Consider this observation by communications consultant and blogger Dave Evans:

Ordinary consumers are continuing to integrate technology into their everyday lives. As they do, a natural reliance on a network of friends and other consumers develops … It's only a matter of time before most purchases with any sort of decision analysis are made largely based on what is learned online, with the majority of this taking place in highly-focused, not mass, social networks. Savvy marketers are heading there now.

Every time new stats come out, more and more consumers report that they do more and more of their pre-purchase research online. Until now, this sort of online research has meant: 1) look at shopping websites that compare products, 2) look at the seller's website, 3) ask Mom or cousin Earnie via email.

Now, with social networking sites blossoming, many serving as the nucleus of rather focused communities of interest, Dave is saying that online “word-of-mouth” referrals are fast becoming the ultimate trusted driver of most purchase decisions. If you don't hear about it or get a thumbs-up online from someone you trust, you ain't gonna buy it.

Will this apply to folks considering a donation? At The Agitator, we think so … starting with the top and most considered contributions and working its way down.

The better “Donate” pages on most websites already include one or another “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, aiming to establish a modicum of “stewardship credibility” … “we're real, not a scam.”

But this is still a far cry from actually establishing that your nonprofit can actually achieve some progress against its goals. This sort of “performance credibility” has traditionally come from third-party testimonials, orchestrated or spontaneous, and/or the sort of confirmation provided by media coverage.

All of the above is manageable to some degree.

Now (or soon), however, your prospective donor can easily go online and find his or her way to a blog or community site where your organization will be exposed stark naked, warts and all, perhaps by a disgruntled (or hopefully, dazzled) donor, vendor, service recipient, self-appointed watchdog, or former employee.

This sort of spontaneous word-of-mouth is far less manageable. Perhaps the best a nonprofit can do is operate as if everyone with whom it comes into contact has a megaphone to the world … because nowadays they do. And people pay attention. Maybe not with any day-to-day regularity, but definitely when you call the question by asking for their contribution or support.

All of marketing — and especially direct marketing, like direct mail fundraising — is about removing reasons for your prospect to say “NO!” or even “Later,” while facilitating an immediate “YES.”

We've all seen how the online medium can facilitate a fundraising “YES.” We're about to see what some will regard as the “dark side” — just how pervasively online communities might wield derogatory power over nonprofits' brand reputations and marketing overtures.

BTW, for those interested, this whole discussion falls within the rubric of “consumer-controlled marketing,” which is perhaps the dominant trend in marketing today. Here's a typical article on the trend from the commercial world, All Brand Power to the Consumer, courtesy of branding maven Martin Lindstrom. His advice:

    • You can't be on top of every piece of brand communications … it's inevitable that your audience will take over.
    • Tomorrow's brands must have opinions … if you want to be ignored, be squeakly clean and non-controversial.
    • Participate in “instant branding” … be prepared to react immediately to events that create opportunities to define/project your brand … the days of two-year branding campaigns are over.

PS: Have you taken our “Transparency vs. Privacy” survey? Just click on the survey box at the top right column of the blog.

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