Does Market Research Really Matter?
If you’ve been around for a long time like me, you probably remember that market research in the nonprofit world was what the branding people would do. In fact, many of us thought of ourselves as fundraisers and not really as “marketers.” Therefore, market research didn’t really come up in our thought processes. After all, the way we figured out what "worked" was by A/B testing and whichever package, message, gift array won.
Then things started to change. First, many fundraising areas in organizations started to become very aligned with, if not a part of, the marketing team. While branding sometimes lived in a separate department, this realignment brought about really great questions and discussions. For example:
- What messages/descriptions of the mission motivate your donors to give the most?
- What type of “proof of progress” do donors need to recommit and/or upgrade their financial support?
- What "words" are most and least effective?
- What visual imagery is most likely to create an emotional reaction resulting in a donation?
- What communication experience drives the greatest retention year-over-year?
Almost immediately, the confusion started. For example, if a study said that message A was the most motivating but most of the campaign creative (determined by performance metrics) used message B—what does that mean? Is the market research wrong? Are people saying something that is not true? Are people saying what they think we want them to say?
And, don’t get me started on the use of photos. What if I’m working at a children’s health organization, and the research says “happy children” are the most motivating, but in testing actual performance, it shows that “sad children” work better?
Unfortunately, where this has led is the development of two camps when it comes to the perceived value of market research. But, in reality, it’s not really a “yes” or “no” answer when it comes to the value of the insight.
Why? Because the study alone is just not enough. In years past, the study/survey was king, and the outcome of that work was treated as stand-alone insight. What we have learned over the years is that the true power is when this type of insight is combined with behavioral information (how donors already have transacted with the organization) and additional external data on demographics, psychographics and interests/preferences. Today’s market research consultants will tell you (if they are good) that the answers to the study are not the only things you need. Alisa Hamilton from Harvest Insight said, “Marketing research has evolved from simply asking people what they would do to predicting their future behavior using advanced statistical analytics. These techniques use past behavior, current beliefs and future estimates to understand what moves the needle—how to spur more donations, greater commitment, and increase volunteerism.”
Another important thing to remember is that many organizations use market research to understand broader issues, like retention, commitment, satisfaction with the donor experience, etc. So, when a study is designed to understand long-term issues—we, as marketers and fundraisers, need to understand that the outcomes sometime cannot be applied to short-term transactions. We have trained people with our standard/control communications to behave a specific way immediately. So, as we try to understand feelings and emotions and how they affect the long-term relationship, it is not as simple as just testing a new message in one mailing and expecting immediate behavior change. We have to avoid getting caught up in the “that didn’t work” campaign approach when it comes to long-term behavior.
Afterall, if I don’t like my year-over-year retention rate, how can I actually say that everything I’m doing now already is working? Just remember, relationship behavior is very different than transactional, moment-in-time behavior.
Vice President, Strategy & Development
Eleventy Marketing Group
Angie is ridiculously passionate about EVERYTHING she’s involved in — including the future and success of our nonprofit industry.
Angie is a senior exec with 25 years of experience in direct and relationship marketing. She is a C-suite consultant with experience over the years at both nonprofits and agencies. She currently leads strategy and development for marketing intelligence agency Eleventy Marketing Group. Previously she has worked at the innovative startup DonorVoice and as general manager of Merkle’s Nonprofit Group, as well as serving as that firm’s CRM officer charged with driving change within the industry. She also spent more 14 years leading the marketing, fundraising and CRM areas for two nationwide charities, The Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society. Angie is a thought leader in the industry and is frequent speaker at events, and author of articles and whitepapers on the nonprofit industry. She also has received recognition for innovation and influence over the years.