Five ways to get the most from digital agencies

Online marketing promises much, but many charities don't get the returns they expect. Alex Blyth offers tips for commissioning success

Digital media illustration
Digital media illustration

1. Pick the right agency

When conservation charity WWF-UK decided to redesign its website in 2007, it spent eight months selecting the right digital partners. Adrian Cockle, head of interactive at WWF-UK, says: "Get the right agency from the outset and the whole relationship becomes a great deal easier. I began by getting recommendations from peers in order to produce a shortlist of 11. We asked for a formal written proposal from them and whittled it down to our choice of Reading Room."

WWF-UK looked at a wide range of factors, including the creative approach and the personal chemistry between the people working on the project. Each individual charity and project will have unique criteria. For example, WWF-UK chose Carrenza to host the website, because it would reduce energy use by 40 per cent and thus be more environmentally friendly. Before starting any selection process, ensure you are crystal clear about what you need from an agency.

2. Get the right price

If, like most charities, you are operating on a tight budget, you will need to find a way to keep costs low. You should bear in mind that the cheapest option is not always the best value, but there are ways to keep control of costs.

For example, digital advertising agency TBG London works with Unicef, the RSPCA and Greenpeace on a payment-per-donor-acquired basis.

For short-term projects such as one-off fundraising events, the best approach may be to ask agencies to provide their services pro bono.

Dawn Wood, founder of information and support provider, says: "We worked with Maven Metrics to promote our burlesque fashion show, designed to raise funds and promote awareness of our organisation. They did it for free and it raised £1,500."

3. Know what you want to achieve

Kate Hussey, director of media at digital agency Steak, offers this advice: "Digital marketing is fully trackable, but it's important that you define what you are trying to achieve through paid search, display or other online media.

This could vary from raising brand awareness, driving traffic to a website or encouraging actions - sales, sign-ups, interactions and so on.

"We work for the youth volunteering charity v. For one campaign, v wanted to generate volunteer registrations through a website.

"With this in mind, we placed adverts on tightly defined media such as Facebook and Hotmail. Our ad copy and search terms also concentrated on the benefits of volunteering. This clear focus meant the campaign was highly effective."

4. Challenge your agency

You should continually challenge your agency to come up with approaches that are creative, have an impact and use the medium to best effect.

Andrew Pinkess, strategy director at marketing agency Rufus Leonard, says: "Save the Children came to us with a brief to do something really ground-breaking using digital media. They wanted to address the issue of donor fatigue and tell supporters what happens to their donations.

"The result was This is Kroo Bay, a website that combines 3D photography, video, sound, blogs and discussion forums to tell the story of the work being done by Save the Children to help the Kroo Bay slum community in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, currently the poorest country in the world."

The site got national press coverage and an eight-minute slot on GMTV.

"It has exposed the work of the charity to tens of thousands of new supporters and contributors," Pinkess says. "It has also helped to raise several million pounds in new donations."

5. Use online and offline media

For Ross Barnes, head of digital media at digital agency Response One Group, the key to getting the most out of agencies is integration.

He says: "Charities issue wonderfully creative and impactful advertising such as the Barnardo's advert or Talk to Frank's Pablo the drug-mule dog. But they tend not to be so good at integrating these campaigns with their digital work.

"Response One research carried out last year revealed that the most effective medium for driving new web visitors who are serious about donating is not, as one might have thought, online display advertising, Facebook ads or email marketing.

It is in fact direct mail and offline advertising. So charities should ensure all media are integrated online and offline with shared key terms and messages."

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