Charity:water knows how to produce beautiful content. While the NY-based non-profit has sometimes been criticized for a lack of follow-up on its well water projects--an issue it says it is addressing--even its critics concede that it understands how to use well-crafted videos, photographs and essays to tell its story to potential donors.
With its zero-budget marketing, the charity has become a poster child of sorts for fundraising in the digital age. Focusing on attractive content helps it inspire people not only to give, but to run their own social media-based fundraising campaigns on behalf of the charity, which over 38,686 people have taken on since its founding in 2008.
"All of fundraising is done by digital word of mouth," says Paull Young, charity:water's director of digital. "It costs us only seven cents to raise a dollar," he adds. The charity's administrative costs are funded by a separate investment fund so that all donations go directly to the water projects.
"Our model of digital is focused on a grass roots movement to solve the world water crisis. We seek to provide an amazing, more fun, better experience than any other cause," says Young, summing up the charity:water philosophy.
Yet charity:water faces the same problem as most organizations, whether for or non profit: how to be heard above the noise. To help it address that, it has begun working with content discovery platform Outbrain.
"Outbrain provides us with the platform to get our content out to a larger audience in a strategic way," says Young, who exclusively shared with ClickZ the results of Outbrain-promoted campaigns in March, July and September.
Most people are by now familiar with the links at the end of online articles that lead viewers to other content, both paid and unpaid -- and sometimes downright cheesy.
Outbrain lets site publishers provide readers with links to their own articles for free, but charges companies by the click for links to external content, whether it is from charity:water, GE, Reuters, NBC.news or StateFarm. The publishers and Outbrain share in the revenues from those clicks.
The discovery platform's software uses 40 to 60 different algorithms to analyze users' clicking behavior on some 100,000 websites including CNN, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, and Time. Exactly who they decide to show content to and at what time is decided by an automated process for guessing which headlines and pieces of content people will click on. It also considers their typical behavior post-click, such as how long they watch and whether they usually move onto other content, according to Miko Levy, Outbrain's VP of customer acquisition.
"At any given second, the algorithms are competing with one another to pick a person to show the content to," says Levy, adding that their decisions are based on aspects such as their reading history and what time of day they tend to look at articles.
In October, Outbrain's content was viewed by 166,547 unique visitors, according to a monthly ranking by Comscore, giving it a nearly 73.7 percent reach of the U.S. population.
Content discovery is not unique to Outbrain, of course. It competes with companies such as Taboolah and Contextly, which also offer discovery engines based on their own proprietary algorithms.
Other players have taken note of the need to guide audiences to relevant content; even Facebook recently began showing people links to additional articles similar to ones they have just read. In April, LinkedIn acquired Pulse, whose newsreader app also gives out reading recommendations to users.
In March 2013, charity:water launched the Birthday Project in conjunction with the World Water Day campaign, in which it asked people to hold birthday fundraisers for the cause. The goal was to generate traffic to the dedicated birthday project page and to track the number of pledges associated with that.
Prior to the campaign, the site received an average of 3,827 visits per day from referral traffic, while after it used Outbrain for one week in March of this year, that number increased to 24,357 site visits,according to charity;water internal data.
Outbrain was also the top referral source for traffic on the site, accounting for around 25 percent of all traffic and driving 69,535 site visits from March 22nd through 29th. The end result was 776 birthday pledges, which charity:water says will raise over $68,000 for clean water. Also, 97 percent of traffic from Outbrain consisted of new visitors to the site.
From June 4th through July 7th, charity:water also analyzed the spread of two pieces of existing content using Outbrain, to see whether its call to actions were driving conversions.
One was Helen's Story, an already popular piece of content that reads like a National Geographic account. It tells the story of Helen Apio, a Ugandan woman who. before her village got a well from charity:water, used to walk three miles back and forth each day with two five-gallon Jerry cans and wait in long lines for water. At the end of the story, Helen describes feeling beautiful for the first time because she can devote more time to herself and her children. "I have time to eat, my children can go to school. And I can even work in my garden, take a shower and then come back for more water if I want!" Helen tells the interviewer. Then comes the appeal from charity:water to donate.
Young says he can't give specifics on the conversion rates for the donation appeal, but says the organization concluded that in general, the compelling content was better for raising general awareness than for driving specific donations.
Using Outbrain, Helen's page saw a 42 percent increase in unique page views in the 33 day period analyzed, compared to the previous 33-day period. There was also a 57 percent increase in average time spent on the page, and the bounce rate dropped from 24 percent to 9.8 percent. Around 92 percent of traffic during the campaign came through Outbrain.
Results for the India Story, a piece of content that explains how the organization funds mechanics who monitor wells throughout the country, were even more dramatic.
It went from no traffic in to 2000 views, or a 594 percent increase in unique page views, a 100 percent increase in time spent on the page, and a 75 percent decrease in bounce rate. Eighty-eight percent of traffic during the campaign came through Outbrain.
In September, charity:water also launched its annual giving campaign, which this year was devoted to India. Young says that Outbrain was responsible for 8 percent of the traffic to its landing page during the campaign and about ten percent of the charity's referral traffic came from their sources.
Outbrain cannot take all the credit for that one, however. It was also given a major boost by a partnership with Hubspot Inbound Marketing, which announced the India campaign in August at a conference in front of 5000 people, playing the official video and asking attendees to give or start their own fundraising campaigns.
By December 31 of this year, charity:water will have met its goal of raising $2 million for the annual campaign, says Young. And charity:water's goal of getting at least 2000 people to start their own campaigns was reached in only three weeks, a faster rate than expected, which he attributes to both Outbrain and Hubspot's efforts.
As Lisa LaCour, VP of marketing at Outbrain points out, good results don't just happen, however. "They need good content behind it. People were happy with what they saw," she says of charity:water's content.
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Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.
March 19, 2014