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Performance creative: We’re all just guessing until we test

“You’re probably wrong.” 

It’s never nice to hear that, but those of us who work on marketing creative should be reminding ourselves of this every day.  

The goal isn’t to crush our own self-esteem. It’s simply a reminder that creative—especially fresh creative—is often based on assumptions. 

We inherently always start wrong, meaning less-than-ideal. Through performance creative, we seek to become less wrong. In my years of developing creative in both the corporate and nonprofit world, I’ve come to accept this.  

For those who might not be familiar with performance creative, I’ll explain what it is here and why it’s critical for nonprofit fundraising. I’ll also share a few tips for how to incorporate it into your fundraising program. 

What is performance creative? 

Performance creative is the marriage of art and science to improve your marketing and fundraising results. It’s a scientific approach that uses data to remove bias. 

This might seem counterintuitive to creativity where we seek to evoke an emotional response. While emotion does move donors to respond, performance creative removes the subjective opinion of a single person—what moves you might not move others.  

In the past, an executive might like a piece of creative, assuming that it’s the most impactful. Once that creative is out in the market, the organization may discover too late that it didn’t move the needle for the audience.  

Using performance creative, we could test the executive’s favorite alongside another version and see which one wins in the data. Then, we would optimize the approach toward the winner.  

We can test a wide range of variables, from colors to photography to messaging and more. This testing works especially well in digital channels (advertising, email, video, etc.) where results come quickly in real time.  

Why is performance creative important in nonprofit fundraising? 

Remember, we often make assumptions as human beings. Here’s a great example involving two of our clients in the child sponsorship space: 

  • Client A typically uses photos of children with joyful expressions. They showcase the outcome of their mission and their work, and they’ve had a lot of fundraising success in this area. 
  • Client B typically uses photos of children with stoic expressions. They showcase the need for their mission and their work, and they’ve had a lot of fundraising success in this area. 

If you’ve worked exclusively on creative for Client B, you might assume that photos of stoic-faced children always work best to motivate donors in the child sponsorship space. That assumption would hurt results if you implemented that approach for Client A.  

Nonprofits should be testing performance creative in every step of their marketing funnel with donors 

  • Prospecting: What seeds their interest and attracts the best prospects to your mission? 
  • Engagement: How can we get them to act and engage with you? 
  • Conversion: What best moves them to donate to your cause? 

The funnel is really the essence of your relationship with donors. As you build more data about what works best, you can begin to create new audience segments that align with different creative approaches. This will help you connect better with your donors. 

Tips to incorporate performance creative into nonprofit fundraising 

Quite often budget limitations will dictate how much testing you can do using performance creative. In this exercise, we’ll simply assume there is no limit and offer the best tips overall: 

  1. Accurate, connected data is critical. Your data must be organized and clean to glean the best insights. Here’s a little help if you need to get started on your connected data strategy. 
  2. Test with a goal in mind. Don’t test just to test. Establish a hypothesis and set clear parameters on how you will determine its effectiveness.  
  3. Control the variables. Don’t try to change too many things at once. If you A/B test with different colors, photos and messages, for example, it won’t be clear which change made the most impact. However, this tip doesn’t apply when you’re testing creative concepts. 
  4. Seasonality matters. Test early in the year when it has less impact on your bottom line. Then, you can implement those learnings in November and December. 

The biggest piece of advice I can give is that you should be willing to have the data surprise you. Donors will reveal what matters to them through their actions. Keep an open mind throughout this process. You might be surprised what you’ll learn about your donors. 

Remember, you’re probably wrong. 

Chris Weiland

As Creative Director, Chris brings a diverse range of experience in branding, advertising, marketing, experiential and interactive.

While at The Richards Group, he created merchandising materials for Red Lobster, on-site Super Bowl activations for Bridgestone, print ads for Weight Watchers, and a Ram Trucks display at the Kentucky Derby. With The Marketing Arm, Chris told AT&T’s brand story through campaigns at AT&T Stadium, AT&T Byron Nelson, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the Sochi and Rio Olympics, the Cotton Bowl, and Tribeca Film Festival, among many others. At RKD Group he develops multichannel creative ideas that drive fundraising for nonprofit clients.

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