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3 ways non-profits can do digital marketing like a hard-nosed business

As pessimistic as views of the future can get, the striking truth is that philanthropy is growing. Meanwhile, more than a billion people have risen out of extreme poverty, and the lines between for-profit enterprise and non-profits for social good are blurring as micro-lending organisations and fair-trade certified products enter the mainstream.

Some have pointed out that modern marketing strategies more closely resemble grassroots movements than traditional marketing. With that in mind, what can non-profits learn from modern, brand-dominated marketing techniques like inbound and content marketing?

1. Focus on the practical
If there’s one thing digital marketers have learned when it comes to the emerging field of content marketing, it is to focus on being as useful as possible to their followers. While entertainment and inspiration are important elements of any marketing strategy, and can help when it comes to “social sharing,” they usually fail at getting visitors to come back.

And the fact of the matter is, this may be even truer for non-profits.

While every cause, and every successful non-profit, has its share of loyal followers, most people interact with a non-profit once, and never act again. In response, we can either lament this as a sad state of human affairs, or we can understand why it happens and respond in kind.

“Feel good” emotions are an important motivator, but they don’t usually keep people engaged for very long on their own. Emotions like guilt and fear are even worse for retention, leaving contributors tired, burned out, and ultimately, apathetic.

And when we focus excessively on education or news, we tend to create an audience of “infovores,” hungry for the next story of injustice, but lacking the knowledge, skills, and motivation to create meaningful change in the world.

What audiences really need in order to stay involved is practical advice.

An animal rights organisation that regularly publishes vegan recipes on its blog is almost certainly going to attract more visitors, and keep them longer, than an organisation that exclusively publishes stories of animal abuse.

A pro-labor organisation will almost certainly keep more visitors if they review and recommend fair-trade certified products, employee-owned retailers, and pro-union companies, than if they only publish stories about sweatshops and petitions.

So that’s lesson number one. Tell your visitors what to do and how to do it, and they will keep coming back for more.

We don’t just want to create convictions. We want to create lifestyles.

2. Create interactions

One of my favorite studies involving social media comes from the University of Singapore. The study investigated how Facebook influenced sales for a small Asian retailer. A lot of the conclusions are counter-intuitive, but important to understand:

  • At least for this particular marketer, merely publishing content on Facebook didn’t generate any sales. Just Liking the page on Facebook didn’t influence sales either.
  • The marketer was only able to generate sales him/herself by interacting directly with audience members.
  • Most sales were generated by the audience interacting with itself.
  • Surprisingly, positive indirect interactions between audience members had the strongest influence on sales.
  • Just as importantly, however, direct interactions made audience members more loyal.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, involving the microlending non-profit Kiva. This study found that:

  • Percent changes in activity on the Kiva forum had 30 times more impact than percent changes in traditional media coverage.
  • Percent changes in blog coverage had 3 times more impact than percent changes in traditional media coverage.
  • Activity on the Kiva forum strongly influenced blog coverage, and blog coverage influenced mainstream media coverage.

The lesson from both of these studies? It’s less about the content you publish, and more about the interactions that result from it.

Here we see a thread in common with our first point. Both practical advice and community activity are closely tied to the idea of being interactive.

We aren’t just trying to inform, we’re trying to create actions.

If you have employees or volunteers to work with, make sure to get them involved as well. You don’t need ERP to coordinate your efforts: you can use cheaper Microsoft Project alternatives like WorkZone, web-based collaboration tools like Zoho, or just a spreadsheet and email at the very least. The point is, you want to create as many interactions as possible.

3. One thing at a time

Conversion rate optimisers, who test web layouts in order to optimise sales, email sign-ups, and so on, have learned over time that clutter is bad for business (although you wouldn’t know it from visiting quite a few popular sites).

You don’t want to pull visitors in too many different directions at once. Scientific research by Sheena Iyengar, who set up jam displays in a grocery store, has shown that too many choices leads to analysis paralysis. While a large display of 24 jam flavors attracted a larger audience, a small display of only 6 jam flavors actually sold more.

And while limiting yourself to at most 6 options is smart, it’s even smarter to let the visitor focus on just one of them at a time.

Here’s an example of what I mean. When a visitor comes to your site, you don’t want to show them more than 6 different actions to choose from above the fold. That means three blog posts and three actions they can take in the sidebar.

Trying to shove anything else on the screen is going to do one of two things:

  • Create analysis paralysis
  • Create “banner blindness,” where less prominent actions will just become invisible to your visitors.

After choosing that action, you want to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Except for navigation, and probably a request to sign up for email updates, you want to allow the visitor to focus all of their attention on the action that they chose. Don’t pull them in another direction until after they’ve read through the content.

More importantly, focus on getting them to take an action at the end of the blog post.

The reasoning behind this is simple. We tend to remember the things that have an impact on our life, and forget the things that don’t. If we take an action as a result of a blog post, we will remember it.

If the blog post merely entertained or informed us, on the other hand, we probably won’t remember much about it.

Wrapping it up
Modern marketing focuses a great deal on creating action, even if that action isn’t directly tied to making a sale. This is because actions are memorable, and they keep us coming back. To recap:

  1. Focus on offering practical advice that your audience can act on, more than on news stories. While both are important, the practical side of things is widely neglected, and it’s far keeping an audience.
  2. Interact directly with your audience, post content that creates discussion, and leverage tools that make discussion and participation easy. Community is even more important to an audience than the content itself.
  3. Eliminate clutter from your website. Avoid giving your visitor more than six options to choose from at any given time, and once they make a choice, eliminate all distractions until they are finished, at which point it’s time to inspire them to take an action, however small.

Use these techniques and you can expect to create a positive change in the world.

Image: Linnie via Flickr

Author | Rohan Ayyar

Rohan Ayyar
Rohan Ayyar runs premium campaigns at E2M, a digital marketing agency specializing in content strategy, web analytics and conversion rate optimization for startups. His posts are featured on popular online marketing blogs such as MarketingProfs, Social Media Today and Moz. Rohan hangs out round the clock on Twitter @searchrook... More

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