Would you drop a $100 bill into a blank envelope decorated with bold type and exclamation points that someone you didn’t know dropped off on your doorstep? Didn’t think so. Likewise, the e-mail that arrives from the unknown candidate urgently asking for a donation typically gets the same treatment. If you’re a local candidate trying to raise money online, you’ll want to be a bit more sophisticated than the average Nigerian bank scammer—unless you don’t care about your reputation.
You’ve read the headlines about the candidates who use online money bombs to rake in the cash. And that’s the secret: These candidates are already in the headlines. Without pre-existing notoriety, most attempts at “money bombs” don’t suck in the money; they just suck. If you have an issue that can inflame passions and you can wrap a compelling message around it, then by all means use it to drive your fundraising. (The fact that you really need cash is not by itself a compelling message). If you have the right issue, the right targeting, and the right message, you’re on the right path. The “widget” on your website is a nice touch, but it’s just a tool, not a substitute for a well-thought-out plan.
What does work online are the same tactics that work in other channels of fundraising: Create a sense of urgency by specifying a deadline. Tie the deadline to a targeted need and you’ve made your message even more compelling and given your audience a sense of participation in something tangible. Toss in a challenge from a large donor to match funds and you can make donors feel that they are having an outsized effect. Above all, make it easy to complete the transaction—don’t give donors a reason to give up before they finish the process.
Encourage your donors to share the fact that they have donated on Facebook and Twitter. That is, have them tell their friends that they’ve just endorsed you with cash. But don’t expect social media to be a fundraising gravy train—it’s great for generating awareness, but it lacks the one-on-one targeted “ask” that really motivates people to act.
The true workhorse of online fundraising, whether you’re running statewide or just in your own town, is e-mail. Which means you need to be relentless in collecting e-mail addresses—in person, on the Web, via advertising, on Facebook, by getting your supporters to refer their friends, whatever it takes. As you collect e-mail addresses, take the time to understand why people are subscribing and target your messages accordingly. A multi-paragraph newsletter that hits every issue will typically get a much lower response than selectively edited messages sent to appropriately targeted groups. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can hammer away with a one-size-fits-all message until you eventually get a response—the impression of your e-mail is cumulative. If your first message is dull, your recipients are much less likely to keep opening them to see if you eventually come up with something interesting to say.
Think about tailoring your donation page to the message you are sending. This is particularly useful if you’re soliciting responses to a fundraising event. Create a response form on your website and encourage donations in advance. That way, you’ll have a list of attendees at the door. More importantly, if a donor’s plans change and he or she can’t make the event, you still have the donation.
A final note: Remember to say thank you. An automated reply e-mail gives donors immediate confirmation that their contributions have been received. Still, no matter how carefully you craft that message, it’s just a form letter. Whether you send personal notes to donors who give over a certain amount or send a targeted mailing to the last week’s donors, showing some effort will go a long way to encourage repeat giving. While you’re at it, don’t just ask these proven donors for another round of money. Ask them to suggest friends (or give them a message that they can pass along to their friends). They’ve made a commitment to you and one of the best ways they can validate that support is by seeing their friends agree with them.
Steve Pearson is the president of CivicNEXT (www. civicnext.com), a provider of practical online communications and social networking solutions for campaigns and organizations. Ford O’Connell, a C&E 2010 Rising Star, is the founder of ProjectVirginia.com, winner of the 2010 Reed Award for Best Use of Twitter.