Episode 32 – Should We Move All of Our Communications to Digital?

Beginner, Donor Communication, Podcasts

By Jeremy Reis

Digital marketing has been a boon for many nonprofits. Digital communications offers many benefits: easy to communicate with people, reach a massive (and potentially new) audience, testing, quick access to results. There can also be some lack of clarity about the best uses for digital and whether or not you should abandon other channels and move certain communications to digital-only. Learn about which communications make sense for digital and how other channels still have a place in your communications plan.

Full Transcript:

The digital market has been a boon for many nonprofits. The relative ease of communicating with people has contributed to fast movements of donors and people to digital channels, to give, to build a relationship, to hear the communications from brands, and nonprofit organizations like yourself. Digital has got this ability to reach this massive audience. You have the ability to reach people that you never could have reached before as a nonprofit, at least not with the kind of resources that it takes now, in digital, to reach that size of an audience.

Digital has also provided new fundraising platforms and tools. Things like peer-to-peer and crowdfunding that were never possible in other channels, to reach the size and the numbers of people that can be reached nowadays. It’s a tremendous tool for fundraising for nonprofits.

At first, nonprofits were slow to embrace the digital channels. Many still are slow to embrace the digital channels. It can be difficult to understand and adopt these new platforms, techniques, processes, without fully understanding what they’re capable of. For many years, I don’t know that we all really fully understood what they were capable of.

Then we had a period of time where there was a misunderstanding on what was capable, and the demands that were placed on digital were, in many cases, unachievable. There was kind of this dream of a low or no cost donor acquisition channel, and then the ability to raise gobs of money. We watched as charities that were started in the internet age, quickly grew to tens of millions of dollars, in what we thought was an easy and reproducible way, and many leadership teams didn’t understand the digital environment replacing these constraints on the digital teams.

Those just weren’t possible, so we had these wild expectations of what digital could achieve, without really fully understanding the platform, the tools, and the people, and how they use the digital environment. It was difficult to achieve hard results. We measured things differently; things like social shares, or time on site, or metrics that we gave out instead of measuring the hard results, like dollars coming in, or new donors.

We didn’t really understand digital, and how it could be used to expand a brand, or expand relationships, which now social media is a phenomenal tool for continuing to deepen relationships with donors. Leadership teams were looking at other organizations that were massively successful in digital, and if you weren’t, they began to question what kind of results that digital was bringing in.

I think there’s still a misunderstanding about the digital channel, and the different activities in which digital is best used for. That leads us to today’s question about communications. It’s a great question, and one which I believe many nonprofit marketing or digital teams get pushed into.

Let’s explore this topic more with Taylor.

Hi, my name is Taylor, and I have a question about communications. I’m getting a lot of pressure to move all our communications online. Newsletters, annual reports, pretty much everything. What are the pros and cons?

Hi Taylor, thanks so much for your question about digital communications, and what things that you could push into the digital channel, and where does it make sense to do that, and where does it make sense not to do that? It’s a great question, and one which I know a lot of nonprofit organizations, marketing teams, digital teams, are struggling with.

A leadership team looks at digital marketing, and the digital channel in particular, and says, “It’s such a low cost way to reach a wide audience. Why can’t we move all of our communications over to it?” There are pros to the digital channel, but there’s really a lot of cons to move all of your communications into it. You miss out on a lot.

We’re going to explore, as you asked in your question, we’re going to explore both those things; the pros and the cons for digital communications, and how we could best use it for our audience, and where it makes sense not to use digital for our audience.

Digital communications, it’s a great tool for reaching a wide audience. At Food for the Hungry, we can email out to hundreds of thousands of people instantly. We can reach hundreds of thousands of people, or even millions, through advertising in social media fairly instantly.

These things are not possible in other channels in a cost-effective way. I can put a couple thousand dollars behind a video on Facebook, and get it in front of millions of people pretty easily. That is not possible in TV, or any other medium that’s outside of digital. However, not everyone is online, and not everyone communicates the same way online.

When we really review this question of can we move our communications into the digital channel, it’s a question that really beckons an answer of, what does that do to the audience of people who don’t prefer to be in the digital channel, or don’t prefer the communication channels that many nonprofits are in on the digital side of things?

Let’s explore, first, the pros of moving your communications online. First, digital communications are often lower cost compared to most other channels. As I mentioned, I can buy advertising in social media, and reach tens and hundreds of thousands of people in a much more cost-effective way, compared to other channels. It’s expensive to mail to people, it’s expensive to buy time on radio, on TV.

These other channels are expensive to reach people, and so digital communications have a much lower cost to reach a wider audience. You could argue about the ability to reach people for effectiveness, through digital meaning. I could reach millions of people with that video, potential to be viewed, but does it actually reach people? Do people actually watch it? Do people actually engage with it?

Whereas, other channels like TV,  broadcast TV, or cable TV, you can reach people, and really effectively have them tied to watching your commercial, or your infomercial, or whatever it might be, for a period of time. Digital provides easy access to a large audience. In the past, if we wanted to acquire new donors, we might spend $250,000 to send out 500,000 acquisition mailings to people, in order to convert 5,000 donors.

That’s a tried and true direct mail acquisition campaign, one that we do, but doing that online, you could reach a lot of people for that same amount of money. Whether or not, again, you can convert those people is another question, but you do have access to a very large audience online. In the digital channel, after you produce something, it’s very quick to get it to market.

If I create a video, I can get that out same day I create it, to an audience. In fact, you can go live, and can do it instantaneously to an audience. If I create an annual report, I can send that out right away to an audience. I can’t mail that right away to an audience. I can get in their hands within a couple of days.

The ability to get something quick to market, definitely something in the digital channel, your ability to reach people is much quicker than in other channels. With digital assets, you could be much more interactive with what you produce. It’s like you create an annual report that has video assets, it’s got audio recordings, it has animation, it has all of these really cool interactive functions, links off to other content they might be interested in.

You can’t do that in a print piece. You can point people to other places to go reach those kind of tools, but you can’t do it within the print piece itself. Digital communications also allow engagement with the reader or viewer, and quick feedback from people. Excellent tool for surveying, because you can get instant data back from people, as to how you’re performing, so if there’s a problem in your checkout process on your website, you can instantly know there’s a problem, by the feedback that people are giving you.

Digital communications are also very easy to share, and so just beyond the person, the recipient that you send it to, they may share it with their friends and family, and you might reach a much wider audience, and exposure to people that you otherwise wouldn’t get with a direct mail, or a radio, or a television piece that, once the viewer, the listener, or the reader consumes that piece, they’re not likely to share it with other people.

Another benefit to digital communications is the ability for us to test, and just an infinite number of tests, and the data about usage. As I mentioned, I can get a video up the same day, to a wide audience on social media, but even better, I could get half a dozen videos up, and test how each one of them performs in social media. It’s not as quick and easy to do that in other channels.

There are also some cons in moving your communications online. Moving your communications online, it reduces the conversion of people from one channel to another. For example, at Food for the Hungry, we do an annual gift catalog around the giving season, around the holiday season, at Christmas time.

We mail out a ton of those gift catalogs to donors, and we know, based on tracking, that a lot of those donors receive the print gift catalog, and they don’t return the order form in it. They go online to transact. If we were to not mail out that printed gift catalog, we know many of those donors wouldn’t go online and give.

Another example is direct mail. We’ve got a number of donors who receive that direct mail piece, and then it motivates them to give. We know a lot of organizations who have done tracking on this, and we find that there is a lift when people receive a direct mail package. There’s a lift to your digital donations. You can also compliment your offline marketing, like direct mail, with digital communications, like social media ads.

NextAfter, an agency down in Texas has done a tremendous amount of testing around this, where they’ve shown brand ads to people on social media around the times of direct mail campaigns, and seen a lift of offline income, due to the social media ads being shown to people who received the direct mail campaign.

The ability to reach people in a multi-channel way, and increase income in other channels, is complemented by your work in digital. There’s a good size audience, especially probably among your donors, who would like to consume content in other channels. They like to receive that letter, or that newsletter from you. They like to hear about you on the radio. They’d like to see a TV program.

They like to consume content in channels that are not digital channels, and so if you were to move all of your digital communications online, you’re going to miss out on an audience that really likes to consume content in different ways than what you would be providing. Not everyone trusts transacting online. Not everyone wants to put their credit card number into a form.

People have had bad experiences. They’ve had their identity stolen, their credit card stolen. They don’t trust that they can give safely online yet. It may be shocking to people listening, because it’s so commonplace now for us to transact online, but there’s a good number of people who don’t do it. We’ve got a family member my wife was speaking to the other day, that was going to order something, and she refused to sign up online, because she was afraid of her identity being stolen, and so she couldn’t order this item.

We had to order it for her, because she just refused to go online and do it. There are people out there who still don’t trust the digital environment, and don’t want to transact online. The other channels have been around a long time, and we’ve got known conversion data, acquisition cost data for these channels. If you could get into compare and contrast that data with what you’re getting in the digital environment, you may find that there’s ways, and there’s types of donors that you’re acquiring through direct mail, or telemarketing, that are being acquired less expensively than what you’re acquiring in digital.

When you look at this data, you need to look at the long-term donor value of the different channels that you’re acquiring donors in. You may be acquiring a digital donor cheaply, but getting that second, third, fourth donation may be difficult, and so the lifetime value of that donor may be less than someone coming in from a direct mail acquisition campaign.

Review all of the data of your different channels, of how you’re bringing in donors, how those donors are transacting with you over time, and the lifetime value of those donors. It might surprise you, the quality of the donors that are coming in on channels other than digital. Offline channels are still working really well, so you risk putting all of your proverbial eggs in one basket of revenue, into the digital channel.

I know some organizations that have stopped raising money through direct mail, assuming that direct mail is dying, or is dead, which I don’t believe. Because of that, they’ve lost, potentially, millions of dollars of income. I know in one organization, who, for a period of time, did cancel all of their direct mail. They brought in a fundraising manager who believed in that, that direct mail was dead, and they lost a lot of money, had to restart their direct mail program some time later, and ended up not able to recover to the point that they were at before they turned it off.

Did I mention I’ve heard often, over the years, that direct mail, radio, these other channels, is either dead or dying? They aren’t dead. There’s still a lot of opportunity for nonprofits that are willing to invest in those channels. We’re still acquiring direct mail donors through acquisition campaigns. I can tell you, at Food for the Hungry, it’s very profitable for us to do it. We’re paying back one-to-one on direct mail donors in less than a year.

You know, the industry average is 18+ months for that, so there’s still a ton of opportunity for nonprofits that are willing to invest in other channels. I recommend that you take a multi-channel approach to how you communicate to people. It’s not because donors want to give in multiple channels; they typically don’t.

Direct mail donor doesn’t always want to give online. An online donor doesn’t want to give in direct mail. It’s really for that precise reason. Donors want to be communicated to in multiple channels. As I mentioned, in many of your donors, there’s going to be a crossover, where they do want that digital communication, but they want to actually transact in the direct mail.

You might find that certain donors, you might look at their profiles, and like, “Oh my gosh. They’re opening these email newsletters. They’re interacting with us on social media. They must only want digital communications.” But if you look deeper, you might find that though they are interacting and engaging with those digital communications, they’re actually transacting through a different channel.

They’re transacting through direct mail, they’re giving when somebody calls them on the phone, they’re transacting with a donor rep. There are these donors that appreciate being communicated with in multiple channels, but they only want to transact in one of those channels, and it may not be the digital channel.

My recommendation is that you continue to build relationships with people where they are. Build relationships with people in direct mail, through phone calls, through letters, through the channels that they want to consume in. Thank you so much for your question. I really appreciate it.

If you have other questions, or other people out there have questions, I’d love to hear from you. You can go to nonprofitanswers.org, submit your question to me. You can do it in written form, or you can call a number and record it, and I’ll feature you here on the podcast, but I appreciate all those that have submitted questions, and I’m really excited to continue answering these questions, and hope that today’s answer really helps contribute to your organization.

As you look at the different channels of communications that you have with your donors, with the people that you serve, that it really helps contribute to you making good decisions on ways that you can best communicate with them.


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