003: Everything Nonprofits Need to Know About Digital Ads

There’s almost nothing that can’t be accomplished digitally. 

Nonprofit leaders, especially, need to consider this. Why? Because “digital” is where anybody you will ever want to work with the lives of people.

I recently interviewed Brandon Lilly, Senior Brand Director and Digital Marketing Strategist at Madwire and Marketing360. Brandon talked all about digital ads and gave advice for nonprofit marketers ranging from basic to advanced.

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Here’s everything he shared.

The Current State of Digital Advertising

What can’t you do with digital marketing? Turns out, there’s very little.

There are so many channels to try advertising on these days:

  • Facebook
  • Google/YouTube
  • Bing
  • Pandora
  • Waze
  • Spotify
  • Tiktok

Then within those channels, you can narrow your ads down to whom you want to target:

  • Top-of-funnel
  • Consideration stage
  • Influencing brand perception
  • Conversion (e.g., signing up for an email list or event)

Whatever goals you’re trying to achieve, there are opportunities to fulfill them through ads. 

We live in a digital world. Brandon, like many others, has been disconnected from cable for years. Instead, he uses YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix. 

So embracing digital marketing today is simply the equivalent of joining potential customers and donors where they’re at: online.

Why Nonprofits Should Consider Using Digital Advertising

Let’s talk about social media for a second. 

Generally speaking, most brands are going to have a Facebook page. They also tend to put too much faith in them.

Want to know what the organic reach of a Facebook page is on average?

Only 1%.

Regardless of how many likes you have, or how many people engage on your post, you’re reaching 1% of that network. It expands if your followers are sharing, but still, the average is not good enough to be worth your time.

Digital ads allow you to expand this reach. Maybe you’re trying to build an online community. That’s great. Ads give you the opportunity to explicitly target people you believe will benefit from and add value to your network.

You can also get really, really targeted, finding people based on what they like and don’t, what they’ve engaged within the past, whether they’ve engaged with your website. You can take information from your best customer or donor and use machine learning across Facebook and Google that you as a human being would never recognize. In this way, you can find new people to bring into your network.

Using data you already have, you can build audiences and lookalikes so you can reach more and more new people.

Common Digital Advertising Mistakes Nonprofits Make

There’s one thing a lot of small businesses and nonprofits struggle with more than anything: understanding that things take time.

There’s a learning phase with the ads you run. Or at least there should be.

(And by the way, we’re talking about ads, not boosting posts, which Brandon says you should stay away from. There’s no real cost difference between the two, just a little complexity.) 

Using ads gives you the power of all systems. That’s how you get your message to people. But remember there ought to be a time element for this, a “learning period.”

On Facebook, you should commit to one of two learning periods:

  1. 50 conversion events. Conversion events can be whatever you want: a donation, an email signup, whatever.
  2. A 2-week learning period. A lot of people say, “I ran that ad for 3 days and didn’t see results.” It’s because they panicked and bailed too soon.

The learning phase also resets. If you start with $10/day on ads, then bump it up to $100/day, you need to reset the learning period before you run away. 

Remember, time is your absolute most critical weapon here.

How Nonprofits Should Approach Each of the Major Digital Ad Networks

There are a variety of ad networks to choose from. Each one has its upsides and downsides to take advantage of and to watch out for, so let’s take a look at how nonprofits should navigate each one.

Google Search Ads for Nonprofits

Search ads are “intent-based ads.” I intend to find something, so I search for it. And if your message matches their intent, they’ll choose it.

Search ads help you meet people at their highest point of motivation, provide an incentive for them to look at your content, and reduce the friction to receive that incentive. (Maybe the incentive is to make them feel good, to offer them a tax break, or to invite them to buy into a message.) 

Make sure the keywords, the ad, and the landing page you use are lined up with people in the bottom of your funnel and meet what they were searching for. 

Hint: you shouldn’t optimize for “Where should I donate my money?” Nobody is searching for that!

People are looking for a cause, or to solve a problem near and dear to their hearts. Cause-based marketing is a lot more valuable than you might think.

There’s something to be said for brands who can tell their story in such a way that they inspire others to action. For example, single-use plastics is something of a buzzword these days. If you’re working towards saving our oceans or reducing/eliminating single-use plastics, make sure your brand is visible when other people are looking for ways they can get involved.

Think about the search phrase, “What’s considered a single-use plastic?” Why not have information available to those searchers and introduce them to your brand/website? Then you can retarget them.

Consumers have to trust you. Part of building trust is learning to consider a particular nonprofit as an expert. Then when they sit down and think through where to give their funds, they’ll think of you. 

It’s a long-term play, but it’s absolutely the way to go.

Retargeting: How to Use Google’s Display Network for Your Nonprofit

About 90% of people won’t take a converting action when they first interact with your brand. They need to see your brand 7 times before they feel familiar enough to take action.

This is why retargeting is so powerful. It keeps your brand top-of-mind for people, and it gives them the thought that “Wow, this nonprofit is everywhere. I’m seeing them all over the place.” It helps to remind them that you exist.

Additionally, retargeting is one of the most inexpensive advertising options there is because you’re reaching out to an audience that you yourself curated. 

“There are zero reasons that you should ever turn off retargeting,” Brandon told us. “You want to keep those ads fresh, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be running display ads at all times.”

Facebook Advertising for Nonprofits

If Brandon were running a nonprofit today, he’d be using Facebook ads more than search ads on Google—primarily because he wants to reach people when they’re not looking for him.

By the time they’re searching for something you might be able to help with, to an extent it’s too late. You’re bidding against everyone else for what could be expensive keywords. 

Facebook is less expensive. You’re reaching people who are shown to be within your best customer base, and you can “pre-educate” them. 

Years ago, tobacco companies wanted their products to be in front of people “from cradle to grave.” We can look at that now and say, “What a horrible way to look at it.” But for nonprofits, this is a good (metaphorical) way to approach marketing.

If someone’s never had an interaction with you before, they’re a “baby.” On the other end of the spectrum, if they pass away and leave everything they have to your nonprofit to help you have an incredible impact on the world, you’ve obviously made a deep impression.

Facebook is a great way to begin this process. Get them thinking about you, and don’t give them room to think about anyone else.

YouTube Advertising for Nonprofits

Brandon loves YouTube. He runs the Marketing360’s YouTube channel, and he loves it. They want to give away as much business information as they can, and YouTube is a great way to do that.

For some folks, it’s not time to donate to you. But you can educate them until it is time. 

Share your story. Teach people how to get involved in your cause—without ever having to leave their homes. 

You don’t have to have a call-to-action in your videos to ask people to donate or do anything else. Just give them information on how to make the kind of impact they want to make, today.

Other Ad Platforms for Nonprofits

Different ad platforms, like Pinterest, work for different nonprofits.

If you’re a nonprofit with a physical location, Waze ads can be beneficial. 

And here’s a recommendation you might not have expected: billboards. Brandon never thought he’d recommend digital billboards, but his team has been testing them at scale for over a year and have seen incredible results. 

The billboard doesn’t even have to have a lot on it. It’s just for brand awareness. Brand name searches increase dramatically with people finding your website, then of course, you can retarget them.

How Nonprofits Can Get Started With Digital Advertising

Taking the first steps can be intimidating, so Brandon gave a few baby steps to consider before you sign up to spend your precious few resources on digital advertising.

  1. You’ve got to understand your story—and how to segment it to different audiences. This will impact your messaging across every platform. Some people want to hear about what you’re doing. Some want to know what you’ve done. Others want to know how to get involved.
  2. Understand what you’re trying to accomplish. Otherwise, you’re not measuring against anything, and if you’re not measuring, you can’t get better. If you don’t get better, you’re wasting money or time.
  3. Don’t panic. Calm down, step back, and understand that time is your best weapon. 
  4. Identify your channels. Doing everything all at once is not always the best strategy. Each channel impacts the other.

Think of digital billboards: if you don’t believe your website is up to par, it’s not time to point people to it. If you’re running search ads on Google against things people are searching for related to your cause, but you don’t have any organic content around the topic, it’s probably not the best time to run those ads. 

Pick one starting point. It doesn’t matter what it is. Brandon recommends your website, but it can be anything. Just pick one and focus on it.

2 pieces of Advice for Outsourcing Digital Advertising

If you decide to hire digital ad help from the outside, here are two things to keep in mind:

  1. Runaway from anyone who guarantees results. They can’t. Also, any marketers worth their salt should be found by you. They shouldn’t have to find you.
  2. They should have some sort of software to showcase results. There are a lot of ways to make data sound awesome. “Impressions” on your ad don’t mean very much. How many actions were taken? What really matters? 

Make sure the agency can show you metrics that actually matter.

Final Thoughts

The only way you’ll know which is which for your nonprofit is simply to try it. Brandon’s best advice is to just get started.

Understand that you will try campaigns that won’t work and will cost you money. You’ll sit back and wonder what you’re doing with your life. But take comfort in the fact that all digital marketers go through the exact same thing. 

Digital marketing is a mix of science and alchemy. The science is what you can gather from the data. But you’ll never have that data until you use some alchemy and go with your gut.

In other words, you have to be convinced to get started first.

You can find this interview, and many more, by subscribing to the Nonprofit Growth podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get podcasts.

Dan Sanchez, MBA

Dan Sanchez is a marketing director, co-host of the B2B Growth show, and blogger. He holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and BS in Marketing Management from Western Governors University. Learn more about Dan »

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