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Seven digital fundraising lessons from my London Marathon experience

Posted by Ian McKee on 24th April 2015

I’m not sure how it seems to you, but to me the London Marathon on Sunday is looming like a giant planet that has been slowly encroaching into the Earth’s orbit for the last four months and is suddenly about to make impact.

OK perhaps that’s a little melodramatic. It’s not quite on the ‘apocalyptic’ scale. There’s a healthy dose of excitement in amongst the nerves and trepidation.

But it will be my first marathon, and I have foolishly told lots of people that I’m going to do it in rather a quick time. Which feels like a bit of a mistake at this point.

So that’s one lesson learnt. I also learnt a few lessons about running lots and eating properly. But those aren’t the lessons I want to talk about here.

I’m running the marathon for a charity, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and have learnt a few things about digital fundraising on the road to my target.

A small caveat before we kick off. I am not a running n00b, having done a bunch of half marathons and 10ks, but before this process started I was pretty new to fundraising.

So I’m not going to pretend to be an expert, but my background in social media and PR did lead me to try some experimentation that other beginners and maybe even the odd fundraising pro might learn from.

1. No one really cares about your training

This was probably the first lesson I learnt. On New Year’s Eve I painstakingly put together a training schedule and shared it in a public Google spread sheet.

Initially I got a flood of views, thinking ‘wow my training schedule’s going to become some kind of authoritative runner’s resource’. But within a couple of hours the viewers disappeared and no one but myself ever looked at it again.

Similarly I started out doing a weekly training update on my blog. But it didn’t get much of a response, and quite quickly I found I was boring myself in writing it. It all started to sound like bragging, and almost as monotonous as the long training runs I was going on. I realised though people will feign interest, and appreciate you’re working hard, no one really wants to hear that much about it.

I switched to sharing the odd milestone and updates about where I had particularly suffered. People seemed to like hearing about me suffering. Like the 24km in the sleet, which did bring me a donation from someone who had Ice Bucket Challenged me a while back, feeling her challenge had now belatedly been met.

2. Tell a story

This is what we always try to do in PR, so I figured out quite quickly it was what I needed to do to promote my fundraising.

I’ve said no one cares about your training, and they don’t, but if there are relatable elements there’s nothing wrong with telling the story there. My post ‘What I love most about running is stopping running’ got a great reaction on Facebook and some traction on Reddit because it wasn’t bragging, it was about the complex relationship most runners have with running.

But mostly this wasn’t about me, or even about running. It was about fundraising for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, a hugely worthy charity that helps tackle CF, the inherited disorder affecting 10,000 people in the UK today.

The work the charity does and the stories of the people I’ve known who have been affected by cystic fibrosis were always going to be where the focus should be.

3. Video works wonders, but YouTube kind of sucks

Again I had to do a bit of practicing my preaching here. Words are great, pictures are better, and a video is like 60 pictures per second when I shoot it on my iPhone. So especially online, that is really great.

All I did was one talking head video ‘plea’ to explain what I was doing and why – contrarily titled, ‘don’t sponsor me for running the marathon’. But content-wise it was far and away the most effective thing I’ve done, garnering a couple of thousand views on Facebook and being directly responsible for a good chunk of sponsorship cash, from both friends and people I don’t know.

On the other hand, I also uploaded the video to YouTube for general sharing, embedding on my fundraising page and blog.

I discovered that you can add a fundraising link in an annotation on YouTube, and proceeded to try and do so as this would be helpful for the link to be clickable when the video was embedded somewhere. However I discovered that the fundraising site I am using (Virgin Money Giving) was not compatible.

Exploring further I realised that the compatible sites Google had implemented were fundraising as in crowdfunding, Kickstarter and the like.

I realise startups’ Kickstarter demos are probably more common on YouTube than charity videos, but how difficult would it be to implement support for Virgin Money Giving and Just Giving hey? Sort this out please Google!

4. Think carefully about paid social promotion

I mentioned getting cash from people I don’t know via the video, and this would probably not have happened had I not set up a Facebook page in order to post it and put some paid promotion behind it.

If you’re promoting your fundraising on Facebook I recommend this. Posting to your profile is great and will give you visibility in your friend’s newsfeeds, but to reach beyond that you’re likely to need a page, even if your profile is fully public.

You then get all the functionality that offers, including analytics, paid promotion for additional reach, visibility in Facebook search and the ability to include a call to action. Though like with the YouTube issue, there was no ‘donate’ CTA, the closest I could find was ‘sign up’, showing how these features are aimed at businesses rather than causes.

With regards to paid promotion, I was in two minds. I paid the minimum I could, £14, to promote the video post to a targeted audience. Whenever spending money on fundraising the question ‘would this not be better just going into the fundraising itself?’ reared its head.

The targeting was similarly fraught with uncertainty. I could very easily target people who like the charity’s Facebook page, and pages related to cystic fibrosis. But this felt a bit like emotional blackmail – those people are highly likely to have a personal attachment to CF like I do, and give to the charity anyway.

I’m sure I wouldn’t be cannibalising the charity’s own fundraising in any significant way, but it felt a bit wrong. Instead I tried to expand my promotion to people with a general interest in charitable causes.

And the results were good. I’m not entirely sure what I can attribute directly to the paid promotion (perhaps I need to follow my own advice on attribution modelling) but I can safely say it was a good chunk more than the £14 I put in.

I would have done more of this if it didn’t feel a tiny bit like gambling. If I were the charity itself of course, I would certainly be more inclined to ignore the quandaries and get stuck in. The issues of activating charity social followers into donating, gaining an audience with people previously unfamiliar with a charity and spend on marketing versus the cause itself are all common in the sector.

This gave me a little insight into the charity equivalent of needing to spend money to make money.

5. It might feel wrong, but pitch yourself

I did plenty of pitching my fundraising story to friends, family and colleagues. That I was fine with, but when it came to pitching to my local newspaper? Weird. As a PR man I’m used to sticking to the old mantra of not becoming the story. Pitching myself to a journalist felt plain wrong.

I had to try and enforce a bit of objectivity on what was naturally a very subjective issue for me. I live in a small-ish market town just outside Bath, so I thought someone local training for what is one of the biggest sporting events in the world is kind of news, right?

I was wholly unsure. But as it turns out, I am indeed news.

One bit I got slightly wrong was timing – I pitched to a reporter way back in February but he didn’t want to do the story until the marathon was imminent and therefore much more newsworthy, which is fair enough.

The other bit was telling him the time I’m going for, queue ‘ambitious local idiot thinks he’s going to run marathon really fast’ angle. If I were a pro-sportsman I’d advise I go and do some media training.

6. Celebrity retweets are kind of worth it, and Richard Madeley is a gent

On Twitter you’ll often see people with charitable causes pleading with celebrities to give them a retweet. I’ve wondered how much point there is to this activity. It feels a little desperate, but as a PR I know that the right influencer can project your story into the limelight and give it the audience it deserves. It has to be the right story and the right influencer, but it can work.

So I decided to swallow my pride and beg a few celebs for retweets. It’s all for a good cause.

To optimise my chances of both getting a retweet and the person having the right audience, I stuck to celebrities with a decent twitter following who have openly endorsed or helped the Cystic Fibrosis Trust before (easily figured out with a bit of Googling). This meant around 10 tweets, one of which got reciprocated with a retweet.

Richard Madeley, being the proper gent he is, blessed me with the audience of his +200k followers.

So what did that actually mean? Well as it was a retweet, I’ve got all the analytics so I can tell you. The tweet got 15.5k impressions; meaning about 8% of Richard’s followers actually saw it, which seems to be a little below average in my experience.

Despite those 15.5k impressions however, only 70 resulted in any kind of engagement, just 14 of which were link clicks. A fair drop off there, I’ve had better engagement on tweets that no one’s retweeted.

Is this low audience engagement and conversion rate because Richard doesn’t have a particularly engaged Twitter audience? Would the other King of Morning TV Philip Schofield’s more active Twitter presence have converted better (even adjusted for his considerably higher follower count)?

Or was it that it was a retweet? Perhaps people would have paid more attention had Richard’s avatar appeared by the plea rather than mine? I’m not sure.

Fortunately however, one of those engagements was a click through and full conversion to a £10 donation from one of Richard’s followers. So not a huge return, and certainly not a tactic I would base any kind of fundraising strategy on, but the time taken to do 10 tweets converting to £10 is not a bad investment. Thanks Richard, and that one follower!

7. Thunderclap is great, in theory

Another thing I decided to experiment with was Thunderclap, what I can best describe as a ‘cause amplification tool’.

What Thunderclap does is allow you to set up a campaign based on a cause, like my marathon fundraising. Your page can include a call to action (like a fundraising page), and you set a date and a time for your ‘Thunderclap’. You then recruit people to commit to promoting it via Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, and anyone who has committed will post at the set date and time.

The idea is that if a lot of people tweet about something at the same time you should then ‘trend’, amplifying your message further.

Twitter has previously made moves to put a stop to this as a kind of manipulation of the trending algorithm but I’m OK with it in theory. If a whole load of people want to tweet about something they believe in at the same time, why shouldn’t they? The technology’s just the enabler for hitting the ‘tweet’ button at the same time.

In practice though, you need a lot of campaign supporters to get any real traction. I didn’t put a lot of effort into recruiting people to my campaign, mainly as I was too busy trying to send people directly to the actual fundraising page, sending them to my Thunderclap campaign page would just confuse matters.

I got one tweet and an email from people promising to promote my Thunderclap to ‘millions’ of followers if I paid them via another social / crowdsourcing start up Fiverr.

A part of me wanted to try this out for the hell of it, but my better judgement got the best of me. Still, nice little scam they’ve got themselves there, hoodwinking charitable causes into handing over cash to reach fake followers.

So there we have it. £1500 and counting with no bake sales or bingo, just social media, digital marketing, PR and plain old grovelling.

This post was originally published on Econsultancy

photo credit: Nell

Ian McKee

Ian started out his career working in travel PR, working for tourist boards, airlines and hotel groups. Whilst there he carved out a position as a digital communications expert, managing social media, SEO and email marketing campaigns for clients.