4 min Read
April 13, 2011

Take your online communications up a notch: Reflections from the 2011 NTC

We Ducks are big fans of NTEN and their annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), and this year we attended in record numbers (3!). The NTC is all about tech in the broadest sense–communications, social media, public relations, leadership, IT, etc.–and it’s fun times and good learning for nonprofit techies of all stripes.

Couldn’t make it to the NTC? Here are some thoughts and tips that emerged in our sessions and conversations that can help you bring your nonprofit’s communications up to speed with emerging technology.

Listen to your data.

Your online presence generates lots of data. Every day, your supporters are telling you what they think with their clicks–in their inboxes, online, on their mobile phones. Are you listening to what they’re saying?

Just collecting your data isn’t quite enough. Sorting lists and generating reports does not equal analysis, as Jeff Shuck of Event 360 reminded us in his session on segmentation. And analysis doesn’t equal improvement, unless you actually make changes in response to what you find.

It’s easier if you don’t try to do it all alone. Open up your data to others in your organization–let them poke around in your analytics, empower them to understand what they’re looking at, and encourage them to seek data that can inform new ideas and initiatives.

Decide who owns the tweets.

We Ducks have been getting lots of questions lately about the best way to staff and assign responsibilities for nonprofit tech, and it came up a lot at the NTC. What department does emerging technology belong to? What about text messages? Data analysis?

In part, it depends on how your organization uses these tools, so keep an open mind. Encourage conversation in your organization about where new responsibilities belong, push to make sure they’re formally included in someone’s job description, and keep checking in to make sure they’re assigned to the right department.


Testing is a key best practice when it comes to online communications, but lots of nonprofits haven’t really factored it into their plans yet.

By testing, we mean trying different variations of your online communications–whether it’s your donation forms or your landing pages or your emails–and seeing which version gets the best response. There’s plenty of conventional wisdom and speculation out there about what works, but you never know what’s right for your organization until you test.

Testing can be a big proposition–according to Robin Steffek at RedEngine Digital, certain kinds of test require in-house IT staff to implement. But there’s also a lot you can do on your own if you…

Start slow.

Dan Heath, co-author of Switch, gave a thought-provoking keynote about making change accessible by taking small steps that add up to big progress. It works at all levels, from fighting poverty to crafting an effective email campaign–even simple changes can help you make huge improvements in your online communications.

  • Next time you send an email, try a different style of subject line, or change the sender’s name. Do your open and click-through rates change as a result?
  • Dip your toe into email segmentation by sending two versions of your next appeal–one to previous donors, and one to non-donors. Does it generate more revenue than your one-size-fits-all message from last year?
  • As you’re preparing for your next campaign, make a simple variation to your online donation or signup form–say, one with a compelling photograph, and one without–and use a tool like Google Website Optimizer or Optimizely to display different versions at random to your visitors. Over time, which one has the highest response and conversion rates?

Revisit the basics.

There’s a lot of exciting technology out there–“Let’s start following all our donors on Foursquare!”–but most nonprofits would benefit from taking a step back and considering the basics–like creating a website that’s easy to find and navigate, and making sure you send a last-chance fundraising email on December 31.

It keeps going and going and…

We don’t need to tell you how fast the online world is changing. Just keeping up with emerging best practices can be a huge project. Take your website, for example. You want your site to look beautiful; be easily navigable; have great, meaningful content that’s easy to digest; appear in search engines; be accessible for all visitors, but specific to the interests of each–and those are just the sessions we attended Friday morning.

It’s daunting, we know. But don’t give up. Think of your organization’s online communications as a perpetual work in progress, keep chipping away, and go to the NTC for ideas and inspiration!

Can’t get enough NTC? Dig into some of the takeaways from individual sessions and overall highlights with this NTC roundup post on NTEN’s blog.

Did we miss something? Any thoughts you’d add? Hit the comments.

Next year in San Francisco!