The Art (and Science!) of Nonprofit Marketing Research

11 Feb

At the last Cause Communications Community Meetup (#CCCMeetup? Anyone?), we talked through some of the best practices for-profit marketers are learning over at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. I was thrilled to find out that many of my meetup colleagues have conducted marketing research of their own, either by hosting focus groups or running surveys on behalf of their organizations. We discussed some of the strategies that can improve results and make the process more valuable.

Why do marketing research at all? That’s the question you must have the answer to before you start any marketing research project. Only undertake a project if its results can influence and improve changes in your marketing program. This conclusion filters down to even a single survey question – only ask a question if the answer you get is one that you care about.

Here’s  a top eight list of nonprofit marketing research tips, based on crowd-sourced advice from last night and from Haas’ “Marketing Research” course.

1) Figure out the problem you are trying to answer and then make some hypotheses. They don’t call this research for nothing people! This is science, or something that looks like it anyway, and if you don’t have a problem, or some prospective answers, you’re going to spend a whole lot of time chasing something that might not exist. Spend time talking through the answer you would like to get. The answer should be an actionable statement that will actually change the way you do your marketing (or run programs, or whatever it is you are using the research for).  For instance, in the case study from our meetup, the marketing research resulted in a prioritized list of Bay Area events that the nonprofit should attend to attract new constituents.

2) If you are running a survey or organizing a focus group, take a bunch of surveys or go to a focus group. Nothing will serve you up a good amount of respect for the process than having to endure someone else’s tedious survey or poorly moderated focus group. And this is where you’ll learn exactly how to do it right – for instance, at what minute (Minute 3? Minute 5?) does your attention begin to fade on a survey? Or what techniques are particularly effective at increasing the brainstorming and synergy in a group discussion?

3) Start a nonprofit marketing advisory committee. I used the case study of my own organization for this tip – I work for a green building organization that focuses on schools and classrooms, and I have a group of three architects, three schools facilities directors and a product manufacturer, who serve as advisors for my marketing program. They can act as an informal focus group where I can temperature test ideas, but they are also helping me to develop a contact list from their network of others who are going to help me develop our new messaging for schools. Getting a mix of your audiences into a committee like this, even if the group is just three or four people, can give you invaluable insights just by picking up the phone.

4) Don’t bias survey results by asking the wrong people. One attendee at the meetup had a newsletter that goes out to 60,000 people via snail mail, as well as a Facebook page with 2000 followers. As tempting as it is to ask your 2000 facebook fans what they want in that newsletter (They are right there! I’ll get the results electronically!), these fans don’t represent your audience. So do a small survey if you have to (who wants to enter all those written results by hand?) but you’ll get a more representative result if you do.

5) Start a survey with an interesting question that has an easy response. What’s worse than a survey that doesn’t ask the right questions? It’s a survey has the wrong answer choices! Nothing frustrates a survey-taker like the feeling that their answer is not represented in the choices. Answers that are not mutually exclusive, or embed two answers in one, can frustrate the subject into quitting the survey altogether. If you start noticing a majority of folks dropping off your survey, figure out where they are getting caught up and try rephrasing the question AND the answer.

6) Schedule in pre-testing time for your survey. This is the old “would your grandmother get this?” trick. Have friends and family members take your survey before you release it. Then ask them about the experience – when did they get tired of taking the survey, what questions did they want to skip? I also like sit down with a couple of trusted people and actually walk through the survey with them. Discomfort around unclear questions is easy to spot, and if you have to explain anything to them, you haven’t done a good enough job with the question itself.

7) Don’t use a survey when there are other ways of getting the information. Surveys are so hard to do correctly that it is worth spending time seeing if there is existing research that can answer your questions. If your questions are website-related, work with your web developer to devise some a/b tests, rather than trying to get people to answer a question about the website. Real-life “experiments” can be more effective at prescribing a path forward than survey outcomes. For more on these types of experiments, check out

8) Use the results of your focus groups, surveys and other demographic research to develop non-profit personas. Nancy Schwartz at has done some great work on this, and I’ll let it speak for itself. I especially like her tip of bringing your finished personas on posters into your communications meetings. They’ll be your new best (imaginary) work friends.

Get the slides from  February’s meetup here: February-MR-CCC-meetup-slides


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