To Hit Year-End Goals, Go Beyond Content Marketing for Nonprofits
Delight Donors with Strategic Storytelling
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Virtuous blog.
You’ve got to be a great improviser to work in the nonprofit sector. When your job is to find creative solutions for huge problems, that kind of thinking “on the fly” is a must.
But I don’t think we should improvise when it comes to our year-end fundraising content. You know what I mean – that mad dash to find and send out a decent success story, a high-resolution photo and some impact numbers.
My company, Abeja Solutions, recently surveyed some 100 nonprofit professionals and found that most – nearly 2 out of 3 – start their Giving Season plans in July and August. But just as many worry that they won’t have enough time to get everything done.
Nonprofits large and small make this same mad dash for meaningful content. But it’s risky – and the symptom of an incomplete process.
3 keys to successful content
You probably know that a third of annual giving occurs in December. And for smaller nonprofits, Giving Season may be the only time they make a direct ask of their donors through both traditional and digital channels.
From your life-changing projects to making payroll, too much depends on those last months of the year. Your fundraiser already feels this pressure. And if you have a strong culture of philanthropy, everyone else in your organization does too.
That’s why you need to work together to put a strong content plan in place for Giving Season. That plan should include three distinct parts: content strategy, content marketing and content integration.
Content strategy vs. marketing
Content strategy and content marketing for nonprofits are often confused. It’s fun to jump into the “what” of content – make an editorial calendar, create pieces and effectively distribute them. In short, that’s content marketing.
But when you rush to execution, you miss the critical “how” and “why” of content. That’s content strategy.
Without content strategy, you may face endless rounds of edits and approvals. Content strategy answers questions like:
Who governs content?
Who has the authority to edit content? (One person, not a committee please)
What documented standard will they use (AP, Chicago, in-house style guide)?
What is the most efficient approval process so appeals go out on time?
Without content strategy, you can end up with content that misses the mark on message, tone, readability and brand voice. And that wastes precious time and energy.
Most importantly, content strategy defines what your stories ultimately need to achieve. Without it, you might produce content that fails to connect with donors’ emotions or contains vague (or even missing) calls to action.
There are many resources online for putting together a comprehensive content strategy. These recommend setting objectives, auditing content, defining campaign positioning, creating audience personas, and mapping content to their needs.
Kristina Halvorson’s book, Content Strategy for the Web, quickly covers the essentials. But if you already feel pressed for time, I recommend convening your Giving Season team and getting them to align on a creative brief.
Plan at least two meetings: one for asking the hard questions and one for answering them. People usually need time in between to think about how to complete the brief.
Capture strategy in a creative brief
A creative brief is a one-page tool that advertising agencies typically use as the foundation for campaigns. Writers, designers and creative directors consult the brief throughout the creative process to make sure they stay focused.
You might think of it as a team blueprint – if it’s not on the brief you don’t build it. And it’s the perfect thing to pull out in those “We should add …” or “Why aren’t we …?” moments.
As a nonprofit communications director, I had no idea creative briefs existed. It was only when I went to the marketing side that I found this incredibly useful tool that documents expectations and boosts accountability.
Workamajig has examples of several creative briefs. But you’ll probably want to create one that captures the unique context of your nonprofit’s creative process. Here are a few questions to get you started:
Why are we creating this content? (Your fundraising objective and numeric goals)
Who is our audience(s)? (Be specific based on your donor demographics, attitudes and behavior)
What do they currently think?
What do we want them to think?
What is the most single, persuasive idea we can convey? (Try to capture this in one sentence.)
Why should they believe it? (Emotional reasons first, followed by rational)
What is the call to action? (Donate by check, Donate online, Set up monthly giving?)
What personality or tone should we convey?
What creative elements should we use? (formats, sizes, colors, fonts, etc.)
What should we not do?
Whatever you do, keep this document to one page. If the “brief” gets longer than that, it may not drive the focused results you want.
Content marketing: start with goals
Now that you’ve taken time for content strategy, are you ready to jump into content creation?
Not quite yet. You need to figure out your reach and frequency goals.
Reach is how many people are in your audience.
If you have both street and email addresses for all your contacts, this is a single number. But if not, you’ll need to record the reach of each channel i.e. size of your mailing vs. your email lists and the overlap between them.
Frequency is how often these audiences will hear from you.
Conventional marketing wisdom says that people need to hear the same message at least seven times before it registers.
One or two touch points isn’t enough because people receive thousands of brand messages daily – especially during the busy holidays and Giving Season.
Of course, make sure that your reach and frequency goals are realistic and achievable in terms of your staff time and budget.
With well-documented reach and frequency goals, you can now project the cost and ROI of your campaign. Capture these costs in a spreadsheet, along with your tactics and when you’ll deploy them. If you need a budget template with pre-set formulas, you can find one in this Giving Season toolkit.
Compare your plan to your average performance for tactics like donation letters, email and social media ads, or use industry benchmarks if you don’t have this information. Adjust your plan as needed.
Now the fun part of content marketing for nonprofits begins: creating and promoting your content.
If you’ve been smart about your content strategy, you’re not going to create many unrelated pieces that attempt to represent every facet of your nonprofit. As folks in my home state might say, “You don’t want to be like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Instead, you’ll focus your content on a core theme or topic. Then you’ll create pieces around it (letter, email, social media post, video, graphic) that tell a deeper, related story. With this clustering technique, you will probably use versions of the same story in different channels.
You might even consider reusing a story that performed earlier in the year. Unlike a new story, it’s already proven that it can produce revenue.
In this way, your content works harder for you. You’ll save time because you won’t have to source as many stories and photos. And your team will be able to focus on delivering the right message to the right audience and at the right time.
But won’t donors find this boring? Actually, no.
Fundraising expert Jeff Brooks points out that repetition works. It works in a campaign and it works even within a single piece.
People’s attention spans are short. Very few of them read everything we send them. So even if they notice you’ve repurposed a story – two, five or ten times – that familiarity will make them perk up and pay attention.
And if you do get a donor complaint, use it to your advantage. Sincerely thank them for their feedback and tell them your nonprofit is trying this technique to save on overhead and put more of their dollars toward life-changing programs. It’s the truth, after all.
Then ask them why they’re interested in your nonprofit’s mission. Worse case scenario? You’ll gain some new information about your donor.
Best case? They’re so excited by your conversation that they make a new gift.
We’ve talked about the importance of content strategy and content marketing for nonprofits. But there’s a third and final content role that tends to get less attention: content integration.
Integration means making sure that your co-workers (and board) understand what you’re producing, why you’re doing it, and how it can benefit them personally.
As a new communications director, I admit this was my weakest area. I couldn’t understand why I should take time away from strategy and execution to have coffee with or present to folks internally. I was short staffed after all!
I was also short-sighted, but since then I’ve learned that:
Program staff are your eyes and ears. If they love what you’re doing, they’ll happily source your stories and photos when they’re out in the field. No begging or pleading required.
Non-program staff are your extra hands. They stuff envelopes, write thank you letters, fix website bugs and process vendor payments. They also open mail with checks and donor notes inside that you need to receive to update your database.
Leadership are your feet. If they don’t understand what you’re doing, then your Giving Season plans won’t go anywhere fast. And they can quickly take you down a path that you don’t want to go. Think brick campaign, gala or the latest digital fundraising fad.
There are great improvisers in all nonprofits. But you don’t have to improvise when it comes to year-end fundraising content.
Think it through and document your strategy. Set reach and frequency goals, so your content goes as far and wide as it needs to.
Focus your content on a central idea or topic. And help others help you achieve your best Giving Season ever.
Laura Ingalls is CEO of Abeja Solutions and co-creator of Beezable, a tool that automates direct mail fundraising. She’s produced for CNN, served as a humanitarian spokesperson in Iraq and led award-winning nonprofit and corporate communications teams. Read more from Laura.