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How Charities Can Better Use Online Marketing to Improve Donations

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 15th March 2011

Comic Relief LogoRed Nose Day is nearly upon us in the UK, and once again Comic Relief have done an amazing job of raising awareness and getting everyone geared up to donate on the 18th March 2011. But what about other charities?

This article explores some of the online marketing ideas they could employ to improve donations by learning lessons from Comic Relief, as well as other successful charity drives in recent years. From viral marketing, to event marketing, and even traditional link building I’ll take a look at what can be done.

Go Viral
The main strength that Comic Relief have with Red Nose Day is the buy in from other BBC properties. Any attempt they make to raise money is given celebrity backing, and promoted across BBC TV, Radio and Online. This allows the fundraising activities to go viral very quickly. So from the Red Nose Desert Trek, David Walliams’ 24 Hour Panel Quiz and Let’s Dance for Comic Relief, it’s likely you’ve come across one of the fund raising activities.

Comic Relief 24 Hour PanelComic Relief 24 Hour Panel People

So how can other charities hope to emulate this without the backing of the BBC? Well thanks to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook we are more connected online than ever. You don’t need a TV station to post a video to millions, or a radio station to share your details. All charities need is to ensure they are active on these networks and are putting out good content. Comic Relief get exposure because they have achieved remarkable things, but any of the above challenges could have been attempted by any of the major charities, and promoted in these ways.

Have an Event
The one day event of Red Nose Day is a great way of collecting together the fund raising that has occurred over the preceding months and reminding everyone to donate. This works fantastically as it is a natural climax to the entire event. It leaves you feeling a lot like this Futurama clip. You are being encouraged to donate every day before hand and then on the night itself it seems like if you don’t donate then you’ll miss your chance. Of course this isn’t true, but donating on the day makes you feel a part of a movement and this all helps to increase the total donations.

race for life

Cancer Research UK do this even better than Red Nose Day by having a regular event in the form of Race for Life. What makes this better is that people are grouped by their local town and that events occur frequently throughout the year. This leads to a more constant stream of donations, by creating a sequence of smaller movements, which also end with an event that calls for donations.

An event like this is great online fodder, and Race for Life is a classic example of making people feel special. Race for Life is only open to girls, which gives it an air of exclusivity and encourages people to bond together and work towards raising as much as they can. As for how they raise this money, sites like Just Giving have made it really easy to email your friends and get donations. The online platforms are already in place for people to do this, you just need to make an event and generate the interest.

Build Partnerships, Build Links
In February 2011 Paypal and Oxfam announced a one month partnership. During this time Paypal would pay all of the running costs of Oxfam, making every penny that was earned during that month go 100% to good causes. Aside from the charitable benefits, Oxfam also gained temporary access to the entire Paypal mailing list, who were sent an email asking them to donate. Oxfam then had the chance to reach an audience that would normally be untouchable.

100% Giving

Paypal also added donate buttons to their website, and paid for a national advertising campaign. All of this was excellent exposure for Oxfam for the month. Whilst the Paypal website has now reverted back to normal as if nothing ever happened, there are still echoes of the campaign online that will help donations continue. For example, all of the positive press that was generated online will remain, many of which have links back to the Oxfam website. These links from strong news publications will continue to strengthen their domain for the future.

Other charities have partnered with companies but not to this extent, and they are missing out on link building opportunities. If a company donates to a charity they should be given a badge to display on their company website. This badge could identify them as a partner of the charity, and will include a link back to the charity website. The charity gets a link, and the company has an accreditation that makes them feel good about themselves. Every company who has a Co2 neutral website is given a badge from Co2 Neutral Website.com and this is an example of such a badge in action.

Better use of PPC
Jonathon Grapsas shares an excellent insight in to how charities can better use PPC in his blog post Google AdWords for Charities including asking people to sign up for a mailing list rather than to donate. You will then collect details of people who are not yet keen on donating but who are aware of your brand. Over time through effective email marketing you can then turn them in to donors.

Google grantsAnother factor to consider is Google Grants. If you are a charity and aren’t using this channel then you’re throwing money away. Google give free AdWords advertising to selected charitable organisations, and through the Grants program you can put your name forward. Advertisers are given $329 per day as a starting figure and can apply for more if they can justify the spend.

Having a free budget doesn’t mean guaranteed number one placements, and a search for ‘donate to charity’ shows a page filled with advertisers, all competing for the best positions. This is a shame as it shows a lot of charities are just bidding on ‘charity’ and leaving the money to waste. In fact a search for ‘charitable donation’ shows no PPC adverts at all. A completely missed opportunity for people who are keen to donate.

When salaries for fundraising managers at charities can reach over £70,000 it’s important these individuals are able to effectively use online marketing to spread brand awareness. The above ideas are a start, and can easily snowball charity awareness in the public eye if used correctly.

I’m ending this post with a challenge. I challenge anyone in the marketing industry, or charity sectors to give away one golden tip below. Think of it as a donation that will help the charity industry grow and optimise better.

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...


  • Stephen Logan

    Stephen 15th March 2011

    The key take away (for me at least) is for charities to take advantage of every available opportunity, and if there isn’t anything going on in your specialist area, create it – as with Race for Life.

    Innovation is rewarded, so too is visibility. Even small, local charities can promote events through press releases online and in local newspapers. As a charity you have the obvious advantage of being a good and worthy cause, so why not exploit (possibly the wrong word) this?

    Get on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to create an integrated social campaign, really promote your events and generate awareness of your cause. The greater the public awareness is, the more people you’ll have to help spread the word on your behalf and who may be willing to get involved in fundraising. Whatever industry you’re in, being proactive can pay dividends. But surely this is all the more important for those raising funds for charities.

    Great post Mike.

    Reply to this comment

  • Katie Saxon 15th March 2011

    Speaking as an Internet Marketing professional with a personal passion for charitable causes, I think charities really need to socialise more on social networks.

    Going viral is great for getting mainstream attention, but what about your loyal Facebook fans, and all the bloggers and micro-bloggers who are giving them free publicity everyday? Charities should support these guys by not just posting their own stories from their own sites, but also highlighting the great work their advocates are doing.

    I suppose it ties in with the idea of building partnerships, but there needs to be a lower level for the little guys who don’t profit from the extra exposure like a big company would. As a new generation grows up with social networking they’ll want this kind of engagement and expect to have a relationship with a charity – why not start out with it now?

    It may be asking a lot, but charities could start empowering their supporters to do the hard work for them. They should approach the passionate people who are already embracing them online and give them the chance to volunteer as “online advocates”. These guys could then tweet, comment on blog posts, interact on Facebook, like YouTube videos etc etc..

    I can see that the response would be “how could we police that?” but it’s the wrong attitude for any social marketing. I think as long as it’s clear that someone is an ambassador and not necessarily representing the views of a charity it could work. Or maybe there’s a better way, but it seems that charities do need to up their game in the social sphere.

    Does anyone else agree?

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 15th March 2011

    Hi Katie, thanks for your comments. I agree that brand advocates are going to be key to the future of charity awareness. It’s common for charities to have helpers, and having online helpers would be a logical extension. I’ve seen a lot of people tweet for donations with the Tsunami in Japan for the Red Cross so this is happening to a degree, but there are certainly a lot of traditional charities who are scared of online media who will be left behind in the future.

    One element I missed is that Oxfam are now selling stock from their stores online. Logically they could close all their stores, set up a freepost address for donations and run everything from a giant warehouse for a drastically reduced cost. It would result in more donations (who wouldn’t rather have a box picked up from home than traipse to a shop with a bin bag?) and lead to a more manageable overhead.

    Flipping that back, instead of working in a shop the online helpers would have an entire day to tweet, make videos and build brand awareness online. It’s amazing to think what a charity could achieve with thousands of people all creating a social conversation about it.

    Reply to this comment

  • robram 15th March 2011

    As someone who works in Digital for a charity, it’s generally accepted that the not-for-profit sector is actually far more inventive and advanced, when it comes to using social media, than most commercial enterprises.

    We have far more restricted budgets than the commercial sector, so we try to make use of anything free that we can, so Twitter, Facebook and the like are hugely important.

    However, it’s also important to remember that social media within many charities is often run by the same person who also does traditional offline/online PR, or another digital function, because budget constraints dictate this. Yes, I agree that identifying ‘online advocates’ is really helpful, but it takes time that often a team doesn’t have. It takes long enough to keep up with Twitter and Facebook, without going out and finding all the other stuff.

    It may be that some charities are nervous about using social media (and ours is no exception), but that’s to be expected because we are such a trusted industry. I have talked to many other charity social media people who have to jump through hoops just to get simple messages signed off – it’s a learning process and red tape can’t be cut overnight.

    That said, I do agree that online marketing is and will become a vital plank of all charities activity over the coming years.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mike Essex

    Mike 15th March 2011

    Thanks Rob, it’s fascinating to heat insight from the work you do at Age UK, as someone who deals with the sector everyday. I’d imagine the pressure to justify every expense much be very frustrating, and that the restrictions around social media limit the communications you can achieve. I’ve known people be surprised when it is revealed a charity employee takes a salary, as they can’t understand that paying for talent brings in extra donations and justifies the spend. This subset of people if they saw lots of videos and online activity etc who could be taken aback (“I spent my donation on that?”) without seeing the greater good it will bring in the long term.

    The customer mindset isn’t current equipped for ‘you need to spend charity money to make donations’ and this will be a restriction if this area is to grow. Re-education needs to be given over the forthcoming years in this area, and I’d love to hear how things develop at Age UK in this area.

    Reply to this comment

  • Katie Saxon 15th March 2011

    Rob – I completely understand. As someone who works in Internet Marketing I know there’s never enough time to get everything done.

    But, speaking as a supporter of charities, I find that I would like to help out by using my Internet Marketing skills, and there just isn’t a clear way to do that. I would much, much prefer to know that charities were spending time on the valuable work they do – but it can be frustrating when you want to help and red tape stands in the way!

    Like you say, it won’t change overnight, and as you rightly say great work is happening right now. But with a generation of eager and enthusiastic supporters (hopefully) on their way, it’s worth taking the time now to talk through what you can do as a charity to move forward and meet their future needs.

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