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Oct 11, 2001
Case Study Signs Up 250,000 Online Shoppers via 16,000 Local Charity Viral Campaigns

SUMMARY: The whole online giving arena has changed dramatically due to the events of September 11th. Americans and others have opened their pockets, pouring donations into the Red Cross and other related organizations. This is a great thing.

What's not so great is that unfortunately local charities are suffering (for example, some animal shelters in California have had to close their doors) because they feel uncomfortable asking for funds in the context of the larger tragedy, or because their regular donors have 'already given' elsewhere. For this reason, we thought you might find this Case Study highly interesting. Yes, there are...

When was founded in 1997, they had a great idea and not a lot of money. Founder and CEO Robert Grosshandler wanted to use the Internet to collect contributions and disburse 100% of the cash to charitable organizations -- without taking a cut. Consumers would be sure 100% of their money was going directly where it was needed.

His business model was simple, he'd feed eager customers to ecommerce sites - such as LL Bean and Amazon -- and the site would donate up to 25% of the revenues generated to the charities of their customer's choice, plus they'd pay a reasonable additional bounty fee to for sending them the shopper. Customers would hopefully spend more, and feel better about buying online frequently, because of their donations.

There was just one problem -- how do you get hundreds of thousands of online shoppers to visit your site without spending insane amounts of money on marketing?


Grosshandler started by deciding he wouldn't make any assumptions about who his target demographic was, what charities they wanted to support, where they wanted to shop, or what worked in terms of marketing to them. He was going to let his chosen marketplace tell him what they wanted and who they were.

Therefore the site was set up with an extensive back-end database and reporting system so could track exactly what worked and what didn't in terms of home page design, landing page design, email newsletters and the online registration process. Then the team used results to tweak each of these components until it performed better. Grosshandler says, "We had eight different versions of our landing page at any time. We'd tweak, pick the best, drop the other seven. It took a lot of work." But they also learned a lot.

In order to find out which charities and online merchants are hot, lets visitors input their own suggestions during the registration process. Every email newsletter sent out also includes a request for charity and online merchant suggestions. No charity is too small or local to be included, as long as they have a key organizer (often a volunteer) who can be reached via email and an official bank account to receive funds.

These charities became the key to driving more shopper traffic without spending a lot of money. The team set up an automated email system for keeping in touch with the charities' organizers. Many charities and local non-profits send email newsletters to donors, so routinely emails them suggested articles, links and news releases they can use to create content for their newsletter to send traffic to also suggests contests and other viral activities that organizations get their members involved.

Landing pages for links from charities reflect that charity's name.

Then during the registration process, visitors have their choice to keep any of four, pre-checked, options:

1. Can we send you our weekly promotional newsletter?
2. Can we tell your cause about you, or do you prefer to remain anonymous?
3. Can we tell your sponsor about you (the person who referred you to us)?
4. Can we send you an irregular announcement newsletter?

Grosshandler notes it's important to keep these items as separate options, because they are separate decisions. And each has a different rate of acceptance. If you gang some together into one option, you risk pulling down total responses to the level of the worst performing option.

The weekly email newsletter contains special offers from various merchants who've signed up with For example, this August Dell used the newsletter to offer doubled-donations to all members who bought at

RESULTS is profitable; and, by the end of this year it will have helped donate a cool million to charity. So far the site has 250,000 registered members, who, by process of self-selection, have turned out to be 80% women ages 25-45.

Luckily they also just happen to be heavy online shoppers. Grosshandler explains, "Our demographic really looks like catalog shoppers, which are both the shopping and the giving demographic. Women control the checkbook in most families." He adds that research shows that, " members tend to shop more often, with larger transactional amounts and feel better about purchasing than the standard online shopper."

These members have nominated a total of more than 16,000 charities -- the most popular of which are on the local level, such as local PTA or animal shelter. Grosshandler says, "Our results have proven your affinity for close to home, close to the heart, is much greater because you see these people every week in church or at swim team practice. Secondly there's a notion that larger groups have plenty of money, there's a more direct feeling of accountability when the cause is close to home."

This helps make the site's viral marketing efforts work better because of the reinforcing aspects of the local group. Grosshandler says, "People talk to people. Your friend in the PTA says, 'Hey we're doing this, you should consider it.'"

Interestingly, when tested investing in PR as a marketing tool in late 1999 they were incredibly successful in getting major media mentions, including The Today Show. Grosshandler says, "My name was on the front page of the New York Times which made my parents really happy." Unfortunately all the attention did almost nothing for traffic. Grosshandler says, "It never really moved the needle. The cost didn't pay off. So we started as being viral, and returned to being viral."

What did work was allowing all members to easily see exactly how much money they raised, and who it was sent you. You can even look up the check number for the money that's been sent to your selected charity. This "transparency" helps make members more likely to refer other members, and to continue shopping with partner merchants. Members trust the site and can see its impact with their own two eyes.

After much experimentation with its promotional email newsletter, has learned that compelling subject lines are "50% of the battle." The best subject lines are personalized and include a special offer, a name brand merchant and a reference to a local charity. For example, "Anne, Dell gives 25% off and helps Plymouth's Swim Team".

270 online merchants, including most of the big names you can think of, are all now partnered with
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