2020 was a year of channel shock for charities. So what’s next?

2020 was a year of channel shock for charities. So what’s next?

Lizi Zipser, director of global strategy & insights at values-driven agency Blue State, explains how some charities are successfully adapting their paid media programmes to a new digital-first world

For most consumer brands, digital was pretty well established by the time the pandemic came along. Consumers moving mostly online was a big change – but the media could follow them.

For charities, however, while online could and did work, offline and traditional methods such as face-to-face fundraising and direct marketing were seen as more reliable ways of getting money in.

Even though they often give a lower return on investment due to donor attrition and cost per acquisition, they were seen as more predictable and core to the fundraising program. The staff and skill set of most organisations revolved around these offline methods.

And then of course, the pandemic hit. Those charities with the capacity to move to digital pivoted hard. Suddenly the majority of fundraising (and much of life) was online, and all charities raced to catch up – trying to raise funds in the same crowded space, and some without having built up the infrastructure to really see the returns.

Even the most established charities saw huge declines, with organisations from Children in Need to the Royal British Legion, which runs the yearly Poppy Appeal, seeing income plummet.

According to research published by Pro Bono Economics, across the board the sector can expect a £6.4bn loss between the 170,000 charities operating in the UK.

But while the main story is one of struggle, those which had the foundations in place to pivot to a digital-first approach saw a year of growth.

While in 2019 many of our clients were battling to get more digital budget, in 2020 they were being asked, “how many millions can the digital programme take?”. The challenge was to spend this hugely scaled up budget creatively and effectively.

It’s clear that the pandemic forced a change that many charities were perhaps avoiding when they should have been embracing.

As we go into 2021, what will the media landscape look like for charities?

There’s no question the future is largely digital. It may not be 100% digital as we start recovering from this crisis, but the big lesson from 2020 is that relying on one channel too heavily – and not being ready to adapt – is incredibly risky.

This year we started projects with some organisations that came to us specifically saying ‘we invested late, please help’ and built a programme from the ground up. Others had a successful programme, but needed help moving into new digital channels to ensure that they could spend 5-10 times the usual amount online and get the returns they needed.

Yearly budget allocations and rigid media plans will, or should, go out the window. Instead, charity marketers should be scaling current digital programmes to their limit. There are models that help with how much money those channels can take before they start plateauing. And then…

Charities will be looking for new audiences – though it needs to be done carefully. Many organisations want to acquire younger donors.

But it’s essential for charities, many of whom traditionally target an older demographic, to research whether they are ready to speak to millennials and Gen Z and compete in that space.

Many will still be getting to grips with and investing in a digital-first ecosystem. Testing and learning in constantly shifting online systems will be a change of pace for a lot of charities. Many will invest in improving online infrastructure, testing and reporting.

And gone are the days of taking a direct marketing pack and trying to make it into an email or Facebook ad. The sector will see some stand out online creativity in 2021, where online-to-offline integration will be just as important.

The best will be innovating outside just digital. We expect to see some innovative approaches to evolving historic offline campaigns and products.

For those that relied on community and event fundraising, there’s potential for things like innovative partnerships and merchandise, and value exchange products, such as subscription boxes and tools to keep children entertained.

Digital will be big, but there are always other ways to reach people, often driven by online – and we expect to see some brilliant new thinking in the sector next year.

2020 will have seen a lot of charities in a desperate quest to retain income. But 2021 should see charities catch up – with great creative, planning and intelligent strategies.

Online or offline, the way to build a scalable programme is by being present in your supporters’ lives – and in 2021, charities have an opportunity to do that as never before.

Media Jobs