Making eCRM Work For Charities

The age of eCRM is upon us. Well, to be fair, the age of eCRM is upon the commercial world. Companies like The Sun’s fantasy football league, the world’s biggest, are doubling their revenue from digital by engaging with their existing customers in a structured, highly commercial way. They love it (who wouldn’t love a 93% increase in digital sales in three months?). ECRM’s a hot subject in News International towers – in fact it’s a hot topic for all sorts of brands from Nickelodeon to McCain Foods to Virgin. You would imagine that, given the commercial successes and incremental profits it drives, it would be a straight port to charity. But it isn’t. In my view, eCRM isn’t a universal fit, and it needs a slightly different approach when it comes to applying its highly tested principles to fundraising and donor engagement.

Let me take a step back and explain the general principles behind eCRM and then how I believe it can and should work for the third sector.

ECRM starts with data. This data comes from, in essence, existing customers. The data consists of things like when a product was bought, what its value was, whether it was bought following a sequence of events, or driven by a promotion, or facilitated by a third party. That kind of observed behavioural and motivational data can be layered with information about the customer herself – family size, age, location, whether others they know are also customers, whether they belong to this, that or the other social group. Integrating and analysing this data often shows up connections and trends. We may find for example that a customer is likely to spend more if they’ve seen a TV ad within hours of being emailed a voucher on a Tuesday, or that if they’ve got young children they’ll respond better to new offers on mornings when they have childcare. We derive series of insights, and we create a plan that segments audiences by value, frequency, recency, and motivation. We come up with a creative hook, attach email, SMS, web touchpoints, and off we go testing and optimising campaigns to see which work most effectively. It’s pretty logical, and it’s entirely oriented towards increasing a customer’s value.

In theory, you could apply the same highly commercial approach to charity eCRM. In fact, Direct Marketing and Direct Response Television (DRTV) do exactly that, and in general it works extremely effectively, at least for a short while. It relies on continuous volume being fed into a funnel, because using these kinds of methods you can burn through huge numbers quite quickly. And it is of course very single-minded. It allows little for the emotional attachments people have with causes that actually very often span lifetimes and generations. It’s mechanical, in essence. Commercial eCRM creates an equation that takes customers and uses data and psychological techniques to maximise the revenue that can be gained during their lifetime as a customer. That’s business, and it’s not personal. I think that charitable giving, on the other hand, is personal. Charity is not, or should not, be a machine (stick charity on top of problem here, turn handle, problem solved) because I think charity is about solving problems unaddressed by the machine of society.

All of which is a little grandiose. ECRM for charity does automate inasmuch as it allows organisations to use techniques and principles to increase engagement between a cause and its supporters. If by using eCRM we can provide genuine value and fulfilling engagement then as a consequence support will deepen and charities will be able to operate more effectively. The essential truths of eCRM do apply: eCRM is about delivering information to a supporter that is timely and relevant, that doesn’t confuse, that increases the bond rather than distracts from it or irritates. Data is still at its heart. Understanding what your audiences are motivated by, where they live, what their attitudes are, what they are prepared to do on your behalf, all of these are critical. But while commercial eCRM is about facilitating a value transaction (I give you entertainment, you increase your purchase frequency), not-for-profit eCRM is about building and delivering trust, and allowing an opportunity for this to be returned. ECRM for causes works most effectively when it provides a call to understand rather than a call to action. The same methodology applies – we still analyse all the data we can lay our hands on, we understand what motivates people, we work out what people are likely to want to do, and we segment them accordingly. But the strategy is much longer in view. Building relationships over long periods of time builds trust and cut-through. It gives something back to the supporter, and in turn this means when we do have something we need to say, if it’s delivered in an appropriate manner to the right person at an appropriate time, it is listened to. VSO learned this early on in its forays into eCRM, when at a certain point it found it needed to recruit a large number of primary school teachers – using email and a microsite to engage it found over 6,000 new, qualified contacts all through referral, because of the relationships it had created.

ECRM, that is to say properly researched and segmented long-term contact strategies delivered digitally, is a means not to an end, as it is in the commercial world, but to a beginning. Worked well it delivers relationships that last not just lifecycles but lifetimes.