7 min Read
May 2, 2018

The 10 steps critical to running a successful campaign

A flurry of tactical activities eat up most of a typical nonprofit communicator’s day: monitoring social media, writing copy, working with designers, participating in meetings with colleagues or consultants, circulating projects for feedback, following up with vendors, and much more. There are so many tasks involved in each project it’s easy to lose sight of the whole picture, and instead see each channel, tool, or tactic independently.

Too often, fundraising, awareness, recruitment, and advocacy campaigns get treated the same way: as a series of isolated tactics, perhaps without a strategy driving them.

But really a successful campaign is a focused initiative designed to reach a specific audience and get them to take a specific action. Campaigns can be very comprehensive, spanning multiple channels and many years, or very finite, running discreetly for a short period of time, using just a few channels and tactics.

One great way to ensure your next campaign is guided by a clear strategy is to take a step back and plan it out from a bigger picture perspective first. These 10 steps outline how to get started.

  1. Understand who your audiences are and what they want.

Building your organization’s capacity to campaign strategically begins with understanding your target audiences. Who is most critical for your organization to reach and engage in order to advance your mission? What about your work is likely to resonate with them personally? What types of media do they consume? Where do they hang out? What help do they need to take the action you are looking for?

The better you understand your audiences, the better your ability to identify the strategies and tactics that will be the best use of your resources. For example, a nonprofit focused on a rare type of cancer should, first and foremost, establish mindshare and inspire engagement in people who have this type of cancer, then perhaps the individuals and professionals who know and work with them. Advertising more broadly to the public is likely to reach people who will have other philanthropic and programmatic priorities of their own and be less likely to care or act. It’s also likely to divert investment away from their primary audiences, so they’ll be less known by everyone, rather than well-known by the most important people.

A little audience research can go a long way. If your organization’s resources are limited, consider online searches and informational interviews with people you know. If you have a budget for research, hire professionals to help you develop a clearer understanding of the most effective ways to reach your audiences, create audience personas, and build a plan or messaging to engage them.

  1. Focus on sparking action, not just raising awareness.

“Raising awareness” is a soft goal. Instead, focus on raising action. Develop a communications-specific theory of change that invites your target audiences inside, so they experience a connection with you and actually do something. The more they see your work as their work the more likely they will be to support you.

  1. Think in campaigns, not in channels.

If your staff have job titles that reflect specific channels such as “Digital Marketing specialist” or “Web Director” they will be inclined to see their work as channel-specific rather than as part of an integrated whole.

Shift your team’s thinking toward developing a campaign or campaigns designed to achieve specific results rather than working in a more ad hoc, reactive manner. Doing so may require shifting the culture of your organization’s communications, but the results should be worth it.

  1. Write and refer to a brief.

The backbone of any successful communications project is a clearly written brief. A campaign brief doesn’t have to be long or complicated. It should define your campaign’s overarching goal and specific objectives that are indicators of success in a page or two. It should also detail the one or two priority audiences you need to reach. Include this sentence or some variation of it: “The purpose of this project/campaign is to reach ___(audience)___ to __(goal)__ and get them to act by _____(taking this action)_____.”

A good brief should be referenced regularly by the campaign’s team, especially when selecting channels, creating materials, and assessing results, to make sure everyone stays focused.

  1. Establish accountability, clarify roles, and collaborate.

If your goal is to recruit clients or members, your programs team will want to be involved. Ditto for your development team, if it’s a fundraising campaign. They will likely have great insight into what your audiences need to see or hear to take the actions you are looking for.

To ensure success, the communications team should work clearly, deliberately, and collaboratively with other departments. If there’s a possibility of turf wars, it may be necessary for the CEO of the organization to establish who is ultimately accountable for the project overall, or for key aspects of it that might be murky or cause tension.

If you’ve got a strong director of communications, they might draft a project brief, then collaborate with their peers on other teams to refine it and establish roles and accountability.

  1. Clarify your resources.

It can be tempting to commit to the channels and tactics you’ll use before you launch, but get real about your resources before you begin. How much time or budget can you invest? What else do you have going on? Will making a splash for a finite period of time achieve your goal or will it be necessary to invest in a sustained effort in order to become top-of-mind? If so, do you have the budget and staff to support doing it well?

If you want to optimize your current efforts, start by checking in with your current audiences. Surveys, interviews, landscape scans, and data analysis can help inform what’s working well and where there may be room for growth.

  1. Make a tactical communications plan.

The final step before you launch your campaign or initiative is to make a tactical plan. This can be a short addition to the brief or a more comprehensive, stand-alone document depending on what works best for your team. A good plan will map out the tactics you’ll use to implement your campaign, noting deadlines and which staff are responsible. Basically, you’re capturing and detailing all the moving parts here. That’ll help everyone stay aligned, on track, and less stressed.

  1. Implement!

This is where tactics-first communicators often begin—writing, designing, coding, and pressing send. Guided by a clear brief and following a tactical communications plan will make the work faster and more effective, particularly if multiple people are creating or managing different aspects of the project. Share your documents with peers, freelancers, agencies, volunteers, and other partners who are working on the project to help keep everyone aligned and focused on your goals.

  1. Track your results, dig into your data, and gather insights.

After you set objectives (step four), make sure you have the tools in place to track campaign performance. Once you launch your campaign, dig into your data and compare it to industry-benchmarks from trade associations and consultants serving the sector (find the latest via online searches) as well as to your own past performance. Are your open, click-through, and response rates strong? How does the traffic to key pages compare with that of other initiatives you’ve successfully completed? Going beyond the numbers, debriefing and sharing your team’s insights in a short meeting will help you capture and retain the most important lessons.

  1. Capture and processify what you’ll need to do it again—and better—next time.

Whether you plan to run a similar campaign or project in the future it’s a “best practice” to record your results and lessons learned in some documented way. Consider logging the high-level results data and noting any insights as an addendum to your project brief; you’ll end up with a comprehensive overview of the work from beginning to end. At a minimum, jot them down and share them with the folks who might be around for future campaigns.

It’s also useful to note any key activities that are likely to be repeated in checklist fashion so other members of your team can take on the work themselves, if necessary, without relying on someone who’s done it before. We call this “processifying” at Big Duck.

Huzzah! You actually made it to the end of this long article! You must be seriously interested in building your team’s in-house capacity for producing smarter campaigns. If you are, check out some of our workshops on topics like these for more.

Recent Insights

5 min Read

Make your next campaign a social media success

Looking for inspiration for your nonprofit's next social media campaign? Look no further than the Robin Hood Foundation's "I Fed" campaign, a volunteer-driven, social media fundraising effort to provide 120,000 meals to New Yorkers in need over the 2009 holiday season. The six-week campaign played out on Facebook and Twitter, mobilized hitherto-unknown ranks of volunteers, and brought in hundreds of new donors. In fact, 82% of contributors to the campaign were new to Robin Hood.

A number of the campaign's collaborators came together a few weeks back, along with some fellow experts from the world of nonprofit social media campaigns, to participate in a panel for social media week on "Social Media: Working Your Online Charity Mojo" and share their insights. I've summarized a few highlights from the conversation below.