September 4, 2013, 4:04 PM

Giving is getting

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Retailers might discover that only one in 20 customers who read an article converts right away, Conroy says. But knowing how that activity fits into a larger cycle of sales—perhaps some of those shoppers will convert in a few months—might help them to determine that they should ramp up efforts for creating articles now, she says. Nonprofits focus on the larger donations cycle, she says, and retailers could benefit from doing the same.

High-quality, relevant content can spontaneously inspire some donors who stumble upon it, too—much like when retailers provide how-to videos that convince information-seeking consumers to buy the featured items. That's how the National Wildlife Federation secured two of its largest donors last year, who together gave $150,000, Brigida says. One of them was Craig Newmark, founder of classifieds site He found her lighthearted post for Jan. 21, Squirrel Appreciation Day, and decided to start his own fundraising campaign in response: For every mention of #squirrels4good on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, he donated one dollar to the National Wildlife Federation. (He later capped the donation at $10,000 as mentions snowballed).

Creating relevant and engaging content is a conversation starter, but to build a long-term, loyal audience, retailers need to connect with customers even when they aren't buying. For example, the American Red Cross may e-mail donors a disaster preparedness quiz or ask for caption submissions on social media to go with historic American Red Cross pictures from the 1920s. Those touch points are opportunities to interact with the American Red Cross in a way that doesn't necessarily require giving money, says executive director of consumer marketing Jennifer A. Elwood. "We're always looking for fun things that folks can do that aren't just us with our hands out," she says.

Day-to-day communication fosters long-term loyalty, not just during crises. For example, last Veterans Day the American Red Cross sent consumers an e-mail asking them to write messages to veterans to be projected on a big screen during an event in Washington, D.C. That campaign sparked a significantly higher response rate than the average fundraising appeal, Elwood says, without sharing specifics. And she says, because they're more engaged, those consumers are more likely to support other campaigns later, including ones asking for money.

Another way nonprofits cost-effectively activate their online audiences is by requesting user-generated content, Conroy says. For example, video or photo contests are practically free to run and tend to generate lots of responses because consumers love the personal recognition they generate, she says. They're also easy campaigns to get spread on social media.

Mars Inc.'s dog food division Pedigree runs a project to supply free dog food to animal shelters. In January, it attracted Facebook 15,000 photo and video nominations for which shelters it should add to the program next, a Pedigree spokeswoman says. After 36,000 votes, two communities—Detroit/Flint, Mich., and Erie, Pa.—won, and in May Pedigree began supplying dog food to five shelters between the two cities. The brand then reused the consumer-submitted content to share back those shelters' stories on its Facebook page.

To maximize social sharing, nonprofit organization the March of Dimes Foundation ensures every piece of content it creates includes a way to act on the message, such as to donate, says Patricia Goldman, vice president and chief marketing officer for the organization, which fights premature birth and associated infant health defects.

This proves especially important for its largest annual event, the March for Babies, which are organized walks in 700 locations in late April that collectively generate $100 million in contributions, half the March of Dimes' annual revenue, Goldman says. After consumers sign up online to walk, most share their registration on Facebook, she says. Then, from within the social network, their friends can click a link to donate or sign up to walk, too, she says. "We can directly see that Facebook drives so much of the donation," she says. She can tell because, while for most of the year 80% of referral traffic to the organization's web site comes from search engines, during the March of Babies, 80% of referral traffic comes from Facebook.

Social media is powerful because donors are most influenced by their friends, and many of their friends go online to share their views and passions, Goldman says. "The end point [for March of Dimes] may be to get donations," she says, but, "the value proposition for nonprofits is relationships." In general, most online relationships occur on social networks and mobile devices—which now account for half of March of Dimes' traffic, she says. Accordingly, the organization's web development focus today is mostly on building mobile and social applications.

Translating this into a retail setting, Conroy recommends retailers give consumers unique links to share with their friends after they make a purchase, then offer a reward for sharing them. Subscription food and recipe delivery service HelloFresh, for one, provides a referral code to customers via their online accounts that they can give to friends however they like, including by e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. The retailer credits the customer's account with $20 as soon as someone signs up with the code.

Members-only loyalty programs also provide incentives for consumers to sign up and stay active on an e-commerce site, Conroy says. The idea is similar to how some nonprofit organizations enlist motivated volunteers that donate their time to answer questions and educate the public about a cause. GiveForward Inc., a company that sets up and manages charitable fundraising web sites, and for which Conroy previously worked, gives its core supporters free T-shirts to encourage them to tell others about its services and asks them to complete feedback surveys to refine the site, she says.

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