industry has heard the term omnichannel marketing, and increasingly, omnichannel is becoming the standard. But what does omnichannel mean? How does it differ from multichannel?
Multichannel refers to the tools with which a brand communicates with its customers or donors. Omnichannel is so much more. In a nutshell, omnichannel marketing is all about providing true continuity across all touchpoints with a consumer or donor — a unified experience for your target audience in which all channels work in concert seamlessly. In order to provide that seamless experience, an organization must adopt an omnichannel approach internally as well.
That means the right hand must know what the left hand is doing and act accordingly. So many retailers are making this transition, utilizing customer data and monitoring behaviors to feed remarketing efforts across different channels and platforms to provide more value to those customers.
It’s not just the retail space that has been experimenting and perfecting an omnichannel approach either. Nonprofits have been slowly hopping on board the omnichannel train in this second decade of the 21st century. Emphasis on slowly.
“A lot of times, even the most advanced nonprofits, while more integrated than in the past, things would fall by the wayside or be forgotten in integration efforts, and the systems may not talk to each as regularly as they should,” says Brenna Holmes, vice president of digital for the interactive department of full-service agency Chapman Cubine Adams + Hussey (CCAH). “Donors are a constantly moving target, and it’s important to have a donor-centric view.
“Donors get more and more discerning every day. Nonprofits must know who they are and how they use media on a daily basis because there is so much competition for the dollar. That makes being omnichannel quintessential to running a good program,” she adds.
Omnichannel goes MADD
Coming from the for-profit world, Nick Ellinger joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) about eight years ago. When he started, MADD’s national office had 20 different databases and another 100 throughout the field — none of which really spoke to any others very well. Now vice president of outreach for the organization, Ellinger knew MADD needed to change that.
His initial step was to get control of MADD’s multichannel communications. One of the first things he did was go to his executives to advocate for a cost-per-click campaign for MADD, detailing the type of return on investment such an endeavor could hold. He began with $20 in a Google ad, and MADD reaped the benefits. Now it utilizes Google Grants and much more with search engine marketing, all because he was able to do a small test and show its effective results.
“My mantra is you first fire bullets, then cannonballs,” Ellinger says.
At the same time, Ellinger led the charge to consolidate the 120-plus databases MADD had throughout its chapters to one central database everyone in the organization could access.
“We began picking off each database one by one so we could do multichannel effectively, let alone omnichannel,” Ellinger says. “… It doesn’t mean you can’t use specialized databases for different channels, but having one place where all the data goes and comes back out is critically important. With MADD, we want to make sure that through all channels we’re treating people appropriately.”
For instance, MADD has to treat someone who has been impacted by drunk driving differently than someone who is a concerned citizen who hasn’t had that personal connection necessarily, and “you lose that if your databases don’t talk,” Ellinger says.
So he worked on the architecture by enlisting the help of IT, marketing and communications, and listening to the MADD workers in the field demanding this central repository. Once that was in place, it was time to take the first true steps toward an omnichannel nonprofit, and MADD tapped CCAH for help.
Having already shown the benefits of testing with the cost-per-click campaign, MADD’s leadership had a proven track record of letting its staff try new things. So the next step was running a membership campaign in an omnichannel capacity.
In 2012, after breaking down the wall between the national office and local chapters, MADD embarked on a membership card campaign. MADD began marking every local supporter with a member ID, whether the supporter came on to the file online, through a walk, etc. Then it began to message those donors utilizing the ID in the mail, phone, online and remarketing, which in turn has helped grow support and loyalty for the national organization and local chapters.
The campaign was a success, and it convinced leadership to continue evolving as an omnichannel nonprofit. And it was all because of testing.
“Nothing makes the case better than your own data,” Holmes says. “It tips that scale. We’ve never seen an organization balk on making a decision when their own data tells them the best play.
“There’s very little to be lost by a field test but so much potential to gain and so much risk in not testing at all. Most organizations that we’ve worked with see the logic in that, and they’re very responsive to their own data,” she adds.
The data told MADD that even just at the beginning stages of becoming more omnichannel, this philosophy worked.
“We’re very fortunate in MADD that we have people here who are very passionate about the mission and make sure we’re getting the most out of every bit of resources we can, and we have folks who are very receptive to new ideas,” Ellinger says. “But it also doesn’t happen without consistent, very honest communication and a significant education process. … The education is necessary up front because then you don’t have it become a barrier for people who want do the right things but don’t know how.”
Since that initial test, MADD has focused on becoming more and more omnichannel. It’s all about communicating and focusing on the
Admittedly, the task is not easy, and MADD has had its missteps. For instance, MADD recently sent an email to its online list looking at the time of donors’ last donations with an expiring membership renewal message. However, Ellinger says he did not have in the front of his mind that many people give to MADD in other ways than financially — sharing a story of a loved one paying the ultimate price of drunk driving, advocates, those who’ve helped victims, etc.
“The good news is donors and supporters will tell you when you’ve done it wrong,” Ellinger says. “… When you use a one-size-fits-all database approach, you can discount — unintentionally but painfully — those other experiences.”
MADD apologized to those lifetime supporters after hearing back from them and put systems in place to prevent mistakes like that in future.
Working toward omnichannel success
The hiccups are par for the course. As Ellinger says, “being truly omnichannel is like being fully enlightened” — you can work toward it but will never fully achieve it. Yet that doesn’t mean nonprofits should throw up their hands and surrender, because moving as close to omnichannel nirvana as you can has real effects backed up by data.
So where do you start?
“The way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time,” Ellinger says. “Getting your online database to talk to your offline database and vice versa is the first step and great one. … Once you have the tech portion worked out and people see what they are able to do with it, it naturally breaks down resistance barriers.”
Holmes suggests starting with your direct response fundraising efforts to test it and then scale up those learnings across the organization. It’s an easy place to test and to test on the appropriate scale, and it’s also a great place to show the results with hard data.
When it all boils down, it’s about talking to the donor as he or she wishes to be spoken to and interacted with because, as Holmes says, “the donor’s opinion is all that matters at the end of the day.”
That’s really what being omnichannel is all about — breaking down the barriers and confusion within your own organization to make the donor’s journey better, more consistent, more personal and more immersive.