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How to Succeed in Digital Fundraising: 7 Universal Laws

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We often think of “Digital” as a channel, like “direct mail” or “phone.” In reality though, “digital” is a universe of channels with distinct roles and rules. Everything from websites and email to messaging and social platforms, countless apps, different content formats, and devices.

This digital universe evolves constantly, and the pace of change can be challenging. Luckily, there are some constant rules for fundraisers: the universal laws of digital fundraising. You can apply them across the digital universe for better results.

1st Law: Audience Relevance

If your campaign isn’t relevant to someone, it won’t stand out from the thousands of other digital messages they see every day.

What makes something relevant? It could be any number of things:

  • High media exposure, which can make people more aware and emotionally engaged with an issue.
  • Personal experience, such as mental health issues or physical conditions people experience first-hand.
  • Connection or contradiction with strongly held personal values, like the need to protect children, animals or the environment.

How to create audience relevance

First, you need to get inside the minds of your audience. Understand how they think about your cause (not how you want them to think about it). To do this, you can do passive research on (a) search behavior using online search analytics tools and (b) social discourse using social listening tools. You can also do more direct, active audience research, like donor interviews.

Also, you MUST be responsive to external events related to your cause. This means you should have a donation page, content and advertising out quickly (like within 12-24 hours) when something major and cause-relevant happens, before the news cycle demotes the story and people forget about it. You’ll need processes and templates for quickly launching campaigns to be able to do this.

2nd Law: Progressive Investment

When you’re starting out with digital fundraising, the advanced programs of bigger organizations can be intimidating. But they shouldn’t be. You’re not in a race with them.

Match your investment in a program with the opportunity that program represents. When the opportunity is low, focus on growing it and keep it simple. As the opportunity grows, increase sophistication and investment. I call this progressive investment.

You don’t need a bleeding edge email program when you’ve got a list of 1,000 subscribers. At that stage, you want to engage your subscribers from time to time, but it’s more important to grow your list before increasing email frequency or getting clever with segmentation and personalization.

Run your own race. Forget what the others are doing.

3rd Law: Community is KEY

Many fundraisers are used to thinking of their communications as aimed only at donors and prospective donors. It can be very different with digital: The low cost and immediacy allow us to maintain relationships with more people. This presents opportunity, but requires a shift in thinking.

With digital, always grow your online community – your email list, social followers, website visitors and others. Think about your full “spectrum of engagement” in your plan. Donors are VIPs, but supporters who haven’t yet donated are also very important.

For lead generation, don’t forget about the 95%+ of new leads who don’t convert immediately. They’ve expressed an interest in your cause! You can afford to cherish them, engage them, and think of them as future donors and legacy givers.

4th Law: Engagement and reciprocity

Has this happened to you? You carefully crafted messages, you designed a set of nice, on-brand graphics, you posted them on social media — but the response was flat.

Why? Here’s the answer: Your comms are all about you. They’re boring. It’s called “social media” – how social is talking about yourself and ignoring the yawns of your listeners?

Good digital programs provide two-way conversation, involve your supporters, speak their language and offer things they value, like:

  • Chances to share their opinions.
  • Great stories that evoke emotions, told in language they relate to.
  • Useful objects or experiences.
  • Social clout, and more.

Think about the everyday lives of your supporters. What’s in it for them? If you keep them inspired and engaged with regular, quality, donor-centric stories and interactions via email and socials, they will respond positively.

5th Law: Ideate, test, learn, optimize

The digital universe, with its abundant metrics and real-time feedback, offers the perfect environment for rapid testing and learning. In most cases, you needn’t spend significant budget on a campaign until it’s been in some way validated.

Instead of developing one creative concept for a campaign and then spending your whole budget on all channels, do this:

  1. Brainstorm many possible ideas as a team.
  2. Review and choose the best three (as a team).
  3. Split-test these ideas in Facebook ad campaigns with groups of the same audiences at the same time in as cheap-but-valid a way as possible.
  4. Stop the test as soon as you have statistically significant results.
  5. Review results and decide which campaign to roll out. That’s when you invest in full campaign development.

The process involves a bit more work, but in my experience, it has at least doubled my campaign success rate. Well worth it.

6th Law: Always evolve

I’ve heard about “set and forget” digital programs. Perfect messaging, everything automated … and it is job done. The fundraiser can walk away and enjoy great results indefinitely into the future.

Yeah, good luck with that.

The digital universe is always evolving. Things that work today won’t work tomorrow. World-changing innovations arrive abruptly on the scene, forcing us all to scramble to figure out how to respond. Companies suddenly announce product changes that drastically change the landscape and force new ways of doing things. Audiences change their behaviors and migrate between ever-changing platforms.

People at all levels of your organization – including senior budget allocators – need to understand this and build it into their expectations. It’s not a threat, it’s a universal law like gravity, and we must live with it.

Practically, that means:

  • Budget and time need to be allocated to testing new approaches and to staff professional development and education.
  • We need to expect that while all tests will provide learning, many will fail and some will succeed.
  • We need to constantly monitor all channels, journeys, and supporter touchpoints to catch changes or issues early.

As a fundraiser, you need to stay on top of new digital developments. Do that by taking courses and workshops and by participating in discussions with other active and engaged professionals, like in The Fundraisingology Lab.

The constant evolution of the digital world can be intimidating. It’s also exciting. Be inspired by it.

I hope these universal laws help you navigate the digital universe and achieve better fundraising outcomes.

Want more up-to-the-moment help for digital fundraising? Take our all-new and completely FREE online workshop, 3 Email Fundraising Mistakes That Cost You Tons of Donations. Featuring digital Fundraisingologist James Herlihy, this single session will help you leap forward in your online fundraising mastery. Sessions are coming up soon! More information here. 

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