2012 Communications Trends for Nonprofits

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Kivi Leroux Miller
Kivi Leroux Miller



Most nonprofit marketers are conservative decision makers. They don’t like to rock the boat too much. That’s why it’s essential that you understand what’s “normal” in the nonprofit sector when working with nonprofit clients. The 2012 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report, which we released at NonprofitMarketingGuide.com this month, tells you exactly what that “normal” is.

You can see the results at a glance in the report’s infographic.

The trends are gleaned from 1,288 nonprofits in 42 countries, with 82 percent from the U.S. and 6 percent from Canada. We focused on smaller organizations in the report so nonprofits with budgets under $1 million represent 54 percent of survey participants. 46 percent of the respondents have budgets over $1 million. But somewhat surprisingly, the results vary only slightly based on budget size.

Don’t Expect a Written Marketing Plan

Only a quarter of nonprofits (24 percent) have a written and approved marketing plan for 2012. Almost two-thirds -- 59 percent -- have a written plan or informal notes for themselves only, but it is not formally approved by leadership.

The $5 million budget mark appears to be where the shift between informal and formal marketing planning begins to take place for nonprofits. For organizations with budgets under $5 million, only 20 percent have a written and approved plan for 2012. Of those with budgets over $5 million, 42 percent had a formal and approved plan – but that’s still the minority!

When you are working with nonprofit clients, don’t expect a marketing plan to guide your campaign recommendations. You’ll likely need to walk clients through big-picture strategic decision making.

Nonprofits Have Embraced Online Marketing – to a Point

We asked nonprofits to pick three communications tools that were “very,” “somewhat” and “least” important to them for 2012.

When you combine the “very important” and “somewhat important” rankings, you see instantly how online marketing tools continue to dominate, with 93 percent of participants identifying their website as being a very or somewhat important tool, and 89 percent identifying email marketing the same way. While these rankings are down from 2011, when websites ranked at 96 percent and email at 94 percent, these two channels are still clearly in first and second place.

As it did in 2011, Facebook follows in third place, with 80 percent identifying it as a very or somewhat important communications tool, trumping more traditional forms of nonprofit communication, such as print marketing (67 percent), in-person events (66 percent) and media relations/PR (57 percent).

These channels – website, email, Facebook, print, in-person events and media relations/PR – are the “Big Six” for nonprofit communicators.

Smaller Organizations More Social; Larger Ones More Traditional

Smaller organizations are more “social” both online and in-person. They rated Facebook, Twitter, blogging and in-person events higher than larger organizations. Larger organizations rely more heavily on traditional channels like print and media relations than smaller nonprofits.

Not surprisingly, smaller organizations prefer low-cost channels like email and social networking sites, while larger nonprofits are more likely than smaller ones to identify more expensive channels like paid advertising, phone banks and print as very important.

The importance of social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and blogging held steady between 2011 and 2012, with only video gaining in importance. Nevertheless, with the exception of Facebook, other social media tools fall far behind other communications channels for nonprofits. Only 34 percent of participants identified Twitter as very or somewhat important, followed by online video (30 percent), blogging (27 percent), photo sharing (6 percent) and audio podcasting (4 percent).

It’s worth noting, however, that while these tools ranked lower individually, many nonprofits do rely on blogging, video, photo sharing and podcasting to keep their website, email and Facebook pages fresh and engaging.

Nonprofits Like Emailing Monthly and Sending Direct Mail Quarterly

Monthly emailing of an organization’s subscriber list is the most popular frequency at 43 percent, followed by every other week at 19 percent and quarterly at 14 percent. More than three-quarters of nonprofits (78 percent) plan to email their typical supporters at least monthly.

Quarterly direct mail is the most popular frequency for nonprofits at 39 percent, followed by twice a year at 31 percent. Only 12 percent expect to send direct mail to their typical supporters at least monthly.

What’s Next?

Review some of the marketing basics with your nonprofit clients. Have the agreed upon core target audiences and segments? Are they clear about the primary messages and calls to actions for those audiences?

Look at what you are offering your nonprofit clients. When working with them, make sure you are reviewing all of the possible ways to communicate with target audiences, from traditional outreach to social media.

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