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Nonprofit digital marketing during COVID-19

By Sean Kerr
April 15, 2020

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

The global pandemic and its far-reaching effects have caused uncertainty and intense stress throughout the world. Although we have little control over the cause of these emotions, we can control how we respond to them. Just like individuals trying to plan their next steps, the nonprofit sector is facing how to manage our reactions to this crisis. We can make knee-jerk decisions prompted by preservation that will set us back in the long run, or we can clarify our priorities and focus our resources on what matters most.

Many nonprofits are on the front lines of the response to the pandemic. They don’t have the bandwidth to make major shifts to their marketing strategies and budgets. The rest, however, should be looking at what they can and need to do in order to capitalize on the new normal. New environments, new channels, and new opportunities abound. Smart, focused marketing that strikes the right tone can help nonprofits overcome this time of crisis, stretch their budgets, find new audiences, and even grow.

Opportunities

  • Digital advertising. For-profit advertisers are pulling back their budgets at a much higher rate than nonprofits, lowering the competition for some of the most competitive audiences in the market. Nonprofits now have opportunities to connect with audiences that were formerly out of reach. This is especially true in any marketing platform that uses bidding to decide where or when ads show, When looking at these platforms, look for CPC (cost-per-click), PPC (pay-per-click), and Dynamic placement. Less competition leads to lower bids, allowing nonprofits to reach more people but often in ways that were previously too costly.
  • Preparation for fall fundraising. It’s true that nonprofits across the country have canceled or postponed fundraising events. But sports, festivals, and many other live events have also been canceled. This leaves a gap for you to reach new audiences in preparation for fall fundraising. Building newsletter lists, getting a new audience involved through virtual volunteering, or engaging them on social media now gives your organization better standing with those same people when physical proximity is possible again.
  • Virtual advertising. Digital marketing is one of the only ways we have right now to still engage with our audience. Instead of running a commercial on a general platform, advertise to a targeted audience on YouTube. Where you once targeted commuters with ads on buses, subway trains, and train stations, engage this audience (and others) directly within the digital content they seek out. Targeting options have improved exponentially over the past two years, allowing us to reach these same people wherever they are through their affinities and actions.
  • Virtual programming. From virtual exhibitions to podcasts, arts organizations and museums have a unique opportunity to share their cultural experiences. Check out this offering from the  San Diego Museum of Art. The same is true for nature organizations. Even when faced with park, tour, and exhibit closures, nature nonprofits have the unique opportunity to provide an escape for the millions of people under stay-at-home orders. Yellowstone Forever Foundation made a big leap to launch a virtual Yellowstone program just to fill this gap.
  • Acting as the voice of authority. You need permission from Google or Facebook to advertise about the coronavirus. Health and community nonprofits, which have the advantage of being trusted sources of factual information, typically obtain this permission before for-profit advertisers. They’re getting their messages out and fulfilling their missions at an even higher level than during normal times. We are already seeing major impacts with organizations such as New York Cares and Amref Health Africa.

Tone

Regardless of strategy, audience, or time, the tone you take with your marketing makes a big difference. This is especially true in times of crisis. So how should nonprofits be responding publicly, and how should that tone carry through in marketing efforts?

  • Steadiness. Let people know that although this crisis isn’t going away soon, neither are you. Steady, calm, and measured language can go a long way toward helping your constituents understand that you are there for them now and that you will be there in the future. This thought should be in the back of your head no matter what marketing activity you are considering.
  • Urgency. If you are fundraising during this time, cutting through the noise is even more difficult than normal. While keeping calm, highlight the urgency of a donation in clear terms. What will a gift accomplish? Why is it not only important but necessary now?
  • Normalcy. Although you need to acknowledge the crisis, not everything you say needs to be about it. As you create and promote content, keep in mind that many people are looking for temporary escape. Finding something about what you do that stands out on social media or other marketing platforms simply due to how normal it feels is an underrated tactic during this time. Highlighting your efforts to provide affordable housing, enable an underserved community to access health care, or how the community came together to fund an afterschool program can stand out just by including users in part of the normal fabric of your mission.
  • Clarity and confidence. Make these two characteristics part of every message you create. If you are providing a solution, information, or escape, highlight what it is and why it matters in all your channels.

Michelle Hurtado, head of Ad Grants at Google, advises, “Nonprofits have an enormous role to play in both crisis response and in recovery while serving the vulnerable from a position of vulnerability themselves. In response to COVID, people are searching for ideas and help across sensitive topic areas (my health, how my community is affected, what's going on around the globe, services available to help my kids, surviving loss of work, mental health concerns) and across varied moments they're in (preparing, feeling helpless or restricted, working out a new normal, asking how I can help, etc.). It's critical to think through how your organization can help not just each demographic you serve, but really meet them where they are in each search and interaction with COVID specific messages. You have to be there when your constituents are looking for answers.”

Stretching Your Budget

What kind of resources are available to nonprofits now, and what might you have overlooked in the past?

  • Online advertising. Most digital marketing works off of an auction system at this point. Whether you are putting ads out on Google, Facebook, or one of the myriads of smaller players, reach and cost come down to competition. Right now not only are there fewer marketing competitors but more screen time and new user patterns. If you can lean into your annual marketing budget now, you are likely to reach more of your audience for less.
  • Google Ad Grants. Google has been running its grant program for almost two decades now. Qualifying 501(c)(3)s can apply for a $10,000/month advertising credit-based grant at any time. All of the nonprofits mentioned above use this grant to fundraise, spread awareness, and reach their audiences.
  • Evidence you are trustworthy. Make sure every person you reach understands that you are a legitimate option during this time. During a crisis there are always scammers that make fundraising more difficult for the rest of us. Make sure to update and expand the badges, profiles, etc. such as your GuideStar Nonprofit Profile.
  • Programs offered by other nonprofits. Take advantage of what bigger organizations are doing. Whether you are putting together an ask related to GivingTuesday’s new Global Day of Action or promoting a fundraiser through Facebook and GlobalGiving, you don’t have to just use your own resources to get attention.

Essentially you have a crisis, opportunities, and a mission to fulfill. The coming months will be trying, they will be hard, but they don’t mean you have to stop. If you use the tools at your disposal, lean into digital opportunities, and focus your efforts, your organization can reach your constituents and potentially grow during this time of turmoil.