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Word of mouth: how to create donor evangelists.

There has been a lot of talk during the past few years about the demise of nonprofit direct mail fundraising in favor of email fundraising. And while email has grown as a technique, both in terms of the widespread use and in the level of sophistication, it has not supplanted direct mail. Instead, it has taken its place alongside direct mail.

In fact, most analyses show that together the two techniques produce a stronger result for nonprofits than either utilized alone, adding further credibility to the "holy grail" for nonprofit direct marketers of truly multi-channel or integrated fundraising.

It's not hard to imagine a Heifer Project donor holding a catalog in one hand while wielding a mouse in the other in much the same way that a Nordstrom customer "shops" using the very same two channels.

Now, in keeping with the fist pace of everything these days, only a short time after email has gained widespread acceptance, a new direct fundraising technique has emerged and is gaining notice.

It's called "word of mouth marketing," and if you don't already know about it, you will soon. Sometimes called evangelism marketing, guerilla marketing, social network marketing or grassroots marketing, the technique is gaining in notice, acceptance and professionalism. So what exactly is word of mouth marketing?

It's often said that companies only hear from their customers when they're unhappy. In The Loyalty Effect, the seminal book by Frederick Reichheld, the author asserted that each unhappy customer tells at least 10 people of their dissatisfaction while satisfied customers often don't talk about their experience at all. Perhaps you've had

that experience, where you sent a letter to a customer service department or even to a CEO after a particularly bad customer experience. But have you ever written the same airline praising excellent customer service on the part of a gate agent or flight attendant?

Since 2001 when Reichheld's book was first published, the Internet age has changed the calculus dramatically. The number of people who learn of an unsatisfying customer experience has grown exponentially, along with the exponential growth of blogs, chat rooms and online communities.

But what if you took the opposite approach and set about trying to promote good word of mouth instead of simply reacting when negative information starts to spread? Word of mouth marketing is simply that, the process of getting individuals to become evangelists, that is, to believe in a product or service so much that they are compelled to tell others about it.

In his 2000 book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell actually hit on one of the secrets of word of mouth marketing without calling it by name. In his book, Gladwell describes what he calls "The Law of the Few." According to Gladwell, not all people in a network are equal. He identifies three types of people who are important for the spreading of ideas: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

Connectors are people who know a lot of other people, have a huge acquaintance set, and actively build new connections between people. Mavens are people who live on information and have the power to influence other people. When they speak, others listen. When they recommend, others believe. Salesmen are the easiest group to understand. They are people who have the ability to persuade other people. The ideal chain would then go something like this: Convince the mavens, make sure they talk to the connectors, and have the salesmen spread the idea beyond the initial few.

Nonprofits already have access to a huge pool of evangelists (connectors, mavens and salesmen). They're your volunteers, your donors, your board members, and individuals who have received service from you or who have in some way experienced first-hand the impact of your mission. And there have already been instances in the nonprofit sector of successful word of mouth campaigns that simply haven't been labeled as word of mouth.

Consider the neighbor-to-neighbor campaigns conducted by a variety of nonprofits. These programs typically recruit volunteers, some from "inside" the organization but many who have never engaged with the charity, either financially or with their time. These volunteers are asked to reach out to their neighbors and to raise money for the cause. Neighbor-to-neighbor campaigns have been hugely successful as fundraisers and have many of the elements of a word of mouth campaign.

Or, consider the Lance Armstrong Foundation's LIVESTRONG yellow wristband. More than 40 million of these bracelets have now been sold and virtually the entire campaign was word of mouth.

Or, consider Generation Engage, a new group hoping to energize the non-college youth vote. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the group is "hiring local standouts to try to reach their peers through blogs, chat rooms and other means.... The idea is to create a civic network outside political parties and campaigns."

But beyond those people already known to you and presumably already evangelizing, there's a way to harness an army of strangers in the same way. For example, while one organization executed its campaign internally, using its own marketing staff to create and manage the program, you can enlist external agencies to do this for you, much as you now work with agencies on your direct mail and email strategies. Here's how a professionally managed word of mouth campaign works.

Word of mouth agencies recruit evangelists from a pool of individuals who are employed by the agency as evangelists. Evangelists have the freedom to choose among campaigns being conducted by the agency since it would be against all the principles of word of mouth marketing, not to mention unethical, for an evangelist to promote something he or she didn't believe in.

Evangelists are "trained" in the product or service being promoted. Based on the information they receive and learn, they form their own honest opinions about the product or service and then set about working their magic. One of the most interesting features of most evangelists is that they typically are unpaid for this work. Their reward is largely intangible. Evangelists thrive on being evangelists.

Beyond the nonprofit examples already given, the potential application of this technique also includes public education campaigns, new "product" launches and branding (launching a new brand or brand-building) to name just a few. Think of the possibilities for your own organization and you will certainly come up with a variety of opportunities for this marketing technique. And once you do, you'll most certainly agree that word of mouth is a technique that will shortly take its place alongside traditional mail and email as a new channel for nonprofit fundraisers to exploit.

Phyllis Freedman is senior strategic advisor to SCA Direct, a direct marketing agency in Fairfax, Va., specializing in integrated fundraising programs. She is also founder and president of Smart Giving, a philanthropic advisory service. Her email address is
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Title Annotation:Donors ...
Author:Freedman, Phyllis
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Date:May 15, 2005
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