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Top Lessons Nonprofits Should Learn From Direct Response Advertisers

July 20, 2013

From hair-in-a-can to fitness videos, TV infomercials selling all kinds of unique and bizarre items are the most ubiquitous form of direct response advertising. But they are not the only ones. Direct response advertising is all around us. When you hear a radio spot that asks you to call an 800 number, you are listening to a direct response campaign. When you see a billboard that instructs you to send a text message, that is a direct response advertisement. The sponsored results you see in Google are nothing more than highly targeted direct response ads. Direct response advertising is all about measurable, results-driven campaigns. Those infomercials that you have laughed or scoffed at are still on the air for one reason: they work!

So, instead of dismissing an entire sector of the advertising industry, my advice to my friends and clients in the nonprofit sector is to learn some of the best practices used by direct marketers, and apply them in their fundraising, communications, and marketing efforts. Here are a few:

1. Use clear calls to action

How many times have you heard the phrase “Act Now! Call 1-800…”?. That phrase is a “call to action” – a verbal command used in direct response advertising to get prospects to take a desired action. The reason direct marketers use these commands is because they work! If you want people to do something, you can’t expect them to guess what it is. You have to ask them or tell them to do it. If your prospective audience is unsure of what you want them to do, they will simply not do it. It doesn’t matter how powerful a message is or how effective the media – if you don’t include a call to action, the likely outcome will be inaction. Successful nonprofits understand this, and are not hesitant to ask for donations, volunteers, or contributions from their audiences, clearly telling them how to go about it.

2. Speak to your audience in their language

In today’s over-crowded media environment, you have to communicate with your audience in a way in which they feel you are talking directly to them. It’s the only way to stand out from the crowd. As people watch TV, listen to the radio, and browse the web, they are bombarded with generic messages. However, they do listen to the messages that seem written for them and speak to their needs, wants and beliefs. To get your message across and get people to care about your mission, you need to turn off your boardroom voice and speak in simple, clear and friendly language. The better you can convey “Hey, I’m talking to you!” to your target audience, the more likely they will listen to what you have to say. Remember that communication is not about grammar – it’s about getting your message across.

3. Create a sense of urgency

The only way someone will invest their time, money, or both, in supporting your nonprofit cause is if they believe in your mission, and they feel that their contribution can make a difference. Make your audience understand why you need their support NOW. In the same way in which the direct marketers offer a special reward to those who “call within the next ten minutes,” your message and the way it is delivered has to give them an emotional payoff in exchange for his/her contribution. Make them understand that you need their support now, and how each day that passes by affects those you are trying to help. Tell their stories and make them real, tangible, and compelling.

4. Test, fix, repeat

Here at the agency we have heard some of our nonprofit friends tell us: “If we could just get that billboard up on that major highway (or TV spot, newspaper ad, etc.), we could get so much X, Y and Z…” Then we ask them: “How do you know?, Did you ever have one?, Do you know any other nonprofit who did it?, What were their results?”. This is generally followed by confounded looks and awkward silence.

It’s one thing to buy media and get a campaign set up. It’s another thing entirely to get results from that campaign. Direct marketers know this, and that’s why doing small test campaigns is part of their normal course of business, as it should be yours. For one thing, you can catch any small mistakes you could have made along the way. Most importantly, you can test the different variables of your communications or marketing piece – including your creative artwork, your headlines, your copy, your call to action, media effectiveness, conversion rate, etc.,- and see what works best before you spend the big bucks. You will discover that testing on a small scale allows you to minimize your risk before you try to scale up. Keep testing until you know you are able to scale up – or not.

5. Measure everything

Every direct response advertiser knows that results-driven marketing is a numbers game. If you have to sell more than what you spend (like most of us do), then you need to understand the metrics that determine the success – or failure – of your campaign. One of the most important aspects of conducting a test campaign (see point # 4) is that it gives you real data on the outcomes of your marketing efforts. Familiarize yourself with terms like cost per click, cost per call, cost per lead, conversion rate, revenue per call, etc. The more you know about these metrics, the greater your ability to understand what affects them, and what you need to adjust in order to optimize your campaign.

Here are a few pointers: If your cost per call is too high, it’s because you don’t get enough calls. The likely culprit is your creative (artwork, copy, headline, call to action), so change your creative and test again. If you get plenty of calls (or clicks) but not enough leads or conversions, then chances are there’s something wrong with your setup, or with the message you are delivering when you get those calls (or clicks), or both. Maybe your landing page is ineffective, or your operators aren’t friendly, or maybe you only take donations by check while your audience prefers using credit cards. Analyze, retool, and test again.

If no matter what you do, your metrics don’t improve enough to give you a positive return on your advertising investment, then it’s quite likely that it’s just not a scalable campaign. If this is the case, don’t despair. Take solace in the fact that you didn’t bet the farm – because you were smart enough to run a test campaign first.