What's the Value of an Engagement?
Direct-mail fundraisers love this: The clichéd complaint of advertising clients is, "I know only half the money I spend on advertising does any good. The problem is, I don't know which half."
People in the direct-marketing business have always recited this quote with glee. The pioneers in our industry were not "Mad Men" (though plenty of them were, and are, madmen of the highest order). They didn't have big offices on Madison Avenue or spend their workdays in Brooks Brothers suits.
But they brought to the table something few big ad agencies could: accountability. What made direct marketing so special was not glamor. It was the ability to track and measure results. Clients knew exactly which half of their budgets was working. And with concentrated testing, pretty soon all of it was.
Nonprofit fundraisers particularly, with their exacting budgets and scrutinizing boards, have benefited from direct mail. The more scientific, data-driven approach has helped organizations measure, with a fair degree of accuracy, the lifetime value of a donor.
Today though, it's more complicated. Now, mail is just one of many channels we have to communicate with donors. It's still overwhelmingly the most profitable, but it's also becoming the most taken for granted. Like an indulgent parent, direct mail picks up the tab for everything else but doesn't get much respect because it's just not sexy anymore.
What is sexy is engagement. Constantly emerging and evolving ways to communicate and even converse with donors.
I know where you think this is going, but it's not. This is honestly not another grumpy-old-man screed against technology. I love all the multichannel opportunities to interact, tell stories and increase top-of-mind awareness.
So I promise this question is not rhetorical: How do you measure the value of engagement?
What's the lifetime value of a person who follows your work religiously, signs petitions, recommends your website, and reposts and retweets like crazy, but has yet to make a donation?
We can track online interactions with amazing sophistication. But until an individual's engagement turns into a donation, how do we decide how much it's worth? Or whether it's technically even fundraising? Maybe it's something else … like marketing, or communications, or some kind of pre-fundraising.
Direct marketers are special because we are hardheaded realists. We test, we measure, we adjust and we can use data to explain our actions. So, as exciting and obviously valuable as online and mobile engagement are, the time is probably at hand to ask some of the same hard questions we ask of every other medium.
Like everybody else, I know the answers to these questions will be positive. But they do need to be asked.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.