2013 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study: Analyzing the Analysis

I thought it would be fun to analyze the analysis done by two fantastic organizations (M+R Strategic Services and NTEN) about the state of nonprofit communications. There’s a whole lot of #DataNerd stuff in here, so let’s dig deep and take a look!

The report they released is called the 2013 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study. It’s easy to read, and I highly recommend spending some time exploring and reflecting on it for your nonprofit.

You should see how your organization stacks up with others within and outside of your sectors. Then ask yourself why some organizations and sectors are outperforming or underperforming in certain areas.

The tl;dr version: There are few surprises here.

  • Email is still more successful than social media.
  • Don’t forget The Ask.
  • Talk to your people more.
  • Photos go viral.

Just a note before we start: this is my opinion. While I believe that the data support my conclusions, like anyone else, I have an inherent bias. Check out #2013Bench on Twitter for other thoughts, including one very important supplement by M+R with benchmarks that “didn’t make the cut”.

Emails vs. The Rest

There is no question about it: email is still king (for now). This is true not only in the number of people reached, but in growth rate, response rate. There is one major exception. Online fundraising is much more successful not through email, but through “other sources”.

One-third of online revenue in 2012 was sourced to email, with Environmental and Wildlife and Animal Welfare groups leading the way at 43% and 45% from email respectively. The remaining two-thirds of revenue came from other sources, such as unsolicited web giving, peer referrals, and social media. (Page 22)

… For every 1,000 email subscribers, nonprofits have 149 Facebook Fans, 53 Twitter Followers, [and] 29 Mobile subscribers. (Page 41)

So now we get to our first why?

Why are email subscription numbers massive compared to Facebook, Twitter, and mobile?

My thought: It’s just easier for everyone involved. Everyone has email and it’s an older medium that people trust, that they’ve figured out.

XKCD #763

I don’t know about you, but I read most things that come into my inbox, even if it’s only a cursory glance. There’s an implied obligation that comes with emails that simply isn’t there for social media. And besides, you may never see the message if it comes through social media: The rules of Facebook with EdgeRank and GraphRank mean that your message can be filtered out by an algorithm. On the other side of the coin, Twitter is endless, and unrelenting in nature – there’s no filter at all. Either way, not everyone in any given intended audience will even receive an organization’s message.

That said, we get to another why?

Why did click-through rates drop so precipitously?

From the report:

… while subscribers opened [email] messages at about the same rate as in 2011, they were far less likely to click on a link within those messages. Click-through rates dropped sharply, especially for fundraising messages where they dropped by 27%.” (Page 7)

Don't Panic
DON’T PANIC! (Licensed.)

There’s a caveat: The drop in click-through rate for fundraising emails wasn’t industry-wide — it affected International and Rights groups disproportionately (40% and 38% respectively). (Page 11)

In addition, the fundraising message click-through rate for Health groups declined by 10%, and for Wildlife and Animal Welfare groups by just 3%. Environmental groups saw an increase of 14% from 2011. (Page 11)

So why did Environmental groups do better, where International and Rights groups did so much worse?

The report writers attribute the lower response rate to a, “relative shortage of major legislative battles”, leading to less media coverage, and supporters paying less attention. While this is true, I believe that we may be conflating cause with effect.

The organizations suffering from lack of legislative fights and media coverage can turn their problem around by listening to Alec Baldwin.

Always be Closing
Alec Baldwin says, “Always be Closing”. Coffee is for closers.

Their constituents who care about their causes are the same people who can solve the problem: (emphasis added)

…the highest-performing sectors focus more heavily on driving online actions in their newsletters than the lowest-performing sectors. A straight news update without a strong call to action is likely to drive fewer clicks — even if it meets goals for education and cultivation. (Page 13)

When it comes down to it: the same basic rule of fundraising is true for email marketing: you don’t get anything unless you make “The Ask” — your call to action. The message should vary from campaign to campaign, and indeed individual to individual. It needs to be there in every communication you have, no matter how mundane, you need to ask for their help. How to make The Ask – a call to action, and what it needs to entail is for a different post.

Oh, and you need to talk to your constituents more, not less. With how much we are inundated with messages, one would think that communicating more often would just get annoying. Well, the data show that it’s not only not annoying, but with a call to action (an Ask) directed at the right people, in the right way, you’ll be more successful.

The report backs me up on this:

Wait, increased advocacy message volume AND increased average response rate? You read that right! This may be partly due to list source— groups that run lots of advocacy campaigns may find that online actions are a larger source of new names, and names that come in through activism could be more likely to take action again.

We don’t see a similar effect for fundraising messages, perhaps because fundraising is a less important source of new names. If there is a relationship between fundraising message volume and supporter response, it is dwarfed by other factors creating differences between sectors. (Page 15)

GIFs vs. Tim Burners-Lee

If you want click-throughs from Facebook to your site, use links or share posts. We’ve been sharing links ever since Tim Burners-Lee invented the web, even though the means to do so has changed. Write some interesting article on your blog and link to it, encourage your activists to go out and actually do something.

If you want to go viral on Facebook, use photos. Who doesn’t love sharing photos, especially ones with a personal touch? (or cats)

Pelvic Thrusting Cats
Pelvic Thrusting Cats by The Oatmeal. Go read the comic. Believe it or not, it’s relevant to what we’re talking about here. Ok fine not entirely relevant.

Organizations must strike a balance.

Sharing a photo is easy, they’re quick to look at and simple to share, but because they’re viral, they don’t last as long. They’re a flash in the pan.

Writing a post or asking your supporters to take action is significantly more difficult, time consuming, and thus more expensive – both for the writer and user. When we, as users, find something worthwhile either to read or to do, we share it and encourage others to do the same in a meaningful way.

Virality and Online Presence

There’s an entire industry dedicated to increasing the size and reach of organizations social presence. Of course there are tons of tips and tricks, but no surefire solutions. So it’s not a surprise when we see that there is a huge spread between organizations in the same sectors of how many Twitter and Facebook followers they have.

Also unsurprisingly, large organizations absolutely dwarf medium and small organizations on Facebook, averaging 117,424 followers to 27,978 and 8,332 respectively.

Interestingly though, the opposite is true in regards to reach. Small organizations reached an average of 380% of their fans vs 301% for medium and 230% for large. Small groups also had significantly higher median “virality” than large and medium groups. (2.4% small, 1.4% medium, 1.2% large)

This leads to the final why?

Why do smaller organizations have a proportionately bigger reach?

I’ll leave this one as a conversation topic for the readers: my call-to-action for you. Sound off on Twitter or email and let’s chat about your ideas.

Thank you

Thank you to M+R Strategic Services and Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) for providing such an excellent resource.

Thanks also to Beth Kantor for bringing the #datanerd(s) hashtags to my attention.