Personalizing Your Nonprofit's Communications

Not long ago, Facebook unveiled a new feature with great pride—the "Year in Review."

The concept seemed brilliant on the surface. Facebook pulled highlights from your year and created a slideshow for you to share with friends. Problem was, the slideshow feature was completely automated, and it created the slideshow from WHATEVER you posted, happy or sad moments. For Eric Meyer, who lost his six-year-old daughter to brain cancer, Facebook automated a painful reminder of a trauma. Even worse, the automated slideshow ended with a default tagline: “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” 

Facebook is a dramatic example of an automation fail, but it serves as cautionary tale for the rest of us.

Let me start by saying that personalized communications are not the big bad wolf. Fact is, they work well. In fundraising, for example, testing has shown that increased personalization consistently yields stronger performance.

But many nonprofit organizations, in a rush to get to see the benefits of the personalization, make some pretty serious missteps. Personalizing your communications is meant to say to a constituent: "We know you. We care about our relationship." When the personalization goes awry, the exact opposite message is conveyed: "You are a number, and we use machines to communicate with you."

Here a few simple tips to make the most of your personalization efforts. 

1. Remember This Mantra: Garbage In, Garbage Out—The ability to execute personalization boils down to one key: the integrity of your data. If it is bad, then your communications will reflect it. Things to watch out for: incomplete fields, data in wrong fields, improper capitalization, incomplete donor history, wrong gender in record, etc. Err on the side of using data you can rely on 100%.

2. Test and Then Test Again—Many blunders happen due to sheer lack of testing. At M&C, when we test email, we conduct live sends to see exactly how the system will generate the email. Be sure to complete and personalize default information for those fields that are blank. Nothing worse than "Dear ." In direct mail, ask your printer to run off a few samples of letters and response forms to using names from your actual list. This is essential.

3. Turn to an Expert—Yes, DIY is all the rage, but this is one area where your organization would benefit from the counsel of an expert who has done this before ... and knows what to watch for. Ask around for a solid reference and ask lots of questions.

I advise you to start small in your personalization and build on your successes from there. And remember, the relationship is what's important. The personalization can simply help strengthen, or weaken, it. Use it for good.