Why Digital Marketing Tactics Are a Waste of Time for Nonprofits

Is your website a graveyard of digital marketing experiments?

As a leader, this is a difficult question to answer if you are not directly responsible for some kind of tactical marketing work on a day-to-day basis. But your ability to answer to this question indicates the effectiveness of your digital marketing and communications.

Here’s how a digital marketing graveyard gets created:

  1. Someone in your organization reads a blog post on the benefits of A/B testing, conversion rate optimization, heatmaps, landing pages, or some other kind of digital marketing tactic.

  2. They immediately jump into trying it out on your website, email marketing, or social media.

  3. They either abandon it after a few weeks, or worse, keep doing it halfheartedly under the guise of a “best practice.”

The reasoning is innocuous enough. The line of thinking goes, “it can’t hurt, right? I’ll just try a few of these things and see which ones work.”

But this suite of abandoned or halfway executed digital marketing tactics is sucking capacity out of your organization and masking a much more fundamental problem that needs to be addressed.

Don’t believe this is an issue in your organization? Try this:

Navigate to BuiltWith in your browser and enter your website URL in the “lookup” field:

Then check out the entries in the “Analytics and Tracking” section:

Now ask yourself these questions:

  • How many entries does your website have?

  • How many of them do you recognize?

  • How many are you actually using—and getting results from?

A/B testing a turd only gets you a shiny turd

If you were surprised by what you found, let me give you some more context on why this happens.

Advanced digital marketing tactics sell because they promise a magic bullet. Just do X or Y and you’ll get results. They offer access to an “insider’s club” which, if joined, promises some kind of shortcut to digital marketing success.

These tactics are especially appealing because:

  1. You / your staff are mercifully short on time and budget and are looking for any advantage you can get.

  2. The more advanced tactics are legitimately being used by larger, successful organizations you are trying to emulate.

  3. It’s easier to believe results come from doing more things instead of doing things well.

To cut to the chase, if you’re not getting halfway decent results from your digital efforts, it’s more likely you’re either a) missing some fundamentals, or b) not doing the fundamentals well. Chasing after the hot digital marketing tactic of the day is a distraction.

Now, I’m not here to shame those who use tactics like A/B testing. We’ve written about the role of split testing in the past.

However, I see these tools misused a lot.

Case in point: the problematic “buffet approach” to digital marketing tactics.

The buffet approach to tactics

Many times, I see nonprofit staff approach A/B testing or analytics like a salad bar. They load up a bunch of loosely related experiments or cruise around dashboards hoping to stumble upon something interesting.

They see these tools as a magic fix rather than what they are: just tools. The sole practice of using heatmaps won’t do anything for your website without a clear, specific purpose for installing them on your site.

For example, if your donation form conversion rate is 2-3X below the industry average (22%), the first thing I’m looking at is not the color of your donate button.

I’m looking at fundamentals such as how well you understand your audience, how people are getting to the donate page in the first place, whether your messaging makes sense, and how you’ve been building a relationship with visitors prior to them landing on the page.

In that context, tactical improvements like conversion rate optimization help you systematically test how your strategy is landing:

  • Does message A or message B increase donations?

  • Are there drop-off points in the funnel we set up to nurture new donors, and how can we address them?

  • Does your new navigation structure increase the number of pages people visit on the site?

Viewed through this lens, digital marketing tactics become a chisel you carefully and consciously apply to your site in the context of your overall vision and strategy. If you’re sledgehammering away hoping to hit gold, you’re wasting your time.

When tactics make sense

This dynamic is important not just for digital staff to understand, but leaders in particular. If this is happening in your organization without you being fully aware, it’s eating your people’s capacity away and potentially pushing your digital presence in the wrong direction.

Digital marketing tactics by themselves are not a waste of time. But for many organizations, how they implement those tactics is a waste of time.

Advanced tactics like A/B testing only come into play when you want to take good results to great, or have very specific ideas on why a specific performance metric is not where you want it to be.

And as a leader, it’s up to you to help define the goals and strategy for your digital staff so they can start using these tactics to their full potential.

Get the fundamentals right, and then worry about the advanced stuff later.

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