How to Succeed at Digital Marketing as a Nonprofit

Use these tools and resources to grow your nonprofit’s online presence and increase its impact.

In the digital age, nonprofit organizations, like all businesses, need to market online to succeed. But marketing a nonprofit can differ from marketing a for-profit business. Instead of trying to increase sales, nonprofits need digital marketing to raise awareness, funds, and involvement.

Digital marketing, with its myriad channels and tools, is crucial to the success of a nonprofit. When you know what resources are out there and how to use them effectively, you can use digital marketing to increase your positive impact in the real world.

Why marketing can be tough for nonprofits

Even if you are on top of your online marketing from day 1, this aspect of running a nonprofit can be tough. Digital marketing success as a nonprofit starts with understanding what you’re up against, so that you can overcome challenges like:

  • Small marketing budgets: Because nonprofits tend to put as much of their budget as they can towards the cause they support, it can be difficult to dedicate a portion of that money for marketing.
  • Inexperienced marketing staff: Much of nonprofit work is done on a volunteer basis or by a small staff of people who wear multiple hats. This means that knowledge of marketing strategies will be spotty or non-existent for many nonprofits.
  • Difficulty with outreach: Due in large part to the previous 2 challenges, it can be difficult to reach your audience as a nonprofit. And it doesn’t help that the audience for a nonprofit isn’t often a specific demographic. This makes the task of generating leads with interested individuals even more difficult.
  • Inconsistent contributors and strategy: Because much of a nonprofit’s workforce can exist in the form of volunteers or employees working for comparatively low pay, there can be a high turnover, inconsistent workflow and output, and a lack of experience. It can also mean that strategies are inconsistent due to a lack of necessary communication and unpredictable output.
  • Poor audience engagement and retention: It’s difficult to work in a nonprofit, but it’s also difficult to support one. With everything else going on in their lives, nonprofit engagement is often not a priority for the average person, even if they feel strongly about the cause. This creates a constant battle for client retention.

By being aware of these common issues, nonprofits can create a plan that succeeds in spite of them.

How to create a nonprofit marketing plan

Before diving in, you should create a digital marketing plan for your nonprofit organization, just like any other business or for-profit company would. It’s an important part of a business plan that helps you use all of your resources—including your time, energy, staff, and budget—appropriately. First, it’s important to know how digital marketing works as a process. At its simplest, digital marketing involves 5 key steps, each of which should be covered in your plan.

1. Define your digital marketing goals

The first step of any marketing plan is to define your goals. What do you specifically hope to accomplish with your digital marketing efforts? Set your goals carefully—they should be SMART goals, which means specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely, rather than abstract or unreasonable.

Continually measuring your results against your goals will help provide consistency and direction for your efforts. As needed, you can adjust your goals to more realistically reflect what can be done and what methods work best for your organization. Although it’s important to have upfront goals, it’s difficult to know for sure what strategies and expectations will be most effective until you have begun actively employing them.

2. Understand your audience

The purpose of marketing is to connect with and engage your target audience. The best way to do that is to know who your audience is and understand important things about them, like their concerns, desires, and pain points. It’s crucial to research your audience and learn as much about them as possible. Use that information to determine the best way to reach them. There are several tactics you can use to find your target audience, such as:

  • Review what you know about your existing audience.
  • Do a survey or ask them for feedback.
  • Research the audience of similar organizations.
  • Identify demographic information.
  • Consider who stands to benefit from your efforts.

3. Refine your message

With your goals and audience in mind, you can then start to craft the message you want to send through your marketing materials. Take the time to refine that message so it’s just right for your audience but still supports your goals. Whatever your message is, it should be clear, engaging, and memorable for your audience.

Like your goals, your message should be open for revision, in order to stay relevant to your efforts as they evolve. It’s vital that the messaging of your organization matches its actions, and that it’s consistently promoted throughout every level of the organization.

You may have 1 message or multiple messages, depending on your goals and the scope of your projects. It can be helpful to keep your initial messaging simple. This will give both your organization and your audience a clear idea of what you’re about and where you want to go. You can always broaden your message as your organization gains more experience and develops its identity.

4. Create and distribute your content

Next, it’s time to create content centered around your message and share it with your audience.

In some cases, this may be relatively simple. You might craft a marketing email or a new series of blog posts. In other cases, creating your content can be far more involved, like if you’re creating a podcast or promotional video.

Once you know what content you plan to create, you can think about the best ways to share it. Tools like a content studio may be helpful to keep your branding streamlined. Based on what you know about your audience, consider what you will distribute through which channels. And by using an all-in-one Marketing Platform, you can do much of this work from a single place.

Again, it’s best to start simple. You’ll learn from each channel and campaign what works best, so that you can change as you grow. Be realistic about how much bandwidth you have to craft and share content, and focus on what works.

5. Track, measure, and refine your efforts

Finally, make a plan to track everything you do and measure the results against your goals and budget. You will need a clear idea of how your efforts perform to know whether your strategy is working or not. If your results don’t match your goal, you may need to adjust your strategy.

Measuring results is a vital part of the process that helps you ensure that your goals are achievable and your strategies are consistent with your core objectives. Both qualitative and quantitative data are extremely valuable in terms of building the best marketing strategy possible. Take a close look at your data, but also be sure to track the feedback you receive from your audience in their responses to emails, social posts, and surveys.

Digital marketing strategies for nonprofits

Digital marketing offers many different ways to reach your audience, all of which can be hugely beneficial for nonprofits. To decide what’s best for your organization, it’s helpful to know more about the benefits of each tactic and how to use it for your needs.

With the many options available to you, it can be tempting to take on more than you can manage. It’s important to choose the best strategy for your organization, your goals, and your capabilities. It will serve you much better to do an excellent job engaging with your audience on a few platforms than to garner a smattering of content and spotty engagement on many different platforms.

Content marketing

Content marketing involves creating digital content and resources, like blog posts and white papers, and sharing that content with your audience. Your content should be unique and interesting, but there are a few basic qualities that good content has in common. High-quality content should be:

  • Clear: Your message should be obvious. The audience should not feel like they need to decipher or search for important information.
  • Clean: Your content should be presented well and highly-revised. It should not include errors or look sloppy.
  • Consistent: You don’t want to present contradictory information or messaging to your audience, and your tone should be uniform on every channel. You should also post on a regular schedule.
  • Relevant: Your content shouldn’t stray too far from your core goals, and it shouldn’t appear outdated.
  • User-friendly: Trying to find the information or resources they want shouldn’t be a wild goose chase for your audience. Make sure that resources and tools are easy to use intuitively.

Infographics are a powerful content marketing asset you can use to illustrate why your cause matters to your target audience. Providing information in the quickest, most digestible format possible is practical and effective. This is especially the case for important but complex data. There are a few good rules of thumb to follow when it comes to the use of infographics in your online marketing strategy:

  • An infographic should be created based on need, rather than for the sake of creating it. If you find yourself searching for something to make an infographic about, you probably shouldn’t.
  • Think of an infographic as a friendly face for data. An infographic should weave numbers into an engaging and accessible story, rather than regurgitating data in picture format.
  • Cite your sources and avoid tabloid-style graphics. You should make it clear that the information presented is both reliable and approachable.
  • Make sure it’s readable. The information should be presented as clearly and simply as possible.

Marketing CRM

CRM (customer relationship management) is the management of interactions between an organization and its audience. Marketing CRM software streamlines these interactions by automating many activities relating to customer relationship management, like generating leads and collecting consumer data. This is especially useful for nonprofit organizations that face inconsistent staffing. Automating customer relationship tasks takes some of the burden off of actual staff members and allows long-term consistency with little training.

Email marketing

Email marketing is a great way to generate leads and keep your audience up-to-date with the goings-on of your organization. Email marketing is especially useful to nonprofits because it’s so easy to automate, often managed via CRM software.

However, while email marketing can be a great tool, it should be used thoughtfully. Send emails with information and initiatives that are likely to really grab the interest of your audience, don’t spam them with every minor effort or company update. And as with other facets of digital marketing, it’s important to constantly measure the success of your email marketing campaign against your goals.

Digital ads

It may sound out of place for an organization that isn’t looking to profit off of their marketing endeavors, but digital advertising and nonprofits do go hand-in-hand. This channel is effective for building awareness and fundraising.

Ads can be attached to your content in a wide variety of ways. You can create an ad for social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or even on a search engine itself. However, it’s important to research which platforms or search engines do or don’t offer advertising, and what their rules are for doing so. For example, many platforms will not monetize content that is considered “explicit.” In addition to funding, online ads are also helpful for getting your brand and your message out there.

Social media

Social media marketing is an absolute necessity for any organization. Because social media is used pervasively, it’s just as important for your nonprofit organization to have social media profiles as it is to have a fully-functioning website. The following strategies can help your social media presence be as effective as possible:

  • Choose your platform wisely. Focus on the platforms that best suits your message, content, and audience. To share a blog post, for example, Twitter is a better option than Instagram, because Instagram doesn’t allow links.
  • Know your audience. It’s important to build a relationship with your audience and experiment with what type of content appeals to them.
  • Post regularly. Posting consistently is vital for a successful social media marketing campaign. This can be tough without a dedicated social media manager, but platforms that allow you to schedule posts ahead of time and repurpose content can help you get the work done.
  • Post at strategic times. Find out when your target audience is most likely to be online, and post when peak traffic is expected.
  • Measure your progress. Constantly measure your progress against your goals, and use this information to improve your strategy over time.

Video marketing

Videos are a simple and effective means to communicate with your audience. They offer a compelling way to make your audience feel more engaged and establish your tone in a way that other mediums often can’t match. While video can be expensive to create, it doesn’t have to be.

It’s important to put as much effort as you can into video production, but ultimately telling your story is much more important. Speak honestly and passionately about your goals, and look for a narrative way to reinforce the cause that you support. This is the heart of a video marketing campaign for a nonprofit.

Webinars

Similar to video marketing, webinars are a useful way to connect with and educate your audience about the work you do and why you do it. Webinar software like Google Hangouts allows your audience to interact in conference calls with your organization in real-time. Webinars are extremely useful in terms of engaging your audience and organizing volunteer efforts, without the huge cost of publishing materials or renting space for a physical conference. If you have an upcoming bakesale to raise money, for example, you could host a webinar ahead of time to teach volunteers how to run the event.

Website

It’s important to make sure your website is aligned with your marketing message, easy for your customers to navigate and use, and search engine optimized. Websites are incredibly valuable (arguably even indispensable) resources for nonprofit organizations. Having an obvious central hub that acts as both a resource for information about your organization and a point of contact with it is essential. Your audience needs to know what you do and where they can find you.

Want to amplify your channels? Pursue a partnership

Partnerships can be a great way to make up for sparse resources. A partnership is an operation where 2 or more companies share resources to boost their online marketing presence. In some cases, a partnership may even just entail cross-promotion of each other’s products or services. There are some simple ways you can ensure your partnership works to the benefit of everyone involved:

  • Pick a company whose products or services complement yours. Ideally, your marketing content should go hand-in-hand with each other for full effect (although this depends on the type of partnership).
  • Make sure that your organization gets its fair share of promotion. This partnership should be symbiotic, not parasitic. For this reason, it’s also important to track the impact of the partnership on your key performance indicators (KPI).
  • Create clear terms from the get-go, and communicate frequently to ensure that they are honored. Partnerships are successful when both parties feel adequately heard and involved.

Free marketing tools for nonprofits

There are many marketing tools that you can use, free of charge, for your organization.

Mailchimp offers a wide range of free marketing tools and channels, including email, marketing CRM, 1-click automations, websites, and more. (And when you’re ready for paid features, Mailchimp also offers a discount for nonprofit organizations.) Other useful content marketing tools include:

  • Google Drive: Google Drive is a great option for document storage. It allows varying levels of access to documents throughout your organization.
  • Asana: Asana allows users to manage content production, pass content between different users, and ensure that deadlines are being met.
  • Grammarly: Grammarly is an editing plug-in that can help your organization produce clean, error-free content.
  • Canva: Canva is one of many options that make graphic-building simple for less-experienced users.

Search engine optimization (SEO) marketing tools

  • Google Analytics: Google Analytics provides insights into your web traffic and engagement that can help you measure success and plan for improvement.
  • SEMrush: SEMrush has a variety of functions relating to keyword optimization, including reports on ranking keywords for a website or web page, and information on overall search volume for keywords.
  • BuzzSumo: BuzzSumo can help users plan content by reporting on how often different content is being shared and tracking your competitors.
  • SERP Preview Tool: This tool allows you to get a preview of what your page will look like on a search engine results page.

Social media marketing tools

  • Google Alerts: This tool updates the user when you or a competitor is trending.
  • VSCO App: This is a popular photo-editing app.
  • Clips App: This allows you to cut clips out of a video file, as well as to add effects and titles.

Marketing grants for nonprofits

For the marketing efforts that aren’t free, you can apply for funding. There are a number of different grants available exclusively to nonprofit organizations looking to better market what they do. Google Grants and the YouTube Nonprofit Program are 2 examples of advertising grants provided to nonprofits by private organizations. Meanwhile, there are many government grants for nonprofit operations provided on the federal, state, and local levels.

Additional resources and further reading

As you continue to grow your nonprofit organization through your marketing efforts, these resources will help you keep a pulse on your industry.

With every new strategy and effort, you will learn what works for your audience and improve. Keeping people engaged with your cause makes all the difference.