THE BLOG

How Your Non-Profit Can Use Online Advertising Effectively

02/23/2015 04:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2015

How can your non-profit use advertising online most effectively to grow your organization's base of support, spread your message, increase donations and more? Our budgets are small, so you need to make sure it goes far.

Start with thinking through what is your goal. Are you looking to recruit new supporters, reach existing supporters, spread your message? Different goals have different methods.

Also you'll need to consider your timing. Some options can be rolled out faster than others, so make sure your plans allow for enough time. Email list buys may take a week or longer to collect the promised amount of email addresses. Google or Facebook ads may need a day or more to get through the ad approval process on Google/Facebook's end, Twitter will often go through faster but it's not instant.

Keep track of the ongoing advertising you're running: ads may get less effective over time and need tweaking (especially Facebook). With regular experimentation, you can continually improve your results. Also try to figure out the costs per new supporter acquired after the fact, to measure results of different methods against each other.

Finally, on all self-serve options make sure you put an end-date on your campaign. You don't want to keep accruing charges on your credit card after you've won on your issue!

Online advertising costs are measured in three basic ways:
* CPM (cost per thousand impressions)
Examples are Banner ads, Blogads, some online newsletter advertising like through AlterNet, Mother Jones, The Nation - and you can often buy CPC advertising this way instead

* CPC (cost per click)
Examples are Google, Facebook, Twitter

* CPA (cost per action)
Examples are Change.org, Care2, Democrats.com, LeftAction

Key Terms:
* Landing Page = Webpage where a visitor lands after clicking on advertising
* Click-Through Rate = Ratio of viewers that click on your advertising
* Conversion Rate = Ratio of visitors taking action on your landing page (i.e. signing up for your emails)
* Opt-In: Individual actively joins a list
* Opt-Out: Individual is added to a list without their approval (has opportunity to unsubscribe)

Beware of opt-out lists. Just because a vendor's database is 100% opt-in, it doesn't mean they are offering you opt-in services. Make sure you know what you are paying for. Opt-in is much more expensive than opt-out (because it's better quality), not all vendors offer it.

  • Method: Search Engine Advertising
With this method you can reach people who are actively searching for info on your topic, campaign or organization. "Contextual advertising" means your ad only shows up if it fits the context of the search or page. This advertising is usually text-based, but you can do images on sites that are a part of the Google content network.

It can be cheap! (Can even be free for 501(c)3 non-profits: apply for a Google grant.) You set the price per click, and the maximum daily budget.

You also set the targeting. You can choose geographic location: can go whole state, by region, or even by city. Unless you have an issue of national interest, it's best to keep your targeting local where people would care most/and search on your issue.

You set the keywords - which terms your ad will show up under. Advertise on your chosen issues, your org name, common misspellings. If your name is something common, this may be the only way to get your campaign to show up well on Google searches.

You choose where your ads can run (sort of). Google has their search, plus the content network (blogs, newspapers, etc). Start with plain search, content network is trickier. Note for content network: your ad needs to be more noticeable, because it works based on attention-getting. Search advertising works on blending in with the query. Also note that if you're a 501(c)3 non-profit org with a Google grant, the grant only applies to search advertising.

Don't forget search engine optimization: Free traffic! This can be accomplished by choosing a good url that includes your best keywords, using keywords in the title of the page, frequently updating the content on your website, writing content that includes frequently searched keywords, and getting others to link to your site. There's lots of in depth guides out there on SEO, it's worth doing some reading to get it right.

  • Method: Social Networking Advertising
Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn advertising is self-serve, and the usual option is pay-per-click. You choose daily budget and cost per click. Both Facebook and Twitter now offer conversion tracking, and you can easily test different versions of creative, call to action etc. to find the best performing mixture. Costs vary, but this is definitely worth trying for most organizations since you can get started at such a cheap price point. Social media advertising also has spillover effects - if somebody fans your page, it may broadcast to their friends that they became a fan so you benefit from network effects. Note that Facebook is always tinkering with their algorithms to determine what content shows up where. Carefully consider whether building up a big Facebook or Twitter fanbase helps your org in the long run - it may be better to run ads directing people to a link to sign up for your email list, so you control the communication channel and not Facebook.

You choose the targeting. Make sure you target only people in the geographic area of your organization! Also if you are trying to reach new supporters, make sure you are NOT targeting existing fans.

Most effective to grow your own page's supporters. Can be effectively used to take traffic to your website though for email signups, if the ask is compelling. Not so effective for fundraising (at least, not yet.. although the latest research shows there are benefits to layering on a fundraising ask on social media to the same people at the same time as they are receiving your ask via other channels like mass email. (Read the 12-2014 NYTimes story about the latest research on this.) There's intriguing things you can do with targeting people on your email list, and putting the same fundraising message on Facebook ads as when you send out a mass email. Or targeting audiences that are similar to your existing audience.

Content gets stale pretty fast on social media - expect click through rates to fall off a cliff after just a few days. You'll need to keep changing up text and/or graphics and/or targeting to keep it fresh and performing well.

Try different things, and turn off what doesn't work. You can see in a matter of hours if an ad is effective or not.

  • Method: BlogAds (consider it a specialized form of banner ad)
You pay for a period of time, not per click or per impression. (But the pricing is based on impressions.) This is primarily a self-serve medium. It's pretty cheap for smaller blogs, more costly for national blogs. Click-through rates are lower than search engine marketing, because it's an interrupt-based medium. People are not looking for your content, so you probably will not get a large volume of clicks -- unless you advertise on a blog with a very large audience. Issue-related petitions or other activist asks are a good fit.

Even if blogads are not cost-effective, this is a good way to give back and support blogs that support the progressive movement (consider this advertising as partly a form of goodwill).

  • Method: Banner Ads
You can buy ad space directly on a site, or on several sites/to specific demographics by using an ad agency, or banner ad networks. These tend to be more expensive AND less effective in terms of clickthroughs than Google/Facebook, so you'll probably want to use professionals to get the most out of your campaign.

Banner ads are priced via CPM, sometimes per click. IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) specs several different sizes.

Note: some sites (like many newspapers) run both Google Adsense and banner ads. Google can be a cheap backdoor to advertise on sites that you cannot afford the banner ad rates on.

  • Goal: Supporter recruitment
How much is a new member "worth" to you? What are the average costs via the different methods you have now?

You could run issue-based campaigns with Care2 (opt-in), Change.org (opt-in), LeftAction (opt-in) and Democrats.com (opt-in or opt-out). The CPA may vary. There will be minimum buys also. This is probably only cost-effective for national groups, statewide organizations, or orgs in major metropolitan areas.

You could also run a petition-based campaign on Google or Facebook. This is more cost-effective for smaller campaigns. For larger campaigns, you'll need to track carefully to make sure this is more cost effective than doing a list buy through a list vendor. You'll generally see a cheaper cost per signup via Facebook, because the demographic targeting is better than with Google.

If you do a Facebook campaign aimed at growing your Facebook page, this should be pretty cheap with good targeting. The low-hanging fan fruit should be possible to pick up for $1 or less per fan. Same thing with Twitter advertising to build your Twitter following.

You could do an Email append (iffy unless you do it opt-in): You send your supporter (or donor or volunteer) list to the vendor, they look up known emails in their database & send an opt-out or opt-in request to them, then give you list of responses. You'll need to have a large enough amount of email addresses for this to clean in order for it to be worthwhile - they do have minimum amounts for buys. Also the data can be iffy too, check to see whether they are doing an individual match or household match. Different people in the household may have wildly differing political beliefs. You could also do a ECOA (electronic change of address), many vendors offer a service like this: The vendor looks up updated email addresses for people on your list with bouncing emails. Just like with email append, you'll need to have a large enough amount of email addresses for this to be cost-effective.

Special note for non-profits using NationBuilder: there's a new append service offered from Accurate Append that can append email addresses and phone numbers to your Nation at very affordable rates. For campaigns and non-profits using other tools, you'll need to do an email list export, send to the vendor (ask for a free match test first so you get a sense of what they can match), and then re-import into your system.

  • Goal: Online fundraising
Many organizations have had some success with Google AdWords on their issue. Motivated people are doing Google searches, so that is easy traffic to convert into donations. If you're a c3 org and you can try this out for free, so much the better.

There are fewer success stories on Facebook advertising for fundraising. If you try this, aim your ads at supporters only to have the best chance of recouping your costs and turning a profit. Also as noted before, try layering on the ask with asks via other mediums to the same audience.

Email append to your donor list may be effective too, but handle it very carefully - do not want to offend your donors by sending them a lot of unsolicited email.

You might be able to do blogads cost-effectively (since it's somewhat of a pre-screened audience), if you pick the right blog with an enthusiastic audience for your message.

  • Vendors
If you're going to do a big ad buy, consultants are worth it in the money they'll save you by using good targeting and advertising best practices. This is especially true for display advertising, which is hard to do effectively. For smallish buys, you can try yourself with the self-serve options out there.

*Search Engine advertising:
Google.com/adwords

*Member recruitment:
Care2, Change.org, Democrats.com, LeftAction

*Email append/electronic change of address:
TowerData.com, FreshAddress.com, MelissaData.com