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I was recently in a casual conversation with an advocacy organization about increasing their digital work. The Executive Director seemed quite stressed and a little overwhelmed at the prospect of changing their communications department to include someone who could do digital engagement.

I tried to ease his nervousness by suggesting maybe they work with a contractor at first to get a sense if the effort would be successful. He agreed and said, “actually, we have already engaged someone to help us with our digital program.” And with that the conversation meandered into some other area of non-profit management.  

When I got home, I pulled out the internets and searched for the name of the consultant the ED had given me. As soon as I found her website, I got a little nervous. Her beautiful, professional website was sprinkled with words like “optimize” and “maximize.” Had this organization hired a optimization marketer to deepen their digital program?

All marketers are liars tell stories™

When I was working in advocacy at the end of the last decade, I began to experiment with permission marketing as articulated by Seth Godin. The idea is that in order to succeed in converting people into donors (or customers) you need to deliver “anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them” (Seth Godin). The most important part of this idea was that people actually gave you the permission to connect with them because your content was important to them. When you say it out loud (or type it) it seems so obvious.

At the same time that I was experimenting with this there was another trend happening in communications and fundraising - optimization. It was usually focused on SEO or search engine optimization. It felt like one day the topic of SEO just appeared and the next moment everyone was talking about it. In email marketing optimization meant lots of focus on where you put your donation button, what colour it was, making sure that your donation page advertises the highest donation amounts, etc.  An entire “optimization” industry popped up that was selling optimization to businesses and non-profits didn’t want to be left behind.

Permission + Optimization = Digital

I remember getting really into “optimizing” my emails. It was fun. It felt like a challenge, a puzzle, and the rewards were going to be amazing. My small advocacy organization was going to be like the Obama 08 campaign and raise tonnes of dough because we changed the colour of our donate button. It also spoke to a deeper need in me - the desire to feel smarter than the people on my list. I could outsmart them into giving us more money and they wouldn’t even notice. Spoiler alert - it didn’t work. All the time I spent optimizing in those early days was really just a vanity project - it made me feel smarter, but it didn’t produce results.

Optimization without permission is simply manipulation and it will not work. If it does work at all, it will only work the first few times, or for one election cycle, because you are not smarter than the people on your list and they will catch on. Optimization alone doesn’t build anything. It needs to part of a much larger strategy of moving people. The Obama 08 campaign was not able to raise close to a billion dollars because they changed the colour of their donate button. They were able to raise that money because they built deep trust with their community of support by treating them as people with real concerns and optimized their web presence to make it easier for people to be part of a movement. Countless other organizations have done this since.

The minute you start sending people relevant content that they want to receive and you make it easier for them to take some form of action then you will see results. This is digital organizing and it is about leading people along paths of engagement that are relevant and interesting to them. The challenge is that it is way easier to spend time thinking about the colour of your donate button than it is to get into the messy humanity of meeting people where they are at and asking them to come on a journey with your organization. So lots of non-profits end up working with people who are gonna help them optimize their website without talking about the relationship building required to create permission.

Leading people on the journey of your organization is hard. Building lasting relationships that will pay off for your organization requires digging in with realistic goals and thoughtful paths of engagement that respect your supporters and encourage them to deepen their connection with you. Optimizing your website, your emails, your donate buttons is a part of any digital program, but should only be done once the you have the permission work covered. Otherwise, you will create lovely looking donate buttons, but rarely build anything that lasts.

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