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March of Dimes Evolution in Online Fundraising

Three years ago, the March of Dimes faced a dilemma. It was introducing a new image campaign, and had renamed its longtime signature fund-raising event from “Walk America” to “March for Babies.”

The organization, founded in 1938 to improve the health of babies, had put on the event since 1970 and had raised more than $1.8-billion. The group figured “March for Babies” was a better name to communicate what the walk was all about.

But how to communicate that to its loyal supporters?

March of Dimes looked online for help. Spreading the word was essential. Its use of savvy online marketing techniques smoothed the transition, gained new followers, and established “March for Babies” as a marquee event.

In a session at the Direct Marketing Association’s New York Nonprofit Conference, the group detailed its online strategy, what worked and what didn’t:

  • Found influential bloggers. During its first year, in 2008, the March of Dimes reached out to about 1,300 bloggers, which a consulting company sorted and ranked in importance by content, readers, and followers. “We had to find those who care enough to be advocates,” says Olivia Smith, senior vice president of BKV, an Atlanta consulting company that helped March of Dimes. In later years, it expanded this message through social bookmarking sites, such as Digg, Del.icio.us, Reddit, and Stumbleupon.
  • Created easy downloads. The March of Dimes drove its supporters to a landing Web page where they could download fund-raising badges, banners, and widgets.
  • Bought ads near specific search terms. The organization sought to find new walkers by buying ads that would display when people typed terms like “Walk America” and “March for Babies” into Google and other search engines. It also bought ads near terms like “fundraising walk,” “children,” “charity,” and “donations.”
  • Used display advertising. By working with advertising networks, the March of Dimes signed up new walkers who either viewed an ad or clicked on an ad and completed registration online. In year two, they also tested which ads worked: One was a baby with a big hat and shoes, the other showed a team of people walking. The former had an edge because it was the original ad. The next year, an ad that emphasized the mission (“Today, 1,500 babies will be born too soon and too small”) had the greatest response. An additional learning curve happened, though, in its second year: charity officials realized they hadn’t allowed enough time for its ad networks to put the group’s Web ads on the sites that would get the most walkers.
  • Tested video. The organization also displayed a video on its site but found that while it was popular, it had the poorest performance in terms of getting people to register. The video was a distraction and took time away from registration, Ms. Smith said. “It was cool, but it didn’t work.” Still, the group isn’t giving up on video and is examining how it could work in the future.
  • Simplified the landing page. Instead of a registration page where users were asked to select whether they wanted to walk alone, walk with a team, or to start a team, the new landing page asked people for just one piece of information: their ZIP code. It worked. This allowed people to find the nearest “March of Babies.” Three choices boiled down to one.
  • Created a Facebook app. Using social media, the March of Dimes found that its Facebook fans “liked being there, and they don’t want to leave if they don’t have to,” says Robert Fields, e-marketing manager of March of Dimes. So the group created an application whereby fans could directly register on Facebook itself and not have to go to a separate registration page. This app also allowed supporters to broadcast on their Facebook walls and to their friends that they were participating.

As a result of its continued online efforts, the March of Dimes increased the number of registered walkers by 75 percent, increased the number of walkers who made a gift by 71 percent, and increased revenue by 102 percent from 2009 to 2010. A year earlier, the group had seen a 34-percent jump in paid walkers, but decreases in registered walkers (minus-15 percent) and revenue (minus-14 percent).
 

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