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Paul De Gregorio Interview

Today we’re chatting with Paul De Gregorio about what is called integrated fundraising campaigns. Campaigns that use direct mail, text messages, online ads, newspaper or TV or radio ads, in combination, as part of a plan that helps find new donors and engage people who are already primed to support your cause. 

The reason I wanted to do this interview is because I’ve worked in small nonprofits for a number of years and I also co-founded a non-profit. I’ve done my own business since 2009. I have to say that the things that keep me surprised in this world are – the way technology has moved so quickly and how ill prepared a lot of small nonprofits seem to be to deal with these changes.

Paul DeGregorio: I completely agree. The technology moves so, so quickly. Part of my everyday kind of experience is working with quite large organizations which aren’t adequately prepared for how their potential donors are using tech. It’s really difficult, isn’t it? To keep up with technology costs so much money. It requires investment and we’re hardwired, obviously to look for the return from every penny or every pound that we spend. I do worry about how this ends for small organizations. But then, I suppose, at the same time there’s the real rise of some great democratic fundraising tools that exist in platforms like Facebook. So maybe you can keep up with technology by using other peoples’ technology. I don’t know.

MT: Well, I have a very small non-profit that I work with. She’s doing really well with monthly gifts. But she text messages people from her phone. She’s the founder and the ED. Obviously that’s not scalable. But at the same time, it’s working really well for her. Another non-profit that I know that’s also pretty small but has staff, she also text messages people to remind them to give monthly. They’ve worked really hard on that and it’s going really well. They’re a global non-profit even though they’re small. 

So it seems like people are kind of haphazardly using these tools that remind people they exist without being too intrusive the rest of the time.

PD: Absolutely. I’m seeing some really cool stuff at the moment. I’m using the phrase cool because cool usually means not effective, but shiny. So there’s some really effective stuff being done in Facebook Messenger by the Labor party in the United Kingdom. They’ve done some good stuff. The first women’s march in DC did some amazing stuff using Facebook Messenger and kind of doing a similar thing. Just kind of reminding their supporters and their advocates that they existed and giving information, which at the same time has kind of trumped in you that you love that organization, so you’d maybe consider a donation.

MT: Alright. So we talked a little bit about how long you’ve been working in online fundraising campaigns, 5 years?

PD: I’ve actually only been doing it at any kind of significant thing for about the last six or seven years. My background was in telephone fundraising and after a while, I wasn’t doing the kind of daily management of phone campaigns, but was more involved with our clients’ fundraising strategies. So I was very lucky in that previous job, even though it was all about the telephone, to be involved with all of my clients in their overall strategies. So I started to tune in to how digital was being used then, which is why I left that previous job and ended up here at Open. Because Open was a kind of channel neutral full service agency that was working across a whole bunch of channels. I was asked to come here and really put some focus behind the mobile fundraising division.

Kind of the reason why we did that before we did digital was I think I may have talked about it in my speech at AFP a little bit. Just the complete ubiquity of the mobile device. Giving by mobile or sending a message by mobile is so easy that we just kind of tune into that as a response mechanism rather than online. I suppose my journey has been fundraising in general, then mobile fundraising. More recently it’s been digital fundraising. Does that make sense?

MT: It does. It does. For a lot of people in the US, of course, it’s a closed book. So for people who don’t know, what is an integrated fundraising campaign?

PD: I suppose there are many definitions. Typically when we’re briefed by a client to do something that’s integrated, it’s usually around a theme or a moment in time. But what we’re usually asked to do is come up with kind of an overarching campaign proposition. So I think in the presentation I gave, and I can send you graphics and stuff like that if you’re interested afterwards. I think I talked about the friends campaign.

MT: Yes.

PD: That’s a campaign that kind of started in a non-integrated way where we were looking to test a very simple proposition in one channel. But very, very quickly, that was a campaign that we realized could stretch. So when we started to design the integration, we were just looking about how do we, in specific parts – I mean, it’s different in the UK compared to the States. But in London, we wanted to create a real noise around the campaign. So we would search for all of the classic media channels that we could get access to. So TV, street fundraising, newspaper advertising and all of those things. We’d also support it online with things like change.org petitions and other stuff.

But also we would be looking for press and PR support in the local media, in and around London. So there was a kind of conversation going on about the politics that sat behind the campaign, and the lobbying that’s happening at kind of a European level to make that campaign’s kind of central proposition really resonate with the public. Then it just comes down to really effective media placement and media buy-in. So making sure we don’t spend too much money in any one place, but also conversing, making sure that we’re not spending too much. We’re not spending too little. Just getting that balance right.

Once you’ve integrated something, we usually find that you get a multiplier effect in response. So if you imagine that someone is traveling into London and they are seeing the advert on their train, and then they’re maybe doing the subway system and they see the similar adverts, not exactly the same, on the subway and in the subway platforms. It may be in the free newspaper that they pick up on their way home. It may be on their Facebook, that they see Facebook ads kind of related to the same thing. So we’re just looking to get a kind of bigger cut through by integrating channels, but also integrating messaging across channels.

MT: Gosh, it’s a far cry from the Indra Sinha Amnesty campaign of 1992. That’s a famous one for how well it did with just newspaper. But you’ve really come a long way from that with this.

PD: Absolutely. We’ve got access to more channels now than I could have possibly dreamt of when I first started fundraising. I think when I first cut my teeth in fundraising, the key channels were direct mail in the UK and press advertising. Maybe the use of the telephone in some places to kind of drive that thing forward. I think as the technology has changed and we’ve all got these amazing kind of computers in our pockets that we call smart phones, the phone element allows people to send texts and the smart phone element allows us to serve people advertising or our campaigns pretty much wherever they are, which means we need to work harder to grab peoples’ attention, or we need to take a longer approach to grabbing someone’s attention.

But yeah, it’s enabled us to come a long way, a very long way.

MT: So you talked a little bit about the Bumble Bee Campaign. My next question was, what is one of the most successful campaigns you’ve been involved in? I think that one, you mentioned in the conference, was pretty successful. Why do you think it was so successful?

PD: It was one of our most successful campaigns. I think it was successful because it was perfect. When we first tested it, we tested it on the commuter rail system in and around London. It was kind of the perfect audience. The people who come into work every day in London are people who’ve got jobs in the center of London. So that means they’ve got probably a higher disposable income than the average in the UK. I probably made a joke about it. I can’t remember what I was talking about at the conference, that we British people, we’re not very good at conversation in the mornings or in the evenings with strangers.

So if we put a really compelling ask and proposition in front of people, we’re in the right place. Everyone’s got a smart phone. Nobody’s really talking to each other. You’ve sat down making a journey that’s on average about 30 minutes into London from where they live outside London. So if we put something in front of them that kind of grabs their attention, the likelihood of them obviously responding increases.

I also think that with the bee campaign, it’s a classic campaign where it wasn’t frivolous but it was quite fun, even though it’s a deadly serious issue. The issue obviously being that there was a certain pesticide that Friends of the Earth were looking to have banned because it was killing bees. Fundamentally, without bees, we as a species can’t survive. So it was a quite fun campaign, even though it’s serious, with a cartoon bee and all those types of things.

But also, we offered to people who responded the opportunity to do more than just give money. We offered people who responded the opportunity to be sent some wildflower seeds so that they could create a kind of bee friendly habitat in their garden. What we learned when we were making the conversion calls – because everyone who responded was telephoned and asked for a monthly gift. What we could hear from the people who responded was that they were really keying to get those seeds because they planned on putting them in the ground with their children to kind of show their kids the consequences of not looking after the environment and not thinking about the effect of man on the ecosystem where they lived.

That was a really big driver for people. They wanted to give a couple of quid to Friends of the Earth and they wanted to show their kids that they needed to be doing something about the environment. When we asked them for a monthly donation by their bank account, we saw some of the highest rates we have seen. I believe it was fun and it felt very authentic. It was more than just, give money, we will call you. It was give money, we will send something in return. Then we’re going to ask you to help us in this other way. It just really, really worked. So very rapidly, it rolled out into all those other channels I was talking about earlier on.

So it ended up a street fundraising campaign. It ended up as a DR TV campaign, which ran for a very long time and generated thousands and thousands and thousands of donors. It ran on change.org. It ran on Facebook. It just ran everywhere. It’s an incredible campaign. Sorry.

MT: No, go on. Go on.

PD: I think we kind of at that time – and it’s a fairly controversial – for some, there are people in the UK that don’t necessarily think it’s a great thing. But we were giving people who were interested in environmental issues, we were giving them some value. Friends of the Earth were giving them something in return for their donation, and that something may feel quite superficial to some. But for the people who responded, it was a fundamental part of them responding, that getting access to those seeds. It taught us a lot. It taught us that a relationship with a charity should not be one way.

The phrase value exchange, I don’t think gives full credit to what it is we’re doing. We’re kind of understanding what an audience wants from their relationship and making sure they get it. I think that’s why it worked.

MT: So you talked a little bit about why you think it was so successful and some key elements of online and integrated campaigns. So you talked about newspaper ads, transit ads. You talked about Facebook ads. You talked about calling to follow up, ask for a monthly gift, giving them a seed packet. Giving them something in return, basically, that they would want, and getting them in the habit of giving, as well as the change.org petitions.

Did you include a direct mail piece with this as well, or not?

PD: We didn’t for this one but we have for others. So we’ve done integrated campaigns for UNICEF, for Shelter, for Christian Aid, for the RSPCA, and we’ll take these kind of central propositions. So we did something, for example, for Shelter. We ran a campaign at Christmas, which was based on the number of children who would wake up on Christmas morning in rented accommodation or defined as homeless because they were in sheltered accommodation or a temporary accommodation. We did a whole bunch of activity to recruit new donors. We advertised on telly, the street, TV, digital, online, all of those things that you would expect.

We also rolled those messages into the direct mail pieces. So the Christmas appeal was all about a similar case study, a similar overall proposition. But obviously with people who knew more about Shelter, we would tell more of a story. We weren’t looking for that first donation or to kind of engage them in their first interaction with the organization. We were talking to people who had a long history of giving cash donations to Shelter.

So we would tell more complex stories about the impact of homelessness and temporary accommodation and things at Christmas. So we would absolutely stretch these propositions across a kind of whole range of recruitment and retention activity. Very similarly with UNICEF, for the last two years, at Christmas we have run their integrated campaign at Christmas which involves mobile and non-mobile recruitment in terms of digital recruitment and TV and all sorts of things. The overarching campaign has always been around Syria and the fact that a Syrian winter is one of the coldest places.

The children who are living on the countries that border Syria really needed our help at that time. Again, those campaigns would roll into what appeals to their existing donors as well. We would tell similar stories to those people. So integration for me is not necessarily just a recruitment tool. It’s about having moments where you are talking with a huge amount of confidence and kind of a real sense of responsibility about a key issue and just bring as much attention to it as possible. Does that make sense?

MT: That’s fascinating. Yes, it does. I think that key word, confidence, really speaks to me as I’ve helped so many non-profits writing their appeal letters, coaching them the last several years. I see people being very tentative about what’s really at stake. There’s no urgency to say, give. It’s our Christmas appeal. So that said, if there is a small non-profit that’s thinking of starting an integrated fundraising campaign, sort of like what you’ve described today, for year end. What advice would you give them to start?

PD: We always start with I think the story. So what is the most appropriate story that we have that will resonate with our audience? It’s that combination of who are we talking to? So when we design an integrated ad campaign at the beginning, it usually starts with a piece of recruitment activity. But I don’t necessarily think that that’s the right kind of case. I don’t know if US charities use year end to recruit new donors, or maybe use it to talk to their existing donors. I think I would be really clear what my message was. I would try to make it as simple as possible and as easily replicable in a whole bunch of channels as I possibly could. Then it’s about being really clear on what assets you have. Say, your website, your email list, your direct mail program and your PR function and your social media kind of profile. Whether you’re a charity that’s big or whether you’re a charity that’s small, the more you can bring those things together for these moments, both visibly and in terms of copy and tone of voice, I think the greater impact you can have on the overall fundraising success.

You can tell different parts of the story in different channels. So in social media, you could have interaction with your donors. Whereas maybe in email, you can’t have that same level of interaction. I think if everything is pointed at one objective and it’s really focused on very compelling but simple stories to comprehend, integration can work for an organization irrespective of how large they are. I regularly consult for not in terms of earning a salary or anything, but just for people I know that run quite small organizations. That’s my constant mantra to them is it should be really clear on your message and try to replicate it in as many places as possible.

MT: I love that. Thank you. So what was the bee message? Can you remind us?

PD: The bee message was – and I love the ad. It’s one of my favorite ads we’ve ever done. Basically the headline was the bees need you almost as much as you need them. Then we had a small amount of copy on the ads that appeared on the train which I loved. Britain’s bees are in trouble. Their habitat is vanishing. Their numbers are falling fast. That leaves us in big trouble too since we need bees, busy little creatures, to pollinate our fruit and veg. So please text three pounds to get your bee friendly wildflower seeds and grow a garden that will help bees and the rest of us to thrive.

MT: Thank you. I really appreciate you saying that out loud, because we do have some vision impaired readers. It’s nice for them to see that written out.

Are there combinations of engagement that seem to work particularly well for year end? Like for example, email, letter and phone call to follow up? What have you seen in your career so far?

PD: I think the US does direct mail and email integration better than the UK, and it’s one of the things that I’m really quite passionate about encouraging more of our clients to do with their [unintelligible 00:25:10]. So the integration and acquisition seems to be easier to deliver than integration appeals to existing donors. I’m a real advocate of where you have contact information, say if you have a telephone number, an email address and a postal address, is trying to use techniques that kind of weave all of those things together. That doesn’t necessarily mean phoning people, but for example, there’s some really cool stuff you can do in Facebook that if you have an email address or a telephone number, you can target people in Facebook with your message.

So if you know your direct mail donors have given you an email address, at the point of your mailing dropping, you could be serving content in Facebook directly to those people, which supports your appeal. I would love to prove or disprove this response. On a few occasions recently where we’ve done it, we’ve seen an uplift in response by just serving non-financial ads in Facebook and direct mail appeals, or similarly, if someone is on your email list and you’re emailing them, if you can serve them advertising or storytelling in Facebook, that increases in response there.

It’s a subject I’m fascinated on. Integration on cold recruitment I think is quite simple because you think about who you’re targeting, where they are, and then you have to buy the media that delivers to that group. I think you can be a lost more sophisticated with your warm file.

MT: Yeah. It’s so true. You really should have two different strategies for warm and cold leads. So what I’m hearing you say is that for cold leads, it can be effective to have an ad out in the world and then an ad on Facebook, and then getting them to give you their email address or their phone number and following up that way.

Then with warm leads, people who are already in your file, what I’m hearing you say is you can easily target them on Facebook and then send a follow up email if you see that they’ve seen your ad or something like that. Or take an action and then you can send them a letter reinforcing this.

PD: Yeah, so if I’ve sent you a direct mail piece and I’ve got your email and Facebook has your email address, on the day that you receive the mail piece, I could serve you a Facebook ad that’s talking about a story that’s in your direct mail piece. It’s just going to add that extra dynamic to how you’re kind of receiving or perceiving that story.

MT: I love that, Paul. That’s very useful for a lot of small nonprofits that are experimenting with Facebook right now. So I’ll be sure to tweet that out. I wanted to ask you, are there combinations of engagement that seem to work well for sustainer or monthly giving that you’ve seen?

PD: Yeah, telemarketing has done very well in the UK to recruit sustainers. I think up until very recently, the telephone has reigned supreme in these integrated campaigns, where if you can drive some form of response, whether it be a text or the completion of an online survey. Then you capture a telephone number with the right consent to call that person and ask them on monthly giving. That’s been by far and away the best combination. So some form of online or mobile action followed up with a telephone call has worked unbelievably well in the UK. I’m sure you’re aware that in the United Kingdom, it’s been quite difficult for UK fundraisers and some of the channels that have been used in the past are now having additional layers of regulation applied to them.

MT: I am quite aware of that. That story of that lady who was “killed by direct mail”. It’s not true. Sensationalistic. But I do understand you’re having a harder time, even though you do much, much better with sustainer and monthly giving than the US does. We seem to churn and burn so quickly.

PD: Yeah, I get the impression that the monthly giving hasn’t taken off in the same way in the US as it has in the UK. I can see that being a really large growth area. In terms of the US charities that we’re working with, we’re working with I think five charities in America mainland. They are very interested in our experience around the recruitment of monthly donors. That’s been an absolute essential thread to all of the kind of work we’re getting out there. I think in terms of the kind of combination of channels in the future, we’re investing a lot of time and energy in trying to change the dynamic or change the way that we’re doing this here in the UK. For us, it’s predominantly now online. We’re kind of taking everything we’ve learned from the campaigns we’ve been running for the last eight years and applying the best bits of those to online campaigns. But rather than the campaign kind of being – we kind of solicit an action from someone and then immediately follow up with phone call.

We’re creating campaigns that have more layers of engagement in them before we ask for money. So we would maybe recruit somebody to sign up to hear about specific program that a charity is running. Then serve them content over a longer time period and interspersed with that content, we target them with financial asks which are quite direct, and in many cases, not so direct. I’m just trying to kind of change the model a little bit. I’m not sure that that’s necessarily as needed in the US right now, but it’s definitely something that the most progressive UK charities are trying to do is how do we generate a community which we can then ask for money?

I went to the IFC conference last year. I don’t know if you were there.

MT: I was there 2015. I love that conference.

association of Fundraising professionals

PD: It’s really good. Amanda Palmer did keynote last year and it was incredible. Something that really resonated with me, which makes so much sense to people like us because we’re fundraisers, but she basically said you can’t crowdfund without a crowd. I don’t think enough UK charities have invested in that crowd. So they’ve relied on this concept of going and kind of buying donors, if you like, and kind of maybe became a little bit commodified. But I think the way we’re moving in the UK now is to kind of spent time and energy creating that crowd, but a crowd who are conducive to fundraising. That’s the direction I think we’re headed in.

MT: You’re quite right. That’s fascinating.

Who do you see is innovating well in the US around integrated campaigns right now? If people wanted to sign up for their list and see what they do. Who would you recommend?

PD: I’m a massive fan of the ACLU. I’m not as experienced in the US as I am here in the UK. They are an organization I’ve spent a lot of time with recently. But I have been so impressed by how they’ve responded to this outpouring of support from the American public. I’m not necessarily sure if I think they’ve innovated well in terms of their fundraising mechanic. But I’ve seen them be really agile and really responsive to the public mood. I think maybe you could almost say they’ve been quite brave and quite bold in the tone of their communications. So that in the kind of period of time after the election of Trump, and still today where there are lots of people who feel that there are things to get angry about and kind of campaign against, the ACLU have made it very easy for people to come close to them and give to them.

I think that’s really to be commended. I think they’ve moved very quickly and they responded very quickly to that. Having worked with them, I just know that the size of their sustainer has increased massively just based on the fact that they’ve focused on making it easier to give. One thing they did, which I think is very innovative, but for the longer term. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but they’ve created this thing called People Power. It’s a kind of product that people who want to do more than just give money can get involved in. It’s a kind of advocacy network where people can organize to run their own kind of events around the ACLU mission. I think that will prove for them to be a very good place to fundraise from in the future. It’s kind of going back to what I was saying about Amanda Palmer

Putting real energy into investing in creating that crowd and keeping that crowd interested in what they’re doing while providing really amazing content. So those people, I’m absolutely convinced, will become the donors of the future if they’re not the donors of now.

MT: Thank you. That’s very helpful.

For a nonprofit that’s in a crowded market and really wants to stand out with their integrated campaign, what would you suggest? Or perhaps what would you like to see a nonprofit try? So for example, let’s say this nonprofit is a homelessness nonprofit in a town with like five or six other ones.

PD: We’ve had our biggest successes when we really hone in on the message, and I think if an organization really focuses down on what it does and what its impact is, and in their campaigning, they really realize that what they’re looking to do is all about direct response. What they’re looking to do is create an emotional response to their communication so that people are grabbed by it. When they consume it, they are moved by it. I know we are in the creative business, but I genuinely don’t believe enough organizations really focus on that moment. I think some organizations become a little bit too obsessed by trying to do many things in a single communication.

If you’re running a fundraising integrated campaign, really honing the message down to be really, really simple, and then repeating it is what drives real success. So I’ve seen many examples here in the UK where multiple charities operate in a very similar space. One organization will do very, very well running integrated campaigns because they can successfully distill that message down into something that’s really easily understandable. Other organizations wouldn’t do so well, because organizationally they have this desire to tell the full story, to educate as well as fundraise. All of those things kind of get in the way and they won’t do so well. Then they will decide that the integrated campaigns aren’t for them.

I just think it’s not that. It’s about being very, very single minded about that initial campaign and the communication, and really investing the time in the creative. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff like audience and response mechanism and  all of those things. But it’s just about making it compelling. Do that, and I think you can drive success irrespective of how big you are. I’ve run campaigns with very small UK organizations that delivered results at the same level as very, very large organizations because they’ve focused on the message.

MT: Bingo. I love that. You’re making me think of a nonprofit that I know right now that helps homeless people get into housing by giving them a job and getting them a job, and then helping them just get on their feet with this apartment. I just thought of a slogan for them. They get a home they earned themselves. Something that sets them apart from everybody else.

PD: Yeah, good stuff.

MT: So would you suggest hiring a graphic designer for an integrated campaign or a whole agency? Last question.

PD: If I was a small organization and going with a big agency was a big step in terms of resource, I really wouldn’t advocate spending lots of money. I think that the principles of it, as long as you’re very clear about what your message is, you can direct it yourself. There’s a bunch of books you could read. Now I’ve written about this. It’s like finding the resource and doing it yourself. I don’t think there’s a massive problem with that. I think the agency police would have me shot for saying such a thing. But I think if you’re really passionate and understand your organization and you’ve got a sense of how response works, you can do it yourself.

I think as your organization becomes more complex and then you don’t have the resources, because everyone’s got a billion things to do in their day job. Then it becomes difficult to do it yourself. That’s where agencies like this can really, really help. But a small organization somewhere, I would have a go myself to begin with, and my biggest piece of advice for anyone doing this stuff is to start in Facebook first and test with very small amounts of money, two or three different created to see which one resonates the best.

MT: I love that. Thank you so much, Paul, for being interviewed today. Where can people find you if they want to follow up and see more about you and what you do with your agency?

PD: We’re opencreates.com. My personal blog is here.

Here’s the Guardian’s Guide to Fundraising with Digital technology from 2016

And here’s the Guardian talking about how mobile is changing fundraising

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