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Digital or Die: A Marketing Master's Tough-Love Tips for Nonprofits

Dragging your feet on improving your web presence? In a holding pattern for fully utilizing social media and email to engage your community? Still scratching your head about how to present programs, events, and value virtually? If you are doubling down on an old formula for success and waiting anxiously for the world to return to ‘normal’ – this is your wake-up call. Ben Smithee, digital marketing expert and CEO of The Smithee Group, a Brooklyn-based full service digital marketing and insights firm, has a few things to say to nonprofit organizations that have struggled to stay relevant in the digital world. Here are his straight-shooting A’s to my Q’s:

Q: You’re an ardent supporter of several local and international nonprofit organizations, what do you identify as the major gaps for NPOs when it comes to digital marketing?

A: The two biggest gaps I see are:  

1.       A lack of narrative-based HUMAN stories. NPOs need to be more human than ever to reach donors (who are also humans) on a meaningful level. Collectively, we have moved in a sea of sameness when it comes to messaging online and on social today - the brands and organizations that start telling more human stories will win.

2.       A lack of fluency in paid digital. Paid social ads are still the most cost-effective means of advertising today and most of the NPOs we have worked with have not been proficient in how to leverage paid advertising to drive donations, attract and engage volunteers, and to further other interests. Paid digital is absolutely key today and it’s, perhaps, the way we are able to help NPOs the most.

 Q: What are your top three digital marketing tips for groups with low budgets and small staff? 

A: 1.      Find a way to spend money on digital – it is the key to your future, and you need dedicated staff for it.

2.      Treat content like it is the heart of your brand and organization: if you’re not exercising it, stretching it, and keeping it going regularly, you’re going to be in trouble.

3.      Plan ahead – most organizations are operating on a day by day or weekly basis for digital marketing instead of monthly or quarterly. This reduces the quality of your efforts and increases the likelihood that it won’t get done at all – it also showcases your lack of strategy.

Q: So, what should nonprofits stop doing in order to redirect their time/money to digital marketing?

A: Stop putting the majority of your resources into direct mail and print.

Digital is the absolute lifeline to your future. It will be the ONLY relevant way to connect to the next generation of donors. 

Q: What advice would you give to an administrative person or an executive director that finds themselves handling the role of marketer? Where should they start? What can they skip? 

A: Take it step-by-step, and don’t let the gigantic road ahead overwhelm you. You have to understand and have some level of fluency in the platforms, so start by learning. Facebook has great tutorials on their site as a resource and some agencies and consultants have video lessons as well (TSG launched The Digital Directive to help people in the initial stages at a low cost). While you’re diving in, don’t forget to keep a strategic mindset - planning is going to lead to better execution. And, stop being tempted to try and master a presence on all platforms. Stick to FB/IG, a solid blog/video platform (housed on YouTube), and your email. Creating one “viral” Tiktok video is not going to solve your donor problem, I promise!

Q: What do you say to organizations that have developed relatively strong followings on social media but aren’t converting fans into donors/volunteers/members? What hint could help them take their engagement efforts to the next level? 

A: Email and other “owned” communities - such as text groups or private FB groups - are going to continue to make a comeback. Brands are tired of building large audiences on social networks only to have their reach severely limited by the latest content algorithms. Focus on building healthy email lists, YouTube subscriptions, Text/SMS contacts, etc. as these will be increasingly valuable to organizations of the future.

Begin by investing in ads and other paid media to grow your audience – even if you have a large reach organically. Then, work to convert that organic audience to owned media channels – text, email, YouTube, FB Groups, online communities, etc. This will be more cost-effective and have higher conversion rates over the next 5 years – especially as traditional marketing continues to decline.

Q: OK, switching gears: what are you seeing in the nonprofit space that is good/effective/innovative? 

 A: Video. Brands and organizations are finally leveraging video in their favor and using it in a digitally-native context vs. a traditional TV approach. I see more and more organizations creating bite-sized content to tell their stories and articulate their impact – which is great. Every organization should be thinking about ways they can do this.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: Digital is the absolute lifeline to your future. It will be the ONLY relevant way to connect to  the next generation of donors. 


About the Expert

Before forming The Smithee Group (TSG), Ben was the CEO and co-founder of a millennial-focused research and strategy firm. He is a thought leader and in-demand speaker; having delivered talks to audiences around the world in over 20 countries and across 6 continents. He’s regarded as a go-to expert in Digital Marketing, the future of retail, and the Millennial Consumer segment. Ben is also the recipient of the American Marketing Association’s Marketer of the Year Award, and has been nominated as one of the Top 10 Youth Marketers in the US. Find out more about Ben and his team on Instagram @benjaminsmithee @thesmitheegroup and on LinkedIn @benjaminsmithee and follow #TeamTSG everywhere you do social. You can also contact Ben directly at [email protected].


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