Tech in marketing: Harnessing customers and content

Plan International reveals how its new CRM and CMS platforms will enable greater customer insight and might even boost fundraising to a new digital level

The rise in technology tools for achieving and measuring client contact are opening up fresh ways for charities to interact with sponsors, and yet there’s still a long way to go before fundraising truly becomes a digital exercise. While the numbers have grown robustly in recent years, the amount of money donated via online mechanisms worldwide remains in low double-digit percentages.

One NGO is spying an opportunity to better its digital approach by embracing website and customer management platforms that not only provide stronger insights into its existing and new donor base, but also offer better ways to communicate proactively.

Plan International is a global NGO focused on protecting and developing children’s’ rights. Headquartered in the UK, the agency operates in 20 countries but has helped children in more than 50 geographies. The Australian division is a not-for profit organisation with 65 staff that raises about $50m annually, half of which comes from the general public, and half from institutions such as the Australian Government and United Nations.

According to marketing and communications director Ben Holgate, the decision to overhaul Plan Australia’s CRM and website platform stemmed from his commitment to the board to be at least as digitally advanced as any other organisation in its sector. Holgate oversees five areas of business: public fundraising and appeals; major donors; corporate partnerships; branding and communications; and supporter services, including call centre, mailing and fulfilment.

“The holy grail for many charities is to raise reasonable volumes of support through digital channels,” Holgate told CMO.

“While everyone can see the world is moving in that direction, there aren’t many charities that have been able to increase the percentage of funds raised through digital to anything more than early double-digit figures. It’s very much coming through traditional means. The opportunities are there, the question is how we reach out and find the right technology as they arise.”

Plan began its website transformation at the end of 2011, establishing a 12-month timeline which it was able to meet despite design challenges along the way, says online communications officer Damian McDermott. As a first step, the marketing team looked to replace its ageing content management system (CMS), settling on Sitecore’s CMS solution.

“We wanted something strong and robust that had marketing capabilities and was widely supported in Melbourne so it was easy for us to find people to help us develop the sites,” he explained. “We also wanted a platform that would give us a lot of information about who our supporters are through the website, making it easy for them to transact.”

Simultaneously, Plan implemented a new CRM solution, choosing the specialist Blackbaud Enterprise CRM offering aimed at fundraising organisations.

Functional improvement

“We certainly aren’t averse to moving into new technologies should they prove to deliver value for us,” Holgate said. “While our website was adequate, we could see the direction for websites was moving away from traditional, essential electronic brochure format, to become more of a quick transactional space where people could grab what they needed and move on. Integration with electronic marketing in terms of email and social media was also critical.”

Plan took a two-stage approach to the website refurb, launching the new branding and redesigned portal first. A month later and following the CRM launch, Plan switched over to a new payment and login engine. This involved changing the signup and registration forms, child sponsorship forms and introducing a new supporter area.

“We rewrote the entire content of the website, sourced 800 images for the site, created a new design, new systems, email templates and a sending system,” McDermott said. “It was a steep learning curve.”

The next stage will see Sitecore used as the foundation stone for a site testing plan based on broader analytics capabilities. “We want to look at what our visitors are doing, how they are actually converting, what’s working and what’s not working to make sure the site is working the best it can for both us and our supporters,” McDermott said.

“Together the CMS and CRM provide a much richer set of statistics and combined with Google Analytics, we’ll be able to make really informed decisions on what is and isn’t working, and what the best way forward is when improving the site.”

Holgate added there are plans to further utilise Sitecore and Blackbaud’s functionality over the next year once the initial education process is completed. “In the first phase we wanted to move to a website that would enable us to use the power of our CRM system better, and also enable us to be more ‘fleet of foot’ by providing content that people could quickly interact with, get value from and move onto the next thing,” he said.

Plan declined to disclose the financial details for the CMS or CRM, but said operating the website is a percentage of overall marketing costs.

“Even though the actual number of new sponsors we get to the website might not be significant, the level of engagement we get from our supporter base and externally is very significant,” Holgate said.

“One thing we have noticed in the months since the website launched is significant increases in traffic and staying power in people visiting the site. It’s difficult to put a figure on that value in dollar terms, but if you look at the relative cost of the new site to the rest of our market efforts, it looks like good bang for our buck.”

With the CRM, the focus is on harnessing the power of the data. “While we are doing that, we’ll also learn how we integrate with the CMS for much more powerful marketing, through particularly mobile and digital media,” Holgate said. “There’s also more to be done in the social media space – we are as good as any of our competitors, but still have work to do to improve.”

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Metrics, metrics, metrics

Given one of Plan’s board members is a senior manager at Google Australia, there are high expectations around the ROI metrics generated by both the CMS and CRM platforms, plus the team’s ability to use them as the basis for good, solid customer decisions.

Right across the marketing spectrum, marketers are increasingly trying to measure things that weren't feasible to in the past, Holgate said. “For example, we’re looking to ascertain all sorts of metrics and proxy measures in relation to the number of times and quality of engagements we have with constituents, be they major donors, journalists and so on. We are trying to make sure we have a clear picture to make sure all the things we do are in some way being measured.

“The great thing about fundraising as a discipline is that it makes the metrics straightforward – you know how much money you are raising from which donors and when, and there’s a canon of experience in how you use that knowledge to improve the yield from those donors. We are good at that. But in other areas like retention, external engagement through PR, media and advocacy, it has been much harder to measure and we’re now finding ways of measuring that too.

“The more the transactions become digital transactions, the more hard data we can use to get a sense of how these things are working.”

Holgate also claimed many charities are still grappling with how best to tackle the mobile space both in terms of interaction and its influence, using apps as an example. “A lot of charities in our space have tried to rollout apps and on the whole, they haven’t been that convincing in terms of the value they provide to the organisation or the user,” he claimed.

“We don’t think it’s right to launch an app unless we think it’s going to be something someone is going to need. But clearly it’s something we need to look at.”

Whatever might appear on the digital horizon, Holgate believed marketing and technology are synonymous, drawn together by dramatic changes in consumer behaviour led by online, mobile and social media. “It’s absolutely critical that we become fluent in using digital technology and that we’re also sufficiently adaptable to account for how that technology use is changing radically as time progresses,” Holgate warned.

“I have been around long enough to see the arrival of the Internet and been able to look back at how much things have changed in that time. If it changes the same amount in the next 15 years, we’ll be living in a totally different world. Marketers have to adapt to that.”


One of the rising challenges for marketers as they utilise more and more technology platforms is their relationship with their IT department. Both McDermott and Holgate agreed working collaboratively with their own IT team was key to achieving the best result for Plan International during its CMS and CRM overhaul.

Plan’s IT team was involved in the website redevelopment from the get go, McDermott said, although the project was led by the marketing and communications division. Activities ranged from workshops together to scope out the project to ongoing management.

Because of the size and significance of the CRM deployment, the project was managed by a control board that had representatives from right across the organisation, with project management then driven by the IT team.

“We are greatly invested in the success of what they [IT] were doing,” Holgate said. “The fact that both projects went to market precisely when they were supposed to, and more or less within budget, is a testament to the fact that there was close collaboration in our two areas.”

To be truly effective as a marketing director, you should be speaking to the CIO on a daily basis, Holgate claimed. “In the rollout of two fairly major pieces of technology – the CRM and the CMS – we’ve literally been interacting daily and we’ll continue to do so.”

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