Importance of Digital Marketing for Your Nonprofit: Interview with Digital Expert Mark Stebbins
How can nonprofit organizations drive traffic to their website and convert visitors into supporters including volunteers and donors?
In 2003, Mark Stebbins started Stebbins Media, with one simple goal in mind – help businesses grow .with exceptional marketing. He has always believed that marketing should be an investment and not an expense. When done right, it’s a beautiful thing when the combination of strategy, art, and technology comes together. Mark is a marketing expert and a Davey Award-winning designer. He is also a member of the Platt College Advisory Board as well as a volunteer leader for Chino Valley Young Life. Stebbins Media is located in Southern California and services clients all across the world.
For more information about Mark Stebbins, go to https://www.stebbinsmedia.com
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, it’s time for The Nonprofit Exchange. Every Tuesday for 7.5 years, we have interviewed a thought leader about their specialty. They have shared things that didn’t go right, and they share their expertise. We make it practical for you, the nonprofit leader or clergy, to use in your day-to-day work.
Today, we are talking about this mysterious thing we call a website. Oh yeah, we just put it up, and there it is as a placeholder. That’s great, and it may serve your purposes. But there is a whole lot more that you can do to connect with your supporters, donors, volunteers, those people who want to help you achieve your mission. We are going to help you learn how to connect with them because we are so interconnected in the digital world today.
My guest today is a friend I have known for maybe a year. We resonate on many things, including the importance of getting your message to the people who want to receive it. Mark Stebbins, tell people a little bit about who you are. What is your passion for this thing that you do, this digital marketing, this connecting with people who matter? Mark, welcome!
Mark Stebbins: Thanks, Hugh. My name is Mark Stebbins. I have been in the marketing game for quite a while, since 2003. I got into this because I really want people to understand that their marketing needs to be an investment in their company, not an expense. It’s critical that every penny, especially in the nonprofit space, be accounted for and actually work for the company. We start that off with the web. It really is the most critical part of your branding and marketing. It’s the hub. It’s the first impression, and it can be so much more than just a brochure on the web.
I’m so excited to be able to share some of the things that are critical to your website. If you are a guy that is just starting out, that just has a template website, and you want to turn it into a 24/7 marketing machine to create traffic, get donors, get conversions, all that good stuff, we’re going to help you get there. Again, Hugh, I’m so excited. Thank you for having me.
Hugh: Mark, I know enough about you from our conversations over the year. You have an expertise yourself, but you also have a team of professionals who have different particular skillsets. Should we shift from thinking about a website to a web experience?
Mark: You’re 100% correct. In fact, if you look at the CMO survey, which is a survey that goes out a couple times a year sponsored by companies like Deloitte and the American Marketing Association and some other big heavy hitters, they talk to almost 2,900 companies per year. They all talk about the CMO, the chief marketing officer.
As far as your question regarding the customer experience, it dropped during the pandemic. People weren’t focusing that much. From February-August, we have seen a 21% increase overall on people focusing strictly from their marketing budget to focus strictly on the customer experience once they visit your website. That goes into detail on a lot of different aspects. It could be video. It could be how easy it is to get to your Donate button. It could be that initial impression.
A lot of times, people overlook the artwork because they are used to seeing the way the website looks. What I mean by that is Google and other search engines have dictated the way the web is viewed these days. You are going to see things that are very modular because we all take our cell phone or mobile device into consideration.
If you remember back in the early 2000s, websites used to be big, beautiful, overly designed things. As a designer myself, that was one of my favorite things to do, put a ton of labor into it and make this thing absolutely beautiful. As time has gone on, we really had to strip a lot of that out in order to meet load time requirements. We are hitting these SEO speeds to rank well. What is the point of having a website be beautiful if nobody is going to see it because it’s ranking too poorly?
Finding that delicate balance and working with a professional to help that website look phenomenal, have the right key elements in there to make it a convertible destination, as well as let it be converted by your visitors, have them fill that Donation form out, whatever your ask happens to be. There is a lot that goes into it.
Hugh: We do a lot of good work in the nonprofit world. We impact people’s lives, but we don’t know how to connect with the community, the people that don’t know about us, or the people who may have been supporters, but they don’t know how effective their donation has been toward creating results. When somebody comes to your website, what is the first thing that we need to think about in terms of the customer experience? We are using the word” customer.” We are in the business of nonprofit, of church, because there is a financial component. What we are going to talk about is conversions. I love the acronym HITS. People brag about having so many hits. I have learned that HITS is How Idiots Track Success. There is another component of conversions.
Let me back up to my question. What do we want people to see when we get there? What do we want them to do?
Mark: When they get there, they need to see a concise message. They need to understand what it is you do right away. What is the cause that you’re promoting? What is the business all about? That can be conveyed in a couple of different ways. A lot of times, you will see big videos up top. You will see a large hero image with a cool slogan. You need that instant hook. That hook really needs to have concise messaging that will let people know they have arrived in the right place. Once that’s there, we need to make sure that we convert them.
To your point about hits, anybody can drive traffic. The problem is the right traffic. When you get the right traffic there, and they understand they are where they need to be, using basic visual communication strategies, you are directing them from Point A, your home page, all the way to Point B, your donor form or contact form, which is your end goal.
You see people throw around the term “sales funnels” a lot. Sales funnel is a fancy way of saying landing page. It was marketed very well. Your website needs to be more robust than just a typical landing page. Once they get there, that initial contact, that initial experience, that photo or video, whatever it is to hook them in there, as long as it’s laid out well, they will find everything on the website.
Hugh: There is a map, a wireframe, whatever we call it. It’s all of the things we want. My website has 400-500 pages because I have years’ worth of these podcast posts. Each one has their own page with a lot of content. I have articles with a lot of content. Same with programs. I have seven years of stuff out there in podcasts and videos. We transcribe the videos because Google looks at the words, not the videos.
Let’s talk about how people are going to find your website. There is this mysterious thing called SEO, search engine optimization. It seems to be magical. How do the search engines find you? Is that simply SEO? How does that work?
Mark: There is a lot to SEO. There isn’t really one magic bullet that is going to be like “Hey, you’re on the first page of Google now.” If you look at Google, it’s changed a lot, even from five years ago. The majority of those first page websites that you see are all paid advertisements. A key component to your SEO is going to be getting that PPC aspect, Pay Per Click. Google Ads. We need to take all of that and put that into your marketing budget. If you want to be seen on page one, that has to be part of it.
Organic ranking is much harder to do. If you’re not up there already, you do have an uphill battle in front of you. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s not going to happen overnight. A lot of things we’re going to look into that will help you rank go beyond just the visuals. It’s the code behind it. It’s the site and speed performance.
You want to have a good company that is going to provide premium website support. What I mean by premium is they are monitoring it for you 24/7. If you are using a WordPress website, the back end goes out of date almost immediately. Your plug-ins, your WordPress core, all of that has to be up to date. That is going to help you overall.
You want someone who is going to help with your ad campaign management, someone who will look at cross browser and device design review, so all of that cool, beautiful design you made looks right when it is being loaded on a mobile device.
You also have to take into account accessibility. A lot of people forget there are mandates and laws that have to make sure your website is ADA compliant. People with hearing issues, people with visual issues, we have to make sure that your website meets all of those parameters as well.
I am just scratching the surface here. All of this has to do with your SEO. Video, backlinks, I could start going down a list. We don’t have the time to go into all of it. But you want to do your research. Work with a company that has a proven track record of success. Let them sit down with you and work through all the subtle nuances about how the campaign is going to be customized to your business. There is no one size fits all.
That’s why I am wary of companies that offer, “Here is our $600 package.” That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for you. We really need to do a competitor analysis and see what they are spending online because they could be spending $10,000 a month, and your $600 isn’t going to put a dent in it. You just threw your money out the window.
Hugh: There is an ROI, return on investment. You mentioned earlier that the website is an investment. We have this unique ability that we attract volunteers. But there needs to be a clear value proposition about why people should care. You started out by saying the first impression is what you do and why you exist. That is so important. We don’t do that very well. What are some statistics? I know people come to a website and look for how many seconds before they are hooked?
Mark: Oh man. We used to have up to nine seconds. I think it’s dwindled down to 3-5 seconds now. I think we’re all just byproducts of MTV at this point. We’re so used to the quick cut, so you have to have that initial pop to grab them right away. Unless they sought out your website organically, which means they typed in your domain into the browser itself. That person, you have some more time on. If someone just found you online, and they don’t understand what’s going on on your website, you’ve lost them. They’re gone.
Hugh: You want them to be able to easily know what to do next, right?
Hugh: There is a fold. It’s like the paper fold. What you can see on your screen. Talk about that part of real estate. Maybe they won’t scroll down in the 4.3 seconds or however long they’re there. They need to see something at the beginning of their screen, don’t they?
Mark: Yes, the fold, a common term, is important. Design has changed to where you are seeing that fold be filled up with one large video, or what we call the hero image. In that, there is a cooked-in link that lets you go deeper into the site, like “Learn More” or “Read More,” something along those lines that encourages you to click in. You still have to incentivize them. You will do that with some form of text or a video that will encourage them to click deeper.
Otherwise, you’re looking at shorter banners that don’t fill up the entire page to the fold. You can then put in three to four highlights. They could be different services. I like to make sure we cook in a testimonial at the top somewhere. If the Internet says it, it must be so. That is how we function these days.
Beneath that, you can do what’s called a social proof bar. We’ve all seen them. It’s the strip of logos of companies that have done business with you or verified you or have talked about you. Just having those logos adds instant credibility. If you are a nonprofit interviewed by CBS or some other media outlet, or if you have done stuff with the Met Gala, whatever your partner happens to be, you can put that there.
Hugh: There are a lot of things to consider. As far as traffic, you mentioned Google Ads. As nonprofits, we can get a $10,000-a-month grant. That does you absolutely no good. When I first got it, I tried everything and couldn’t spend but $300 a month. There is an art in being able to spend the money. But you can spend the money and end up with no results. Having someone who is experienced in connecting both ends. People are searching for certain terms. When they get to your website, they often leave. What is it called when they go and leave?
Mark: A bounce rate.
Hugh: The bounce. It’s like a ball. I know that’s part of what you do. You and your experts know how to create that system. We want to move toward conversions, which is people getting on your list and being able to have conversations with you, or signing up to be a volunteer or donor. How do you navigate that space?
Mark: A couple ways. When you’re talking about Google Ads specifically, you have to have the ad written well. If you’re misleading in the ad, or if it’s poorly worded, you won’t get the click. Once you do get the click, then your content really has to be dialed in. I have a team of content writers, content creators, graphic designers, programmers, we’re all here doing this 24/7. We want to make sure that once they get to your page, visually it’s engaging.
If you’re looking for volunteers for example, have pictures of volunteers on there. If you don’t have volunteers yet, there is plenty of stock photography we can purchase to make it look like you have some volunteers who are having the best time of their lives. We will make sure that visitor is engaged to say yes, they want to know more, and then we will go with the simple form fill. That can be part of your conversion.
Conversions can be measured in different ways based on the business. For nonprofits specifically, it will be form fills or donors. Unless you’re looking for full-time employees. Whatever the campaign is, we will make sure we’re targeting for that.
However, once they get to the website, a nice video would be great. I’d love to see a small video. Nothing too obnoxious or long. Something with good music, a nicely done, professional video to make people want to learn more, actually read the paragraph under it, and then fill out the form. Counting on people to read these days is a big challenge.
Hugh: I can look on some nonprofit websites. This is another element of social proof. I encourage people to have advisors at large who are well-known people in their space. Former company presidents or mayors or something like that. I look at that information, and they keep it hidden. There ought to be a visible page or link to the team or who we are. I see that as social proof. If you have credible people on your board or represent you as advisors, that speaks strongly for somebody who wants to be a supporter or donor. How should that page look? How easy should it be to get to?
Mark: You’re thinking of a staff page, which will include the advisors. You can do that in a couple different ways. We did one for a nonprofit out of Lemoore, real small guys called God’s Breadbox. They like to put a list of their donors that have achieved certain milestones as far as their contribution each year. It adds credibility. They elected not to include their staff. That’s their choice. I would have loved to see that.
When you add staff up there, it bolsters the credibility of the nonprofit because you don’t want people thinking this is some throwaway scam. People are very wary of nonprofits. They have gotten a bad rap over the last few years because of some bad actors in the space. It’s our job to make sure that we are conveying the message that allows people to donate with trust and confidence.
To your point, the social proof we have on there is critical. However, if someone is camera shy, there is workarounds for that. For one company, the entire staff uploaded a picture of their pet. It was a lot of dog photos and a couple of cats with their name. It added some personality beyond a bunch of people in suits. Ironically, some of the higher-ups had Chihuahuas, which was amazing, so I loved that part.
Hugh: Many nonprofits have minimal staff. We augment with volunteers. Specifically, we have board members who are typically the business leaders or other leaders in the community with education or government, etc. Having a page with their pictures and a description of who they are I think is critical for social proof. Here are credible people in their community giving their time, talent, and money. Not having that prominent is a big mistake. What do you think?
Mark: I couldn’t agree more. Another nonprofit we work with is called Hospice Care of the Valley. Right now, we’re in the middle of a rebrand. Dr. Leslie Cochran is very well-known down here in Southern California, adding his name. He is the #1 guy there. Hospice Care of the Valley is a pretty large nonprofit. Clearly, they focus on hospice. I have been to a few of their events. It’s very well-known, very well-funded. If you have someone who is prominent, and have their credibility added to your website, put it on there. Don’t be camera shy. Include that absolutely.
Hugh: You talked about a rebranding. Let’s go back to the very beginning. You either want to redo your website. Things change. We get to a place where we need to rethink this thing. Sometimes we start out with what we think is good. Trying to use it, we need to rethink it. If we were going to come to somebody like you to do our website, it’s not magic. There is a buy-in that we need to come with. Here is some critical things we want to communicate.
One of the many misunderstood words, like leadership, is branding. You do graphics, and you have your graphic behind you. Your logo is not your brand. Speak a little bit about how the website grows out of what your brand is: your brand image, your brand promise, the other pieces. Then and only then can you create the space we call the web experience. Talk about where we start in thinking about what this looks like and how we come to somebody like you with a pretty good list of to-do’s so we can have that beginning conversation.
Mark: I am going to help you right out of the gate. We have been doing this for so long that we have that list created. We are going to give you the list of this is what you should need, and this is what we recommend you have.
That will include things like an event calendar. We want to make sure we have things like your newsletter signup. Keep in touch; keep engaged. The list is fairly lengthy; it doesn’t apply to everybody.
If they are just getting started, we want them to take a look at other websites. One of the biggest mistakes is people tend to focus on other websites only in their industry. If you are only looking at other nonprofit websites, you can miss out on great marketing tools and strategies used by larger or more successful companies. You may want to cannibalize that part and add some of that flash or flare to your website to help engage users.
As far as the branding is concerned, no, your logo is not your brand. Logos are great. We want to burn that into your visitor’s memory, so it is easily recognizable. If you are out there at a golf tournament, and they see your logo, SynerVision has sponsored that hole, and they recognize you. Part of that golf sponsorship is part of what SynerVision is all about. That’s part of their brand. They are giving to the community. Part of your branding is the mission, the vision. It’s how your company will be portrayed.
You look at a brand like Nike or Coca-Cola. It’s shoes and soda. It’s so much more. We know that if someone wearing Nike gear does something terrible, it will reflect poorly on the brand. All of a sudden, that brand is associated with negativity. Brand protection is very important. We want to make sure your name isn’t getting associated with terrible things. We only want to associate it with wonderful things. We can make sure we do that through reputation management online.
Hugh: That’s great. We are talking to Mark Stebbins at StebbinsMedia.com. Not only does he do it for other people, but he has done it for himself. He did the whole world above the fold. It’s a digital world. Is this checklist of things is available somewhere, or do we have to email you personally to get it?
Mark: That’s a one-on-one checklist. Shoot me an email. It’s a general intake form that we like to give to anyone looking to rebrand their website. A website should be updated every 3-5 years. If you’re at that five-year mark or beyond, let’s talk because even if you like the design, your code is out of date. We have to fix that and make sure you’re up to snuff because you’re getting penalized as far as your load speed goes. When Google does their web crawl and looks at if you’re relevant or recent, that’s a problem.
Another thing you can do to bolster your SEO is just add dynamic content on a regular basis. Stay active on your blog. Little things like that can help you out. There are lots of things you can do on your own that do not require a company like mine to come in and do for you. However, if you don’t have the time, we’re happy to do it.
Hugh: Getting the counsel of a professional is an investment. I still have counsel, and I still find there are a whole bunch of things I need to know that I don’t know. By the way, I have other gifts. My gifts are better used other places than trying to figure out stuff I don’t know how to figure out. If I haven’t figured them out by 75, I’m not going to figure them out too much. How can people reach you?
Mark: Email me at Mark@StebbinsMedia.com. I’m happy to have that conversation with you. To anyone listening, whoever is out there, if you are wondering what your competition is doing, what it takes to play ball in that space, if you’re interested in SEO, we will give you a free competitor analysis. We will take a look at your website, give you a full review. It takes us about 5-6 hours. I am happy to do that for free for you guys.
Hugh: Great. Getting the data to know what you’re up against. We don’t think it’s important to look at who else is doing what we’re doing. We can call it competition. We can call it alternatives. People that have a need, like we feed hungry people or help people get out of poverty or help people seek medical care who don’t have it, we need to look at what the options are. We need to make sure we are clear on what we do differently. It’s creating the differentiation that is part of our branding. Here is our niche. Here is the value proposition we offer people. Mark, what are some of the biggest mistakes people make in creating a website?
Mark: Where do we begin? One of the biggest mistakes is getting involved with a template website that has a proprietary content management system that doesn’t allow you to change it. You can’t evolve and grow and market the website. I don’t like to say the names of these larger entities because I don’t like getting sued. But that being said, there is a lot of restrictions being placed on a lot of in-the-box solutions, where we want to take you out and build you something custom from the ground up. That way, the freedom is yours to move laterally, vertically, whatever it may be as far as the growth of your company is concerned, or extending the reach to optimize. There are so many benefits from building it from the ground up.
We will use something like WordPress if the budget isn’t the biggest budget. Don’t worry, we have a solution for that. Getting stuck in template websites is probably the #1 mistake. It’s generally a budget decision. That’s fine. If you have little to no budget, and you just need a brochure on the web for right now, run with those. You need to have some web presence. It’s better than none. Maybe you have fallen in love with that design. We can still convert that design to a better platform for you. Maybe improve it a little bit for you, give you some suggestions, and give you something bigger and more robust.
The other issue is poor messaging. Terrible content. If someone gets to your stie and they can’t understand why they’re there, the menus aren’t working, there are glitches. If it’s an unusable website, that’s another problem we see.
One of the last things is really bad photos. You can have the best design in the world, but if you have terrible photography, you have shot yourself in the foot. You have sunk any chances of people taking you seriously. What you see matters. It’s visual communication. I want to emphasize that a lot. Image is everything online. You have to portray the image of trust, success, and confidence on people when they are on your website. If they are going to be donating money to you, they need to understand you are a credible, legitimate nonprofit that is going to take care of every dollar they give to you.
Hugh: We tend to go into this minimalist, scarcity mindset that is nonprofit. We can’t afford to do marketing. Then we wonder why we’re always struggling to meet our budget. I would encourage people to spend as an investment, not as an expense. Actually finding a pathway to get more volunteers and donors. There is an experience piece that we’re missing out on. We think just because we are doing good work, people are going to jump on the bandwagon and help. There are a lot of really good causes for people to support. We need to cut through the confusion and get right to the heart of what’s important.
You mentioned photographs. I have learned over the years that part of the search process is the file name for the photograph should be words that people are looking for because the file name will come up, and then what’s called the alt text, the words behind the photo. That’s what the search engines look for. They don’t see the picture; they look for those words.
Mark: That would be done in what we like to call phase one. We have phase one and phase two levels when it comes to our SEO plan over here. Phase one focuses on site. We want to make sure we are spending time dialing in the code, adding meta tags, making sure all images are labeled correctly. When you launch a website, 99.8% of the time, it’s not optimized. It’s just up. We want to make sure that with our phase one, we will go in there and get that dialed in. Your meta tags are important. However, they aren’t as important as they used to be. But don’t neglect them. There is no magic bullet to SEO. This is a machine, so you have to make sure all the cogs are fitting well and working together.
Hugh: You mentioned backlinks a while ago. Define that. How do we negotiate those?
Mark: That is a more advanced tactic. A backlink is a link to your website from another website. More importantly, those backlinks need to be coming from websites that make sense and are relevant to your website.
How do you do it? You can be a guest blogger. That is one of the fastest ways to do that. Offer to be a guest blogger on another website. Say, “Hey, I’d like to give you some content.” Boost your SEO with a backlink back to my website. Boom, enhanced credibility.
What I was going to say was it needs to be from a website that is relevant in your space. I don’t want to have a backlink from a toy website coming back to Stebbins Media. It wouldn’t make any sense. If it’s another marketing website, or something in my area that will add credibility, and Google is smart enough to know, because a lot of times there are junk websites that have nothing but nonsense on them with backlinks that go back.
One of the ones that cracks me up to this day is my poor client, they showed me this link. It was a website that had nonsense on there. It said, “Humongous jumping train, client’s URL.” There is their backlink. How is this going to help you? It doesn’t help. There was a lot of games that used to be played. Google has wisened up, and their algorithms are very smart. That stuff won’t work anymore.
Hugh: It isn’t gonna work. Integrity still works. Mark Stebbins has been our guest today. We have packed in the whole time with useful tips. It’s StebbinsMedia.com. If you want to contact Mark, it’s Mark@Stebbinsmedia.com. Email Mark and get his tips and checklists for setting up a website. This would be educational in itself. Mark, what do you want to leave people with today?
Mark: I want to touch on something I spoke on earlier. If your website is 3-5 years old, let’s have that conversation. Let’s see where you are design-wise. Let’s see where you are code-wise. Make sure you are absolutely taking advantage of everything that you can. Don’t let it sit. Work with a company that will back up what they say. Get somebody with a lot of experience to educate you a bit. I’m here to help.
Thank you, Hugh, for letting me talk to you about this stuff. To me, the website has always been the most critical part of your marketing, period. Even your sales team needs a good website to refer your clients to go back to and legitimize everything. Let’s make sure that part is dialed in.
Hugh: Everyone who is a blabbermouth about your work, your board members, your volunteers, your committees. Mark Stebbins, thank you for giving us some useful information today.