There's no doubt that nonprofit Web sites have become serious branding and revenue channels. Compared to recent years, most organizations now are seeing double-digit increases in the number of monthly Web visits, some even a rise in donations, new members and membership renewal.
While an increase in Web traffic certainly is a positive indicator, it isn't the most vital metric for an organization looking to generate online revenue or increase online-visitor engagement.
Your online conversion rate — the percentage of Web visitors who join, give or take a desired action online — is the critical measurement of your organization's online success. Your conversion rate tells you how well or how poorly your Web site is serving the needs of your prospective donors or members — and your organization.
Think of online conversions as the equivalent of direct-mail response rates. In direct mail, the number of total pieces mailed is divided by the number of responses to yield your response rate. It's the same formula for the online world, except "total mailed" is "unique visitors" (number of individuals who visit your site) and "responses" are "online actions" (donations, memberships, e-mail subscribes, etc.).
Average online-conversion rates for retail Web sites are in the 2 percent to 4 percent range, even with top retailers such as QVC and Land's End seeing 12 percent to 16 percent, according to a recent Nielsen//NetRatings report.
Shocking, isn't it?
That means 84 percent to 98 percent of most Web visits do not result in a transaction.
You'd want to set your goals for a double-digit conversion rate. But since most nonprofit Web sites don't have a singular focus on membership or fundraising, as do retail sites selling products, you should look at your specific program's online conversion rate, too.
For example, what percentage of donors who visit your online donation form end up completing their donation? Use the same formula for memberships.
Among nonprofit organizations, I've seen donation-page conversion rates from a low of 0.5 percent (the site had problems) to a high of 17 percent for optimized sites.
For relief organizations collecting donations for the recent Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, that number shot up to 30 percent. While tsunami fundraising was certainly a special case, it shows us the potential for online fundraising.
Imagine a direct marketer that didn't look at response rates to evaluate the success of a direct-mail campaign. Absurd, right? So isn't the same true for fundraisers and membership marketers who only look at Web traffic and not online conversions? You get my point.
Here are three ways to better understand and improve your site's online conversions:
1. Mine and analyze your Web-visitor data.
Your Web site can yield the most insightful information on what online visitors are doing on your site — and what they're not doing. And you don't have to be an IT professional to understand it.
With a little training from your Web team or online consultant, you can download and analyze a wealth of visitor information that can help you move the dial on online conversions.
If you don't have access to your Web-visitor data already, ask your Web team for access to your site's Web-analytics reports. Some of the more popular Web-analytics software providers are WebTrends, Urchin, HitBox and NetTracker. Web-analytics software takes data from your Web server and creates organized, easy-to-read reports on visitor traffic and interaction.
Web-visitor data allows you to identify:
* the top trafficked Web pages
* the least trafficked Web pages
* average time a visitor spends on your site
* number of visitors who come back to your site more than once in a month
* the source of online visitors (if they came from a search engine or via a link from another site)
* visitor interactions (downloads, donations, membership renewals, etc.). Note that your organization might also house your donation or membership data elsewhere — but you can always combine this data with your Web-traffic data for a complete conversion picture.
So, how is this data useful to you? If you're the membership director, you'd want to look at how many people visited your membership pages and how many of them actually converted to new members (or renewed members).
If you were mailing a DM package with a push back to your Web site, you'd monitor how many recipients visited the unique Web page you promoted in the appeal and how many of those people actually became members.
For example, the American Chemical Society regularly tracks online-membership conversions resulting from DM
campaigns. Hilary Baar, ACS membership manager, works with her online team to set up unique Web landing pages for DM recipients that allow her to track traffic and conversions.
"We've seen great success in driving prospective members from print or DM to the Web site, and we plan on doing more," Baar says. "Using our Web analytics, I can track how many of these prospects convert from our landing pages and work on improving that number with each campaign."
2. Use data to identify obstacles and opportunities.
Your Web data can show you the path a prospect takes as she completes a transaction on your site and also identify any user problems along that path.
For example, if your donation process consists of three steps (or three Web pages), then look at how many visitors go to Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3 (the confirmation page). If you see that 40 percent of the prospects who clicked on Page 1 don't make it to the confirmation page (Page 3), then you can assume there is some sort of obstacle or area of confusion on Page 2. And you can look at ways to identify the problem and fix it.
On the flip side, Web data also helps you identify additional opportunities to promote your program and give it more visibility. For example, the top-trafficked pages of a Web site offer perfect opportunities to communicate with the greatest number of prospects.
If I'm the fundraising director and there's no donation ask on the top five to 10 trafficked pages of the site, I'd look to add one.
If you were launching a re-design of your Web site, your first step should also be to look at your Web-visitors stats. Where are your visitors going and not going? What words are they typing in search engines to reach your site? This data will give you solid, unbiased information to use as the foundation of your Web strategy.
3. Benchmark your stats monthly and watch trends and drivers.
You can't improve on a metric unless you know where you currently stand. Create monthly spreadsheets that document your traffic, conversions and any other important visitor-engagement metrics, such as e-mail subscribers. And chart and compare these stats month to month.
Watch the trends over time — slow months, high-traffic months, etc. — and plan campaigns accordingly. Non-profits that host events often see spikes around event times and on event pages.
Events or meetings often attract non-members, as well. A membership-campaign push on event pages or on the site homepage of event-registration times can be highly successful.
Here's another example of how to leverage your Web stats: The American Diabetes Association uses pay-per-click search-engine advertising as one of the tools to drive online donations. This consists of purchasing select search terms, such as "diabetes symptoms," so that your ad appears on the engines' results page when someone types that term into a search engine.
The critical element to the success of these campaigns is selecting the most popularly searched, yet relevant search terms, so you get the right prospects clicking on your ad.
RedBoots Consulting started developing ADA's list of search terms by first consulting the organization's search-engine referrers — the terms ADA Web visitors typed into search engines to reach the site. This is standard information you can find in all Web stats.
An interesting bit of information that came out of that effort: Many people can't spell the word "diabetes."
So there were lots of searches on misspellings of the word. We added those to our list of search terms to buy for our ad campaigns. And they're performing very well.
You can also use your Web stats to measure the effect of new content or navigation on your site.
"When we were re-designing our site in 2004, we decided to add a specific link for 'memorial donations' in the bottom navigation footer," ADA National Associate Director Cheryl Edwards says. "We found out that it made a huge difference in online giving — and memorial donations — in 2004."
The ADA uses its Web-analytics software to track the source of each of its Web donations by navigation link. In 2004, the link to "memorial donations" on the navigation footer of each Web page generated 15 percent to 20 percent of online donations each month.
The memorial-donation link is in addition to three other links for donations on ADA's global navigation: "donate," "support the cause" and a themed campaign feature that changes every month.
This also is a great example of Web usability. Multiple donation links with slightly different focuses provide audience-specific solutions (for example, donors who want to give a memorial gift versus donors who want to support diabetes advocacy). The varied placement of the links also addresses the individual search behavior of prospects.
Love your data
Get to know — and love — your Web stats. Visit them often and use them to guide you as you re-design your site, create new programs online and fine-tune your current online programs.
Liz Murphy is co-founder and partner of RedBoots Consulting, a Virginia-based Web- and search-engine marketing agency that serves nonprofits and associations. She previously has served as associate creative director, marketing, at the National Geographic Society. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright 2005. North American Publishing Company
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