With the busiest fundraising season fast approaching, nonprofit leaders everywhere should be spending much of their time thinking about their end-of-year fundraising campaigns. But when fundraising isn't top of mind, nonprofit leaders often turn their attention to another type of activity: the awareness campaign.
Awareness campaigns typically are defined as a sustained effort to educate individuals and boost public awareness about an organization's cause or issue. And in almost every instance they should:
- target people who share your organization's beliefs and values;
- educate those potential supporters about your issue or cause; and
- generate new contacts for your donor database.
A well-executed awareness campaign will accomplish all three of those goals. But there's a caveat: awareness campaigns are easy to get wrong. And who needs that? So what should your organization be doing — and not doing — to raise awareness and acquire new donors? Read on to see whether you're making any of these common mistakes:
1. Your definition of success is too narrow. One of the most common misconceptions about awareness campaigns is that they should be mounted for the sole purpose of, well, raising awareness. But while an awareness campaign can be focused on awareness, there's actually a lot more involved: education (teaching the public about your issue or cause), explaining current events (and how they connect to your issue and efforts), and engagement (soliciting a low-level action on behalf of your organization or cause).
2. You didn't include an action in your materials. Regardless of your issue or cause, an awareness campaign should be designed to move potential supporters from interest to action — that is, from having a general interest in your issue to actually stepping up and doing something on behalf of the issue or cause. The thing to remember about actions in awareness campaigns is that they should be low level. While it's possible someone previously unfamiliar with your organization might be willing to sign up as a volunteer or donate on the spot, it's not usually the case (and shouldn't be something you count on). Instead, actions should be "stepped" like the rungs on a ladder: they should start small and increase in intensity/commitment over time, ultimately leading to concrete support (of time and/or money) for your organization or cause.
3. You're only focused on email signups. All awareness campaigns are about acquisition and building your constituency. But many nonprofit leaders make the common mistake of setting a goal of obtaining as many email addresses as possible — and nothing else. Unfortunately, acquisition isn't simply a question of getting someone to sign up for your email list. Why? Because these days everyone, nonprofit or otherwise, asks us for our email address — and we've become conditioned to comply. After all, what's the worst that could happen? It doesn’t necessarily mean we feel a deep connection to the company or organization...which is exactly what nonprofit and cause leaders hope for and need.
Instead of simply asking for an email address, you want to get potential supporters to take a low-level action on behalf of your issue or cause that reinforces their belief in your organization and its work. Consider asking them to sign a petition, share a video you've produced, or get their friends involved. Then build on that initial action with additional appeals aimed at deepening their engagement with — and support for — your issue or cause.
4. You spend too much time talking about your organization instead of your issue. Except in very special cases, people support organizations because they care about the issue the organization is working to address — not the other way around. Don't believe me? Consider the research. The top takeaway from our 2013 Millennial Impact report was that millennials, in overwhelming numbers, support organizations that are working to address an issue they are passionate about — not the other way around.
Now, consider your own behavior. Let's say you support the work of an organization like PETA. Did you become a supporter because you decided one day you liked the work they did, or did you become aware of PETA's work because you already cared deeply about the welfare of animals? Sure, PETA's work may have contributed to your awareness of and knowledge about the all-too-common mistreatment of animal species, but you wouldn't have paid attention to its messaging if you didn't already care about animals. The one preceded the other, and once you were moved to take action, you did so through PETA.
The same is true of most — if not all — donors. Your organization is the vehicle through which they're able to support an issue or cause they care about, and your role is, first, to make them aware of the issue itself and, second, to tell them how you're working to address it.
5. You forgot to measure (or you're measuring the wrong thing). When our clients complain about an awareness campaign that "failed," a lot of times it's because they didn't think they needed to track any metrics (after all, how do you measure someone's "awareness"?), or because they tracked the wrong metrics. Typically, this mistake is related to having too narrow a definition of what an awareness campaign should entail (see #1 above).
Thanks to things like social media, it's easy to turn to impression counts, engagement scores, and the like into metrics that help you track the effectiveness of your awareness campaigns. But while these kinds of metrics are a good starting place, they don't really tell you anything about whether the folks on the other end of your messaging became more knowledgeable about your issue or cause as a result of that messaging. In other words, don't confuse education with engagement.
So, what should you measure? Think of the cause engagement ladder as a sales funnel. Start with the end in mind (e.g., acquiring new donors or volunteers), then work backwards through lower-level actions and determine how many people are likely to take each step (or will be content to stay where they are). Let's say you want to obtain a hundred new supporters. For our purposes (and to keep the math simple), we'll estimate that each rung of the ladder has an attrition rate of 10 percent. In that scenario, you'd need 10,000 people to perform the lowest level action, of which 1,000 would move on to the next step, of which 100 would become move on to become a donor or volunteer. It might take a little more work on the front-end, but putting a solid measurement process in place will help you better understand what's working and what isn't — and how to move people along a continuum to become supporters of your cause.
So there you have it. Awareness campaigns might not be as simple to implement and measure as a fundraising campaign, but they can make all the difference in terms of keeping and growing your supporter base. If you haven't taken the plunge, what are you waiting for? September is the start of the sprint to the end of the year, and the more people you have rooting you on, the greater the chances you'll reach the finish line (and hit your fundraising targets). Good luck!
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and marketing agency for causes, and the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble