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The Two Major Pitfalls of Online Marketing for Nonprofits and How to Address Them

Like for profit businesses, nonprofits are increasingly taking advantage of online marketing.  However, nonprofits face a unique set of challenges which must be addressed in their online strategies.  There are at least two primary concerns for nonprofits engaging in online marketing that don’t apply to for-profit businesses: so-called “slacktivism” and cause fatigue.


We’ve all heard this criticism of social media use by nonprofits—people are happy to like a cause on Facebook, but the involvement stops there.  Thus the pejorative portmanteau “slacktivism” (slacker activism) was born.

The fear that online engagement does not convert to offline engagement is only partially justified. According to 2011 survey data, there is no significant difference in donation rates for people who engage with a cause online and those who don’t.  However, those who have engaged with a cause online are more likely to help out in other ways, such as volunteering or voicing their support to local politicians, and are more likely to spread the message among their friends and encourage them to donate.

Don’t allow your fear that users may not take their engagement offline prevent you from using social media.  It is still worth your while to develop an engaging social presence; you can dramatically increase the reach of your message, improve overall involvement, and you may also see increased donations.

Cause Fatigue

Even if you’re just getting started with social media, chances are you regularly use email marketing.  Though a tried and true method of online outreach, email marketing must still be executed strategically.

Across demographics, many people feel that emails they receive encouraging them to get involved with particular causes can often feel like spam.  Unfortunately, the perceived pervasiveness of slacktivism may contribute to the feeling of so-called cause fatigue.

“Nearly three quarters of men and women agree that emails about causes can sometimes feel like spam, and about half of both populations admit that they get too many cause-related emails now and that everybody “likes” causes on Facebook and it does not really mean anything.”

-From a Georgetown study on nonprofits and social media.

So, How Do You Combat Fatigue?  Target, Target, Target.

You don’t necessarily need to reach out to your contacts less frequently, but you do need to be more effective each and every time you do.

Denise Keyes, executive director of Georgetown’s Center for Social Impact says that while creating online strategy, nonprofits “should definitely have an audience in mind.  Certainly with social media, you have the opportunity to customize your message.  Be sure to be strategic and not just bombard people. Getting someone to like you is not the same as building a relationship with them.”

The same absolutely applies to email marketing.  Instead of sending out generic email blasts to every email you have, target based on your past experiences with your contacts or by any demographic information you may have.  Research your base, and try to develop unique, relevant calls to action based on what you know about them.

Work to identify and reward your evangelists.  Word of mouth is still one of the primary ways people learn about causes.  When people hear about a cause from a friend or family member (even if that contact occurs online), they are more likely to get involved and less likely to feel spammed.

How else can you improve your online marketing performance?

What social networks are you using?  Around 90% of nonprofit organizations are using Facebook and Twitter, but only around 20% are using RSS feeds or Flickr. Taking advantage of different platforms is a great way to let people choose how they want to engage with you.  Do some research and find out which online communities are most relevant to your organization.  The answers may surprise you.  (For example, President Obama recently began using Instragram.)

Are you taking advantage of multiple online marketing channels?  Online marketing doesn’t end with email and social; display advertising, search engine marketing and services like retargeting can also be useful for nonprofits. Check out our recent post on cross-channel marketing to learn more.  Though directed at for-profit companies, there is valuable strategic advice that can be very relevant to nonprofits as well.

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