Nonprofit Digital Marketing with Justin Ware

Episode aired April 28, 2021: Digital Marketing Strategy

Social media. Digital ads. Video. Posts. Email. It’s all part of your digital marketing toolkit and if you listen to Justin Ware of {{firstname}}, you’ll learn the components of a successful digital fundraising strategy. In this episode Justin discusses

  • what advance prep work you need to do ahead of a fundraising campaign
  • how video helps build relationships
  • why being real and authentic is a video must
  • what journalists are looking for when you send a pitch and 
  • why Instagram Stories must be taken advantage of!

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a nonprofit marketing, video and fundraising smartie Justin Ware. Justin, how you doing today?

Justin: Very well Ephraim thank you.  

Ephraim: Good to have you with us. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Justin Ware is the senior vice president of digital at BWF and founder of the recently launched {{firstname}}. Justin oversees digital at BWF, focusing on video driven donor engagement via digital development officer programs, online giving days, peer-to-peer, online and social media advertising and student content teams. Justin started his higher education career with the University of Minnesota, where he was the executive producer of one of the first YouTube videos to win an Emmy. Prior to the University of Minnesota, Justin spent the first six years of his career as a broadcast television journalist. A frequent presenter at Case, AMA and AFP among others, Justin is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota’s Journalism and Mass Communication program and has worked with clients around the world, including Washington State University, the University of Minnesota, Children’s National Hospital, Scripps Research, the University of Sydney and many more.

Tweet And They Will Donate

In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss digital marketing. Let’s dive right in. Justin, ‘tweet and they will donate’ is probably not the best digital strategy. How can nonprofits utilize social media platforms to help their overall fundraising efforts?

Justin: Great question and you’re right. We’re about a decade past tweet and they will come. And it has to do entirely with… well I shouldn’t say… let’s say it has to do with the sophistication of the tools and the sophistication of the public and the people consuming that content. So on one hand you have a public that is a lot more… has a lot more options, has a lot more choice and therefore is a lot more selective on the type of content they consume, the content that inspires them, the donations, the nonprofits that they support.

On the other hand, we have things like really sophisticated targeted journey-based digital advertising tools, campaigns and strategies. You think about the ability to place a Facebook pixel in the right place or UTM tags in the right place and to find someone who just gets that close to making a gift but doesn’t and then having a really smart email and social media campaign that follows them for the next few weeks with subtle nudges here and there to go back and make that gift and complete that gift. No I mean there… on one hand it’s really really cool. I mean we can do some really amazing things with remarketing, retargeting, with paid digital, with really good organic digital. But you have to be all the above.

I mean we say we’re {{first name}} complete digital fundraising because that complete part is very important. You have to have the content. The content is sort of the fuel that drives the car. But then you have to have that sophisticated digital marketing strategy which is the car. One or the other, fuel, car with no fuel, you’re not going anywhere. You need all the pieces. So it is not tweeting, they will come. It is a very long range, forward thinking, thoughtful digital strategy that incorporates paid digital, organic digital, lots of really great content, a ton of video. Video is extremely important. I have people who really understand the tools, the tactics and the channels. Really robust email campaigns.

Email’s very powerful. It’s only going backwards because we’re using it the way we used email four or five years ago. But if you look at journey based, if you commit to sending one email and then not sending another one unless that person opens the email, you can enjoy email rates and open rates in the 50% or 60% range and get a lot more gifts, even though you’re emailing only one tenth of who you started emailing in the first place. So there’s just so much we can do in terms of sophistication. We’ve come a long way in a decade, decade plus in digital fundraising and digital donor engagement. And for those that are really leaning into it, learning what works best and putting those practices in place, then it is ‘tweet plus about 75 other things and they will donate.’  

Using Video To Connect With Supporters

Ephraim: I like your new tagline there. That’s excellent. Today’s actionable item: You love video. Please tell us three to five ways nonprofits can use video to help them build relationships with supporters. 

Justin: Okay great. So first and foremost, don’t let perfection get in the way of good, effective video. Lower quality video and I think the world has come a long way with this because of exactly what we’re doing right now, doing things over Zoom, using our smartphones to record video, it’s the message that matters. If you can deliver a good message through video, you can add so much more sincerity to that message, so much more emotions. Our brains react differently to video than they do any other type of content, even other visual content like photos. When the photos are moving and we’re hearing it, we process it in different ways and that sparks more of an emotional response. So just create video.

Train your gift officers to be effective video producers. Doesn’t mean they spend most of their time on video. This should be something where they spend a small, single digit percentage of their time but using video to stay warm in front in front of donors as much as possible. If you’re in higher education, have a student engagement team or a student content team. We’re working with a lot of institutions right now. We’re producing several new videos per week from students and it’s wonderful, heartwarming, moving content. This is exactly what donors to higher education institutions want to see. I mean let the concerns of quality, move those out of the way. Focus on technology, technology that’s really easy to use. One of our favorites for example is Loom. I think it’s just where it’s really easy for anyone on their laptop to record a 60 second video. There’s trim tools built right into the platform so you can cut out the parts, the hems and the haws, the ums and the eyes and have really effective pieces. You can then send out via email. So look at some of those technologies out there that make video production really easy to use.

And democratize the process. Involve donors, involve volunteers. If you have them, involve students. Think about how this could work with grateful patients and the stories that they can tell if you’re in the healthcare space. So yeah, don’t worry about quality. There are so many new technologies out there that make it very easy to produce effective, Internet quality video and then democratize the process. Look any way you can to encourage more video content. 

All three of those things, they don’t really take an investment in terms of budget. They just take a rethinking of how you do things and how you go through the process. And then of course on top of that, you can always just buy more video but if we’re looking to do something today without really having to move the budget needle, lower quality is good as long as the message is there. Look at what’s out there in terms of technology and democratize the process.

Instagram Stories

Ephraim: Excellent. It seems to me like every single platform out there has some version of Stories. So at some point it wouldn’t surprise me if Stories also comes to Excel. Sarcasm. But on Instagram alone, 300 to 500 million people each day view Stories. What makes stories so unique and how can organizations take advantage of it?  

Justin: Sure. So Stories, for those of you who are on the social media platforms, Instagram and Twitter, most recently Facebook has them as well. Number one I think they’re really easy to do. I’m gonna guess with the psychology but it feels like more of a commitment actually making a post, right? It’s something that lives on your news feed. You think about the caption a little bit more, you think about hashtags and things like that. The Story is just this is kind of neat I’ll take a video of it  and I’ll post it and you kind of don’t think of it beyond that. But again, we get back to sort of that authentic video.

So I mentioned how like lower quality is something we shouldn’t concern ourselves with. I’ll take that a step further. It’s not that we shouldn’t just not concern ourselves with the quality so much, we should of course be concerned about quality overall. But the thing is some of that lower production value video actually outperforms higher production value video in terms of donor engagement. We’ve seen that. I think Thank You produced a study that said the call to action buttons on their platform, so Thank You being a video platform, of course the call to action buttons on those video platforms when it’s a produced video, something that’s uploaded to the site, it’s around 10% which is a great click-through rate obviously. But for the authentic videos, where a webcam just turns on, it’s recorded through the webcam, usually much lower production value, actually have a 15% click-through rate on the call to action. So it’s dramatic. It’s not just a small percentage point here or there. The completion rates are higher for the more authentic video content.

So I think maybe that’s why Stories are so effective. They’re just real. There’s less influencer-esque thinking that goes into it and more just, here I am in this moment communicating with you and I think that realness and that authenticity is something that people are increasingly demanding and that’s probably why they’re more successful in the Story space.

Ephraim: Okay, just a quick follow-up because you mentioned Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. LinkedIn also has Stories. Have you fiddled with LinkedIn Stories and what do you see? What are you seeing from it if yes?  

Justin: That’s a knowledge gap I have not filled much with LinkedIn Stories. Of course I’ve seen them a lot on Facebook and Instagram. It’s the Fleets on Twitter I think is what we call them. That’s a really good question because I think generally speaking LinkedIn is somewhat of an outlier in its use. Far more professional. So it’ll be interesting to see. I’m sure we’ll have some really savvy communicators find a way to stay present on a regular basis. That is the one thing because as you mentioned, so many people do watch those Stories. It’s a really important way to get your message across. If we have a giving day on campus for example. We want to make sure that we have students who are constantly putting new Story and content information up on the screen not because we’re looking for a direct conversion from that but because we want the awareness so. If a part of your LinkedIn strategy is awareness through LinkedIn, then I’d imagine we’ll see Stories take off in some similar fashion there too.

Digital Fundraising Campaign Prep

Ephraim: Excellent. Before embarking on any type of digital fundraising campaign, what does an organization have to prepare in advance?  

Justin: Good question. Well everything’s equal part strategy and technology. I think we kind of talked about that earlier with sort of the content approach and then the tactics and tools in place. So number one I would think about maybe working backwards. What do you want to accomplish? Is it a big Giving Tuesday? Is it just ongoing donor engagement? Is stewardship the objective of your digital strategy? The primary objective of your digital strategy? So what are you trying to accomplish and then how can we make that happen.

In almost all cases, we’re probably talking about more video and we believe very firmly in the power of video to both acquire and retain donors. We want to make sure that we’re producing as much video as we reasonably can, that’s on market, on brand, on topic, that is on message. Again democratizing, doing whatever we can to get more of that video content. I think we want to look at the tools. What do we want to accomplish? Fortunately the email journeys that I talked about, the free version of MailChimp… if your email list is small enough will do that for you. So even for smaller budgets. And then I think look at the Emma’s and the MailChimp’s, Campaign Monitors, Sendinblue, things like that. It’s a few hundred dollars a month, so not a terribly expensive lift, if you have say 50,000 or 100,000 records. But again, you can do a lot of those things… look at technology in two ways: What can you afford and what can you actually manage. Marketing Cloud is an incredibly powerful tool from Salesforce. You can do a ton with it and if you have someone who knows how to really fully leverage Marketing Cloud, go get Marketing Cloud because it is remarkable what you can do in terms of automated campaigns and donor journeys. But Marketing Cloud is not an out-of-the-box solution that any of us can just start using like MailChimp or Sendinblue or Emma or something like that would be. So think about technology in terms of what can I afford and what can I actually use. What is my team going to be able to deploy based on our skill set and what we’re able to accomplish. 

And then calendars. Put together a plan. Think about marketing in terms of what are we doing in March, in July and September. How does that lead us up to our online events, our virtual galas, our giving days, our Giving Tuesdays, our end of calendar year, end of fiscal year, our stewardship campaigns. That’s really important.

So I think technology being realistic, getting the best you can but also being realistic in terms of usability and what you can deploy, finding a way to produce a lot more video, building a long-term strategy thinking about all your goals and probably working backwards from some of those goals. And obviously part of that strategy too is the paid component. I mean it probably can’t be said enough, organic social, social media reach is really not effective on its own anymore. It is a pay-to-play space. The good news is things like video views, for example, are really cheap. We’re talking for most nonprofits you can make a pretty big splash for just a few hundred dollars on Facebook with a smart video campaign. So another reason to produce more video, because the video views are cheap. But that’s the other part of it too is the paid piece.  

Pitching To Journalists

Ephraim: Absolutely, pay for play, all of them. As a former TV journalist, with all of your other expertise, what are reporters looking for when  they receive a pitch from a nonprofit? 

Justin: Boy that’s a really good question. One of the things that would cause us to go back time and time again- now granted, a lot of practice, it’s been about 15 years since I’ve been in front of a television news camera- but I think the tactics are still similar. One of the things that we would always think about is this person that we’re going to interview. Are they going to give us useful sound bites? In other words, is this someone who can really deliver a message? So think about who your spokespeople are and this has wide-ranging application beyond the news media.

But you think about influencers for example. We’re working with some clients, we’re turning their development officers into influencers in their sub-vertical and their space and their cause area. We want them to be LinkedIn influencers because if you are an influencer, that is of course one way to rise above the pay to play thing. You can get some pretty good organic reach if you have thousands of people interacting with all of your posts. So think about positioning spokespeople as influencers.

If you’re sending out a news release, include a video link to show those influencers, those potential interviewees and show that they’re really capable and can really move a story on video. Provide resources. Make it easy. News stations are I think more strapped than ever before in terms of resources. So if you can provide them with the B-roll package or if you can provide them with some imagery things like that… when I left the industry, a lot of times news organizations wouldn’t use that because of a journalistic integrity but I think resources, for better or worse, have kind of forced them in a position where they need to take content and looking at it less skeptically. I think it’s just a good thing that there’s content out there. It’s democratized. You put up a source on the screen, you show where you’re getting it from. I think it’s perfectly fine in terms of journalistic integrity. So they’re looking for those things.

They’re looking for content. They’re looking to know that the time they spend on your story is going to be time well spent and if you demonstrate that your interviewee is good in front of a camera and you have additional resources to help them tell that visual story. And that’s true of course- I’m thinking about it from a television journalist- but the thing is most journalists now are multimedia. Print publications obviously have really strong online presence. I read the Chronicle of Philanthropy all the time but I haven’t picked up a physical version of it in years. Of course, I read it online. So I think make life as easy as you can on those journalists. Provide them good information first and foremost but then make the production of the story as easy as possible and as rich as possible and I think that will probably bring them back time and again.

Let’s Learn More About Justin

Ephraim: Excellent. Lightning round. Let’s learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?  

Justin: Leaving journalism, looking for a good job and my alma mater at the University of Minnesota hired me.

Ephraim: Hired you to be the…

Justin: So that’s interesting. It was a straight-up PR job at the University of Minnesota in the news service and then they said, hey, you can produce video. So we hear about this thing called YouTube. What do you think? So we started doing YouTube video work, then we launched the first Facebook page, the first Twitter account at the University of Minnesota, one of the first digital strategies in higher education back in the mid 2000s at the U of M and then after that actually is when I went out on my own for a bit, started doing some video work and came across BWF. So BWF was really the first fundraising specific job. And I was at the University of Minnesota, I was doing communications for the entire institution. Some of it was fundraising related of course. But BWF was really where I got my feet wet and fell in love with this career and it’s been a passion of mine ever since. 

Ephraim: Awesome. So given all your years in the sector, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Justin: Oh boy. Just pay attention to the data and the facts in terms of what works for you and what doesn’t. There are a lot of traditional channels out there that have been on a sharp decline in recent years. And we’ll see an online giving day at an institution for example raise just as much money from just as many donors as an entire year of phone calling will raise. The phone calling program costs twice as much to do that online giving day and we haven’t even talked about all the different stuff that we can do the other 363, 364 days out of the year. 

And I think really pay attention to what truly works. Things are different now. What worked five years ago or 10 years ago is obviously not the same, even in digital, like we talked about the very beginning of this conversation. What worked in digital 10 years ago does not work today. So I want people to just be realistic and be real with themselves. Understand that paying a half a million dollars on an outdated tactic and program that they’re actually losing money on every year at that five hundred thousand dollar spend does not make sense, when there’s another set of tools and tactics out there that’s probably going to end up raising you more money from more donors that is going to leave a better taste in the mouth of donors, for a richer, fuller experience and will probably cost less than that old traditional tactic would. 

Ephraim: Alright. Favorite part of living in Minnesota?  

Justin: Oh man, the lakes. The lakes are incredible all year round. I just took our oldest son ice fishing, which is actually one of the first times for me as well a couple weeks ago. So whether the lake is frozen or whether it’s open, I think lakes are probably the best part. I’d say the sports teams but we haven’t won any… the Lynx. The Lynx are the one exception but outside of the Lynx, we haven’t won any significant titles in more than 20 years. So I love Minnesota sports but that’s not the reason to live here.

Ephraim: Got it. So I mentioned earlier that you are an Emmy winner. Tell me one fact about you that people may not know.

Justin: I was raised on a dairy goat farm. 

Ephraim: Where?

Justin: Central Minnesota.

Ephraim: Wow.

Justin: Yeah. My parents… to this day I think my mom is still milking maybe two or three goats. That just was a hobby. But raised on a dairy goat farm and we had a team of Siberian sled dogs, green husky sled dog. So I grew up milking goats and raising sled dogs.

Ephraim: Very cool. Well you just mentioned a minute ago about the sports teams. Name me one crazy thing you’d be willing to do if it guaranteed that your Vikings would win the Super Bowl.  

Justin: Oh man. I would definitely go back to that Seattle playoff game in 2015 where it was six below. It’s one of the coldest games in NFL history. It was outdoors when we played for a couple years at TCF Bank on the University of Minnesota campus and I was bundled up but I would wear as little clothing as I could legally get away with and sit through that game again if it meant Blair Walsh just would have hit that field goal and they would have gone on to win the Super Bowl.

Ephraim: So you might have gotten hypothermia but it would be worth it to see them win the Super Bowl. That’s fine.

 Justin: I did see shirtless people there.

Ephraim: Fair. Totally fair. I get that. Alright, lastly we will turn the table. You get to ask me one surprise question. I have no idea what it is in advance. Go ahead.

Justin: Oh boy. We’re on sports so it’s easy to go into the Tom Brady zone. You do so much travel, I will stay in the sports world. What is your favorite sports facility, sports venue, stadium, arena what have you, that you have been to?

 Ephraim: That I’ve been to? Well Fenway Park obviously. I’m a Boston fan so Fenway Park is always going to win out. But if I’m not going to Fenway Park I got to use two, one that was really horrible and one that was really great.

So I love going to Skydome where the Toronto Blue Jays play baseball. I spent years in Toronto, I have friends and siblings there and I go to a game every year. There’s two things about it. One, it was the first retractable roof in the world. I once went to a game where the roof was open, it started raining and then the roof closed and suddenly you’re in a dome. I had never been in a domed stadium in my life. Basketball and hockey don’t count. I’ve never been in a domed stadium and it was the coolest atmosphere I’ve ever been in. So it was just watching the roof open and close and then the second thing is when the roof is open, it’s right beneath the CN Tower. You’re looking up at the CN Tower the entire time. It’s very cool and just the atmosphere, the whole thing. It’s a really nice stadium. 

The one place I would never want to go back to would have to be old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. When I was a kid we would travel from Connecticut to Ohio. My grandparents lived in Cleveland. We went 12 hours each way in the station wagon. I sat in the backpack. No, anybody who’s asking, there were no seat belts, there was no nothing. We just sat all bundled up, all four kids. And my dad would take me every summer to at least two to three games. The Indians stunk, which meant he never bought tickets in advance. We would always walk up to the box office five minutes before game time. I sat first row on the first base side basically all my life at that stadium and it was a stadium built for football. So 75,000 fans. Sorry 75,000 seats. They averaged about 4,000 fans. It’s a very different experience to be in a full stadium than an empty stadium but it also meant because we were sitting and there were very few fans, I got to meet all the players I got autographs. I mean I don’t have them anymore but the 1980 rookie of the year, Joe Charboneau signed something for me. I met all kinds. It was great. So you know in terms of that, my favorite stadium is always going to be Fenway Park. The worst stadium I’ve ever been to, hands down, would be Cleveland Municipal stadium because it was built for football, not for baseball, ever.  

Justin: Yeah it’s funny because I lived through The Metro in Minnesota, which if there is a worse stadium, it’s probably that, than Municipal. Unfortunately it’s gone. But yeah I remember in college for five bucks we get  a ticket right there on the third baseline. I’ve seen like Mark McGuire warming up, you know pregame stuff like that. So terrible stadiums have their charm, especially when you may not have a lot of money to spend on tickets.  

Ephraim: Exactly. There’s definitely something to be said for that and certainly I get that nostalgia of being a kid and seeing the players up close and being literally right on the field. So that for sure but Fenway will always do it for me forever and ever. That’s it. There is no competition with any other stadium. I’ve done a lot of travel. I think I’ve figured out I’ve been to 19 or 20 baseball stadiums in my life.

Justin: Wow.

Ephraim: I’ve seen a lot of nice places, I’ve seen some cookie cutter type, I don’t know how else to describe them, nothing exciting basically. But Fenway just because of I’m a Boston fan and it’s just a very unique stadium in the way it’s built. It always has that charm for me and always will.

Justin: Hopefully you can make it to Target Field at some point.

Ephraim: I would love to. Listen, I would have loved to visit the Metrodome. I know about the roof, I know about the whole… not the greatest stadium but again, it was inside a dome. I would have totally.,, if I was in Minnesota, I  was totally going.

Justin: It was unique, that’s for sure.  

Ephraim: Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast. You can learn more about Justin’s work at I also encourage you to connect with Justin on LinkedIn and learn from him and from his expertise and his smarts, that he clearly demonstrated during this podcast. Justin it was a pleasure having you today.

Justin: Thank you Ephraim. I appreciate it.

 Ephraim: Have a good day.

Justin: You too.