Campaign Websites: I have some answers but I also have a lot of questions.

What school is not in the midst of a campaign, in the silent/leadership phase of a campaign, or planning for a campaign? Okay, all two of you get a pass and don’t have to read this post. The rest of you, I’ve got some questions I need answered.

The point is this: most educational institutions rely on the web for fundraising campaigns. In December, I wrote a blog post about what makes a good giving site. Today, I’ll extend that topic a bit and share some thoughts about websites designed for fundraising campaigns.

First, here are five trends that I’ve observed about campaign websites.

1. Microsites
Most of the development folks I’ve met are convinced they need microsites for fundraising campaigns. It seems potential donors have become accustomed to something splashy and unlike the .edu site. But consider the case where the .edu site is exceptional. In that case, could a campaign site be created successfully within the main web presence? Frankly, I’m not sure microsites are always necessary and I’d love to hear what you think. Please comment below and share your insights and experiences. I really want to know.

2. Video
I think video on fundraising sites is expected and it seems almost standard to include clips about how a school uses private support for an exceptional student experience. Again, I’m told donors want highly produced, professional quality video. Is this because that’s what we always show them? Or, is there a scenario where a student-produced (think YouTube quality) video would be equally compelling for a campaign? Would it be more authentic? Do donors want authentic? I’d love to hear your opinions and see your examples.

3. Photography
Big, splashy photography is common on campaign microsites. (Hmm…incredible photography works well on any site, right?) Typically, you find these sorts of photos:

  • Pics of new facilities and buildings

    (After all, donors help pay for bricks and mortar and they expect to see photo galleries that feature them.)

  • Pics of professors
    (Campaign contributors fund endowed chairs and donors want evidence of a direct tie between the dollars they give and the faculty-student connection that results.)
  • Pics of happy and sincere students

    (Generous donors fund scholarships that make transformative education possible for students. Understanding what the student was able to do because of the support is key.)

4. Research
Featuring faculty research and scholarship on campaign sites can be a bit tricky because “expanding knowledge” is a hard sell. It seems to work best when the research can be summarized by a lay person and tied to popular, current topics. I think donors might be a bit put off by what they would view as arcane research that doesn’t seem to contribute to solving a world problem or issue. Yes, individuals are often sensitive and prickly about the ivory tower stuff. But does that mean we stay away from it or should we do a better job of explaining it? (True confession: my husband is a college professor.)

5. Naming Names
Campaign sites usually offer a list of names as a way to thank and recognize donors. These web pages get a lot of traffic because people love to look for their own names or their friends’ names. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more than one fundraising professional say that mentioning gifts from peers is a way to influence a potential donor. Make it easy for me. Your wall of donors should be database-driven and thus searchable.

Next up, four things I’ve noticed that we need to work a little harder to get right.

1. Integrate with the .edu Site
IMHO, features and content on a campaign site should be integrated with the main .edu website. For example, student and faculty profiles developed for the campaign should be repurposed and even bubble up as sidebars on the main website. The idea that the best content has to be walled away in order to be special doesn’t make sense to me. Prove me wrong on that.

2. Stay on Message
I mean the same message. Too often, separate messages developed for a campaign do not sync up with the articulated values and priorities of the institution. I understand that you can’t crowdsource the campaign strategy or case statement. Still, when alumni and donors visit a campaign site, the themes should complement the institutional messaging. And, if you plan to rely on faculty and students as ambassadors during a campaign, their authentic story is grounded in the campus, not in the campaign. Might offend you alert: The dog should wag the tail.

3. Use Social Media
In 2009, both Emory’s Blue Pig annual fund campaign and Nazareth College’s Flight of the Flyers alumni engagement campaign demonstrated the power of social media. Yet, three years later, most advancement/development VPs and fundraisers that I’ve met don’t think social media is worth the time because the resulting gifts are so small. I say, social media increases alumni engagement and that should lead to increased giving, right? It seems social media is more acceptable in discussions about annual giving and less acceptable within large-scale campaigns. At a minimum, I think integrating the university-level social channels into the campaign strategy is a good idea.

4. Give Now
Give now rarely means give now. Because we are still relying on cluncky systems for online giving, give now actually means go through a few horrible steps and eventually click submit without the option to split gifts or give as a married couple when you are both alumni donors. We need to do better on this front. Prove me wrong, please. Does your college or university have an Amazon-like experience for online giving?

So what’s a communications professional to do? Get inspired!

We can learn from each other. CASE District II sponsors an annual Accolades Award program with more than 40 categories, including recognition for the best websites for fundraising and development. I was a judge for this category in 2012; perhaps you’ll find some inspiration among these award winners.

Okay, your turn. Jump in everybody. Share your thoughts, examples and differing opinions. Show me what you’ve got.

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