June 16, 2011
Case Study

Online Marketing: Nonprofit enrolls 3,350 new subscribers with integrated digital efforts

SUMMARY: Online marketing can be a challenge. Without organization it's easy to let social media -- and even email -- be handled through individual informal channels.

Read on to see how a successful nonprofit was able to create a digital marketing program from the ground up and integrate the new effort with the group’s traditional marketing campaigns. Also see how the team leveraged real-time events and promotions to build their email list.
by David Kirkpatrick, Reporter


Sometimes not having a particular piece of formal marketing, such as an overarching digital marketing program, in place can be an advantage because it provides the opportunity to build the effort from the ground up. In this case study, an organization had several traditional marketing elements in place, and a number of unorganized pieces of online marketing spanning email to social media.

The group brought in a manager specifically to create an entire digital marketing program getting all the various online efforts working together and integrated with its total marketing efforts.

The Hope Institute for Children & Families is a multifaceted nonprofit organization made up of six centers:

o The Hope School Learning Center which provides an educational environment for children with autism and developmental disabilities

o The Hope Center for Residential Services which provides housing for children with multiple disabilities

o The Autism Program of Illinois

o The Noll Medical Pavilion

o The SIU School of Medicine

o The Hope Institute Learning Academy in Chicago, which is a K-5 elementary school focused on inclusion for children with developmental disabilities

The Hope Institute has around 600 employees and about $40 million in revenue, and the bulk of its fundraising is built around direct mail and event marketing.

Jarid Brown, Manager of Online Interactions, Hope Institute for Children & Families, was hired a year and a half ago to build the organization's online presence and develop a digital marketing program.

Read on to learn more about the steps Brown took to create an email marketing program, organize all of the Hope Institute's social media efforts, and ensure the entire program integrated into the existing traditional marketing campaigns used by the group to raise money.


The complete lack of organized online marketing provided Brown the opportunity to create the entire strategy from the ground up. First he had to corral all of the individual social media pieces that different areas of the organization were promoting.

Step #1. Go from ad hoc to organized

Brown said, when he was hired by the Hope Institute, "Everything that we had in terms of digital marketing was fledgling. Everyone kind of handled their own little distribution lists and emailed their own little groups of people."

In place when Brown joined the group:

o A Facebook presence with two pages and a total of around 400 fans

o Twitter accounts for the Hope Institute and the Autism Program with less than 50 followers for both accounts

o A YouTube channel with around a half-dozen videos and 3,000 total views

o There was no formal email marketing program

The communications team and development offices at the organization did not consult with each other, and didn't interact in terms of marketing the Hope Institute or integrating the marketing campaign and development strategies.

Brown immediately began to build the organization's online presence with an email marketing program that was connected to the CRM used for the donor base. He also worked to tie all of the various social media programs together and to focus on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The final stage in this first step was a total website redesign. The old version was described by Brown as very heavily information-based and more of an in-depth online brochure. The new site was created to be more marketing-oriented and to serve as the base for the new digital marketing program.

Step #2. Complement – don't compete with – other marketing efforts

Once Brown was able to get the entire digital marketing program working in concert, he knew it was going to be important to make sure the new program complemented the Hope Institute’s extensive direct mail efforts.

Each month the organization sends direct mail to between 30,000 and 250,000 people across the United States. The appeal focuses on a different "Story of Hope" each month highlighting one of the children served by the institute.

On the digital front, Brown's email marketing program consists of three major newsletters that go out each month.

1. The first newsletter goes out for the parent organization and is very donor-driven. It is geared toward the general public and includes the same "Story of Hope" included in that month's direct mail newsletter. This email send also includes a listing of upcoming fundraising events and other organization news.

2. The second email newsletter goes out from the Autism Program and is targeted to parents of children with autism. This is a service-oriented newsletter that provides parents with tips, resources and other information.

3. The third newsletter is a smaller send to professionals across Illinois who work with children with developmental disabilities and is geared toward providing these professionals with job-related resources.

Of the three email sends each month, the mailing from the main organization is the key marketing piece. The "Story of Hope" from the direct mailing and email send is also featured on the website, and that story is promoted across all of the institute's social media networks as well.

Brown explained that this coordination integrates the work done by the development office with the biographical stories and fundraising with the entire digital marketing program.

He actually had to challenge the institute's executive leadership who wanted to replace some of the traditional fundraising with the new online marketing activities. This group was looking to save money in mailing and event costs by increasing the focus on digital fundraising.

Brown disagreed and said, "I believe that we should supplement the successful fundraising programs that we already have. We should enhance those and build something larger, as opposed to trying to compete with traditional fundraising tools."

Step #3. Don’t chase trends

Brown said one danger in digital marketing is the temptation to chase the latest trend, particularly the current innovations in the social media world.

"Right now everybody wants to be on Facebook (and) they want to get as many fans as they can get," he stated. "What happens two years from now when something new becomes the latest fad and is the place where the consumers or donors are?"

He said his goal was to build everything in the digital marketing program to work together. He didn't want to sacrifice his email marketing program to focus too much on social media. In fact, Brown believes he is able to build relationships with the Hope Institute's audience through email more quickly than through social media.

"It may take years to build that relationship (via social media)," explained Brown. "And it may take years longer to actually turn them into donors or event attendees. By focusing our efforts as much, if not more, on email marketing, we are able to create a relationship a little bit faster and we are able to turn the general public into supporters, advocates, or donors at a faster pace."

Step #4. Capture email addresses

One challenge in starting an email marketing program from scratch is you need a list of email addresses to send your messages out to. The new website was the first place Brown turned to in order to capture email addresses for the organization's audience. There is an opportunity for visitors to subscribe to the email list in every published article and blog post, and on each page of the site.

The team has also run several Facebook contests to gather subscribers, and occasionally uses the subscription sign-up page as the website's landing page.

- Take advantage of real-time promotions

During April, the state of Illinois faced funding issues, so Brown "revved up" the online advocacy efforts and created a tool that allowed the general public to send an email directly to their legislators, and when they submitted the information they were offered an opportunity to opt-in for the email newsletter.

This campaign resulted in about 500 new subscribers, or 80% of the people who used the tool to submit an email to their legislative leader.

Also during April the group ran a month-long autism awareness survey with a twofold purpose: the first was to learn where the institute should focus its services in the future, but Brown said just as importantly it offered those filling the survey out the chance to opt-in for the email newsletter. This campaign brought in another 400 subscribers.

Brown added it was important to the Hope Institute to have an explicit opt-in for every subscriber. He said, "We would much rather grow (our list) very organically and have a smaller subscriber base that opens our emails, than to have an open rate of one to five percent." The Hope Institute exceeds a 30% open rate.

Step #5. Use digital marketing to improve event marketing

Because direct mail and event marketing were such an important part of the Hope Institute's fundraising, Brown needed to make certain his digital marketing program was able to integrate with, and hopefully enhance, event marketing efforts.

Before he joined the organization, event marketing was solely handled by the development office. Now Brown is brought in during the planning stages to help coordinate all of the efforts.

This integration has led to several changes and improvements:

o The Hope Institute implemented online payment processing for the first time in early 2011, and already 15-20% of event and donation revenues arrive through the online channel.

o About 30% of its email subscriber base has attended a live event in the past year.

o Last year the only way people learned about events was receiving an invitation in the mail. They now receive the physical initiation as well as an email invitation. The event is also promoted on the website and across social media channels.

Prior to the email marketing campaign, the group had difficulty in capturing the information about all of its guests because many attendees were invited by event sponsors. Now when sponsors register and purchase a table, the Hope Institute is asking for information on all of the guests for the table and asking those guests to opt-in to the email program.

With this information the organization can begin marketing the events earlier through email and direct mail, and directly target previous attendees. Brown said because this attendee data is now in the CRM, the Hope Institute can run promotions such as offering a discount for early purchase of an event ticket and have a targeted list to send the offer to.

Step #6. Coordinate promotional events

Because of the assortment of marketing efforts at the Hope Institute, and the integration between the traditional campaigns and Brown's new digital marketing program, he is able to coordinate promotions to improve the results of each campaign.

The Hope Institute had an event in March, but the landing page for the organization at Facebook promoted a fan drive.

The institute had a donor come forward and offer one dollar for every new Facebook fan signed up over one month. Brown said he could have run the fan drive during January, but decided to run it during February because he knew the fan drive promotion would create a higher level of Facebook traffic than normal from Hope Institute fans sharing the page with friends and family to support the fan drive.

Brown took advantage of this boost in Facebook visits to draw attention to the March event. Even though the Facebook landing page promoted the drive, it also advertised the event providing a higher level of exposure through all the fresh traffic driven to the Facebook page.

Because the email marketing campaign was brand new to Hope Institute, it has grown from 0 to 3,350 subscribers, all explicitly opting in to the program. Brown said the email campaign is growing by 300 to 400 subscribers each month.

The organic growth of the email campaign has also led to:

o An open rate of more than 30%
o A clickthrough rate of 16%
o An unsubscribe rate of almost zero

Social media results include:

o The February fan drive led to around 1,000 new Facebook fans

o The institute has five separate Facebook pages based around different centers in the organization. Its main Facebook page has 2,294 fans

o It has four Twitter feeds, with 1,662 followers for the main account

o The YouTube channel has 104,330 total upload views

Brown added event attendance is up by close to 20% over the past year after the digital marketing program went into effect.

Editor’s Note: Nonprofit (and, really, all B2C marketers), we hope this case study was helpful to you and will help you do your job better. But today we have something special for you, as well -- one more resource we can give you to help you perform. The Millennial Donors Summit has given us 10 individual passes ($75 value each) to give away to their virtual event. Once registered, you can access all of the presentations and information for a full year, even if you do not attend.

We’ll be picking our 10 favorite comments made before Sunday at 11:59 EDT. So leave a comment and share your consumer and donor marketing tips with the MarketingSherpa community.

Useful links related to this article


1. Original website homepage
2. Redesigned website homepage
3. Email newsletter
4. Event email

The Hope Institute for Children & Families

Constant Contact -- the Hope Institute's email marketing vendor

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