Nonprofits, Public Media, Digital Marketing, Direct Mail, Strategy & Planning

Text message reminders, artificial intelligence, and second-gift conversion emails are just a few tactics you can employ in your fundraising program to boost renewal performance and, ultimately, improve donor retention. Join us to learn about these new techniques and get a refresher on some of the longstanding best practices that continue to make an impact.

Slide Deck


David Olson: Welcome to Keep Them Coming Back for More: Renewal Strategies to Improve Retention. We’d like to say good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, depending on from what part of the world you’re coming to us from. But my name is David Olson. I work in operations with the agency services.

I’m talking to you live from Sarasota, Florida. Also with us today is JC Bouvier. He’s a senior director for marketing strategy in the digital world. I believe unless he’s traveling, JC’s joining us from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

And our other colleague is Leanne Barkley, account manager agency services. She works up out of our Plymouth office and is currently located, I think in Lakeville Mass.

Behind the curtain and moderating our session today, is Amy Houke and she’s going to keep us on task.

Some of the things that we’re going to introduce to you are a number of different renewal tactics and strategies that we have found to be useful over the past couple of years.

We hope that you’ll learn about some new kind of specialty tools like texting and artificial intelligence or informed delivery, and how those tools can play a role in increasing your retention rates. And then lastly, we want to refresh you on some of the best practices for direct mail and email to support your renewals.

So at this time we’re just curious to hear from you. So we’re going to launch a little poll and we want you to tell us, what state is your retention strategy in. We’ll give you a couple of seconds to put your answers in.

Amy, at any time you can show us the results. And behind the scenes, we were taking bets and we all said that Good would probably be the winner of this poll. It’s good to hear.

So hopefully we can show you something that might bring it to awesome. If you answered okay, hopefully we can give you a few things that will get you to good or even to awesome. So we’re going to start with a strategy that we have been using particularly with higher ed clients. And this is a renewal strategy that we have called the monthly anniversary program.

What we basically did is change the whole dialogue of how we talk to donors. Celebrating their annual gift in a way that makes them feel like something special has happened or something has occurred. And so using the word anniversary and we use a lot of personalization, happy anniversary, it’s the anniversary of your last gift to such and such university. This program is one that has done quite well for many of our higher ed clients. So it is a it’s a multi-channel appeal. And what you’re looking at here is some of the direct mail elements of Anderson University in South Carolina, small private school.

But this works very well for them. And as you can see it’s a greeting card style. So the carrier envelope is up on the upper left-hand side. And what you’re looking at in the middle and to the right is the front and back, and also the innards of the quote, unquote anniversary renewal card with a short and sweet message and highly personalized. Talking about their last gift, talking about historical gifts, talking about how their gift was used, and just celebrating them as a donor, an annual donor to the university.

You can also see with it comes a reply device and this is a two-sided card. And if you look in the middle section, we’re, using a heavy amount of variable data printing here.

We’re showing them things like their most recent support, their most generous support. We have customized ask strings that are based on their historical giving patterns. And then on the right-hand side, you can see that we also follow this up with an email as well. And same principle applies. We put all as much as we know about that constituent into the email and make it as personal and as meaningful as possible.

So we’ve seen universities go from a 15 or 18% renewal rate all the way up into 25 to even 30% renewal rate when they implement the strategy. Another tool that we like to use, and not many people take advantage of it, is something called Informed Delivery. So Informed Delivery is a free service.

I would bet that probably 25% of you are subscribers to Informed Delivery at the moment. But anyway, Informed Delivery is a free service that the post office offers and anyone who gets mail and has an email address can subscribe to receive emails, daily emails, six days a week. At present, we have probably the country has about 25 to 30 million subscribers in Informed Delivery.

And every day before nine o’clock, they’ll get an email that says what’s coming in their mailbox. And typically if you look at this handheld device, the images are simply grayscale and scanned, and then loaded into an email message. Here’s what’s coming. It shows you just the front-end piece. But you’ll notice that the top image also has a green clickable icon.

That’s called a ride along image, and that actually can, it’s a call to action and can actually bring the user into a digital media space, like a website that is maybe a page that’s already on their existing site, or maybe it’s a landing page that they created specifically for this campaign.  As marketers, we have the ability to make your informed delivery, your mail piece, come out as what we call interactive, an interactive Informed Delivery campaign.

Leanne, if you show me the next slide, On the left-hand side, you’ll see a carrier envelope we recently did for one of our food bank clients. Okay. So that’s what the outer envelope looked like. And then once that piece dropped in the mail, on the right-hand side, you can see how we transformed that mail piece from a grayscale image into a full color kind of graphical imagery of what’s arriving in their mailbox today. A ride along image with a donate now button took them to the client’s landing page, donate landing pages that they had in store for this. And I think this went out right around the holiday seasons.

Again, I got one more slide to show for this. Basically just a side-by-side comparison. When you engage with an Informed Delivery interactive campaign, you can transform what the subscribers are going to see from just grayscale to full color clickable. And, it’s a free media channel that the post office gives us.

As your mailing agent, it doesn’t cost us anything but our time to upload a couple of pieces of data, maybe design a graphic, point to a URL, and for very little money, we can get these things done for you.

Another tool that we like to use is called ringless voice messaging. As the caption says, why make hundreds of calls when you can just make one? So ringless voice messaging is a non-intrusive way to deliver your message. No phone call is ever made to your constituent. We configure a ringless voice message so that we’re connecting directly to voicemail servers to drop your customized voice message. Phones don’t ever ring. And the FCC does not regulate this enhanced information service. It works. It’s pretty easy to put together. For most of our clients that want to do this, usually they’ll still create their voicemail using some sort of recording device on their smartphone. They’ll send us a wave file. We we upload that. They’ll send us their phone list.

They’ll give us a caller ID number that actually has to be a real number. And then we’ll deploy it on the date and time that they tell us to.  And we also give them a lot of guidance as to what to say and what not to say in a 25 to 35 second voicemail. And these work quite well if you’re going to announce something, or send out a reminder, or perhaps you had a giving day or some sort of event, and you want to thank everyone.

You get a 32-second message from the CEO and blast it out to those that made gifts. So all of these are great ways to enhance renewal strategies. At this point, I’m going to turn it over to my colleague Leanne, who’s going to talk about a number of different things, including artificial intelligence and texting.

So Leanne it’s all yours.

Leanne Barkley: Thanks, Dave. I’m going to talk a little bit about newsletters and they’re fairly common in most fundraising programs. Some organizations might mail them on a bimonthly basis. Others might mail them just one or two times a year, depending on what makes the most sense for them.

But whatever this mail schedule might be, newsletters do work quite well to raise revenue and to steward donors. And these packages can often vary quite a bit in format. Some newsletter packages I’ve seen don’t include any type of ask at all. Others might include a generic reply or a personalized reply, some include letters, and some don’t.

And ultimately you can have success with a lot of different package formats, but recently we took a closer look at the package we use for one of our clients to see if there was anything that we could do to lift response. And the reason why we challenge ourselves to look at this is because while we know newsletter appeals do quite well, we also know that oftentimes the standard number 10 direct mail package can achieve greater results because the donor is more focused on the call to action in the letter, opposed to really that beautifully designed newsletter. So because of this, we were interested in testing a slightly modified reply design for one of our clients to see if it could deliver a larger return.

What you’re seeing on the left here is a control version of a reply slip. And for this organization, its newsletter package mails using a number 10 envelope with a return envelope. The newsletter itself is four pages 4-color and the personalized reply you’re seeing there as a control; it includes variable information and a variable ask.

So for our test, we really wanted to find a way to incorporate a stronger call to action. And as you can see here on the right side of the slide, we achieve this by using a double buck slip, which was just a simple way to give us a bit more space for some additional copy. And the copy was simple. But it was straight to the point.

And for this client, the newsletter is a benefit of the donor’s membership. So very plainly in the copy we stated that if the donor would like to continue receiving this newsletter, then they would really need to renew their support for another year. And we also added a little call-out box that you’re seeing in the upper right-hand corner, to really hit home that their renewal was either near, due or past due.

And for the results as the slide reads, the test group saw twice as many responses compared to the control. Given these results, if you’re mailing a newsletter in your own program, you might want to try to find ways to refresh the formats they’re using in the mail a little bit to see if you can find a way to add a stronger call to action.

Next, we will talk a little bit about artificial intelligence. This is an emerging strategy in our field, and one that certainly can be applied to donor renewals. And when we think about how to improve results, we really usually jump to tactics first. We think about what can we do in the mail?

What can we do differently? What can we do in email? We think about the creative or the offer. But what about that ask string? And when we do think about that ask string, and we think about testing that ask string, sometimes our methodology is based on a hunch or what we think is working for someone else.

And this is where artificial intelligence can step in to help make this more of a predictable science.

There are a variety of modeling services in our industry to support all sorts of different strategies, whether it’s renewal or acquisition. But I’m going to briefly speak to a service offered by one of our partners called Arjuna Solutions. And Arjuna offers a product called Exact Ask, and we have a number of clients testing this in their active donor and renewal direct mail appeals today. And to state it simply, Exact Ask delivers custom ask strings for every campaign or appeal, that are unique to every individual on your mail file. The model uses behavioral insights by looking at past transactions with you, and by looking at things like market conditions to determine what kind of ask string will work best in the moment to solicit a response while also generating a higher average gift.

So for renewals, this modeling essentially works to help you realize more gross revenue. And you might be asking yourself how does this all happen? The machine learns with every mailing. So in the first year of a program, all files are split 50 50, and the model works through several rounds of learning through a feedback loop of returning results back into the model, so that it can better predict  what type of ask string is the ideal ask string, an ask that will achieve the highest gift amount without suppressing response.

So what you’re seeing here is an example of what the initial learning stages look like for one of our clients. And in my last slide, I mentioned rounds of learning. And what you’re seeing here is the first round of learning, which is what we call the baseline discovery period. And the chart on the right shows our control and test groups.

And with this first phase of learning, you should expect to see a lift in revenue from the Exact Ask segment, just like you’re seeing here. So for this organization, we saw a 5% lift in revenue and a 293% return on investment after the first round was completed back in March. We also saw a 10% increase in the average gift from the test group without seeing a negative impact in response.

So as fundraisers, we know that average gift and response rate often have an inverse relationship. And typically when that average gift increases, we’ll see the response rate dip down a bit. And that’s the perk of Exact Ask. That’s not what happens here. The model actually increases the average gift while maintaining your response rates.

So ultimately, it helps retain that renewal rate and retention rate while still generating more money.

So this chart shows a case study from a different organization, but it really nicely demonstrates the revenue growth that can be realized over a period of time as the model learns. The red line in this first section here, represents where the client that we just looked at sits in terms of timing and learning.

After the baseline discovery period, we enter into round one. And that’s when the model recalibrates. And it takes the insights gained from that baseline discovery period to better improve performance. And then we repeat that again in round two. And you can see from this chart that the model really begins to separate from the control and rounds one and two, ultimately driving a big increase in revenue.

So all of what I just mentioned is really promising for folks who might be interested in trying something like this or willing to learn. And while the topic of artificial intelligence sometimes seems a bit out of reach, whether that’s because you’re constrained by time or by budget, I do encourage everybody to explore these type of options and not shy away, because in our experience with this particular model, we’ve found the process to be really quite simple and the deliverables have not been taxing.

It’s certainly something that you really should consider for yourself.

Texting is another great tool to support donor renewals. And today we’re seeing half of all website visitors come from mobile devices and 35% of online gifts being made from a mobile device. So if you think about your own behavior and the way you react to that noise, that chime, that beep, then you can understand why this channel has potential.

Ninety percent of all messages are read in three minutes and click through rates are much higher than what we’re seeing through email. So that’s why we recently did some testing using SMS for Alabama Public Television. And I think we do have a lot of public media folks here with us today on the webinar. But for those who might not be familiar, Alabama Public Television is a statewide network that offers PBS programming to educate, inform, and inspire. And it’s important to note too, that they’re a membership organization. And to give a little bit more context, public television stations generally have four large campaigns each year that are centered around television pledge drives. And the campaigns are multi-channel and they include on-air and direct mail and email appeals. And this past March, we also tested outbound SMS for Alabama, and we sent messages to renewal cycle donors among other segments.

And we started the campaign off with a stewardship message a couple of weeks prior to the actual on-air drive. And since this was our first SMS campaign, we wanted to test the waters with a thank you message as to allow donors the opportunity to opt out of further texts before we ever made an ask. And in this case, the opt-out rate was quite good. Just 5% versus 6.7% for what other organizations see with this type of message.

But once the drive actually did go live, that’s when we did send our fundraising text messages. And these on-air drives, they can sometimes last as long as two weeks or more. So we waited to send the messages until the end of the drive as to allow donors to respond how they normally would through other channels.

Our goal here was to use SMS as a last-ditch effort, if you will, to really scoop up anyone who hadn’t already given. So that way we’re minimizing the number of messages being sent through this channel to ensure that it’s being used very carefully and respectfully. From this campaign, we saw renewal donors responding at a 2.5% response rate with a $108 average gift.

And 14% of these donors made sustainer gifts. And again, what’s exciting here is because of the timing of this campaign, these donors might not have otherwise made a gift at all without this last-ditch effort.

We also recently began testing SMS as part of APT’s membership renewal series, which runs monthly. And we just have one month’s worth of results to share at this point, because we just started, but we’re excited to see a 6.7% response rate for the first effort for the renewal series. And for those of you who do not have a membership program, effort-one audience would be equivalent to donors who gave nine or so months prior.

And we also sent a text at month 13 and have seen a 3% response rate so far. Month 12, the anniversary month also seems like a natural opportunity for testing for this particular client. We had our reasons as to why it did not make sense for them, but it’s something that might make sense for your own program.

And I think it’s worth mentioning that what’s different here compared to the March campaign that I just described, is the timing. In March, again, we let that text act as a last effort to grab a gift. Here we’re actually leading with it. So the goal is to send the text first and then we can suppress responders from receiving the emails or direct mail letters that would follow.

And in the case of direct mail, we were really helped to save on costs to this station. And with that JC I’ll hand the mic over to you, so you can talk a little bit more about renewals.

JC Bouvier: Great. Thanks, Leanne. Yeah, so again, my name is JC Bouvier. I’m one of the senior directors fundraising on the digital side of the agency services team.

Before we get into it, in the context of retention, I just wanted to take a quick poll if I could to get a sense of whether or not everybody’s sending e-renewals. Hopefully you all are, but let’s get a sense to be sure. So we’ll see if we can get it to about that same 80% that David referenced before, and then we’ll close the poll.

It looks like the bulk of folks are, so that’s great. And for those who aren’t, this will be ideally helpful information for you and for the folks who are, we’ll try and make your programs a little more awesome with what we’re sharing. So thank you for taking the time to fill that out.

Digital side pre renewals, really sending these efforts ahead of your mail program renewals is really key in that obviously, if you can get your membership to renew ahead of sending them a mail piece, you’re going to save your organization money, which is huge.

The good news there as well, it’s a twofer in that you can actually speak to that savings in the benefits to the donor as you’re describing why they should renew early. Which is huge because it’s something you can point to that will directly benefit the organization’s mission. And then of course you can also remind the members of the benefits, like program guides, for instance, from public media side, and content access, like a passport for PBS stations.

So those are huge. Next slide, please. Tactically. One of the things that we focus on for a lot of clients who’ve run their e-renewals with us, is that we send a midnight e-renewal, which is just a specific e-renewal that deploys on the final day as membership expires for the donor.

And it helps create that sense of urgency. It really helps just get folks onside and understand that if they want to continue their membership, they need to do it now. Ideally, you’re personalizing this as much as possible. Subject lines help drive interest if you can mention first names in those and helped drive open and click-through rates.

And the good news here is that for those clients who have been deploying midnight e-renewals with us, we’re seeing a strong performance of about 25% on average with the midnight e-renewal. So a great tactic for folks who aren’t deploying them already.

Obviously, we want to test as much as possible.

This is actual data from a test with an anonymized organization name. I put some red brackets around the first four words of each. And then the winning test elements for effort three and four here. As your membership becomes increasingly mobile, I think we’re past the 50% consumption rate for most folks on email these days, you want to be as direct with the kinds of asks that e-renewals really focus on as possible. And so membership being the keyword here, I just highlighted that because I felt like that was one of the bearing elements around why these two subject lines outperformed.

For organizations that are membership focused, again, personalization is a really good way to help drive that retention, particularly if you can base it around giving history. So for instance, that first one, “JC your last gift was two years ago” that certainly can peak a donor’s interest if you’re trying to win them back. If Leanne had already given a gift, if you knew that being able to point to the fact that she could make another gift and trying to pry a beer out of Dave’s hand is always worth a try.

But he’s usually pretty generous with them.

David Olson: You can’t see it, but JC, but I’m laughing my butt off.

JC Bouvier: Donor engagement, obviously is a huge part of your retention and renewal strategy. And it is really a journey, not a destination. So it’s something you’re constantly working on. Stewardship emails, thanking your membership and donors at large for the support that they’re offering, and ideally doing that with either no ask or very soft asks, and informing them of the impact that they’re helping to support is very key. And really reiterating the value that each supporter member is giving when they renew. So that’s something that we try to focus on throughout the year.

Next slide please. During campaigns and certainly every effort that you make across your programmatic year is an opportunity. So I just wanted to reiterate the fact that retention is a year-long and an ongoing effort. It’s really not just focused on e-renewals, but in those seasonal and regional efforts particularly for pledge periods, or for non-public media, regional giving days really talking about those impacts and stewarding as much as possible.

The obvious stuff is, for conversions, is premiums, right? But really the bigger lift is stories about people benefiting from your organization’s mission.  And this is, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. But the mission delivery stories in supporting renewal, if you can get them and talk about how serving your constituency at large through the support of your membership, that really keeps your members invested and primed to give again, of course. It’s again, not the easiest thing.

And if you need some ideas in overcoming that kind of challenge, we have some tips. Surveys are a great way, if you are sending out a regular annual survey, or even more frequently, asking for respondents to include a story, particularly if you’re surveying people who have received services from your organization, to tell that story and then getting their permission to utilize that in subsequent outbound communications.

That’s a great way to tell those individual stories. Comments that you receive on Facebook or Instagram posts. We have been deploying a lot of paid advertising, lead generation advertising for clients. And it’s amazing how much interaction a lot of those ads are getting. So much positive feedback.

Particularly again for public media, that we’re recommending where possible, even if they’re anonymously attributed, using some of the positive feedback and things like outbound renewals and something to consider and a relatively easy lift, if you’ve got people working on those channels. If you’re lucky enough also to have a supporter relations or customer constituent service team getting the feedback from those folks who are contacting organization to look directly and capturing that in some method. That’s, really huge.

And then as we continue to do more virtual and live events, trying to gather audio or video testimonials that you can use or to create a library for your organization, even if they’re vertical quick hit, short things, they can really be re-used over and over again.

And it can be a great internal morale booster as well. And with that, I think that was my last slide. So I’ll give it back over to the Dave.

David Olson: Thanks, JC. Thanks, Leanne.

Our next webinar is July 15th, 2:00 PM Eastern. And it’s a part two to this retention series here.

Amy Houke: It doesn’t look like we have any questions. I think we can wrap up. Thanks everyone for attending.

David Olson: Yeah. Thank you.

JC Bouvier: Thanks everybody.