Year-End Fundraising in Review: Innovations with website donation pages

Every December I review nonprofit donation pages to see who’s innovating and what techniques marketers feel strongly enough to put into practice at year-end, when so many dollars are on the line.

Below are 5 new tactics observed on donation pages in the 2013 year-end giving season—along with some thoughts on why they can drive better conversion.

1. Social features:

Adding social features to landing pages, e.g. showing who else is taking action in real time, has been popular for a while with groups like Avaaz that do a lot of advocacy campaigns. But in 2013 we noticed it had made the jump to donation pages.

In the example below from PETA, a donor prospect can see the name (first name & last name initial), location, and recency of gifts made by other PETA supporters:

PETA_Dpage with community real time info_top

Why this technique can work: Humans are social creatures hard-wired to follow the herd. As Robert Cialdini explained in his classic book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, people are more likely to do things they see others doing.

However, keep in mind that not all donors are equally enthusiastic about sharing details of their giving behavior, so consider giving donors the option to remain anonymous to avoid alienating this cohort. Given mass acceptance of social media by younger audiences, we suspect this technique will work best for organizations whose donors skew younger (like PETA). Other forms of social proof, e.g. testimonials, strong ratings and awards your organization has received, or positive media mentions, may be more effective forms of social proof with older audiences.

2. Benefit-driven headlines:

For many years, donation page headlines featured nothing but basic calls to action, e.g. Contribute, Donate Now, etc. Most made no attempt to communicate a benefit for taking the desired action. While benefit-free headlines are still commonplace on donation pages —thankfully the tide is beginning to turn.

Last December we noticed far more headlines that emphasized the value of giving—as it related to an organization’s cause. Below are three examples of headlines that succeed in intensifying a particular problem and offering the remedy/solution—or presenting a clear benefit in exchange for taking the desired action (giving).

In the example below from Conservation International, there is a clear and compelling series of benefits (help communities—and nature—thrive) expressed in the headline.

CI_headline top

The DNC used a feisty and highly specific benefit (always preferable to a vague one) to animate their call to action. “Take back the House” speaks directly to their supporters’ self interest and is likely a strong motivation for the target audience.


World Wildlife Fund used a more straightforward headline/subhead combination to connect an inspirational benefit to its call to action. The benefit integrates nicely with the tiger on snow image:


Why this technique can work: Because so few web users read page copy, expressing a benefit in your headline is critical to conversion. Never assume that because someone has made it to your donation page, they’re already “sold” on making a gift. Many donation page visitors are just “kicking the tires” and need to be convinced that the benefits of giving outweigh the perceived costs. You must sell them at every step of the process to keep them moving forward. This is why donation page headlines that begin by saying “Thanks for supporting [organization or cause]” are such a bad idea—they put the cart before the horse—and are out of sync with the user’s thought process. Hold off on thanking donors until they actually complete the task!

3. Exit pop-up message:

The exit pop up, a technique frequently used by commercial marketers, seeks to prevent abandonment by sweetening the offer. I came across only one example of this last December—from Charity Water, an organization known for its savvy marketing.

In the example below, when a prospect attempted to leave the CW donation page without making a gift, an exit pop-up displayed with a 2:1 matching gift offer by an anonymous donor (no match was presented in the initial donation screen) and—here’s the best part—only if you donate within the next 10 minutes!

CW_exit message_value + scarcity

Why it can work: Robert Cialdini’s research is useful once again in understanding why this technique works. He found that humans are far more inclined to act when the offer contains an element of scarcity or exclusivity (time or quantity). And while most organizations play up the count-down to midnight on December 31st as a form of scarcity (time is running out to give in 2013!), it’s a false notion of scarcity. Has any organization ever returned a donation made on January 1st?

What’s interesting about the CW offer is the exclusive and limited nature of it—you only see the 2:1 offer if you attempt to abandon the page, and are told the offer’s only good for the next 10 minutes which undoubtedly hooks a few folks that had intended to quit. Incidentally, the 10 minute limit wasn’t actually true—when we clicked “match my donation” more than 1 hour later it was still accepted.

4. Pitching monthly giving instead of single gifts:

We’d never seen monthly giving pitched as the main offer in a year-end fundraising campaign before. It certainly wasn’t common enough to call a trend, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Could a monthly giving ask really net you more money in the long run than a simple one-off donation ask? We highly doubt it—as no one was pitching monthly giving on December 31st. However, testing a monthly giving ask early in the campaign, when conversion rates tend to be lower and fewer one-time gifts will be sacrificed, may in fact yield more revenue over the long term—only time and careful tracking will tell. Below is an example of this technique by the Humane Society of the U.S.

HSUS_monthly giving ask in YE campaign

Why this technique might work: Pitching a more difficult conversion goal isn’t a recipe for maximizing short-term dollars –but it may result in more revenues over the long term. And for the segment of your audience that’s emotionally affected by a powerful year-end campaign (e.g. via a video showing the great things you’ve accomplished all year long or a poignant human-interest story) they may be more inclined to accept a bigger commitment (with a smaller initial outlay) at year-end than at other times of year.

On the other hand, if the page doesn’t do a good job of making clear the commitment is monthly, or fails to address prospect’s main concerns about becoming a monthly supporter (How does it work? How easy is it to cancel? What payment options do you accept?) it will yield a much worse conversion rate (or high level of cancellations post-conversion) compared to a standard appeal for a single gift.

Like any new tactic, making this offer work at year-end will require months of testing to optimize the message. Testing different approaches will help you identify a value proposition that’s most motivational for your target audience, adapt the offer to audience segments best suited to the ask, and determine which supporting content is most effective at reducing donor anxiety, so that you put your best foot forward at year-end.

5. Multi-step giving processes:

This technique came to prominence during the 2012 Obama Campaign. The campaign had great success with an “accordion-style” donation page (a series of brief steps, shown one at a time, which unfold as the user progresses through the form). Last year it was used by a handful of organizations at year-end, and appears to be gaining momentum.

One new approach we noticed in 2013 came from Human Society International. Instead of an accordion-style form, the form progresses within the exact same footprint. As you can see in the two screenshots below, once the donor completes Step 1, it’s replaced by Step 2, which displays in the same place as Step 1, while the rest of the page was unchanged. Note that Step 2 reinforces the chosen gift amount on the donate button, and allows the visitor to return to the previous step with the green button in the upper left of the mini-form.

Step 1:

HSI_YE multistep with video_p1_small

Step 2:

HSI_YE multistep with video_Step2 overlay_small

Why it can work: Giving the prospect one task at a time keeps them super focused and reduces the potential for irritation or intimidation (which can be triggered by seeing a long form). As we noted in an earlier blog post, for this tactic to succeed, it’s essential that your software platform is able to consistently load each step without delay, to avoid user frustration and higher abandonment of the form. The approach used by HSI is likely effective because it loads instantaneously and the user experience is seamless.

While these techniques are not necessarily appropriate for every audience, they are all breaking the mold in an effort to improve the user experience for donors, communicate more value, and maximize conversions. Many are worth adding to your own testing program in 2014.

dawnDawn Stoner is Donordigital’s Director of Analytics & Testing and works with clients to help them increase online revenues with web usability best practices and landing page testing. Dawn speaks regularly about testing and optimization at industry conferences and publishes papers highlighting what’s working and not working with our testing clients.

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