Laurence Collings: How charities are using digital to fight back

With competition intense, new restrictive legislation and the unknown Brexit effect, charities are busy combining brand awareness with fundraising, writes our columnist

Laurence Collings
Laurence Collings

From handling the tension between funding and branding to getting consumers to give rather than just take part, charities are facing more marketing challenges than ever before and developing digital strategies to deal with them.

Faced with growing competition, restrictive legislation and now the Brexit effect, effective marketing has never been more important to charities and, unsurprisingly, digital is playing a more important role. Brand-building is key to raising awareness and making an impact, yet fundraising campaigns directly generate the revenue that helps the good cause, so how do you accommodate these two forces?

"There’s a huge tension between brand and fundraising and also between scientific credibility and fundraising in general," says Kerry Blackstock, director of fundraising at the World Wildlife Fund. "The scientific credibility is what we’re selling, but trying to translate that into something the public are interested in has been a challenge."

WWF used to handle its brand separately, but a recent restructure has placed it at the centre of communications and fundraising. "We did a brand relaunch in July, based on a concept that is more active, positive and engaging," says Blackstock. "This will hopefully provide a better platform for fundraising to be built on and talk to supporters in a way that is more relevant, encouraging them to increase donations."

According to Alex Burn, creative director at the digital agency Collective, which works with a number of charities, there are two different creative approaches charities can take: the brand approach and the direct-response approach. "Each has different objectives and key performance indicators, and are designed to achieve different goals," he says. "Brand creative is all about changing perceptions of a brand and is usually a longer-running activity. A DR-focused campaign is all about driving immediate action.

"Traditionally, the way these are measured is different, too. Brand is all about engagement and dwell time within an ad unit – the time spent with that brand. DR is about showing someone an advert and driving them to a destination as quickly as possible to achieve conversion in whatever the end goal is. What we’re seeing increasingly is demand for a hybrid of the two – a brand/DR campaign. You have to be really careful about how you package this, about the KPIs and what you’re trying to achieve. You need a very clear goal or it can get confused."

Charities are increasingly embracing digital marketing, resulting in some highly engaging viral and social campaigns, but how do they encourage people to give rather than just take part?

"At MacMillan, we always try to use digital to achieve lots of different objectives," explains the charity’s digital marketing manager, Richard Thurston. "In terms of awareness, we’ve gone for lots of high-reach placements. To build engagement, we use case study videos and sharing people’s cancer stories to tell our story for us; for DR, we’ve used display activity with £2 or £3 a month calls to action. It’s the same with mobile.

"Digital plays a key role in acquisition and donations, but you need to measure it over the longer term. Someone’s consideration to sign up for an event or donate could be a six-month process – and most digital channels play a role along that line. In the past, we’ve been guilty of evaluating this in the wrong way – measuring display activity on last click and, if it hasn't driven an immediate action, we consider it to be a failure. I think this is the wrong approach."

Before the recent successful Not Alone campaign, MacMillan evaluated digital only through impressions, clicks and time on site. Now it looks more at the time people have spent with the content itself, whether on or off-site. The charity has also invested in formats that allow users to consume that content without visiting its website.

WWF has also changed its approach to evaluating digital. "We used to look only at last-click and care only if it drove a financial transaction," says Blackstock. "Now we’re looking at first-click and where people go from there, and trying to follow them through the website or look at all the different touch points, because it can take weeks or months for people to make that decision to donate or get involved in another way. We’re trying to be more patient and broad-minded about what success looks like and build a better picture of what our supporters are doing online."

James Donovan, digital manager at MediaCom, says if charities understand how they are affecting the path to a conversion, whether it’s a sign-up, donation or something else, they will know more about the attribution. "Then you can start to learn about the most efficient channels and about what your audience do before they get to a conversion: what kind of signals they are giving out and if are you giving them the right message," he says. "A huge benefit that a charitable organisation can have is that there’s something for everyone. There’s always a way for different people to engage: signing up for an event, taking part in fundraising or donating in different ways."

Taking the right approach to digital marketing can not only deliver the mechanisms to build brand awareness and drive donations, but also generate the consumer insight and performance data to direct future strategies and enable charities to get the maximum from all the engagement tools at their disposal – an essential when there have never been more barriers standing in their way.

Laurence Collings is client services director at Collective

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