4 min Read
September 16, 2014

Should your nonprofit automate its communications?

Big Duck

Imagine…A major donor is spending an unusually high amount of time poking around your website, and you get an email letting you know you should call them. Or, on a regular basis, your most active action-alert participants who haven’t yet donated get an ask from you; those who do give are sent personalized thank-you messages, while those who don’t give are encouraged to engage in other ways until they are eventually ready to give—all without you lifting a finger.

There are many scenarios in which the magic of marketing automation—technology designed for organizations to more effectively market on multiple channels online, and automate repetitive outreach tasks—can be game-changing for nonprofit fundraising, recruitment, advocacy, and more. Especially over the last year or so, the ability to automate and personalize day-to-day online communications based on your audiences’ interactions with you, at a relatively low cost, has exploded. Not to mention, it’s pretty darn cool.

However, without a clear strategy or goals, or understanding of the work and capacity it takes to make it a success, automating your fundraising or advocacy communications could just be a lot of set up and wheel spinning without any results—or worse, sending the wrong stuff to the wrong people. Is your nonprofit thinking about automating your online communications? Here’s 4 guideline to think about if so:

1. Expect to automate processes that already (at least somewhat) exist.

For example, if you manually subscribe newsletter recipients to your year-end appeal lists, or send out segmented email appeals based on giving history, automation can be a great tool for making that happen more seamlessly, saving you time, reducing human error, and being more targeted to the audience segment. But if you want to, say, send “this is what your donation did” followup emails to your donors, or try your hand at engaging supports via blogs and images, but don’t currently do these things at all, implementing a tool isn’t going to solve your problem alone. Instead, start by defining your goals, objectives, audiences, and plan for any new initiative—and then set up the machine mechanics as a step 2, if it makes sense to automate them. Generally, backing strategy into a technology or tool can set you up for disappointment, so be sure you’re clear about this.

2. You’ll need to clean AND rebuild the data house.

We all know that having clean data on your supporters and advocates is helpful—but with today’s automation technology, it’s more complicated than spelling or dedupes or differentiating donors from prospects. List management can become faster and easier with new tools, but you need to decide some things before you make the move. What do you need to know about your constituents in order to gauge their level of interest, support and engagement with you, and send relevant communications? Their interests? Locations? Age? What actions they’ve taken on your website? Decide what your ladder of engagement looks like, the pieces of information you should collect that indicate where someone is on that ladder, and then set up the tool. It’s easier than going back and changing how your data is organized and collected after your machine is moving.  

3. Growing your list is just one piece of the puzzle.

Whether the goal is fundraising, recruiting, or changing hearts and minds, we talk a lot about list-building in the nonprofit world. Building your list is just a first step. You’ll need to truly cultivate that list, pushing supporters up that ladder of engagement, perhaps moving them from knowing nothing about you, to filling out an action alerts, to giving $5, to giving $100 annually—setting you up for true long-term success. But you’ll need to communicate differently with the folks who give you $100 annually and those who just joined your list. This requires a smart communications strategy and the bandwidth to keep the machine well-powered—not list growth alone. Like any automated machine, the more there is to process and produce, the bigger and more complicated an engine you’ll need.

4. Focus on just a few key reports.

If you do decide to spring for a fancy new marketing automation tool, once you’re up and running and have some data, looking at how your online communications are performing and how your audiences are engaging with you is a very important practice. But with tools like Salesforce that come with a million reports before you even start, it’s easy to drown in the infinite number of ways you can analyze your data.  What are the five pieces of information you need to know in order to determine if your online communications are succeeding? Make a list of the five key reports that will tell you the answers, who needs to see them or be briefed on what the data is telling you, how often you need to look at them, and what you’re going to do with the information.