Giving is getting

E-retailers can learn how to grow and activate online audiences by looking to methods used by successful nonprofits.

Amy Dusto

When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, the American Red Cross raised $32 million by encouraging consumers to send text messages to the nonprofit. Sending a message let consumers' mobile carriers tack on a $10 donation to their next bill, said Craig Oldham, vice president of digital engagement for the American Red Cross in a presentation at the 2013 Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in June. That response presaged a new era of mobile donations for the nonprofit emergency care organization.

Similar text-based fundraising rolled in after the Japanese tsunami disaster in 2011 and, more recently, when violent tornados struck near Oklahoma City in May, he said. In that last emergency, not only did bountiful donations come in through mobile devices, but about 50% of the organization's site traffic was mobile.

Donations made via the Internet as a percentage of total charitable giving are growing faster than web sales as a percentage of total retail sales. Online giving to charitable organizations in the United States grew 10.7% in 2012 from 2011, according to the 2012 Charitable Giving Report by Blackbaud Inc., which provides technologies for nonprofits. Overall, online giving represented 7% of all charitable giving in 2012, an increase from 6.3% of all giving in 2011, the company says. E-commerce, in contrast, accounted for just 5.2% of total retail spending in 2012, an increase from 4.7% over 2011, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

As online revenue increases for nonprofits, so has their focus on web marketing and social media, according to a 2013 benchmark study of 55 charitable organizations by nonprofit consultancy M+R Strategic Services and the Nonprofit Technology Network. On average among the organizations in the study, from 2011 to 2012: online revenue rose 21%, e-mail list sizes increased 15%, revenue from monthly subscriptions jumped 43%, the number of Twitter followers soared 264% and the number of Facebook fans rose 46%.

E-retailers looking to drive more e-commerce sales with their calls to action can learn from nonprofits. Most notably, nonprofits' online strategies come from a scrappy, intimate approach to donor interactions. Like nonprofits, e-retailers can use a host of digital marketing tactics to cultivate consumers' personal attachments to their organizations, and do so cost effectively.

Nonprofits are especially good at "making the most of what they've got," says Cate Conroy, founder and CEO of Conroy Marketing Group, which has worked on content marketing with nonprofits. "If a nonprofit does a photo shoot, they're really good at using the heck out of it—slicing and dicing the photos many ways and finding ways to use them."

Leveraging content, particularly on social media, is another tactic nonprofits use to get their donor community moving without a huge upfront investment, but with the long-term benefits of increased loyalty, Conroy says. "Nonprofit strategy is about finding ways people can be supportive without necessarily opening their wallets," she says. "For-profits struggle with that for obvious reasons, but once they figure it out it can make a big difference." Retailers may lose a few customers in moving some resources from a pay-per-click campaign to a loyalty program or social media, for example, but the ones they gain are more likely to keep spending with them over time, she says.

Nonprofits do more than solicit funds from donors. They listen to them and respond with relevant, helpful information. When done well, that content can spark a big response.

Danielle Brigida, senior manager of social strategy and integration at the National Wildlife Federation, says she organizes the nonprofit's Twitter followers in lists by their passions, such as whales, birds or the ocean. Then she follows their posts.

In 2009, Brigida noticed a Twitter conversation among naturalists about their favorite nature-related iPhone apps. She took the cue and wrote a blog post about the best nature iPhone apps and shared it with her followers. It remains one of the organization's most-visited posts, she says.

Donations are one measure of the return on investment for such blogging and social media efforts, Brigida says. Social referrals, often shares of blog posts, typically trigger about $2,000 in donations per month, she says, although they can raise much more in response to crises like the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. However, she purposely doesn't ask for donations or signatures in all content.

"I'd rather train people to click no matter what than only if they know it's an action alert or they can donate," she says. "You very much get the audience you talk to." The audience she wants thinks of wildlife daily and feels comfortable interacting with the National Wildlife Federation in many ways—not just to donate, she says. When that audience is engaged, she says both her reach and revenue increase.

"It's important to keep in mind that conversions are the ultimate goal, but there can be micro-conversions along the way," Conroy says. Micro-conversions are small, non-monetary engagements, such as signing up for a newsletter, sharing articles or attending events, which help drive later sales. "Someone's not going to run around necessarily and tell everyone about their favorite clothing retailer," she says. "But for-profits can build that customer loyalty by making supporters responsible."

For example, retailers can ask customers to vote on which products they should restock, she says, or ask for feedback on how they could make the next shipment better. "Online retailers need to understand that people want to feel special and like they're contributing to a brand," Conroy says.

Listening also teaches the National Wildlife Federation what its donors want. For example, Brigida once noticed "polar bears" trending on Twitter. She responded with a link to a blog post that included a call to action—a petition to protect polar bears that could be signed electronically—and immediately received around 100 signatures. "We always see an increased response when we're relevant," she says.

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 Craigslist.org. 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.

Other e-retailers could similarly focus on making shoppers feel like they are trendsetters influencing the brand's future, she says. One way is to create "member zones" where invited consumers can log into an e-commerce site and access special content, like sneak previews of upcoming products or the opportunity to shop an advanced sale, she says. Retailers can also invite their best customers to contribute to the brand directly, perhaps by filming testimonials or filling out surveys about merchandise, she says.

Nonprofits have long known how to reach, retain and spur donors to drive others to their causes. By understanding how nonprofits leverage the web to accomplish their goals, e-retailers can better build online audiences that are active, engaged and motivated to share—all important fuel for sales.




Blackbaud Inc., Blogging, Cate Conroy, Conroy Marketing Group, Craig Newmark, Craig Oldham, Craigslist.org, Danielle Brigida, donations, e-commerce, Engagement, Facebook, GiveForward Inc., HelloFresh, iPhone app, Jennifer A. Elwood, M+R Strategic Services, March for Babies, March of Dimes Foundation, Mars Inc., micro-donations, mobile donations, National Wildlife Federation, Nonprofit Technology Network, nonprofits, Patricia Goldman, Pedigree Foundation, photo contest, social media, The American Red Cross, Twitter