​After five years at Cats Protection, Emily Casson is Digital Marketing Manager.

There aren’t many digital specialists in the regions. How did you get into digital fundraising?

I started out straight from university joining the charity sector and into a policy and campaigns role. I started doing a lot of social media around campaigning and that then led into social media training for various charities. I set up my own ‘Introduction to Social Media’ training courses for charities training hundreds of people. Back in 2010, Facebook and Twitter were very much up and coming, so it was the absolute basics. When I first started doing these courses, some senior people knew nothing and were really scared of it. They saw social media as a young person’s game and didn’t see the benefits to their charity. Much of the course was about the benefits of how they could use social media, but also breaking down those barriers. The courses were primarily attended by Trustees, CEO’s and Directors, who wanted to know the opportunities and risks of social media when their staff came to them
about new channels.

One of the issues is often that people don’t understand what we even mean by digital. Digital is any sort of online communication including mobile, website, social media and email. I would also include innovative products like touch screens and contactless collection tins, but my role is very much about getting the basics right. I think people sometimes see my job title and think I’m off doing all these amazing virtual reality things, but a lot of my role is still websites and email. Digital is just another way to communicate with our supporters. An easy way to understand digital and breakdown the barriers is to realise that this is something every charity is already doing – you’re already talking to your donors! It’s just another platform to be able to do that.

There are so many benefits to using digital and making it work for your organisation. For example, you can organise an event and find all your volunteers online. It is really cost effective and the scalability means that you can test things so easily on digital channels. You don’t have to have a yearlong plan – you can test things week-to-week and make changes accordingly. It is so much more flexible and adaptable than any other fundraising stream.

When I moved into fundraising, I was in a Regional Fundraising role for Cats Protection covering all the different local fundraising streams. I was always championing digital, doing a lot of Just Giving appeals and promoting text giving. Digital was my baby and something that I looked after as a side project. I feel very lucky that Cats Protection allow all their regional fundraisers to dedicate 20% of their time to a particular specialism e.g. volunteering, events, or digital. I started looking at digital more seriously through that and it just went from strength to strength. The figures started to show that we were getting more income from my work in digital than the community fundraising. My Director saw the potential in that and created a digital fundraising role. This way of working with specialisms creates real knowledge, talent and energy within the team and means that everyone in the organisation knows who to approach for advice and support in each specialist area. This has created home-grown talent for Cats Protection in a number of areas including digital and events, as well as helping with staff retention.

A couple of digital roles later, I am now Digital Marketing Manager and in 2018/19 my team has grown from just me to five of us, so the phenomenal growth is still continuing. We now have a formal digital strategy that sets out our key channels in priority order and key fundraising areas that will gain the most from impact from digital. This is channel-specific due to the different audiences, for example my fundraising priorities for email are different to my priorities for social media and website. It really helps having that structure in place.

When I look back at our strategy from 2016, it has changed so dramatically. It is completely, off-the-scale different! We thought back then that by 2018 we would be recruiting around 2,500 new regular givers from digital and in actual fact we recruited nearly 25,000 in 2018! This is a complete step change and the growth in the digital income stream has been phenomenal. We had 1,746% growth last year in some digital channels so it is on a completely different planet now! For example we started Facebook Advertising around two from scratch and that is now a multi-million pound income stream for us. I’m lucky to have had great backing from my manager, Director and the Trustees in terms of investment and budget because we wouldn’t have had that growth otherwise. We have been able to demonstrate the benefits to support investment with impressive ROIs – some of our campaigns break even by month three.

Is investment important for digital? Do you need investment, where and how much?

You don’t need huge investment to set up the basics. In terms of Facebook Advertising, we did some for the IoF conference using an image for £50 so not that much at all. You don’t need a big budget. The beauty of it is that it’s all about testing and learning and then scaling it up and anybody can do that.

It’s about knowing your core audience and testing that. I know that certain audiences will respond well to certain copy and therefore I can target them with the right messaging. For example, with our lottery campaigns I know from testing and learning which audiences will respond best to need-led or prize-led messaging. Need-led would be an emotive cat image that would have a direct request message like ‘Please support me’. A prize led would be ‘win £10,000’. Need-led tends to work much better for us at Cats Protection. 

I am lucky to work with a cause that resonates well with audiences, but at the same time we are working in a saturated market. There are so many images and videos of cats out there and that makes it difficult to stand out. How do we motivate people to convert? We can track and test how people are responding to our content, for example, we had more than 170 million impressions on our Facebook campaigns last year, but what we actually want is people to click and convert. That is what we optimise towards, rather than likes and comments.

There is a difference between engagement and conversion. There are certain campaigns that we do online that are amazing in terms of engagement, but there are others that work better in terms of raising money and compelling people to give. I work in fundraising so I’m looking for more than just likes and clicks – I’m looking for people to take action!

What makes a good digital fundraiser?

You have to be able to work in a very fast paced environment and be able to adapt. We set our annual plans as ever charity does, but I know within 3 months things might have completely changed. There will be a new opportunity that we want to jump on or something that isn’t working as well that we need to review. I think the key thing is to have the confidence and ability to change things and make decisions.

Being able to translate digital language for the everyday person is also important. There are very few digital fundraisers, particularly in the regions, so you have to be the bridge between the technology and the rest of the team. Don’t talk a load of digital jargon that baffles and confuses people. I wouldn’t say ‘SEO’; I’d say ‘we’re going to tweak some words on the website so we appear higher up in search rankings’. It’s about simplifying and making it easy to understand so that we can all work together to get the best results. Meeting another digital fundraiser and being able to throw out all the acronyms is fun! On the flip side, you also need to be fairly technical in speaking to web developers and know enough about coding to have a proper conversation with them.

Digital fundraisers definitely need to be highly motivated and passionate to be able to drive all these new things through. You will often find yourself as the sole digital person in your organisation so you are constantly championing and pushing to do more. As the digital champion within your organisation your mantra needs to be ‘we should be doing more digital!’ It is about making a strong case and really driving it through. Learning to push back is also a really important part of being a digital fundraiser – you need to have confidence in your decisions and clarity on why you are making them. You will often get people asking about innovative products they have seen other charities using and questioned on why you aren’t moving forward with it. You have to explain that there is often limited capacity and that budget and time is invested in core channels. There are always lots of new, shiny toys, but there is a fine line between being willing to take measured risks and being too risk averse. There are always plenty of decisions to be made in digital!

Things happen so quickly in digital fundraising that you have to be able to make quick decisions. You can’t go back once you have missed an opportunity, so you need to be to analyse things quickly and effectively and then make a decision on how to move forward. Digital is seen as a high- risk area because it is often the unknown and there is potential for things to go wrong. On the other hand, it is low-risk because it is so flexible and scalable. In certain parts of fundraising, invest and you might expect to see a return in the next five years. I get daily and weekly reports and I know exactly when someone is tapping on one of my contactless boxes. I can see things in real time. I know what’s working and what’s not, which means I have a lot more control.

How has digital fundraising developed in the past few years?

There has been a complete step change in terms of income growth, but that’s digital generally (not just in fundraising). If you look at online shopping and buying online, people are so used to spending money in this way. It would have been unimaginable a few years ago to think people would feel secure enough to type their details into a computer without the safety of a pin number.

Everyone is second-screening and looking at things on their mobiles. Digital fundraising has been shaped by that, but is also shaping that behaviour. 80% of my emails are now read on a mobile device, which is massively different to the stats I would have given you five years ago. We now need to be thinking about whether creative content is mobile optimised; using a different mindset and thinking in different ways.

People want more of a two-way relationship, particularly with social media. People might email after a big campaign, but will continue that conversation on Facebook. Charities have a lot of catching up to do in terms of whether their database is even able to deal with that. We get hundreds of comments every day on Facebook because that’s how people want to interact and they expect a response. In the early days of digital fundraising, it used to be much more one-way conversation: ‘we are emailing you’ and ‘we are talking at you’. Now, it is very much a two-way conversation and donors have that expectation. Charities need to quickly come round to that idea and see the huge benefits. You can build up great relationships and build a better picture of
all of your supporters – they are coming to you. They want to talk to you and you can see what they’re talking about on social media. You can follow hashtags on Twitter and piggy-back on things like that to engage with your supporters in a meaningful way.

The other side is to make donating as easy as possible. I’ve worked with charities that make it far too difficult for donors to give. If you put a Facebook post up asking someone to send a cheque, it just isn’t going to work. Text to donate is such an easy call to action. Social media is great at inspiring people. You can really drive donations through emotion with easy ways to tell your charity’s story – you need to use an easy way for them to give.

The challenge for all charities is to ensure that digital multi-channels are synchronised. Does it all match up and make sense to people? A supporter wants to be able to opt in and out of their preferred channels. They want and need complete choice over what messaging they receive. The beauty of social media is that people are actively coming and opting in to you. They are liking your Facebook page and following you on Twitter, which means they want to receive your updates. But, how do we work with that? There are challenges from an infrastructure and database angle around capturing people’s data from things like text giving to identify where they have come from, but that’s the nature of such a new, fast-paced environment. It makes it a very exciting area to be working in with opportunities to learn and develop all the time.

What are the key trends we can expect from digital in the next year or so?

Growth, growth and more growth! (Although, I do keep putting a caveat on this at work and explaining that we’re not always going to see a thousand per cent growth! It will eventually plateau and we will see the usual ten and twenty per cent increases.) Because it is so new, many charities starting from scratch can expect to see phenomenal growth. 

Having said that, the competition has increased too. When we started using Facebook advertising campaigns a couple of years ago, we were one of only a handful of charities doing it. Now, practically every local hospice charity is using Facebook to advertise their lottery, so it is also about making your cause stand out. You need a clear call to action and to be completely transparent about where the money is going. How do you inspire people?

Innovation and new ideas can often be found through agencies – I get approached almost every day with lots of new shiny toys that will completely revolutionise your life! One agency claimed they could give me a billion pounds of income! We have a trial at the moment with contactless collection boxes and have been testing it. We’ve had the usual challenges with training volunteers up and how to use them, but we are definitely going to move towards these more digital ways of giving. That will be the norm in a few years’ time. However, there will always be people who want to put their pennies in collection boxes – how can we make that more exciting? We are going to have collection boxes that ‘meow!’

Talking to other digital fundraisers is a great way to share and grow new ideas collaboratively. For those other charities lucky enough to have innovation teams, we want to know what’s on the horizon and what they’re thinking about. Some of our agencies are pretty good at letting us know about what’s coming up. I attend conferences and networking events and there is loads of information to pick up online. There are loads of digital Twitter, Facebook
and WhatsApp groups where fundraisers are sharing information about virtual reality and digital headsets and all sorts of brand new ideas. Clipboards are now a thing of the past and everyone is signing up face to face recruits on iPads. Some charities are already using virtual reality to engage people in the cause and show supporters where their money is going.

However, I would suggest spending 80-90% of your time on your core channels and making sure you are getting the basics right. Innovation will always be part of a digital fundraiser’s job description, but you need to invest your time wisely as well as your budget. Big charities are able to take more risks and that’s why they are able to invest in specific innovation teams. For me, the focus for most charities should be on doing the basics better. We need more data analysis and creating more of a bespoke instead of a generic donor journey. We’re already doing that well with email welcome journeys in terms of responding to individual preferences. We can find out so much about the donor based on their behaviour through analysis, but are we taking that a step further and changing the way we communicate with them? We know what subject lines they react well to – could we look at making that bespoke?

There is a lot of fascinating work to be done around human behaviour and psychology and the impact that small, subtle nudges can have. We can anticipate behaviour and act according. When are people likely to cancel their direct debits and can we send targeted communication the week before to show the difference their money is making? There are so many nuances to the way you manage your website – a change of colour can have a huge impact! All the little things you can tweak, monitor and build on those learnings to make a big difference to income. Do people prefer being contacted by their first name or surname and is there a demographic divide in age? Do we make a generalisation that those under 30 want to be addressed by their first name? Test it! I have got to the point where it is so granular that I know which colour cats will perform best!

How can a small, regional charity make a big digital impact without a big budget?

My first question is always why do you want to use digital? The key benefit of digital with a small charity is that you can just do it and have a go. There are so many barriers with other types of fundraising where you definitely do need a budget, whereas you don’t with digital. Changing mindsets is hugely important. It’s not just about setting up a channel or a Facebook page. You need a strategy, a plan and to know what you want to get out of it. There are a lot of charities that set up Facebook and Twitter pages, post a couple of things and then give up thinking that social media doesn’t work for them.

What are the top three things you want to achieve? Do you want to recruit new volunteers or sign-ups for a challenge event or advertise an appeal? If you think about it from this mindset and have really clear goals, you don’t need a budget to make it work. Basic versions of email and MailChimp software are free so you can email your database and set up Facebook effectively. A half hour brainstorm with the team will get your three goals – you just need to make sure they are SMART and establish how you’re going to measure them!

One of the biggest barriers for most charities is time and they see it as an extra task to do on top of everything else, but done properly it could actually save you time in comparison to more labour-intensive channels. It’s the perfect thing to get skilled volunteers in to do. There are also so many digital marketing companies that will be happy to get involved on a pro-bono basis. 

A lot of small, regional charities don’t try because it seems like a mammoth task. My advice would be to start with one channel and go from there. Choose one and start there. You don’t have to set up on every single channel – focus on one and master that first. The other biggest barrier for lots of small charities is actually confidence. I used to be a trustee for a small charity and I knew Twitter was working when a volunteer hundreds of miles away did an event for us. The results will speak for themselves! I have recruited so many volunteers on Twitter for challenge events. The beauty of social media is that you can reach brand new audiences. In a small team, you can get sign off quickly, move fast with a new campaign and gain traction really quickly – you just need to give it a go! You have the benefit of knowing your supporters really well already. You don’t need to look at a huge spreadsheet of behaviours – just talk to them and find out what they want!