By Lisa Yorgey Lester
The ASPCA unleashes the interactive power of the Internet to build relationships and boost awareness.
When it comes to building relationships with constituents, there perhaps is no more effective a tool for nonprofit organizations than the Internet. As the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has learned, the interactive nature of the Internet allows fundraisers to personalize visual appeals that tug on the emotions and purse strings of Web site visitors.
What's more, the relative low cost of e-mail messages makes it a cost-effective vehicle for the frequent communications necessary to attract constituents, drive action and build loyalty.
Based in New York City, the ASPCA has sought to protect and prevent cruelty to animals throughout the United States for the past 138 years. This mission is carried out through educational programs, public awareness, government advocacy, shelter support, and animal medical services and placement. Its New York City headquarters is home to an animal hospital, behavior center, adoption facility and humane law enforcement department.
Because this nonprofit fully believes an organization is only as effective as its ability to communicate its mission and message through every available medium, it has embraced the Internet as a tool to reach and engage supporters and, in turn, drive them to act. While online donations currently make up only a small percent of this nonprofit's revenue, the ASPCA recognizes the Internet's role as part of an integrated marketing strategy.
This charge falls under the direction of Jo Sullivan, a passionate animal advocate who fondly recalls her penchant for taking stray animals into her childhood home in Virginia. As senior vice president of development, Sullivan is responsible for overseeing the planning and execution of all of the ASPCA's fundraising efforts, including its direct mail, telemarketing, e-marketing and DRTV programs.
The ASPCA took its first steps online in 1995 when it launched a static, brochure-like Web site. Four years passed before it began taking donations online, after which it spent another year or so working out the kinks associated with collecting online donations, getting content up on the site and making sure its Web servers were secure. During this period it raised about $35,000 in online gifts.
"I certainly wasn't very proactive in online work, we just got the benefit of the dollars that fell to the online world," confesses Sullivan. In 2001, the ASPCA adopted a content management system powered by Convio, a nonprofit eCRM provider based in Austin, Texas, that enabled the nonprofit to handle content management in house and become more aggressive with its online marketing efforts. The result was a huge jump in online donations: The ASPCA raised $250,000 in 2002.
The ASPCA takes full advantage of every available avenue to drive traffic to its Web site. Every piece of communication, whether it be a direct mailing, DRTV spot or press release, carries the ASPCA Web address, www.aspca.org. Even the cars driven by ASPCA humane law enforcement officers on the television show "Animal Precinct" are branded with the ASPCA Web address.
"Anytime we can get our site out there, we do," chuckles Sullivan. "It's a constant stream of thought with whatever we're doing," she explains.
The nonprofit also has enriched its Web site text so the ASPCA is the first result that pops up when people search on terms such as "animal welfare" or "animal interest."
Once on the ASPCA Web site, visitors are greeted by images of animals and loads of content that includes articles, action alerts, information on humane education and various animal resources, to name just a few. Visitors are given the option of interacting with the ASPCA in several ways by clicking on one of four prominent tabs—donate, adopt, lobby, shop— at the top of each Web page. By clicking on the lobby tab, for instance, visitors can learn how they can support the ASPCA by becoming an advocate for animal welfare.
Another way the nonprofit maximizes its Web real estate is by featuring one of its fundraising programs on a prominent part of the homepage located beneath its four action tabs. For example, during the first quarter of each year, the ASPCA will use this space to promote its membership renewal campaigns. At such time, it posts an image of its member card alongside a message that reads: "ASPCA Members Click Here to Renew Your Membership."
At other times of the year, this space is dedicated to promoting its Guardian program, whereby donors are given the opportunity to commit to a long-term relationship with the nonprofit by pledging a monthly gift of approximately $10 or $15 billed directly to a credit card. The ASPCA has acquired approximately 4,000 Guardians by promoting the program on its Web site.
While the ASPCA Web site receives, on average, 225,000 visitors a month, it finds its Web traffic cycles mirror its direct mail giving trends. According to Sullivan, Web site hits are heaviest in the first quarter of the year. Traffic slightly tapers off in the second and third quarters, then spikes back up in the last quarter of the year.
Building a Base
Because an e-mail address allows the nonprofit to build relationships with constituents through frequent communications, Web site visitors are encouraged to sign up for the ASPCA's weekly e-mail newsletter through a link on the upper-right hand corner of the homepage. By clicking on the link, visitors are directed to a brief registration form that asks for some basic information such as their e-mail address and format preference (html or text). Once visitors complete the form, they receive a welcome e-mail from the ASPCA with their user name and password, which they can use to log into the site to complete a personal profile and special interest form.
Registrants can indicate their preference of Web site content, including ASPCA news articles, advocacy alerts and information on an assortment of topics such as animal poison control, legislation and adoption, to name a few. They also can indicate their preference to receive e-mail communications, such as fundraising appeals and a weekly newsletter, or to join its Advocacy Brigade. Members of the Advocacy Brigade receive special e-mail bulletins on how they can help lobby for animal welfare. Advocacy Alerts are geography-specific and notify recipients of upcoming animal welfare initiatives on state ballots.
When a registrant returns to the site, the nonprofit uses this data to greet supporters by name and displays content based on an individual's interests, such as an article on animal behavior.
"We really get to understand what the members and donors are looking for from us as an organization, and we get to show exactly what we're doing with their donor dollars," says Sullivan.
Registrants also can view and update their personal profiles online. This information is housed in an online database that helps the ASPCA elevate its donor demographic information, and gives it the ability to target messages to supporters based on their interests, according to Sullivan. It also allows the nonprofit to take advantage of cross-marketing opportunities. For example, the development team can target advocates and try to convert them to donors, while the advocacy group tries to spur donors to take legislative action.
To date, the organization has 360,000 registered users, who represent donors, advocates, animal professionals and people who like hearing from the organization, but haven't chosen to support it financially or legislatively. This last group of registrants, according to Sullivan, are considered warm prospects for its acquisition programs.
Getting Personal and Relevant
Aside from an e-mail address, the most valuable piece of information the ASPCA collects about its registrants is pet-parent status. Sullivan explains: "At the ASPCA, you're not a pet owner, you're a pet parent. If you share your life with a pet, you realize that you don't own them, they own you." Knowing a constituent's pet-parent status helps the ASPCA keep its supporters engaged with its organization.
"We ask them if they are a proud parent of a cat or dog, and we try to use their preferences in everything from the graphic wrappers on their weekly e-news alerts to fundraising efforts," shares Sullivan.
One example of how the ASPCA uses pet preference to personalize its communications is its virtual pet adoption, one of the nonprofit's most successful online appeals. In the adoption portion of its Web site, visitors can sponsor one of the pets in the ASPCA's New York shelter. When that pet is adopted, explains Sullivan, the ASPCA will e-mail sponsors and offer them the opportunity to sponsor another pet of the same species.
"If you know that you have a cat lover out there, it's easier to get them to sponsor a shelter cat rather than a pit bull mix," she reasons.
Pet preference also dictates the content subscribers receive in the ASPCA News Alert, a weekly e-mail newsletter. The newsletter contains adoption stories and articles, such as tips for protecting your pets when the mercury drops, as well as ways to participate with the organization through online adoption or writing members of Congress in support of legislation. Subscribers are segmented into three groups: dog, cat or non-animal specific, and newsletter content is targeted accordingly. For example, if subscribers indicate in their profiles that they are a proud parent of a dog, the lead story in their News Alert may be dog related.
Also included in each News Alert is a soft ask for a donation, which brings in just under $10,000 a year.
Tailored content keeps the ASPCA supporters engaged. "We find the open rates on those News Alerts for people that tell us they share their lives with a cat or dog are a little higher," indicates Sullivan. Whether recipients choose to give a gift, read an article or take legislative action, ASPCA News Alerts, Advocacy Alerts and general fundraising appeals collectively average a 20 percent click-through rate.
Integrating Online and Offline
To date, the ASPCA has a total base of 735,000 active donors—anyone who has given a gift of $5 or more within the last 24 months—and of that, 5 percent are online donors. Few differences exist between donors who give online and those who gravitate toward offline channels. The typical ASPCA donor is a female, 65 or older, who shares her home with a pet. Donors who give online tend to be about 10 years younger.
What Sullivan finds interesting is that of the 5 percent who are online donors, 2.5 percent give offline just as easily. This observation has led Sullivan to differentiate between donors with e-mails and those without, rather than between online and offline donors. This mind-set also is reflected in the way the ASPCA integrates its direct marketing channels.
"If you give the ASPCA your very first gift ever online, you'll get mail from us in the future. What we're finding is that we don't have that many people that are unique to a channel. They give in whatever channel inspires them, if it's in front of them," Sullivan explains.
Of course, some donors who make their first gift online continue only to donate online, despite receiving mail and telemarketing appeals. However, Sullivan feels its offline channels reinforce the choice donors make to give online.
The significant difference is the average dollar value of a donation. "People who give online tend to give a little higher average gift than they do offline," Sullivan observes. The average offline gift is $36, whereas the average online gift is $55.
This discovery led Sullivan to tie the nonprofit's mail and e-mail programs more closely together. Prior to mailing a renewal campaign, the ASPCA will send an e-mail to its members calling attention to the fact that a renewal package with their member card is on its way. According to Sullivan, the e-mail pre-alert uses the same graphics as the mail package and may include copy that reads something like: "Put your money to work harder or faster, renew now."
Another way the ASPCA has integrated its online and direct mail campaigns is through the use of dedicated URLs, which are printed on every single piece of direct mail sent out and allow the nonprofit to track the offline donors it drives online. For instance, donors who responded to the first of its seven 2004 direct mail renewal efforts were directed to www.aspca.org/renew1, which took them to a landing page on the ASPCA Web site where they could renew their membership online. The first effort in the direct mail renewal series then received credit for these online renewals.
"We're pretty integrated from that capacity. We know what mail piece you came from or what e-solicitation you responded to," says Sullivan, who confesses she implemented the URL system without any testing.
"We knew we wanted to be able to give our members another option for giving, and I kept thinking trackability was the most important thing. I needed to understand if they came from an acquisition piece, a renewal or an appeal," she explains.
The gamble paid off. "We had no downgrades in mail response at all and maintained our numbers. We found the people who wanted to give online naturally gravitated there, but certainly not enough numbers to impact our predictable mail results," she adds.
Providing a Visual Reinforcement
Sullivan also has found the concept of dedicated URLS translates well to its DRTV efforts. This year, the ASPCA began running a 30-minute infomercial as well as 60- and 90-second spots on channels such as Animal Planet and CNBC. Donors are directed to a dedicated microsite, www.myaspca.org, that reinforces the DRTV message by featuring the same celebrity endorsements and premiums.
Sullivan finds reinforcing a big visual ask with a dedicated site gives donors the opportunity to give quickly without having to dig through other areas of content. "Not everyone wants to call an 800-number or write a check. Online donors want to [make a donation] quietly and in their own time," Sullivan reasons. The microsite has proven successful. Of its DRTV donors, 33 percent come through the Myaspca.org Web site.
In fact, this technique has worked so well that Sullivan plans to build more microsites to support several of the nonprofit's other fundraising efforts, including the ASPCA Guardians program. Such a site, indicates Sullivan, will give these long-term donors a little bit of insider information and make them more a part of the ASPCA family.
"We make some assumptions that they already know the basic information about us because they are monthly pledgers, so we won't lead them through the same pages on the Web site that you would a traditional donor," says Sullivan.
In addition to its News and Advocacy Alerts, the ASPCA sends approximately 15 e-mail fundraising appeals a year, which include both membership and renewal efforts.
How does Sullivan measure the success of these programs? "I really don't like to look at online campaigns one at a time because the numbers can appear a little discouraging compared to the mail," explains Sullivan, who says the nonprofit earns about a 1 percent response rate for its e-mail appeals, as opposed to a 4.5 percent to 5 percent response rate for its mail efforts. Instead, Sullivan compares donors with e-mail addresses versus donors without.
"If you pull that group out who received the out bound e-mail as well as received a mail solicitation that had a similar creative and ask, you find that on average the people with e-mail addresses give twice as frequently with twice the average gift. They are so much more valuable," she explains.
One of the benchmarks Sullivan measures is the ASPCA's number of registered Web users compared to donors. "We're successfully converting about 2.5 percent of registered users into donors," says Sullivan, who notes that once registrants become donors, the ASPCA also begins to communicate with them through offline channels.
The total value of a donor matters most."We're becoming more customer relationship facilitators as much as fundraisers," she continues, "so understanding that is critical to growing your housefile and offering donors a reason to want to come back to you."
As part of an integrated marketing strategy, the Internet provides this knowledge and opportunity. "The more we know about how members share their lives with their pets, the more we can tell our stories, how we share our lives with our pets and how in sync we are with what they want to see done with animal welfare in this industry," says Sullivan. The more knowledge the ASPCA gains about its supporters' preferences, according to Sullivan, the better the nonprofit can make its communication channels available to constituents whenever they choose to find out more, update their information or give.