• Diane Larusso Sharp

Evolve Your Engagement Game for Better Results

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

Despite what seems to be an endless supply of optimism from market forces, many businesses are suffering an abrupt collapse of their traditional revenue streams. Practical restrictions on normal operations, coupled with the added expense and inefficiencies of health and safety precautions, only adds more weight to their burden.

Not the least of these suffering sectors, nonprofits across the nation face staggering drops in annual philanthropy revenue all types, as big corporations pull back on community investment to protect their margins, and special events are cancelled or dramatically reshaped. Staff layoffs further complicate both the need for focused efforts in smart-and-urgent fundraising and the core, hinder the nonprofit’s ability to deliver the direct services and programs at the heart of their mission.

At the same time, the needs of the people and communities these organizations serve continue to escalate, and become much more complicated, as the long-term, systemic problems with availability of affordable housing and healthcare, and the now-looming eviction and mortgage crisis, among other factors, compound the challenges faced by families and small businesses trying to navigate the instability.

Survival Time, Sustainability Check

According to recent research published by Candid, it appears that this year, 11% of nonprofits are likely to close (compared to 4% in normal years), but in a worst-case scenario that figure might climb as high as 38%.

For nonprofit leaders looking to land firmly amid the “other” 62%, it’s likely that just making ends meet with minimal layoffs is your main priority—and it should be. But with a little runway, smart investments in long-term engagement strategies might just be the most important investment you can make for the future of your organization, and more engaged audiences can significantly hasten your rebound after a crisis.

Perhaps most importantly, engagement programs are an essential component for fundraising sustainability from efforts like annual campaign appeals to crowdfunding efforts, corporate sponsorship programs and even, of course, special events.

In that light, it’s important to note that professional fundraising best practices acknowledge significantly greater efficiency and results in retained donor audience appeals over new donor acquisition efforts—the former results in larger donations over time, whereas the latter efforts generally run at a loss. This same concept is applicable to your general audience members, too—their attention will be of much greater value to your organization if you can retain each individual, at a higher level of engagement, over a longer period of time.

Ultimately, if you can build and cultivate an engaged audience, and thoughtfully interact over time to foster their appreciation to your mission and approach to the work, you’re likely to have greater support from your community when you need them to act on your behalf.

Know Your Audience(s)

There are no good strategies without a clear understanding of your audience. The more you know about the individual constituents that make up your entire audience, the better positioned you will be to develop an effective strategy.

Understand not only the basic demographics information about your audience. Who are they, where do they live, and what are they most concerned about? How do they currently tend to interact with your organization? Are they generally supportive, or do you have a vocal, opinionated and diverse group? What brought them to become a part of your audience in the first place?

Take into consideration how information about age, income, identity, occupation, education level, family status and other factors might be relevant, and let that information help you better understand your audience’s perspectives. Finally, don’t forget that the length of time that those individuals have been a part of your audience matters a whole lot as it relates to their knowledge of your mission, programs and impact.

Put yourself in the shoes of the “typical” audience member if you can—make a quick profile. If it turns out you can’t identify just one archetype that works well to generally describe the folks in your audience, then it might be necessary to begin segmenting them into groups, and strategizing separately for each of the audiences you identify. For each segment, ask what you need them to know, and understand why it’s important that they know this information as it relates to your goals and outcomes.

Start Where They Are

Assuming you’re not launching your organization from scratch today, you already have at least some audience members, and they’re already on their journey of getting to know and interact with your organization. Before you can design a new strategy for moving forward, you need to first understand where your audience is on their journey now.

Does your audience know and understand your mission? Do they know and understand what programs you offer and how those programs meet that mission? Where do they prioritize your work and its important in the community?

If you don’t know what they might already know about your organization, start with those basics. If primary details about your organization are already commonly understood by your audience, then focus on adding depth—show real life examples of the lives changed by your work, set in emotional and compelling framework—which will help them develop stronger connections. Conversely, if your existing audience is extremely familiar (for example, a volunteer audience whose members typically provide hands-on assistance in your service delivery on a regular basis) consider asking for donations, or for participation in a particular effort, where they can show support by investing in your work directly.

Set Goals; Focus on Moves

There are several ways to measure your activities, and setting some goals for initiatives focused on various stages of engagement is a good way to go about it. The overarching goal is to “move” the audience member along a journey, from being new to your audience to being very aware/well-informed of your purpose, learning more about your programs and services, and then—perhaps—engaging further as a volunteer or donor. Some people will never move beyond the “fan” stage, but some become “friends” when they respond to your calls to action, demonstrating their interest in supporting your work.

Keep in mind that getting new people to follow your organization on social media is only the beginning of the pipeline on an engagement journey, and certainly isn’t the only possible point of entry. That said, acquisition online is fairly low-risk in audience development, as it doesn’t cost anything and takes very little time to follow your organization on social media, or read an e-newsletter once a month.

(Acquisition from the fundraiser’s perspective, however, is much more of an investment in donor pipeline development and is an activity that typically does not pay for itself. The value is in flow of new prospects, not the amount a first-time donor gives in a given instance.)

Once a new individual becomes a part of your audience, they move into a phase of testing and assessing your organization, and prioritizing its value against other things that typically get their attention. During the testing and assessing phase, audience members are deciding if your organization is interesting, trustworthy, viable, and something they care about.

From this stage, audience members may leave—that’s ok—you’ll always have some attrition. But those who continue to follow you are becoming “fans,” and in this phase of the relationship, they’re paying attention to your social media, reading your newsletters, eventually (hopefully) interacting in some capacity, responding to calls to action or even advocating on your behalf.

Provide information that educates your audience about what you do, why the work is needed, and report about your results—and why they matter. With consistent effort and clear communication, this approach should lead to deeper interaction, eventually reciprocated by the audience member. Personalizing communications, refining your approaches to different segments, and tracking both appeals (or other calls to action) and the responses received will help you turn these “fans” into “friends and family.” These “friends and family” are the folks who step up when you need help, when they feel most invested, themselves, in your work.

Brand Recognition and Consistency in Communications

A strong, recognizable and respected organizational brand certainly helps make engagement outreach more effective overall, but even in the absence of that, insisting on clear visual consistency across your communications assets will make it easier for your audience to immediately recognize the content as yours.

Keep designs simple, regardless. Don’t overcomplicate things—using clip art or too many fonts is not only a low professional standard, but it distracts from the information you actually need to get across. Create and stick to using basic templates assigned to various types of communications (by topic, by audience, by purpose, etc.).

Layer your communications and plan to use multiple platforms—but graphics for your campaign video should still match the colors and graphics of your printed material, and your billboard artwork, and your SWAG. Visual consistency across all the pieces and parts only reinforces your efforts.

Bite-Sized Storytelling

Keep in mind, these days, folks are bombarded by information everywhere, and attention spans are shorter than ever. If you’re building a relationship—taking your audience member on this journey—you can make better headway if you break it down into smaller chunks, rather than trying to get across a lot of information all at once.

Online, video is more compelling and typically gets more attention than longform copy, but can be expensive to produce at a professional standard. Posting a compelling photograph or well-designed graphic, along with “bite-sized” pieces of your story, allowing the narrative to unravel over the course of hours, days, or weeks can be an effective way to snag people’s attention. Make sure your headlines make a clear point and aren’t too wordy.

Print materials can be distributed or mailed, and can either be produced on a tight budget or at great expense. Depending on your specific goals, you may wish to invest in hard copies of materials that can be handed out at community events, meetings, or even delivered by mail to all residents by street or ZIP code. Putting a tangible, physical piece of mail in someone’s hand is a useful way to be visible in more than just the virtual world, and continues to reinforce your messaging.

Just like with online media, make sure your printed mail piece stands out—it shouldn’t look just like junk mail. Make sure you use good quality stock and a non-standard size if possible, and consider outer envelope messaging, or just a postcard in the first place, with an attention-grabbing headline focused on your call to action, if you have one.

Because the nature of effective engagement programming relies on a multi-faceted approach, organize a full communication calendar to guide and prompt your work over time. Define the timeframe if you’re running specific campaigns, or determine the pace of releasing new messaging based on seasons, holidays, or the visible routines of your work in the community. Plan ahead, crafting appropriate themes and pay attention to carefully planning the order of your messages.

Your aim is to build toward a compelling—even emotional, when possible—case for why your audience should support your work, whether that’s with their attention, their time, their money, or their advocacy. Show off how your organization makes a real, meaningful difference in the lives of those you serve to win them over.

Determine Strategic Calls to Action

For any given communication campaign, at certain points, you may have actions that you need or want your audience members to take. These might range from “liking” and “sharing” your online content to participating interactively with a hashtag, to volunteering or even donating goods or funds. Whatever the outcome, be sure you’re strategic in your approach, and that the action is meaningful.

During acquisition phases, “light” interaction, especially on social media, can encourage folks to “opt in” (like, follow, subscribe) so that they become a new audience member and will begin to see more of your messaging in the future. This is a low investment on their end, and useful for some initial pipeline development.

Aside from new audience-building, consider what needs your organization may have that might be fulfilled by asking for help from your audience. Do you need volunteers? Donations? Feedback about particular initiatives?

Define, clearly, the action you want them to take, and then map the step(s) they’ll need to take to follow through on the action. Make sure it is SUPER EASY, and communicate clearly—and repeatedly—any particularly important parts of the instructions.

Consider ways you can incentivize participation or responses—whether that’s recruiting a partner who’ll offer a coupon to anyone responds to your survey, or, for another example, offering a prize drawing entry for every volunteer who works a shift. Simple items like stickers, as well as digital badges, virtual backgrounds or frames, can be easy and inexpensive ways to give a little something “back” as a token of gratitude.

For fundraising-specific calls to action, take special care to plan campaigns with a close eye on your details, and be sure they’re strategically aimed. Blanket appeals to the general public for funding support are easy enough to push, but they don’t generate the same kinds of results as campaigns designed around specific goals, tangible results, and aimed toward an audience that’s already most likely to care about those particular initiatives.

Be Responsive: Strong Stewardship

Be sure there is someone in your organization assigned to tracking and responding to the engagement activity routinely, ensuring questions get answered and the organization is functionally responsive to the results of their effort.

Report back to the audience about your progress, and show the results. Express your gratitude for their participation—your appreciation helps them feel like their effort was worthwhile, and they’ll be more likely to engage again in the future. Of course, if donations are involved, be certain to promptly acknowledge the gifts, and communicate back to the donor the importance of their role in supporting your work. If there are recognition benefits attached to participation, be certain to fully follow through on those promises.

Encourage interaction between and among the members of your audiences, too, whenever possible. Introducing audience members to each other, or providing live or virtual forums in which people can interact further strengthens their attachment—both to the organization in which they have shared interest, and to each other and the greater community.

Keeping Track

As your audience becomes more familiar, and as you grow into more sophisticated engagement strategies, it’ll be important to begin keeping data about the specific individuals IN your audience—most especially if you ever hope to leverage this audience for direct financial support.

Your CRM is a fundamental tool, and adopting strong data entry protocols is crucial if you want to derive value from the information you’re feeding into it. Tracking individual constituents helps you understand audience segmentation much more quickly, and allows for better customization of your messaging and initiatives in the future.

If you don’t have a CRM yet, start with an Excel workbook for now—but plan to do some product research soon. In this age of technology, there are an array of affordable solutions for relational data-keeping that will vastly improve efficiencies across your engagement or fundraising program.

Collect and organize, systemically, detailed information about your individual constituents. If you’re using a basic spreadsheet for now, enter one constituent record per line, and fill in as many details as you have, separately, in columns in the same row. Assign a unique “constituent code” in one column, so that when you’re ready to move to a CRM product you can maintain some consistency and reduce the number of duplicates that result from simple name variations (for instance, Robert J. Smith, Robert Smith, Rob Smith and Bob Smith might all be the same guy, but a constituent code adds another layer of data to help you sort it out).

If you’re focused on fundraising goals as the ultimate result of your engagement activities, be sure to invest early in a CRM—spreadsheets are no way to manage gift tracking and donor administrative processes effectively. You need the right tools in place to track gifts, donor designations, acknowledgement processes, stewardship or other details regarding your interactions and relationships with a constituent. A suitable CRM will allow you to track multiple interactions of various types, over time, on a single constituent record—so that when the time comes to meet with them, or find appropriate prospective partners for a particular effort, you have a good sense of their historic relationship with the organization, even if the staff handling these tasks aren’t the same people anymore.

Of course, there’s a lot more to building loyal, responsive audiences than simply directing your organization’s messages outward to social media, email, mail, or traditional media outlets and just hoping people show up for you when you need them. Even basic strategies still require a solid understanding of your audience(s) and how to approach them to get the best results.

Whether you’re looking to get people involved in a new volunteer program or appealing for their financial support, the more you invest in building stronger relationships with your audience, the more likely they’ll come through for you when you ask.

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