Monday 9 February 2009

Top3: What commercial marketers can teach their charity peers

Just like commercial marketers, charity marketers are in the business of building brands and generating income profitably. What the best commercial marketers do very well, however, is to maintain a single-minded focus on performance.

And that manifests itself in several ways. In the second in a series of Top3 posts, I shall consider what some of these are.

At Rapp, there is a ‘testing bible’ that contains over 25 years of testing on NSPCC direct marketing. I remember in an agency meeting one day, sat overlooking Hammersmith bridge, asking why the NSPCC used plain outer envelopes – featuring no more than the logo.

“Ah,” came the reply, “five years ago we completed a series of tests that showed that a plain OE uplifted response.”

There it was. My perception that they were weaker was an unfounded assumption. (Although in fact we had tested them at ChildLine and found that plain outers only worked occasionally.)

“But in fact,” they continued, “we’ve seen that ChildLine’s outers for lower value segments almost always feature headlines or some other artwork. And they work well, from what we can gather.”

I confess that I felt a little smug.

“So we’re going to test them.”

The reason I dwell on that episode in working with Rapp is that except for some of the larger charities – especially those with very experienced DM managers – most charities are not good at testing.

Some simply make assumptions and do not test. They follow their heart, swayed by a moving concept presentation, or their own preferences. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Of course there are still exceptions, but commercial marketers generally test more rigorously. From something as basic as only changing one variable at a time, to more complex testing such as subtle home page variations on a website.

US luxury goods store Neiman Marcus has been incredibly successful online, and growth has far outstripped offline growth in recent years … imagine buying a £4,000 handbag via mail order! But the success is due in no small part to the rigour of the testing. Every minor tweak to the home page is tested with AB testing – i.e. one visitor to the site gets homepage A, whilst the next sees homepage B.

Similarly, in the UK, lastminute has developed a testing matrix that splits visitors to the site into one of six segments. They have found that this enables them to test any combination of variables and ensures the homepage works the best it possibly can.

And this gives a clue to a related, but separate, point. In general, commercial marketers only make changes or take action when something is proven. In my experience, charity marketers make decisions more subjectively, e.g. “I think we should change the colour of the ‘donate now’ button; red looks horrible.” But commercial marketers are much more likely to be heard saying, “our conversion rates are falling slightly; I wonder if we should change the colour or size of the ‘submit’ button; let’s test different versions.”

Nevertheless, sometimes even the best testing is insufficient to prevent poor results. However, commercial marketers are – generally – quicker to pull the plug than charity folks. They are better at facing up to reality, and chopping out poor performing parts of their programme (and staff for that matter).

They also begin the fight-back a little quicker. Contingency plans are implemented straight away, with pre-determined budgets. Energy and focus are ramped up, and they will naturally work even harder until things turn around.

Sadly, this is often not the case in charities. They are sometimes not even on top of their numbers until several weeks down the line. By the time they grasp that failure is upon them, their next campaign is ready – using the same formula.

In a way, the Top3 things that commercial marketers can teach non-profit marketers are very closely linked. And they are more about professional discipline than about tactics or techniques:
  1. Testing rigorously
  2. Rarely doing anything unless it’s proven
  3. Monitoring performance – when they do take risks, they ensure results and data will be immediately available, they will monitor them and they have strategies in place to manage the various outcomes.

Charity marketers often show creativity and innovation, but those qualities alone will not lead to the greatest success. The perception that the sector can sometimes be somewhat amateur in its overall approach is not entirely unjustified.

Which Top3 would you suggest?

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